James Wood Sustainable Art and ‘the real meaning of Utopia?’

Researching practice in context now brings me to this..

It is interesting to hear James’s story especially as ever more it highlights, for me, my intentions regards the theme of Utopia. Utopia, that seemingly unobtainable ‘perfect’ place that can never exist according to the many academics that challenge the concepts inherent structures.

To me it still remains clear, and simple.

Utopia: meaning ‘No Place’.

‘An imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect’.

So, unless I am mistaken,  ‘no place’ can also be interpreted as non discrimination, non judgement, an open mind, enlightenment even.

Perfect, well, is open to interpretation. Interpretation is the very word of which I am interested here. Simply put, if I abstain from involving in social linguistics then I render my viewpoint neutral. Neutrality, correct me if I am wrong, equals certain aspects of perfection’s inherent meaning:


[adj., n. pur-fikt; v. per-fekt]  Show IPA



conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type:
a perfect sphere; a perfect gentleman.


excellent or complete beyond practical or theoreticalimprovement: 
There is no perfect legal code. The proportions ofthis temple are almost perfect.


exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certainpurpose: 
a perfect actor to play Mr. Micawber; a perfect saw forcutting out keyholes.


entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings: a perfect apple; the perfect crime.


accurate, exact, or correct in every detail: a perfect copy.

If defect is equally as valid as non-defected then we are left with a perfect situation are we not?.

I think, to pinpoint what I am saying is to re ascertain  and evaluate the very definitions that uphold the entire English dictionary as we currently know it, for it is certainly far from perfect, in fact, really only appertains to westernized perspectives, knowledge and understanding.

I would like to submit a PHD proposal, to re write the English Dictionary!.

Excerpts (below) from James Wood’s Blog read, I feel, with contradictions in this sense. Although I admire James’s ethics, and with utmost respect, I am truly intrigued with the over literal reference James applies to such words as Utopia. I actually do question, the very meaning of the word has been understood on all levels? Even by the world at large. There certainly is a kind of odd, and unnecessary stigma attached to this word. I myself am certainly still on my way to fully decoding the words true intrinsic nature.. It is a fascinating journey unfolding indeed.



Utopia Within Art

My art practice is led mainly by my drive to achieve a sustainable painting practice through the research in traditional and maybe unconventional means of making artists equipment. Using myself as the connection between past knowledge and the present manufacture of art work I am referencing a debate on global proportions; sustainability. As a number of civilisations may be striving for a more sustainable way of living, I am striving for sustainability within my practice. Through these strong links my work has been said to reference a vast amount of Utopian ideologies.

Utopia – Definition:

Latin: (Neo-Latin  (1516) Greek – ou not + tóp = a place. utpia = ’not a place’ or ‘no place’)

An ideal commonwealth whose inhabitants exist under seemingly perfectconditions. Hence “utopian” and “utopianism” are words used to denote visionaryreform that tends to be impossibly idealistic.[1]

Through this piece of writing I’m hoping to interrogate some of the ideas surrounding Utopian ideologies explored within contemporary art. This will allow me to get a greater understanding of where my practice sits with regards to Utopia.

Over the past year I have avoided referencing or linking my work with the word Utopia. This has been done due to the common miss reading of this out dated word, and the idealistic theoretical landscape that the work is then plunged in to because of its use. The creation of Utopia in Thomas More’s bookOf a Republic’s Best State and of the New Island Utopia (1516) [2], Shows that even in creation Utopia was only formed with regards to a fictional land, fictional being the main word of interest here. Utopia and the practical use of the word represented a place of ideological political and social stance, and would no longer have a sufficient stand within the physical world.

The ideology of something better than what is now must always be referred to in the future tense, and can never be situated in the present. How then can an existing physical art works be seen as Utopian?

In Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing[5]the two discuss how an essence of Utopia is present in everyone but is suppressed by the social apparatus which has hardened itself against people, and because of this, easily attainable circumstances can be viewed as radically impossible. I don’t agree that this Utopia can be so easily suppressed by social apparatus. As referenced in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace[6] it’s obvious that the many attempts to make Utopia reality have failed due to the lack of social and political structure. The correct application of these structures allows a society to succeed, depending on what you view as a success. Although I do agree with some of the ideas Ernst Bloch talks about surrounding the fact that Utopia is going to be implausible as long as people’s views of the Utopian, as a word, remain as they currently are. If the word Utopia remains as the idea of something perfect then it will never be possible, because perfection is impossible. Then I ask; why use the word at all to relate to things that the founder wishes to be attainable, why not just use another word?

Immanuel Wallerstein’s coining of a new term, Utopistics to contain the historical choices facing a twenty first century society is used in reference to Utopia[7]. Where Utopia gives us the idea of a perfect world, Utopistics is supposed to give us the idea of a better world. The importance in the change of perfect to better here gives this word the possibility of describing something that could exist. For everyone knows that perfect is impossible because it is so interchangeable from person to person. You could also argue that better is also never attainable because, although something may be better than it previously was, it can always be better than it currently is, until it reaches Utopia which we have already described as being impossible. In this sense you could say that my practice has an Utopistic aspect, if better is more sustainable. You could also say that I am aiming for a totally sustainable practice, and I am therefore alluding to a Utopian practice.

As with myself, I’ve come to notice that the majority of artists tend to disassociate their work with the term Utopian. In an interview with Jennifer Allen, Utopia Now: when asked about the work being called Utopian Nils Norman quickly dismisses it, saying; “I am definitely interested in Utopian thinking, but as a critical tool, a form of satire and irony, Utopia is a minor facet of my work. I’m trying to actually realise projects.”[8] The final sentence of this extract is what I find most intriguing; “I’m actually trying to realise projects”. This allows us again to understand that a Utopian project can never be realised. It can only exist theoretically, maybe it could be seen as a temporary illusion but a Utopian project can never exist within the physical world. To attempt with the idea of completing a realised project one is immediately removing it from the associated Utopian. Although my practice may elude the audience towards something more Utopian, because the physical work is realised it can’t be Utopian. If the viewer wishes to continue to see the piece as Utopian then they are witnessing it through their ideologies, and in this aspect the work, also, can be seen as Utopian, on a viewers personal level.

The main aspect of my work that could be viewed in such a light is the list of rules that my practice must adhere to. These rules are a set of boundaries that I believe are ethically and morally correct. Utopian constructs as with all constructs rely heavily on the rules and regulations that the people involved must adhere to. This can be seen most obviously in religious groups, where the rules are stated quite abruptly and in order to be part of the religion or cult one must abide by their rules. Take, for example, the Ten Commandments[9], written by a higher power to bring piece and prosperity to the world. Are these commandments a set of rules for a Utopian world?  It can also be seen in the Code of the Guild of St. George[10], established by John Ruskin’s Utopian social and political ideologies, which seem to revolve around very similar moral issues as those evident in the Ten Commandments. These rules commonly state the moral issues that every civilised and self aware society should keep in mind without having to be constantly reminded or forced to impose them, but possibly through convenience may have been lost over time.

It’s because of this loss of moral dignity that I too have written a set of rules that my practice must abide by in order for me to feel happy with the moral dignity held within my work.

My rules are:

  1. All equipment and materials used must either be; second hand, biodegradable or recyclable.
  2. Once the exhibition has finished all materials must either be; returned to their previous owner, re-sold, composted or recycled.
  3. During the exhibition no excess energy should be needlessly consumed.
  4. The transformation process must only use energy generated by myself or energy from other sustainable sources.
  5. All materials must be sourced as locally and ethically as possible.
  6. Any transport necessary in the collection of materials must be carried out physically by me through the course of walking, running or cycling.

When these rules and the idea of Utopianism within my works were discussed with Ben Judd we talked about the actual practice and use of these rules alluding to Utopian ideologies.[11] A Utopian style settlement could use similar rules to the ones accounted earlier as the spearhead for their establishment. You see here that the pigments, papers and paints are becoming a representation of something larger, of the possible different aspects within a Utopian society. Since these rules are now the foundation of my practice and all the work I produce, it brings about the question; where is the boundary between an artists practice and the rest of their life? If I was to follow these rules within every aspect of everything I buy, make and own then I am aiming for something Utopistic, something better than what is now, better in a sense of being more sustainable. I guess you could say that a sustainable art practice or world is my Utopia. But if this is how Utopia as a term can be used, then everything from the Bauhaus or Constructivists movements can be seen as being just as Utopian to their followers as Hitler’s Arian Race was to his followers, again emphasising the unfixed position of this term.

Through this writing I’ve tried to interrogate where Utopia sits within the contemporary world, peoples understanding of the term and how these ideologies have been discussed and carried out. Whilst relating this to my practice and mainly the rules that govern the types of work I can produce, I’ve attempted to accept the idea that my practice can be seen and described as Utopian. But I must conclude that although I’ve tried to understand that the work is Utopian, and I can see how other people may believe this, I personally would never call the work or relate it to the ideologies accounted for in the word Utopia. This is mainly because the word Utopia is too vague. I strive for sustainability within my practice, if the viewer believes that sustainability is Utopian then my practice would appear Utopian to them, but, due to this, any artists’ practice could be viewed by any viewer as Utopian. This term is interchangeable depending on the relationship between the viewers and artists ideologies. It is because of this vagueness that I personally would never use this word to describe my practice, but I can appreciate the reasons why other people may use the term in relation to work I am creating.

[2] More T, (1557) De optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia (Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia). More, Seventeen Provinces, Leuven.
[3] Electronic Disturbance Theatre are a group of Cyber activist Artists including; Stefen Wray, Carmin Karasik and Brett Stelbaum who have been responsible for setting up a number of non-violent online protests where they’ve clogged an online space through the over use of their domain, therefore creating disturbance.
[4] Bernard C, ‘Bodies and Digital Utopia’. Art Journal. Vol 59, No 4, P26. December, 2000.
[5] “Something’s Missing: A Discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing (1964)” In Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, Translated by Jack Zipes and Frank Meckleburg (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1988), 1-17.
[6] All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Television Programme, BBC 2, England, 30/05/2011.
[7] Wallerstein I (1998) Utopistics. The Press, New York.
[8] Nils Norman, 2001. Utopia Now: The Art of Nils Norman, Jennifer Allen.http://artforum.com/index.php?pn=interview&id=2281

[11] Ben Judd, 2012. One to One Tutorial, James Wood. 07/02/2012, Nottingham Trent University, Bonnington Building.


About generalmagnetic

Designer Maker / Technician 3D Design - Architecture
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