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second half

What: Utopia Now!

Where: CCAC’s Oakland Campus, Oliver Art Center

When: Until Dec. 1

Cost: Free

Contact: 415.551.9201

My own private utopia

Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia envisioned a place where realism and surrealism could coexist, a “nonplace” where creative thought reigned. How could he have had any idea that 500 years later the figurehead of the modern version of utopia would be a mouse? In 1995 Disney’s plan to build a real-life working town called Celebration, a skewed suburban vacuum of perfect lawns and three-stall garages aiming to marry the sterile wholesomeness of the 1950s with the wonders of 21st-century technology, seemed almost unattainable. Today Celebration really does exist, with real live citizens. It’s just a hop, skip and jump in the SUV from Disney World.

Utopia Now!, the California College of Arts and Crafts current Oakland exhibition, foregoes ideas of utopia based on bizarre Truman Show-esque neighborhoods and the futuristic pointlessness of “a robot will do my dishes” by merging art with urban planning, science, and practicality to create accessible, applicable, and relevant ideas that can be implemented now. Much of its projects’ success derives from ideas of collective thought and collaborations with artists and specific communities — small-scale projects capable of being implemented by many people and many groups.

The idea of utopia must first confront and resolve problems of habitable space and domestic life. But what if your habitat is the street and your bedroom is a stairwell? Michael Rakowitz’s paraSITE, one of the simplest and most innovative projects in the show, is part of a collection of inflatable shelters for the homeless. Created out of plastic trash bags, Ziploc sandwich bags, packing tape, and plastic hose — estimated cost, $5 — the shelters are attached to HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning) system outtake ducts on building exteriors, creating a habitable micro-climate that can endure the cold winter nights of even the Northeast. Rakowitz has worked with the homeless in Boston, New York, and Cambridge to create shelters that dodge the anti-camping laws specific to each city, fabricating one shelter similar to a cocoon-shaped sleeping bag, which did not violate the law prohibiting domed or triangular structures that rise more than 3½ feet above the ground. The shelter on display at CCAC is more tent-like than anything else and looks like an inflatable spaceship or a soft jungle gym. One of Rakowitz’s homeless collaborators actually used it for three years.

Like the paraSITE projects, creating a utopic ideal initially relies on subversive compliance, or finding and exploiting loopholes in the system for public good. That is Spanish artist and architect Santiago Cirugeda’s specialty, illustrated by his architectural game entitled Dumpster. When Cirugeda discovered that a dumpster could be left on public space for an indeterminate amount of time, ideas of mini-parks, reading rooms, and compact flamenco joints danced in his head. Complete with a step-by-step guide on how to get the necessary permits and an outline of the regulations surrounding the project, Cirugeda’s self-proclaimed new “urban reserve” encourages and almost relies upon the participation and execution of Dumpster by others, thereby creating a network of oases throughout the city. Mini-utopias.

The Dutch collective Crimson is an actual urban planning group comprised of artists. Their project entitled WiMBY! (code name for “Welcome into My Backyard!”) is the anti-NIMBY — the “Not in My Backyard” phenomenon of urban areas that Crimson calls “one of the biggest obstacles for contemporary and urban planning and urbanism today.” Commissioned by the Rotterdam Department of Planning and Housing in 1996, the project involves the complete renovation of the satellite town Hoogvliet. Originally a poster-child city for post–World War II urban planning, Hoogvlie slowly shrank into an economically depraved urban wasteland. An important aspect of Crimson’s design philosophy is the use of what is already present. No matter how ugly your apartment building is, it’s still your home. So the idea was “instead of demolishing the modernist fifties walk-up flats … you go for their empty facades. You rip away the mask of modern abstraction and boredom and find a hidden world of an intense diversity in the living rooms … bathrooms and ballrooms of the people.” WiMBY! reflects the real-time transition to the better that is so often forgotten in the search for the utopic prize.

Several of the works in the exhibition interpret the idea of utopia in concept; most are probably not attainable. Vito Acconci/Acconci Studio’s A City That Rides the Garbage Dump illustrates a plan that uses large bowl-like structures to house individual buildings, green spaces, or water (including swimming pools and fish farms) that float upon methane gas released into the air. San Francisco artist Amy Franceschini’s Mongkok features a video about a mobile market, where owners fold their shops into compact box-like structures capable of being carted away and stored in a relatively small space — similar to the guy selling cheese logs from a kiosk in the middle of Stonestown Mall. This mirrors Franceschini’s desire for each person to be completely self-sustained, inspiring the creation several backpacks that are part of Mongkok, which symbolically carry whatever one needs. Both works focus on the idea that sustainability is the means to achieve a utopic end.

In this world of billions of opinions, we will obviously never agree on a congruent definition of utopia. Some expected that Celebration, Florida would be one, but the residents experienced their first murder last year. Utopia Now! stresses the idea that utopia is valuable as a fluid, transcendental theory. It’s application that needs to be continuously reinterpreted in order for its basic principles to remain paramount and relevant, thus avoiding the fate of idealistic theories strangled by their own commandments. Create your own utopia.

Sarah Lidgus (sarahlidgus@hotmail.com)