Resurfacing in times of trouble, utopian ideas offer an escape from dreary reality and dangerous futures, as well as a possibility to rethink the established systems of the present. It is a strong impetus, an ambitious attempt to jump to the moon, without foreseeing or expecting that the endeavour itself may lead to a better place than before, if not the moon.
An inspiring presentation of commitment to utopian social transformation was the exhibition ‘Playroom for Utopia’ at the gallery (AV17) in Vilnius, Lithuania. Presenting projects by two Latvian artists, Ieva Epnere and Kristaps Epners, the exhibition unveiled two visionary utopian projects turning into unrealised dreams by social entrepreneurs who were struggling in the context of the major whirlpools of the 20th century. Call it a coincidence, but the fact that Ieva and Kristaps were developing their projects before the war broke out in Ukraine, and exhibited them as we were (and still are) facing the devastating war crimes in Europe, the exhibition truly enters the world as an event of great significance, and provides the viewer with ideas reminding one of much-needed change, but also the inevitable failures society faces when trying to add huge but necessary modifications within the individual and the collective.
In the exhibit Green School, the artist Ieva Epnere presents her ongoing artistic research about a project by Marta Margarita Rinka (1880–1953), the headteacher of the first kindergarten called Green School in Latvia, in which she ‘used the teaching system by Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), the basis of which was for the pupils to learn through playing alone or in a community’, and where ‘the role of the teacher was to encourage self-expression and thus educate a broad-minded and creative person.’ In its concept, this approach towards early education seems strongly liberal, and offers an elaborate system of positive reinforcement through collaboration, discovering creative solutions, and the development of personal responsibility, such as giving a child her or his personal plot of land in the garden of the Green School. Obviously, this comes a lot closer to the kind of school that anyone would be happy to be part of, compared to the dreary system that is currently shaping the minds of the future.
Rinka studied and brought this teaching model back to Latvia from Berlin (Pestalozzi-Fröbel-Haus) at the dawn of the 20th century. Once established, it was not favourably viewed by the Soviet government and was ended. During the Second World War, Marta emigrated to Germany and then the USA; therefore, the kindergarten in its original form changed to a traditional pedagogical model. In Ieva’s exhibit, the experience of the child is resurrected: the toys and the rewards are brought back to life, photographs of the kindergarten appear as vague memories, while the bigature of the first reward given to a child for successfully finishing her or his first year highlights the important role of positive reinforcement from a young person’s perspective. The video of a child playing with the same models of toys given by the kindergarten or created by the child brings the ideas into this age, and appears as a vision of the model from a contemporary perspective. Today, the inevitable necessity of returning to more natural or more advanced alternatives of production and consumption is clear; therefore, the approach of making one’s own toys from raw and organic materials looks rather appealing. The unconventional methods proposed by the kindergarten left their mark in art history. Developing the child’s senses through form, colour, texture and structure, the method has raised quite a few great minds of the times. In his book Inventing Kindergarten, Norman Brosterman mentions artists like Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, who were influenced by Froebel’s education system.
As visitors leave this imaginative playground of the Green School, they are then invited to try and construct their own figures from peas and sticks, referring to the 19th gift for the children of the kindergarten. The creative result was intended to be planted in the Green School garden. The task itself involves using a geometric figure, a triangle, which also leads visitors to the second exhibit by Kristaps Epners.
Setting foot in Utopia Now Here by Kristaps, one also enters a vivid vision and the ambitious imagination of an adult. The triangle and fragments of structures here continue echoing, and unfold into mature constructive thinking that is also somewhat futuristic. In between the geometric figures and images of a vast ocean view from above, Kristaps introduces us to the world of Guntis (Gunnar) Tannis (1931–2018), a Latvian in exile and an intercontinental pilot with Air Canada. His lifelong dream was born during the Cold War, around the 1970s, when he started developing his vision of building a utopian city, The Earth Peace Center, and continued until his death in 2018.
Utopia, usually a ‘no place’, actually is an intended specific place here. Utopia is the name of a tiny hamlet in Canada where the pilot dreamt of building his utopian community. The first settler in Utopia was Eugene Smith, who emigrated from Ireland to Barrie in the year 1830. He settled at Little Lake, just north of Barrie, which at that time consisted of only two houses. In Tannis’ vision, all world religions would coexist peacefully within the community and would not know what war is. Another aspect of real potential in this utopian project of a political and religious nature was its surprisingly well-thought-out approach that draws closer to the practical aspects of the project’s development, fusing architectural strategies with divine calculations, offering peaceful economic solutions, and focusing on tourism and plans for energy independence. Expanding his ideas, Tannis worked with a like-minded group of architects, engineers and artists, some of whom had also encountered Froebel’s teaching system in some way. As a document of Tannis’ intentions of great precision, a book with a shimmering gold cover was placed in the exhibit, through which one can read, see and hear images of this powerful vision.
The recurring shape in Kristap’s exhibit, as in Tannis’ visions, is the aforementioned triangle. It serves as the basic building unit of technologically complex structures, and carries an important message in its measurements. Helmut Bergmann, the author of the spherical octet truss system, created a system where ‘one isosceles triangle creates: single or multi-layered dome shells of many sizes, tall and low.’ According to him, his developed structure is ideally suited even for earthquake zones, and was to be used in the city of Utopia. The main highlights of the project were a multifunctional building Megalossus–The Pearl of the Great Lakes, an exciting tourism mega-project, also intended to also encompass the headquarters of the United Nations, and Sitara, a temple and a complex of buildings symbolising the vision of peace and hope among all the different religions of the world. Tannis collaborated on developing Sitara with Helen Tucker, a highly influential advocate for World Peace, and the co-founder of the Voice of Women for Peace. Tannis’ plans even went as far as inventing, testing and patenting ‘a special technology of extracting and transforming energy from objects’ mass-generated gravitational pressure to the surface’. As a superstar tourist attraction, the resort of Utopia was also intended to include a floating airport that would serve many communities in the surrounding area. Interestingly, the city of Toronto had considered building one on Lake Ontario before Tannis started to develop his own.
In their practical approaches, both projects presented at the exhibition can be considered more protopian than utopian, as both were intended to be developed within the existing society. Tannis’ project offers an exemplary vision of an alternative world much-needed during the Cold War, while the kindergarten project is more of a reflection of an unorthodox educational reform that was developed and actually tested in reality, but due to unfavourable circumstances was interrupted as well.
War induces tension like nothing else. I would say that even before it broke out, I’d perceived the world through a vividly dystopian filter, and it would seem that the war crimes and inhumane acts witnessed in Europe today can only add to this perspective. Paradoxically, parallel to the evil, hope grows stronger and then shines in the context of the perpetuating darkness more intensely than ever. It comes as no surprise that witnessing such things is as horrifying as it is mesmerising, and cries out for a thorough re-evaluation of the moral values and habits shaping our society today. I saw Tannis’ project resembling the story of the Tower of Babel in a rather peculiar way. The Tower, symbolising an attempt to overcome the fear of the people to be spread throughout the world, provokes the opposite reaction from God, resulting in the division of people by language and geographical separation. Before this happened, the people of Babel decided to build a Tower, in some interpretations seen as a threat posed to God’s will for humans to spread throughout the world instead of dwelling in one area, and eventually trying to fulfil their ambitions by acting on their own will instead of trusting the divine plan. This precise fear of people is what causes their great ambitions to be followed by a tragic fate, and in its goals and vision, Tannis’ project appears as a way to reunite people back in its peaceful, but highly ambitious glory, only to fail again (?).
As this is possibly not the interpretation of any of the project’s developers, I’d like to turn the perspective here again, and look at the moment where utopia, rather than protopia, enters: the human ambition to live in absolute peace may be destined to fail. The dystopian prophesy overseeing the inevitable entry of the darker side eventually enters the picture. The reason for the failure of the Green School kindergarten project was the war (or its unorthodox nature), as in Tannis’ case the reason for creating his ambitious vision was, in a way, the Cold War. Both cases of artistic research by the artists are visually and symbolically intertwined through the subject of the playground, an approach calling out the imaginative aspect and the need for it. The immensity and the intensity of the human ability to destroy, apparent in contexts of both the past and today, unravels in parallel with the human ability to build and create. As perpetual war cannot continue forever, complete peace in an individual and the collective remains a dream that may never be achieved. But in times of injustice, the resistance of good builds strength, allowing for peace to then blossom in fractals, or, as seen in the projects by Ieva and Kristaps, in imaginative and divine ambitions bettering the future of humanity.
Photography: Evgenia Levin, (AV17) Gallery