Pocket Utopias

10/13/2010 3:00 AM |

In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde writes that the trickster “changes the center as he enters it.” Tricksters are boundary-crossers, outsiders who shake up the forces at play inside.

Alternative Histories, the new exhibition at Exit Art (through November 24), attempts to pay homage to past and present tricksters by covering over 50 years and 130 spaces that promote(d) nonconformist artists and viewpoints. An eye-catching poster for the Film-Makers’ Cooperative from 1962, for instance, advertises a festival featuring 23 films from unknown filmmakers. A line at the bottom gleefully reads: “NO idea who these people are.” Other works draw attention to social problems, such as the Storefront for Art and Architecture poster alerting patrons to the growing numbers of homeless in the city, or a Forever & Today screen-print that jokes, “Keep your majorities close but your minorities closer.”

Papo Colo and his wife (and co-curator) Jeanette Ingberman kept a broad scope when they envisioned this project two years ago. “We included everybody,” Colo says, “we understand they’re underpaid, overworked, and deserve recognition.”

This spirit of idealism and subversion is echoed in Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, a new exhibition at MoMA (through January 3). From an arts complex for at-risk children in Los Angeles to low-income housing in Chile, Small Scale, Big Change showcases the work of eleven innovative architects and studios committed to improving the lives of a handful of underserved communities worldwide. For instance, when German architecture student Diébédo Francis Kéré discovered that his hometown primary school in Gando, Burkina Faso was in disrepair, he designed a sustainable, modern schoolhouse made of unbaked mud bricks with an extended corrugated metal roof. With international support, Kéré’s studio later built an annex as well as housing for teachers. However, demand for a coveted seat in the school outstrips spots available, leaving many potential students out of luck. This project, though admirable in theory, relinquishes the idea of systematic change and instead focuses on impacting a small group of children who are in the right place at the right time. Also on display is Michael Maltzan‘s Inner-City Arts building in Los Angeles, where students have to navigate Skid Row to attend free art lessons on the pristine white-walled campus.

While the mission is grand, the alternative spaces included at Exit Art and MoMA only seem to work on a micro level. The artists’ collectives, nonprofits, and freethinking architecture studios featured choose to carve out a small space within the existing framework, relying on governments, grants, and wealthy patrons to keep their projects running. In the case of Exit Art, these spaces want to remain separate from the majority. But what about the “Big Change” at MoMA? Can these architects fundamentally alter the social and political landscape, or are these projects merely altruistic aberrations? If the latter, then these singular actions can lead to more stratification when architects go cherry-picking. The fault doesn’t lie with the architects, but the larger institutions that ignore these projects’ possibilities.

Perhaps alternative spaces remain on the periphery to remind us of the options available in a different world; they create utopian pockets to startle unassuming passersby. And maybe that’s enough to ask of the trickster.

(images courtesy MoMA, Diébédo Francis Kéré; Michael Maltzan Architecture; Rural Studio, Auburn University)