Maša Milovac

WHAT IS UTOPIAN IN A COLLECTIVE?

“For it is only longings, desires and indefinable wishes that can now be genuinely collective…” Boris Groys, Ilya Kabakov: The ManWho Flew into Space from His Apartment, Afterall Books 2006.


The contemporary design scene, under the influence of the media exposure of “superstar” designers from Western Europe, produces similar short-term stories about original work by designers. Such stories are very often presented out of context and out of place, which emphasizes a distorted image of designers as supremely resourceful individuals who, thanks to their talent and unique creativity, occupy a certain position in the market. Being a part of such (global) surroundings is influential on the perception of design and its role in society. With the goal of stimulating interaction, but also a desire to negate the author as an alienated individual, exclusive winner and a necessary factor of success, this project was conceived as a series of dialogues, workshops and debates between the invited designers.

The questions that we must ask ourselves are: is it possible to learn from these kinds of projects, i.e. is it possible to critically examine the creative output and modern design production and present that very attitude; to what degree is utopia a positive term, and when, or better yet, why does it transform into fear and impossibility; and how is that comparable to the design process? How to approach differently the issue of the future in a time of obvious global instability, i.e. can these exact types of utopian notions resolve our current dilemmas and settle issues directly concerning individual as well as collective freedoms?


“For those who grew up in postwar Europe, notions of group work were embedded in educational systems. From preschool “play-groups” through the organizing structures of management, with group discussion and teamwork, we find a set of social models that carry complex implications for people who think they can create something using a related, if semiautonomous, methodology.” e-flux journal redux: Liam Gillick, ‘Maybe it Would beBetter if we Worked in Groups of Three? Part 2 of 2: The Experimental Factory’


In everyday language the notion of a collective signifies a free form of like-minded individuals coming together with the purpose of accomplishing a common goal. In societal histories the collective has had different roles and meanings.[1] In art history the greatest marks have been left by collectives such as those coming out of the international movement Fluxus, the English architectural group Archigram or, for example, the American new media group Critical Art Ensemble. Contextually closest to us, Croatian groups from the early second half of the20th century Exat 51 and Gorgona, and more recently the Slovenian group Irwin, have convincingly and inspirationally developed forms of collectivism. Today this form of collaboration is being taken over by many interdisciplinary studies, e.g. a group of contemporary artists, curators, practitioners and researchers Raqs Media Collective, who critically examine modes of presentation in new media, in which they themselves participate, and they substantiate that with theoretical and philosophical research. On the other hand, collaborative, joint work and work based on exchange open up new hybrid models of art and design creations that fit today’s open and technologically supported environment.

At first it seems easiest to understand the concept of a utopia as an ideal social and spatial composition in a non-existent place, but things become more complex once all the metamorphoses of the term are revealed: utopia as an ideal place, non-place, perfect system, Garden of Eden, El Dorado, isola bella, etc. Furthermore, it is indicative that utopia has recently been a popular subject of artistic, designer and architectural interpretations.[2]

I interpreted and linked the subject of “utopias in design” to a vision of a utopian collective on several levels. The first is perhaps the most obvious and it corresponds with the fact that utopia as a concept of an ideal society and order concerns the collective as well, i.e. the group of people that can form and consummate such a society in the first place. This was described in a similar way by Thomas More in his Utopia, citing models upon which ideal communities were based, a series of rules and patterns of behaviour that form the basis of a “utopian society”. Furthermore, the idea of forming a utopia, or its designing, raises a number of questions that start with the role of the designer and end with the application of that “design solution”. Where did we even get the right to proclaim design a discipline that can solve such problems? First of all, it is important to act ethically, transdisciplinarily and humanely. Would some future utopian world be capable of tolerating all the different opinions and positions and enable them to act? Or would “utopian” mean a structured, “ordered” society? It has to be made clear that there is no right answer, but rather, there is a series of still unposed questions that can be exceptionally interesting from a designer’s point of view. Only if we are freed from the meaning that encompasses the concept of utopia can we understand that it is primarily a philosophical task given with the goal of advancing and changing the current state. Maybe a similar character is shared with the process of designing, through which we go through daily in order to offer “the best solution”. This led me to the conclusion that design as a practice and utopia as a permanent re-examination touch on the very subject of processuality. And the collective as a sum of different reflexions, multiple perspectives and opposing contributions represents perhaps the most apt model for researching the concept of utopia.


“The phenomenon of the artists’ group is both paradoxical and dynamic. On the one hand it is a negation of the romantic idea of the individual genius, but on the other hand, the art group is not simply the sum of its individual parts, but draws its character from the creative possibilities of different interactions and synergies.” What, How & for Whom, Collective Creativity, 2005


The results of such a research method are far from the fact that the process of preparing the project for the London Design Biennale was pleasant and simple.The climb to the mountain called “utopia” was quite a difficult one, full of turmoil, perhaps even with a few wrong turns. How productive or effective are unity and obedience, what conditions produce the most interesting discoveries, and is the point in the very notion of “paradessence”, which enters the work process almost at the very beginning as a designer reaction to the phrase“utopian collective” and is based on opposites[3]?

Is it not entirely logical that for the “Utopian Collective” the very result is an obstacle to cooperation, which imposes a new behavioural rule in the form of affirmation of processes and means, but not goals? My interpretation of the subject influenced primarily the observation of the work process, but also the tendency of elucidating the notions of success, quality and excellence indesign. I was interested if avoiding a clearly imposed structure can keep the process free, without the designer losing focus and searching for the task. I wonder where this conditioned need for a task comes from and why should it always have the same format? Can trust replace this need and provide space for thought connection, sharing and synergy? It appears the need to cooperate is somewhere much deeper than the basic and practical division of labour, responsibilities and expenses, perhaps in the very place where the feelings of trust and respect of others are.

A collective is a justifiable tool if there is a need for it. Is an individual designer more successful than a collective? Except for the symptomatic situations in which designers associate in order to better collaborate and expand their field of action, the question is why does the phenomenon of associating in design collectives occur?[4] Or, did collective work in that sense become a safe zone for exploring one’s own interests, processes and methods, and does it encourage constant dialogue that sharpens the focus as well as influence personal presentation?

The work process on this project was not predictable, nor structured beforehand with clearly set tasks, but with the idea of observing the process and consequently the results, which makes a valued attempt of integrating different positions into a collective work. The Biennale project that I have named “Utopian Collective” in fact consists of observing the work of a new collective and specific situations in which authors, members of the collective, influence the result of each of the phases of work. This opened the spaces of personal and collective freedom of action, the process of sharing, even yielding responsibility, abandoning the safe zone of individualism, today’s dominant form of the “designer”work method. Designers strived toward a concrete task from the very beginning, but also simultaneously very thoroughly conceptualized the subject of the collective and utopia, and from completely different angles and for entirely different needs. Because, the personal experience of designers needed to be steered toward a common vision and direction in which the collective was moving. Besides the interest in conceptual clarity of the “Utopian Collective”, it is interesting how the designers very quickly “shaped” the space of the presentation verbally as well as anticipated the audience’s perception and their possible idea about “design” as a discipline.

The work developed for the London Biennale became a medium, a material documentation of the process used to communicate the totality of the process we went through.Looking for an adequate model of presentation, the material documentation of the process imposed the concept of an exhibition and it became a medium in and of itself; a medium that conveys the key moments of the process. The resulting environment is possible to interpret on several levels that refer to the notion of the collective, collective action, examination and identification. The act of creation formed the “final product”.


“Collaborations are one of the most meaningful ways of arriving to sufficiently unexpected solutions because in the conflict of learned settings of everyone involved it is possible to create new stories. It is in no way an escape into anonymity, but an essential need for dialogue.” Damir Gamulin, Design and Independent Culture


In the beginnings of joint work we agreed upon a way of collaborating and the direction of the process that emerged from the analysis of the concepts that the designers drew from their work and that could be a link to collective action and the notion of utopia. Likewise, the first interaction of the designers, their getting to know each other, was prompted by body movement, physical contacts, and only later by contemplative reflections.

Adopting forms and methods of behaviour unfamiliar to the design profession, but that belong to other expressive (artistic) disciplines, they removed themselves from their own stereotypical behaviour by looking at themselves through somebody else’s eyes. Can thoughts shared through conversation be carried over into space? By jointly writing and shaping the text, the designers created a new format of sharing and the physical space of the gallery offered a place for its multi-layered interpretation. By searching for a new medium with which they have had no experience yet, they decided on a carpet as a realistic life prop, but also a format from the design practice. It became that “place”, a common design territory composed of distinctive motifs and symbols (human interactions, personal symbols, a reinterpretation of traditional motifs, a visual interpretation of the process in the collective).

In the exhibition space we witness several different layers of “reading” that are the direct consequence of the development phases of the work process. The first element, basic in character, represents “common ground”, shaped as a proto-idea of the world, a two-dimensional “globe”, the unifying idea of a circle. The second layer consists of three-dimensional objects, “keepers of emptiness”,certain vessels originating from the development process of the collective’s expression language. The third element of the whole is the sound that gives this environment a time dimension and through the spoken word coveys key elements of synergy, but also the specificities of the individuals’ attitudes, a narrative resulting from the dialogue between designers, the members of the “Utopian Collective”.

Objects exhibited in the space are vessels for what is not there. From the perspective of the design profession, that can seem as a mere attempt because every object carries a specific shape and it is to be expected that the interior holds concrete materialized objects. Why can the audience not see them? Why are they not displayed? To an observer, these kinds of objects remain an unknown and as such are the driving force of imaginative processes with the audience, an attempt to imagine the content, idealizing the shape and content. These objects and their emptiness represent processes of that understanding, which is hinted at in his texts by the artist Nils Norman, who considers utopia an analytical and critical tool of understanding that which is not there. And Josip Vaništa would call a search in such processes “…a right to a mistake, to a contradiction, to a metamorphosis, to an emptiness that needed to be transformed into a living space” [5]. The“Utopian Collective” affirmed itself through a process of making room for struggling with an ideal. The notion of the collective, the way we experienced it, rose to a “higher” level and it speaks critically on the subjects of utopia, collaboration and unity. What would it actually mean to “design nothing”? When there is nothing, everything is present. 


“We will place utopia in some new forms, seal it and leave it for doubt and imagination to run wild with. The essence of utopia is to wonder, to anticipate. The collective that gives back to the individual also strengthens him.” Utopian Collective


[1] Author's note: In undemocratic social systems (let us remember the former EasternEuropean social systems) the collective had substituted the notion of joint production, but also the responsibility of managing production. It occupied one of the most dominant ways in work processes, superior to individual members of society. However, the collective, as a form of joining into work processes, is also present in democratic societies of the free market, but almost always as a form of collectivism, a method of resistance to the (neo)liberal economy and political ideology.

[2] Individual Utopias (Lala Raščić, Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina, Novi Sad, 2010); Low-Budget Utopias (an exhibition by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, 2016), Anti-Utopias(anti-utopias.com), Utopian Bodies - Fashion Looks Forward (an exhibition in Liljevalchs Konsthall, Stockholm, 2015)

[3] Inspired by Steven Shaviro’s text laid out in his review of the novel „The Savage Girl“ by Alex Shakar

[4] Authors note: This fact, apart from pointing to interdisciplinary association in order to improve work quality, speaks of the fact that designers, except perhaps while studying, do not have space (time and resources) provided to them to develop an original approach to design.

[5] Vaništa, J. (2001). Knjiga zapisa. Zagreb: Kratis, p. 308.

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