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‘Utopia’ literally means ‘nowhere’; some say that part of what makes utopian thinking important is its impossibility. In the ‘Utopian Voices Here and Now’ exhibition showing until the 29th of August at Somerset House, artists are taking a different approach, finding utopian thinking in our messy, imperfect present.

In Somerset House’s New Wing, artists Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan have installed the UK Gay Bar Directory; a collection of GoPro footage of the interiors of over 170 gay bars across the UK. A quarter of LGBT bars and clubs have been shut down since the recession, and the influence of apps like Grindr have shifted LGBT dating behaviour away from the traditional ‘safe space’ of the gay club, and into the privacy of smartphones. Hastings and Quinlan aren’t just documenting these clubs for posterity, though; by acknowledging that historic places of unity are fast disappearing, they raise important questions about the future of inclusivity.

Cross-cultural collaborators IB Kamara and Kristin Lee-Moolman consider inclusivity and fluidity from another viewpoint, imagining what menswear would look like in 2026 through staged editorial photographs. On top of the slick looks, there’s an anxiety about material waste; the models – all Johannesburg locals – wear slinky dresses and ripped-up blazers salvaged from charity shops and rubbish tips. Labour ethics are becoming increasingly important in the consumer market, with 76% of Brits weighing the ethical and ecological priorities of a brand before deciding to buy. And, as evidenced by the artists’ fluid styling, cis-gender dressing is out. “In a more utopian world, there might be no policing of masculinity,” writes curator Shonagh Marshall. “An individual would be free to choose how best to express their identity.”

Taken from '@Gaybar' by Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan Taken from '@Gaybar' by Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan
Rosie Hastings and Hannah Quinlan ©

The question of what’s in has long been a pressing one, confusing but crucial to academics and brands alike. Multimedia artist Amber Rose’s ‘The Cool Universe’brings a fictional university professor into the nightclub, letting viewers explore the question of coolness through an interactive installation. Coolness, Rose says, is all about insider knowledge and social cohesion. And though cool is timeless in itself, its particulars are especially fleeting now. “Tribalism and partisanship are in short supply. If we don’t like something, we can just ignore it, or flood our lives with more of what we do like,” writes Clive Martin for VICE.

The best kind of utopian thinking uses the present to envision what might lead beyond it, writes Terry Eagleton for the Guardian. In our innovation-obsessed world, where tech has taken the place of religion as a guiding panacea, possible futures are the source of both inspiration and anxiety; while 59% of Americans expect that technological changes will improve their future lives,  30% think they’ll only make it worse. The artists at Somerset House look at the consequences of future-mindedness, and help us see how we create our own inclusive spaces in the present – whether they’re in a London nightclub or Joburg suburb.


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Alex Quicho is a writer and cultural researcher in London. Born in Boston and raised in Manila, she writes about identity, futures, and soft power in art and design.


02 Aug 16

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