Utopia, OH: A Love Letter
Organized by Aaron Walker
In October 2011, CS13 closed out it's three year run as a multi-disciplinary project space with one last act of social dreaming. This final show was a group exhibition themed around the small river town of Utopia, located 45 miles out of Cincinnati along U.S. Route 52. The town is marked by a green road sign, a convenience store with a single gas pump, a handful of half-mile long streets that run down to the riverbank, and a Ohio Historical Marker that reads:
"Utopia, Ohio was founded in 1844 by followers of French philosopher Charles Fourier. Fourierism, based on utopian socialism and the idea of equal sharing of investments in money and labor, reached peak popularity in the United States about 1824 until 1846. The experimental community of Utopia dissolved in 1846 due to lack of financial success and disenchantment with Fourierism. John O. Wattles, leader of a society of spiritualists, purchased the land and brought his followers to Utopia in 1847. The spiritualists, who sought secluded areas to practice their religion, built a two-story brick house on the shore of the Ohio River. A flash flood on December 13, 1847, killed most of Wattles' people. The majority of the few survivors left the area. Thus, the idea of the perfect society, or utopia, died. Henry Jernegan of Amelia, laid out the present village in 1847."
Utopia, perhaps the most confidently named, was only one of approximately 270 utopian communities that existed in the United States between 1787 and 1919. Due to Ohio's unique location on the nation's frontier, the state found itself the site of much of this activity, in both religious settlements established by Shakers and Amish as well as secular attempts based on the writings of Charles Fourier and Welsh social reformer Robert Owen.
These secular communities, Utopia included, while short lived, are memorable for the challenges they presented to existing social and economic order, presenting alternative notions about religion, marriage, family, sexuality, property ownership, and wage labor. Revisiting and interacting with these historical moments provides a window into an era of American history where frontiers were both physical and ideological, and where quixotic or even bizarre ideas of how people can best coexist were of primary interest to these diverse populations and their thinkers. Such communities were, so to speak, efforts in which political science, economics, and sociology were wedded with the literary imagination.
Utopia, OH: A Love Letter" presented different reflections on American utopian history: These works ranged from those that look to the specific history and spirit of the town of Utopia, those that addressed the narratives and philosophies that led to the short 19th century flourish of likeminded projects, those that looked at the the the diminished presence of a "utopian" spirit in contemporary American political and social thinking, and finally those that looked to the future with a Fourierist sense of curiosity, whim, and possibility.
In this way, this project was both a love letter and a fond farewell, stuffed full of history and myth, nostalgia, and wishful thinking for the future, as only goodbyes can be.