Skip to Main Content

Utopian Field

By Ou Ning
2019-20 Research Fellow, Center for Arts, Design + Social Research

Utopian Field is an ongoing research project that focuses on the pursuit and construction of egalitarianism during the past two centuries.  Utopian Field looks at the ways people have invented informal politics in their everyday life and seeks to understand the roles that art, education and religion have played in these practices.  This research project will result in a book of narrative and analytical writings.  The publication will shape a new discourse that resists the developmentalism doctrines that have dominated the world for centuries.   It is necessary to rethink an alternative life after the Cold War and Neo Liberal economic booms at a time when Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States and the Brexit Movement in the UK have revealed a crisis in global society, and technological power and Artificial Intelligence are going to rule the world.

The villagers in School of Tillers, Bishan Project, Anhui.
Photo Credit: Zhu Rui, 2015
The villagers in School of Tillers, Bishan Project, Anhui.

When working on the Bishan Project (2010-2016), I began my research on rural reconstruction projects, countryside art projects, hippie communes, intentional communities, ECO villages and utopian practices in different countries and regions. I visited historical sites where James Yen, Liang Shuming and Tao Xingzhi started their experiments during the Republican Era.  I interviewed many rural reconstructionists and activists in the Great China area (2009). International research included the Land Project founded by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lerdchaiprasert in Chiang Mai, Thailand (2010); Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial founded by Kitagawa Fram in Japan (2012); Riverside Community, Rainbow Valley Community and Earthsong ECO- Neighborhood in New Zealand (2013); Metelkova Mesto in Ljubljana (2014); Fristaden Christiania in Copenhagen (2014); Paul Glover, the founder of Ithaca Hours in Philadelphia (2014); Tuntable Falls Community and Dharmananda Community in Nimbin, Australia (2015).

In 2016-17, I received the opportunity to teach at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York City.  During this time, I visited 19th-century communitarianism utopian historical sites in the United States: the Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky; the Oneida Community founded by John Humphrey Noyes in upstate New York; Josiah Warren’s Cincinnati Time Store in Ohio and George Rapp and Robert Owen’s New Harmony in Indiana.

The publications of John Humphrey Noyes, Manson House, Oneida Community, Upstate New York.
Photo Credit: Ou Ning, 2016
The publications of John Humphrey Noyes, Manson House, Oneida Community, Upstate New York.

Since 2017, my research visits have included Owen’s New Lanark in Scotland, Kurt Schwitters’ Marz Barn in Lake District, Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst’s Dartington Hall in Devonshire and George Ripley’s Brook Farm in Boston.  I am arranging upcoming research trips to Saneatsu Mushanokōji and White Birch Group’s Moroyama Villages in Japan, Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan and Mirra Alfassa’s Auroville in India and the Kibbutzim movement in Israel.

The publications of William Maclure, Workingmen’s Institute, New Harmony, Indiana.
Photo Credit: Ou Ning, 2016.
The publications of William Maclure, Workingmen’s Institute, New Harmony, Indiana.

In 2016, three new books were published in the United States, Utopia Drive by Erik Reece, Paradise Now by Chris Jennings, and Oneida by Ellen Wayland-Smith. In a review published by The New Yorker, Akash Kapur called their simultaneous emergence, “the return of the utopians.”

“Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia,” an exhibition organized by the Walker Art Center with the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive focused on the Back-to-the-Land Movement and the experimental architecture, design and art of the 1960s and early 1970s.  The project toured from 2015-17.  “The return of the utopians” is an undeniable fact that reveals the dissatisfaction of current American society. These books and the exhibition revealed a very strong wish to look back at historic utopian experiments in the United States, trying to find alternative solutions for today’s chaotic reality.

In 2017, Zygmunt Bauman’s final book, Retrotopia was published.  The term retrotopia, profoundly summarizes the various retrogressions that have taken place in our world at this moment. For example, because of the failure of the state and the regime, people are back to the world without Leviathan, falling to “the war of all against all.” Because of the drawbacks of globalization, people are back to nationalism, tribalism and communitarianism. Because the competition of dominant countries has intensified, and the borders and barriers are strengthening, people are back to the Cold War. Because the gap between the haves and the have nots is radically expanding, people are back to inequality. Because of extreme insecurity, people are back to personal autism, and if possible, people even want to go back to the womb-like surroundings — that is, the pre-life experience without contact with the outside world. The term “retrotopia” explains why utopian issues are coming back today.


Ou Ning is a Chinese artist, film maker, curator, writer, publisher and activist.  He is the director of two documentary films San Yuan Li (2003) and Meishi Street (2006).  Ou Ning was the chief curator of Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture (2009).  He was a jury member for the 8th Benesse Prize at the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009), a member of the Asian Art Council at the Guggenheim Museum (2011), chief editor of the literary journal Chutzpah! (2011-2013), founder of Bishan Commune (2011-2016) and School of Tillers (2015-2016) and a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University in New York City (2016-2017). Ou Ning is a 2019-20 Research Fellow at the Center for Arts, Design + Social Research.

Leave A Reply

Navigate