Friday, November 11, 2011

A different message out of the same future: on Constant's New Babylon

On November 3, the reading group looked at the Nieuw Babylon project of Constant. Katja van Driel reports:

Sessions on utopian thought continue: This time the model of New Babylon by artist/architect Constant Niewenhuys, or to be more precise, a catalogue text in the form of a manifesto written by Constant himself, is the scaffolding of reflection on the possibilities of the Occupy movement and on the state of contemporary society. Right in the beginning we find a striking parallel image to the setting of Occupy: Constant developed the vision of New Babylon after he saw a miserable and precarious gipsy camp and thought about better structures for the nomads. While Occupy still is pretty much on the ground, Constant had something different in his mind: He wanted his architecture to fly and to circulate.

Constant designed architectural models for a utopian society where inhabitants live in a totally open and flexible city structure that can expand into every direction, just like liquid. The architecture is a mirror of the way of life of the New Babylonians. They are only guided by their creative drift which leads them, keeps them moving and finds no limits, neither in society nor in the physical structures that surround them. This way, the New Babylonians can act out their being human without boundaries and realize the ideal of the Homo ludens. This drift can also clearly be associated with libidinous propulsion. New Babylon has reached the terminal point of technological progress with a „society that knows neither famine nor exploitation nor work“. However, Constant depicts the New Babylonians as figures from a far future that speak to us which immediately reveals also the absolute utopian character of his model. What do they tell to us? Maybe we hear rather different things than Constant did.

The discussion starts with the question whether Constant's Utopia has not been, at least partly, realized, today. Couldn’t it be that we are now living in a kind of New Babylon but just without its fantastic, utopian aspects and if that is so how come?

With his vision Constant has anticipated a great deal of the flexibilisation of life and work circumstances which characterize our contemporary society. His ideas about networks and individual possibilities for broadcasting come rather close to the internet for example. His vision belongs to a period when the belief in progress was still undaunted and the welfare state wasn’t in question.

But similar to a notion that has been made earlier in connection to the text of Shukaitis, the dreams of the 60ies and 70ies have seemingly turned into the nightmares of today. We experience an increase of mobility but at the same time we are losing points of orientation and identification. Could it be that we are also less aggressive (as Constant states his New Babylonians will be)? The flexible worker is one of the major new figures that have appeared over the last decades. This mobile individual circulating inside our global economy is the symbol of a tendency towards alienation. As there is barely an opposition to the grievances these individuals encounter, the current system has possibly been able to channel aggression, but more as a perverted version of what is described for New Babylon, because it is not sublimated into something positive but makes the flex worker support the system that erodes him. Ownership is an important factor in this mechanism: the freedom as imagined by Constant was possible only because everything would be common property.

The dynamics which, in New Babylon, are born out of the unbridled creativity can also be compared to the mechanisms that are caused by the globalized flows of capital. All boundaries have been withdrawn so that if shockwaves run through it, the whole system is affected. This uncontrollable flow of energies is able to create unimagined consequences.

The question could then be how to channel the above mentioned dynamics in different ways. Some 40 years ago Constant was looking for ways to overcome constrictive social conventions. Today we are generally rather looking for alternatives which can also include having such things as a home or a family life, but without them leading to forms of oppression.

Katja van Driel

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