Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

The City and its Periphery

If you’re in the Bay Area at the end of month, consider attending an event called Macro City, organized and hosted by the Infrastructure Observatory. Its purpose is “to explore the vast, often overlooked networks of infrastructure that surround us,” and, in the process, “to celebrate the numerous people whose countless efforts shape the built landscape every day.”

Probably the most interesting part of the whole event is the ambitious program of local field trips, all of which take place on May 30th. They include guided tours of everything from the Zanker landfill & recovery facility down in San Jose to one of San Francisco’s wastewater treatment plants, and from a construction aggregate terminal and a kayak trip to an activist walking tour of the city’s many surveillance cameras.

[Image: The Dutra Group‘s extraordinary San Rafael rock quarry, a Macro City field trip site and striking reversal of the figure-ground relationship; photo courtesy of baycrossings/Macro City].

Tickets are available at various levels of price and access—and I should point out that I am also speaking at the event, alongside Nicola Twilley, so my opinion betrays some bias—but the conference has a great and important interpretive mission, and seems well worth attending: “We rarely see in full the cities that we live in,” the organizers write. “Focused on our daily lives, urban dwellers are often only dimly aware of the numerous, enmeshed layers of critical infrastructure that quietly hum in the background to make modern life possible.”

Come tour and talk about those hidden systems on May 30 and 31, at SPUR and the Brava Theater in San Francisco. See the Macro City site for more details.

San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model

In Sausalito, CA, near a 7-11, one finds the San Francisco Bay Hydrological Model.


The Bay Model was built in 1957 by the Army Corps of Engineers; it is “over 1.5 acres in size and represents an area from the Pacific Ocean to Sacramento and Stockton, including: the San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun Bays and a portion of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.” Which means it’s larger than two American football fields. (I think).


The Model served “as a scientific research tool from 1958-2000 to evaluate circulation and flow characteristics of the water within the estuary system,” allowing Army Engineers “to simulate currents, tidal action, sediment movement and the mixing of fresh and salt water. Pollution, salt-water intrusion, barrier and fill studies were a few of the important research projects that have been undertaken at the Bay Model.”
It’s not in the greatest condition, and the faded primary color scheme leaves something to be desired, but the model is no less fascinating for that; any chance you get to walk the shores of a microcosm is a good chance to do some thinking.


If I may briefly quote William Blake

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

– I’ll then point out that the Bay Model exists within its own timezone: in the world of the Model, one day passes every 14.9 minutes. 30 full days elapse every 7.2 hours. Complete tidal cycles run 3.8 minutes. You can practically feel yourself aging in the presence of this copyscape, its wetlands and alluvial braids of artificial rivers running through fields of pumps and power cords.
Look closely and you’ll see a “Tide Hut” where little gods of the Model enact catastrophe and unleash floods upon the surrogate world spread out before them. Look closer, and you’ll see damage from a “hundred years of waves, subsidence, and boat wakes” – which, in Model time, is almost exactly one human year.


But I soon got to thinking about the politics of architectural models. Imagine what would happen, for instance, if some Navy SEALS raided a cave in Afghanistan and found the Bay Model sitting there: what on earth does al-Qaeda want with San Francisco’s water supply? FOX News screams. Or a model of Greater London’s Thames hydrology, complete with flood gates, Barriers and overflow sewers, which is one thing if it’s in the possession of Tony Blair, and quite another if found in the basement of, say, Abu Hamza or even Timothy McVeigh.
What were they trying to do with it?
It’s the politics of architectural models: an object of scientific curiosity in one person’s hands is an issue of national security in another’s.
Or: simulacra as a threat to national security.
A plot for a new Philip K. Dick novel, or a film by Charlie Kauffman, then came to mind: a man, perhaps a young Al Pacino, breaks into the Bay Model in the middle of the night. He barricades himself inside, turns on the power, and starts flooding the model, demolishing bridges, rerouting estuarial confluences. He jumps up and down, causing modelquakes, and then accelerates the tides, obliterating Golden Gate Park under the force of a single wave.
He calls all the local newspapers and takes responsibility for the disasters now befalling San Francisco outside; but what disasters? they ask, and he thinks they’re conning him, denying his rage, because he’s read William Blake and St. Thomas Aquinas and he believes that everything he throws at that simulacrum there before him will have effects in the real world…
Because it’s all building up to one moment, see, the big moment when he decides to flood the Bay Model’s model of the Bay Model, opening up a rift in the universe and blasting him head-first through the macrocosm.
Until the police break-in…

(Thanks to Chad for the tip, and to Nicola for coming with me!)