Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Unmapping Empathea

This is a reflective piece that I wrote in the context of a course I am teaching. I promised my students that I would do the reflective assignment alongside them. 

Unmapping Empathea

I have a confession: for weeks, my mind has been attempting to rename this course “Imaginary Futures” rather than “Experimental Futures.” I suppose, then, it is unsurprising that one thing I have been pondering for the past several weeks is the extent of the limitations that so many people place on our own imaginations, and on our visions for the future. This starts even in childhood, with our dreams circumscribed by television programs and the admonishments of parents and teachers. One thing I am immensely thankful for now is that while my imagination was certainly reined in by the structures in which I grew up, I was cared for by adults who encouraged me to remain creative. Even so, I have recently realized that the alternatives I envisioned were hardly revolutionary.

When I was about eleven, my elementary school informed its students that we would be involved in consultations for a new playground. This would be built after I graduated, but since I aspired to become an architect at that age, the prospect excited me. I keenly missed a dinosaur-themed playground that had been recently demolished from a favourite park and hoped that we could build something similarly exciting at my school. We participated in the consultations in multi-age groups, and I remember a definite split between the younger and the older students. When asked what amenities they wanted the playground to have, the younger children asked for roller coasters, petting zoos, and water slides. The older children hoped for a good swing set, a better soccer field, and other similarly tame, traditional playground structure. Those of us in the older grades laughed at the younger children’s fanciful ideas. The parents and teachers involved in playground planning seemed to dismiss all of our ideas, stressing the need for safety above all. Though our new playground would be attractive and castle-themed, any apparatus from which a child might fall was removed from the blueprints. When Playscape 2000 was completed, it was a disappointment for many children. While amusement park rides were certainly beyond the space and budget constraints of the project, even the spirit behind those suggestions—that children wanted something exhilarating and unique—was barely considered. It may have been logistically challenging, but I certainly think the petting zoo idea should not have been so quickly dismissed.

I think of so many of the structures that we see as alternative, and realize that they still buy into some of the more restrictive elements of what they seek to undo. I spent summers as a teenager at a creative arts camp. One of their t-shirts, which I still have, includes the words “wouldn’t it be great if artists ruled the worldfor then we would have art in the offices.” Art in the offices, indeed, is very nice. But what if we no longer worked in conventional offices? What if artists pushed the boundaries of social structures so that our sites of work overlapped with our sites of recreation in ways that are as-yet unimagined?

The restrictive parameters that I placed on my own imagination are clearest when I think of one of my childhood hobbies: designing and redesigning an imaginary utopian community, Empathea. Empathea started as a childhood dream, but it remains lodged in my mind nearly two decades later. It was born in the back seat of a rental car, somewhere near Haifa, Israel. My twin sister and I had just learned about kibbutzim—small agricultural communes in Israel—and wanted to expand the model on a larger scale. Our mother quickly explained that socialism was hardly a new concept, but we decided to play with it for the rest of our trip. Barely nine years old, we believed ourselves to be on the cutting edge of social innovation.
Over the course of the car ride, we hashed out the key tenets of our community. First and foremost, we knew it would be environmentally friendly. But what would that mean? Certainly, a place free of personal vehicles, such as the one in which we were riding. But what about roads, more generally? We decided that those might be necessary for deliveries, emergency vehicles, and, though we were hardly fond of this element, for garbage trucks. The space given to roads would be far outstripped, however, by green spaces: parks, forests, gardens, and backyards. Through our childhood, our backyard was our kingdom, and I don’t think it occurred to us to entirely abolish private land ownership. There would be ample public transit, and people would ride bicycles, or quadricycles if they had small children or lots of groceries. Mobility for the elderly or people with disabilities never crossed our minds at that point, and I suppose it never snowed in our imaginary world.
Over the coming years, we drew perhaps hundreds of maps of Empathea. At least one of them had a small shack on the outskirts of town, little more than a picnic shelter. This would be where people could go to smoke cigarettes; we saw smoking as a terrible offense but also recognized it as outside some people’s control. Looking back, I wonder if we were rather too sanctimonious, as we pondered what sort of punishment would be too harsh for people who littered. In some respects, our utopia was rather authoritarian, ruled according to the idealistic whims and values of nine-year-old twins.
As I grew up, I started to wonder how this town could ever come into being. Who would have the means and inclinations to reside here? Why did our childhood dream still assume that people would work in fairly standard professional jobs, live in houses, and produce garbage that would need to be carted away?  We never really considered at that point where the garbage would go, other than that it would not remain in town, or determined what would happen with people who could not work in a traditional job. But, most troublingly, we had taken it more or less for granted that we could find an available location to build a utopian community. This is the element that has weighed on me most heavily through my university education: as children, we didn’t understand that the land on which we lived was stolen, and so we assumed that it was easy enough to find more land. Indeed, on maps of the mountains where we rented a cottage each summer, there were plenty of undeveloped lakes and valleys. Of course, we didn’t want every lake to turn into an urban area, but I suppose we saw our own vision as an exception to any conservationist rule. I don’t like thinking of my childhood self as a potential miniature colonial power, but my imagination makes it clear that as middle-class white children, the colonial dispossession that granted us certain privileges was largely invisible.
We went back and forth as to what sort of terrain we would seek for Empathea. Rehabilitating the desert, following the narrative we had been taught about early Zionists? Building on a landscape that had been damaged by human use never crossed my radar screen, but now I wonder about the potential for an environmentalist collective community forming on lands torn apart by the tar sands or similar extractive industries. Over the past few weeks, situating Empathea in relation to the concept of rewilding has added further complexity to my questioning. Regardless of the terrain we envisioned for Empathea, we assumed that we would be building a community on a relatively blank slate, erecting new homes, transportation, and infrastructure. How would this change, however, if we were to resituate our idea in an urban setting, keeping but modifying the existing buildings and spaces to suit an environmental and collectivist society? Aside from making parks out of parking lots, what would this look like? And how could we rewild the people in the community, without imposing an authoritarian structure upon them?
In my early twenties, I moved from seeing Empathea as a map-able, physical space to framing it as a micronation. Some of these are tangible spaces—an island, or a private home. Others exist solely on the internet. So, I contemplated Empathea as a micronation in the form of an imaginary archipelago: small spaces, such as individual apartments, farms, or offices, connected only by their values and sharing no physical space, but surrounded by the seas of the (presumably corrupt) society at large. Then, concerned with the implication that such a model still relied on private property, I considered whether the islands could be much smaller: each island would consist of one consenting human body since our own bodies are the only spaces over which we can uncontestably hold sovereignty. Much more recently, I realized that boxing my imagination into even this model of a micronation still assumed that legitimacy comes with the model of the nation-state.

This is only one line of thoughtful concern that I now have about my aging childhood dream. I also wonder: could Empathea be an indigenized space without being appropriative and colonial? Could it be ecologically sustainable, and also accessible, following ideas of universal design, without being modernist? How do we avoid perpetuating an eco-apartheid in an ostensibly progressive community? Empathea is, on one level, unraveling, through the entropy of my constant questioning. But on another level, perhaps it is growing, as I question why it has, for nearly two decades, existed on paper, but why I have never taken steps to put it into practice. 

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