On the Utility of Utopia

Year 1986
Text by Helmut Schneider

Pino Poggi once listed all that he has been (or still is) in his life: sculptor, gardener, waiter, futurologist, farmer, painter, politician, architect, songwriter, photographer, carpenter, mushroom forager… But this mosaic, a multi-faceted self portait of a versatile and busy individual, surprisingly lacks the very term one would most expect at the forefront, emphasized and underlined – namely, the label of an artist. And there is a reason for that.
He, too, is embedded in the social conditions and political events he reflects upon and for this reason alone, his artistic practice cannot be separated from his everyday experience. However, he does not equate art with life; rather, he sees the relationship between the two as a form of interaction; for him, they are communicating vessels.
His approach to art and life are therefore inseparable: He is affected by the social reality and responds to his affectedness with art. And this art, shaped by his own emotional and rational behavior towards the world, is unmistakably individual, but by no means private. For him, it is not about self-realization in works that claim autonomy; instead, he formulates, on behalf of the public to whom he addresses himself, concepts for orientation in an ever more interconnected reality, which is increasingly perceived as alien and even threatening.
He moves within the labyrinth like everyone else, but holds Ariadne’s thread in his hand. He shares this privilige with society, because he believes it to be the artist’s task to be useful and his duty to make himself useful. This does not mean he allows himself to be harnessed for opportunistic purposes or misused for ideological intentions. On the contrary. When Poggi understands his artistic activity as useful in a socio-cultural and political context, he specifically does not mean complicity with the existing conditions. The utility of his art is proven precisely in opposition.

It is no coincidence that in the mid-1960s, a time when he began to concern himself with utopias, Pino Poggi also redefined his art. He named it Arte Utile (abbreviated as AU), useful art, and aligned with Avanguardia Utile, a useful avant-garde. From then on, the utopian and the utilitarian operated together. The ideas that one developed prospectively, with an eye on the future, were concretized in the present by the other, creating desings with unmistakably contemporary references. Poggi’s proposals for the redistribution of urban functions in his hometown of Genoa, his reflections on the industrial and cultural transformation of Europe under climatic principles, or his plans for new cities in the form of integrated housing and service systems (guided by ecological criteria) – all these thought experiments only seemingly point towards a more beautiful tomorrow; in reality, they reflect back on the flaws of the present.
In his futurological projects, criticism of the present is presented in the guise of utopias, which indicate possible horizons and thereby challenge entrenched patterns of thought and behavior. The utopia is both an allure and a trap – the imagination delves into the realms of ‘someday’ and ‘somewhere,’ but is then abruptly pulled back to reality once the distance from the here and now is recognized. Poggi’s strategy focuses on this feedback loop of utopia to reality, where the cloud-cuckoo land reveals itself as a projection of unfulfilled desires. He pursued his futurological studies with great seriousness and took them to a point where it became clear that behind the architectural utopia lay a social utopia, which in turn significantly shaped his concept of useful art.
AU is not useful for something in a conventional sense, one cannot wallpaper walls with it (except perhaps the walls of consciousness). It indirectly opposes the romantic concept of beauty and art’s agenda as an end in itself, and in so doing, distances itself from a simplistic production of the aesthetic. Primarily, AU serves a task that necessarily fell to art after the failure of other institutions: “Arte Utile,” as stated in a manifesto from 1965, “will above all help to clearly recognize the problems of the society in which it exists and will, where possible, also offer solutions.”
For an art so explicitly focused on the social environment, a museum is not enough. Its realm of influence is the public space at large; it takes to the streets and squares, any place where communal experiences arise. In this way, it momentarily breaks through the isolating barriers that the division of labor in society has erected between people. This art is not content with mere viewers; it demands users who, through direct interaction with the AU, rediscover their buried creative abilities, even if only subtly, without necessarily becoming artists themselves.
AU operates with an open concept of the artwork, which does not exclude the possibility that the process of creation is already the artwork itself, and includes the idea that the action becomes a crystallization plane for notions beyond the artistic realm. It is not a misfortune if AU occasionally crosses the boundaries into applied sociology. This is part of the plan and demonstrates the interdisciplinary dimension of Poggi’s alternative design.
By choosing an utopia that does not reconcile existing contradictions, and an art that is useful in an enlightening sense, Pino Poggi has renounced the special status our society ascribes to the artist. He refuses to accept the role of the creator of meaning offered to him, recognizing it just a pretense. He does not participate in the staging of the artist as a sovereign creator of a world, in which a superflous illusion of freedom emerges against the backdrop of the constraints of reality, distorting the actual purpose. Instead, he prefers to take on the role of a partisan, planting explosives behind enemy lines that detonate in the consciousness.
Over the years, in his interactions with the audience, Poggi recognized that he had to reconstruct his utopia in order to achieve it. His futurological projects were aimed at a vaguely defined group of individuals somewhat interested in realizing the designs he had recently created, of which only models exist, but that clearly demonstrate what he is aiming for.
The utopia, as he understands it, as a cosa mentale, initiates processes in the mind, and moves parallel to reality as a practical guide for action. It utilizes the horizon of experiences and encounters that the audience brings along and relies on the shock of the sudden and unexpected encounter with a foreign, at first glance even alienating environment, where one might ultimately recognize their own situation. Assuming, of course, they are willing to confront it.
The spaces are visual metaphors for existential situations; parables that tell of the human condition. They operate on two levels: an illustrative and a reflective one. The entrance marks the threshold between everyday life and the realm of heightened sensations. Beyond this opens an inscape, an inner landscape, which is not only perceived but also physically experienced. Here, physical contact becomes a means of awareness; by grasping an object, one comprehends its meaning in this staging.
One moves in a stage setting, a theater of awareness, where the viewer is transformed into an active participant. The path through these scenes, imbued with symbols of the real, is a voyage into one’s inner self, a pursuit of identity. The mirrors that repeatedly appear in these spaces reflect those standing in front back to themselves.
The artist who constructs such spaces is a behavioral researcher, testing reactions to the process of discovery through varying experimental setups. He is a social therapist who believes that the alienation of the experience of reality draws attention to the state of man’s alienation from the world. But above all, he is a pragmatic visionary who transforms real places into symbolic ones, where a sense of the possibility of a different life becomes clear.

Pino Poggi, the passionate Genoese and staunch European, has rejected the dubious halo of the autonomous artist, choosing instead, in good Socratic tradition, to be a facilitator of insights. He works within society and towards its transformation. However, such transformations of the status quo require a shift in thinking – and that, as is well known, begins in the mind, where the necessary anticipatory consciousness is formed. Pino Poggi possesses the ability to anticipate things in concrete utopias. It is in this, above all, that the utility of his art is demonstrated.

Helmut Schneider (Publ.) et al.: Pino Poggi. Publishing-house Silke Schreiber, Munich, 1986, p. 8–12

Download text (pdf): German