Critical exploration of ‘Utopia’ examines what it takes to make a better world

“Utopias” are societies, both literary and lived, imaginary and actual, that strive for the creation of a more ideal community and world. While utopias are often built upon problematics, philosophical inconsistencies, and tensions, the study of these attempts causes one to pause and consider how to make our reality a better place for all.  

“Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration” is a special collection standing and digital exhibition which will be open to the public Feb. 22 through July 26 in the Woodward Family Special Collections Reading Room on the 4th floor, south wing.

As part of the exhibition kickoff, the Theatre for Transformation featuring Dr. Amanda Kemp, Dr. Michael Jamanis, and Francis Wong will host a public workshop on Feb. 21 and offer a live performance following the opening reception on Feb. 22.  The Theatre for Transformation offers another dimension to approaching the question of what it takes to create a better world. Their aim is to create and tour interdisciplinary performances with music and drama about African American history for diverse audiences and create new possibilities by remembering, and releasing our reasons for why things can’t change.

“Our exhibition opening week will be accompanied by public programming events that encourage the community to think about what it takes to create a better world. Here we recover the lost histories of utopian thought and bring the practices, problematics, and possibilities contained in these histories to light,” says Dr. J. Ashley Foster, Fresno State assistant professor of British literature with emphasis in digital humanities.

The exhibition is the result of an extensive collaboration between the special collections team and graduate students in the “Utopias: Literature, Technology, Archives” course in the Department of English. It is designed to introduce the question of ethical citizenship to Fresno.

Dr. Foster talks works with students in Utopias class.
Dr. Foster talks works with students in “Utopias: Literature, Technology, Archives” course.

“This is a first in a number of ways for the Fresno State campus. It is the first time Special Collections has been embedded in a semester-long course and the first time Special Collections will have a digital humanities exhibition associated with a physical exhibition,” said Foster. “As we are undergoing installation, our scholarship is becoming three dimensional.”

The exhibition primarily features the Topolobampo collection from Henry Madden Library Special Collections Research Center, which documents the failed 1890’s utopian colony founded in Sinaloa, Mexico.

“The Utopias seminar class worked hand-in-hand with the exhibition,” said Megan Evans, English Dept. graduate student. “We began the semester discussing the various definitions of utopias and what it meant to archive, but we also focused our attention on the narrative of Topolobampo’s history and what could be found in the Special Collections’ archive.”

Angel Garduno, Michaella Gonzalez, and Megan Evens
Students work on the “Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration” exhibition.

Larger themes raised by utopian societies both past and present are explored, including how race, gender, socioeconomics, politics, religion and culture affect notions of an ideal society. Attendees will be encouraged to consider their own engagement in their local communities and to consider alternative ways of being in the world.

“‘Utopia’ is a complicated concept and means various things for different people and so we must, as good scholars, tease out all of the implications (idealistic, colonial, imperialistic, etc.) of such a project as Owen’s [Topolobampo] Colony,” said Angel Garduno, English Dept. graduate student. “The materials held here in the archive, as can be seen by this exhibit, are rich in narratives and only need the work of scholars to unfurl them.”

“Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration” is sponsored by the College of Arts and Humanities, Henry Madden Library, Center for Creativity and the Arts, Center for Faculty Excellence, Chicano and Latin American Studies, Cross Cultural and Gender Center, Department of English, Instructionally Related Activities, Organizational Excellence, President’s Commission on Human Relations and Equity, and Theatre Arts.

The opening events will be held in the Henry Madden Library and the community is invited to attend.

Feb. 21: Workshop “Inspiring Figures and Your Vision of a Better World”

  • Run by the Theatre for Transformation
  • 4 p.m. in Room 2206. Parking is $4 in lots P27, P20 or P1.
  • Feature poetry, music, movement, and audience participation.

Feb. 22: Opening reception “Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration”

  • 6 p.m. in the Woodward Family Special Collections Reading Room. Parking is free in lots P30 or P31.

Feb. 22: Live performance “What is America to Me: the U.S. at the 400th Anniversary of Slavery; A Performance Project Featuring Poetry, Music, Movement, and Audience Participation”

  • 7:30 p.m. in the Leon S. Peters Ellipse Gallery. Parking is free in lots P30 or P31.
  • Featuring the Theatre for Transformation, with composer/saxophonist Francis Wong, classical violinist Dr. Michael Jamanis and poet-performer Dr. Amanda Kemp.

Feb. 23: Screening “Black Panther”

  • 1 p.m. in Room 2206. Parking is free in lots P30 or P31.
  • Screening of Black Panther, with community conversation led by graduate students on how to create a more supportive society.
Utopias collage

ASL interpreters will be present at the Feb. 21 and Feb. 22 events. The “Black Panther” screening will include English subtitles.  Fresno State encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities. If you anticipate needing any type of accommodation or have questions about the physical access provided, please contact the Library Administration Office at 559.278.2403 or email advance to your participation.

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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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