R. Buckminster Fuller is a name that epitomizes mid-20th-century progressive intellectualism. He was idealistic, if unyieldingly rational, and predicted that mankind's achievements in his century would usher in an era of stability, prosperity and widespread understanding. It would be remembered, he wrote in his treatise Nine Chains to the Moon, as the period when the "universal scale first tipped in favor of mind."
I think it's safe to say he gave millennium's end a little too much credit. However, it's not his prescience that is emulated in 29 Chains to the Moon: Artists' Schemes for a Fantastic Future, at the Miller Gallery, guest-curated by Andrea Grover. Rather, what set the tone are Fuller's worship of ingenuity, and his faith in the ultimate survivability of humankind.
The gallery's right-hand section houses a display by Stephanie Smith, who attempts to redefine the idea of the commune. Smith replaces the old stigma of the remote hippie ranch with images of pragmatic, resourceful suburbanites sharing goods, services and green space. Four letter-sized prints, pinned to the wall side-by-side, loosely diagram Smith's commune pods.
Nearby is a computer set to www.wecommune.com, encouraging us to start our own communes -- for tools, garden vegetables, whatever. Inside an adjacent plywood structure, there's a corkboard visitors can use as a sort of communal sharing zone. The public-outreach aspect, especially the kiosk, is an awkward but necessary addendum, promoting the exhibition's ultimate goal, which is to make social transformation seem attainable and accessible.
Across the gallery, the multi-tiered, international venture Open_Sailing offers its plans to build an operating, mobile civilian ocean station. This project is presented with similar immediacy. The sparing wall-text reads, in part, "It is not a utopia, we are building it now. Be part of it." Photos of completed and in-progress structural components of the floating neighborhood are set beside both computer-generated models of the final result and a rather uninformative 3-D mock-up of a fragment. Once more, I got the impression I was looking at some sketches of a very good idea, but not enough to understand it as fully as I would have liked.
The gallery's central space is given to Terreform ONE, with a wall-spanning poster illustrating some of the group's housing and vehicular designs. These include housing pods that appear to be fused into trees, and mass-transit blimps that carry passengers on bungee-tentacles stretching to the ground.
The images are refined and physically convincing, and certainly these proposals are fascinating, but the presentation gets muddled at times. Unlike the other two exhibitors, Terreform ONE arguably relies too heavily on spectacle, riddling its graphic field with bleak images of dead forest creatures and huge turbines. The points of focus are well rendered, but the overall picture remains fuzzy.
On a more mundane note, the 29 Chains exhibition space overall comes off a bit empty. Only three organizations (four if you count the Buckminster Fuller Institute) are represented. The visualization of their largely theory- and data-based work can't exactly be expected to cover the Miller's entire second floor. One might wonder why, with more individuals and collectives than ever devoted to tech-supported sustainable living, curator Grover didn't simply up the number of participants.
One of Fuller's most intriguing qualities was his interest in proselytizing the public, so we might thereby move together toward the bright new horizon. Unfortunately, 29 Chains to the Moon occasionally neglects to offer the viewer a sufficiently thorough iteration of its contributors' plans for a better world. Still, the exhibition serves to ensure the plausibility, not to mention the good sense, of embracing structured, multifaceted transformation of human living modes. And as Fuller himself wrote of even the faintest traces of innovating thought: "[T]ime, if well served, will turn them into monkey-wrenches and gas torches."
29 Chains to the Moon continues through Dec. 6. Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-3618 or www.cmu.edu/millergallery