Curators: David Hartwell, Bill Ferehawk, Justin Jampol, Sarah Lorenzen, and Patrick Mansfield
Competing Utopias was a design collision that should never have happened. But somehow, in Los Angeles, in 2014, twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it did.
This installation was a ‘mash-up’ in the most provocative sense of that word. Its force came from the collision of two design cultures that have been kept apart but have been visually connected in ways yet unexamined. What we proposed was an experimental installation that presented Cold War modern design from East and West in one context.
Competing Utopias was organized by two Los Angeles institutions: the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences and the Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War, each a different type of museum. The Neutra House is an iconic Los Angeles mid-century modern house museum, designed by Austrian born American architect Richard Neutra. The Wende Museum is the largest archive of Cold War artifacts in the world. Both ‘institutions’ originated in German speaking Europe, both subsequently landed in Los Angeles. Their collections embody two forks of a Cold War history.
The Cold War was fought not just with guns, but also with art, design, and culture. Who would formulate the vision for the future of humanity? Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, historians, curators, and artists are investigating the divisions between East and West in their visual expressions of modernity — how were they different and how were they similar? Form knows no political boundaries or foreign languages — in this most basic sense the ‘cultural Cold War’ was a truly global competition of ideas and ideals.
The strength of this installation came from its simplicity; that a cultural disruption is arranged by just a few simple acts. All of the objects from the Neutra House were removed and Cold War objects from the Wende collection repopulated the home: chairs, tables, lamps, phones, pictures, books, cooking utensils and even Stasi surveillance equipment, to be stand-ins for the removed originals. While the installation did not have any physical labels in order to provoke an unimpeded conversation about the contrasts and similarities of modern design, digital information was available online and on site-specific iPads were provided for further research and exploration.
The installation was meant to ask more questions than it could possibly answer. Why do design objects from the East fit so seamlessly, often invisibly, into a high design mid-century home from the West? Is Cold War design from West and East so different after all? And how has Los Angeles as a place of this cultural collision altered the meaning of these design histories?
Competing Utopias challenged and broadened our understanding of Cold War design and compelled us to reflect upon an entirely new context for these histories that was the installation itself.
Special events were presented in conjunction with the installation, including lectures and summer dinner parties with luminaries in architecture, design, film, as well as screenings of ‘rediscovered’ DEFA technical and zoological documentary films from East Germany.
Postcard Narratives and Artworks: Katya Tylevich and Alexei Tylevich
Wende Team: Sarah Davis, Kate Dollenmayer, Joanne Kim, Christine Rank and Donna Stein.
VDL Team: Kate Bilyk and Johnny Tran.