By Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen
“Why does everyone look so glum?” Someone asked as I exited the building after seeing the first performance of The Love Song of Buckminster Fuller.
“Was it that bad?”
“No, no. It was good. You’ll like it.” I heard myself saying. And, mostly I believed that, but a little while later, I realized the piece had actually made me feel profoundly sad.
I knew a fair amount about Buckminster Fuller’s story before seeing the film (though it did answer some burning questions I had had regarding bathroom breaks during epic lectures). The performance beautifully illustrated a story I already knew, one we all already know—one about failed utopian visions and hair-brained, lovable inventors. The thing that made me so sad about the piece was that it made clear how fundamental it is that we equate utopian vision with failure, with tyranny and disaster. This is at best a boring equation, at worst it’s the greatest tragedy of our time. I feel like all I do lately is quote the anthropologist and activist David Graeber, but he has the most interesting thing to say about utopianism I have heard in a long time: “There is nothing wrong with a utopia unless you have just one.”
Having to always make a caveat when talking about the work and vision of someone like Buckminster Fuller is too bad. (He made these amazing things! Had these stupendous ideas, but look at that stuff in the context of this other crazy shit he proposed.) Fuller was an average and reasonable person who believed that peace was possible, that, if we just distributed all the resources in the right way, humanity could exist at a higher standard of living (everyone!) by 1985. (“His timing was just a little off.” [mild laughter.] But, doesn’t that off-ness mean he was truly contemporary! This isn’t a mark of insanity or irrational forethought, it’s the mark of genius.)
I think that many aspects of Sam Green & Yo La Tengo’s collaborative rendition of Fuller’s biography were beautifully done (O flying dome as a jellyfish swimming in air!), but I also think it was status quo in the most heart-wrenching way. The attitude felt infused by a kind of loving condescension, as if we were all parents looking back on our son’s early, imaginative exploits. This attitude is a problem, I think, especially when suggesting the application of Fuller’s ideas to the present, or the future. I wished the piece had told me a different story, a more challenging one—one that would help a contemporary audience regard Fuller’s way of thinking in a contemporary way.
I wished that the performance had been a love song for Bucky. If it had been it might’ve sounded a lot more like an apology. It’s not as if I believe that it would be a better world if all his ideas had been put into action and everyone was living in mass-produced Dymaxion houses, driving Dymaxion cars. But, like probably most everyone else in the audience last night, I couldn’t refrain from asking myself ‘what if.’
The real challenge for me, (as a natural cynic) as I left the performance was not in thinking about the budding relevance of Fuller’s design ideas (they’ve been relevant since their introduction and probably before), but in thinking about how his character and vision was and is still incredibly radical. How can we follow his example and develop a new realism, corrupting or at least interrupting the link between realism and western rationality, positivism, and pragmatism. Instead link realism with reasonableness, with an empathetic perception of the world, with imagination. What then would be revealed as the real, obvious issues at stake and what utopias would we then design?