Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration

A Conversation with J. Ashley Foster

Dr. J. Ashley Foster, assistant professor at California State University, Fresno, talks with Choice about the Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration exhibition at Henry Madden Library. Looking at the real-life utopia of Pacific Colony at Topolobampo Bay in Sinaloa, Mexico, this exhibition combines reality with literature to delve into what ‘utopia’ really means. Comprised of both a physical and digital exhibit, this collection stems from a collaboration between Dr. Foster’s graduate seminar, “Utopias: Literature, Technology, Archives,” and the library’s Special Collections team. It includes maps, photos, newspapers, and an exhibition catalogue with essays by the students, each discussing a different facet of utopian thinking.

How would you describe the collection to a perfect stranger?

Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration is a multimodal exhibition born from a collaborative effort among J. Ashley Foster, the students of the “Utopias: Literature, Technology, Archives” graduate seminar in the Department of English, and the Special Collections team in the Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno. It uses a physical exhibition, a published catalogue with essay contributions by the students, and a digital humanities website to ask, What does it take to create a more sustainable, equitable world? It places Fresno State’s extensive holdings of the Topolobampo Collection, which tells the story of a failed utopian society of the 1890s Pacific Colony in Sinaloa, Mexico, within the context of a global sampling of utopian art, literature, and practices, and recovers the lost histories of those who tried to create a better world. Through critically analyzing these attempts, Surveying Utopias also assesses the mistakes and failures of the variety of visions put forth in an effort to learn from our past.

Who is the intended audience of Surveying Utopias? How do you envision undergraduates using the exhibition?

The introductory wall and case to the Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration’s Special Collections exhibition in Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno.
The introductory wall and case to the Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration’s Special Collections exhibition in Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno.

The Surveying Utopias physical exhibition and opening week public programming events, which included workshops and a live performance by guest artists from the Theatre for Transformation, was created to be a service to Fresno and to encourage conversations of hope, personal commitment, and community development throughout the greater local area. The digital exhibition and catalogue (published both in print and on our website) bring these topics to a global online community, and allow those who may not be able to travel to the Central Valley to peruse a sampling of the Topolobampo archives. In short, Surveying Utopias is aimed at anyone interested in utopian philosophies and practices, and serves as a resource to learn more about the particular case study offered by the Topolobampo papers, which are thus situated within a global artistic, practical, and literary context. Undergraduates can use the website and catalogue as resources to receive an introduction to some of the themes, topics, and problematics offered by utopian visions.

This exhibition is unique in its interdisciplinary approach between the English department and the Special Collections team at Henry Madden Library. How did this collaboration come about? How did working together influence the central themes and catalog?

Picture of a group of colonists celebrating the third anniversary of their landing. Part of the Topolobampo Collection.
Picture of a group of colonists celebrating the third anniversary of their landing. Photo taken by colony photographer Ira Kneeland; part of the Topolobampo Collection. Image Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno.

Our collaboration across disciplines and specialties was essential to the way the exhibition and catalogue developed. It started when I arrived at Fresno State and visited Special Collections with the intention of bringing undergraduates into the archives. It is a foundational element of my pedagogy to include special collections documents and archival research as course material, and to have students work online and firsthand with primary sources. Through a series of conversations with the Head of Special Collections, Tammy Lau, it became apparent that Tammy was an expansive, creative thinker and ideal collaborator. She expressed the desire to feature an exhibition on the Topolobampo Collection and theme it around “Utopias,” and I asked if she wanted to help create a graduate class that would assist in the curation both online and in the physical space.

We then met in Special Collections for two hours a week, where team members Julie Moore, Karina Cardenas, and Adam Wallace assisted students in exploring the archives. This frequent contact with the materials and the team’s expertise and instruction allowed students to choose items to display, create the scholarship for the exhibition in the form of the labels and catalogue essays, and curate their own digital humanities exhibition page. The Special Collections team then undertook the professional installation of the materials. This collaboration resulted in a number of “firsts” for Fresno State: It was the first time Special Collections was embedded weekly in a course; it produced the first catalogue for a Fresno State Special Collections exhibition; it created the first digital humanities exhibition site for our Special Collections; and it was the first student co-curated exhibition our Collections ever undertook.

A fascinating part of this exhibit is the history of the real-life utopia, Pacific Colony at Topolobampo Bay, Sinaloa, Mexico, which you and your students used as a point of analysis. How did the Special Collections’ Topolobampo Collection inform your research and conclusions?

Plan of Topolobampo Harbor and Vicinage, including the anticipated location of what was to be called “Pacific City.” Designed by colony founder Albert Kimsey Owen.
Plan of Topolobampo Harbor and Vicinage, including the anticipated location of what was to be called “Pacific City.” Designed by colony founder Albert Kimsey Owen. Credit: Foncier, maps and plans, Topolobampo Collection. Image Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno.

The Topolobampo Collection provides a case study that became our point of departure for the exhibition. In the Pacific Colony all the hopes, dreams, issues, tensions, contradictions, and problematics in utopian thought and practice became apparent; it was simultaneously a utopia and dystopia. On the one hand, Pacific Colony was based on a vision by Albert Kimsey Owen that was intended to promote equity, peace, and prosperity, and some colonists did live better in the colony than they might have otherwise. On the other hand, illness, financial hardship, lack of water and resources and, at times, a scarcity of food plagued the colony. In reality, it was a colonial endeavor riddled with wrought power dynamics and structural problems. As Erin L. Chavez points out in our catalogue, many of the colonists who relocated to Sinaloa, Mexico, carried their biases to the colony and never achieved the equality they espoused. Angel Garduno, likewise in our catalogue, makes the argument that Pacific Colony’s attempt to build a transcontinental railroad effectively “Orientalized” Mexico and reinforced the disparity between Mexico and the United States. From this template of utopia/dystopia, and the contradiction between philosophy and practice, we were able to approach the questions of how we consider an endeavor a success or a failure, what makes a utopic vision, and how utopic visions are often exclusionary and/or contain a complicated différance within themselves.

In the past decade or so, there has been an influx of young adult dystopian novels (The Hunger Games, Divergent, and even earlier, The Giver ). The rise in popularity of dystopian stories seems like a natural field to investigate. Why did you and your class decide to focus on utopias? How did one inform the other?

As discussions in the class developed, it became apparent to us that utopia and dystopia are intimately linked—that one person’s utopia is often another’s dystopia. Dystopian literature is often considered a subset of utopian literature, and in fact both modes of the genre offer social critique. This bleed of utopia into dystopia inspired Isabella Lo to write her catalogue contribution on the way in which the two operate simultaneously. Ultimately, however, we emphasized utopia because, despite its dangers, dreams and hopes for the future are needed to create positive social change, even if the specific plans are, at times, misguided. Throughout our materials and discussions, however, we tried to emphasize the risks in approaching utopia as one specific vision or destination. Instead, pulling on the scholars of utopian studies, we have framed utopic thought as a process that calls for constant revision.

There was a physical exhibition of this collection that ran from February 22 to July 26, 2019. However, you have an extensive and interactive version online that includes photos, maps, book sections, voice narration, and analysis on these materials. Why did you decide to make a digital collection? How was the process of curating an online exhibit different from the physical one?

Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration’s digital exhibition homepage
Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration’s digital exhibition homepage

The digital and physical exhibitions worked together in a reciprocal process to inform the vision, narrative, and content of the materials. The digital exhibition was also installed in the physical exhibition room. Four iPads placed around the Special Collections reading room allowed visitors to interact with the digitally curated materials. During the opening, we had a large monitor that featured the website, and E. Makaela Bowen gave tours of the online component to attendees. Working across media and modes facilitated an approach to the materials in a variety of ways. Curating the digital exhibition allowed students to focus on specific items; working on the physical exhibition helped them to internalize the material, create a narrative arc for the viewer to walk through, and interact with the documents.

This collection was a collaboration between students, librarians, and professors. What were some of the benefits of working with a group of scholars with different perspectives and backgrounds? Were there any challenges?

Each of the perspectives brought to the collaboration was crucial for creating the exhibition. The Special Collections team brought their expertise with treatment of the documents, installation, curation, layout, and visual considerations. Julie Moore taught classes on metadata, and Adam Wallace and Karina Cardenas taught students archival protocol and scanning, and undertook the professional installation. Tammy Lau and the Dean of Library Services, Delritta Hornbuckle, made all this possible through their expansive ideas for the library and support of our endeavors. The students brought vision and interrogated the material, and had the ability to go in-depth with their exploration of items.

As in all projects, there were challenges to overcome. Time was a big challenge. Each of the Special Collection’s team members had their regular responsibilities in addition to the added workload of the class, and the juggling could be rather difficult, especially because the collections stayed open late on Wednesday nights for the class. In hindsight, a full-year course would have been beneficial. We also had to learn each other’s languages to work across the disciplines and negotiate amongst a variety of methodologies. That being said, it was a fruitful undertaking and we all learned a great deal. It was particularly thrilling to see the students grow and develop into scholars throughout the process.

When discussing the collection, your team stated that it explored “definitions of utopia” and “what it might take to create a more equitable world.” What is the value of a literary, historical, and cultural exhibition dedicated to studying utopias in today’s political climate?

The cover of Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration exhibition catalogue, available in print and online.
The cover of Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration exhibition catalogue, available in print and online.

The recovery of lost histories is a vital endeavor, and utopians, like pacifists and humanitarian aid workers, are often cast to the periphery and written out of the dominant narrative. It is from these margins that we can start to reconstruct an idea of how those before us have worked toward a world that supports its global citizens instead of destroying them. I think Virginia Woolf said it best in her 1938 text Three Guineas: “Things repeat themselves it seems.” Looking at the Spanish Civil War photographs, Woolf observes, “Pictures and voices are the same today as they were 2,000 years ago.” If we do not address the issues that plague us—violence, war, economic and social disparity—“Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual, for they are inseparably connected.” Utopias fail. We must critically access this failure. Sometimes they unfold with disastrous effects. But as Lyman Tower Sargent says in his closing of Utopianism: A Very Short Introduction , “Utopia is a tragic vision of a life of hope, but one that is always realized and always fails. We can hope, fail, and hope again. We can live with repeated failure and still improve the societies we build.” To hold the utopic vision is to maintain hope. Again in Woolf’s words, “to dream the recurring dream that has haunted the human mind since the beginning of time; the dream of peace, the dream of freedom.”

A closing note: I would like to acknowledge my gratitude to the graduate student curators, E. Makaela Bowen, Robert Breuer, Erin L. Chavez, Megan Evans, Angel Garduno, Michaella Gonzalez, Josiah D. Hillner, Leean Lewis-Ramirez, and Isabella Lo. I would also like to acknowledge the essential contribution of the team in Special Collections who made this work possible, Tammy Lau, Julie Moore, Adam Wallace, and Karina Cardenas, and to the funding entities on campus that supported the exhibition and opening week events, 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, given by Associated Students, Inc., Organizational Excellence, President’s Commission on Human Relations and Equity, and Theatre Arts.

About the interviewee:

Image of Dr. J. Ashley Foster

Dr. J. Ashley Foster is an assistant professor of 20th- and 21st-century British literature with emphasis in digital humanities at California State University, Fresno. Her research interests encompass literary studies, digital humanities, peace studies, and women’s studies. Recent articles include the coauthored “Changing the Subject: Archives, Technology, and Radical Counter-Narratives of Peace” in Radical Teacher , “Writing in the ‘White Light of Truth’: History, Ethics, and Community in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts” in the Woolf Studies Annual, and “Bloomsbury and War” in The Handbook to the Bloomsbury Group. In addition to Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration, Ashley also curated Testimonies in Art & Action: Igniting Pacifism in the Face of Total War , a Digital Humanities and Special Collections exhibition.

Visit the Surveying Utopias: A Critical Exploration online exhibition to learn more.

This interview was conducted by Sabrina Cofer. She is the digital media assistant at Choice.