This past February, Bernadette Mayer and Philip Good collaborated on a poem, written from their vantage point upstate in East Nassau, NY. Cheeky and poignant, the verses are stuffed with canny observations on current events and life under quarantine:

do you remember going to a restaurant? Do
you think the place called Soho can still
be open, and when this is all over, will there be
oysters? I don't mean Soho the neighborhood in
NYC but Soho the East Greenbush diner, and will
there be a thousand-dollar check for us at last?1

Mayer is no stranger to the neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, though it's more or less unrecognizable from the place where she had exhibited her conceptual media installation, Memory, five decades earlier. Combining text and photography, Memory is Mayer's record of her life over one month, as an artist among artists and friends, equally committed to documenting daily events and to accessing interior dream states. A sense of transience marks both commitments Mayer and cohort travel the streets of the city and greener locales to its north, passing "bountiful cars, highways, gas stations, rivers, and bridges," that make Memory "really about getting somewhere," as Dan Chiasson writes. Fittingly, but also frustratingly, just viewing Memory required a journey as well, at least until very recently. Since its first presentation at Holly Solomon's 98 Greene Street Loft, it appeared in subsequent (sometimes abbreviated) installations, as a 1975 printed edition with only text, and then in the fonds at UC San Diego until last year's beautiful publication by Siglio that allows for, as Gillian White notes, "the pleasure of feeling lost immersed in a wash of language."

In their recent reappraisals, both Chiasson and White notice that contemporary technology allows us to map the places where Mayer and her cohort loitered and protested and made their art. References to locales and events that would otherwise remain cryptic are now illuminated by Google. The critics' efforts underscore not only the ephemerality of memory, but also the paradox of nostalgia an affect that, as Svetlana Boym suggests, masks a yearning for a different time under the guise of a longing for a different place.2 The cineplexes, department stores, and diners that populate the pages of Mayer's opus no longer exist; property developers have evacuated Soho of its erstwhile bohemian milieu, a long process whose beginning Mayer had witnessed firsthand.

We don't need to turn to Mayer to meditate on this loss today's museums and blue-chip galleries are saturated with "returns" to 1970s New York, cloaking nostalgia in lore and half-recollections but her oeuvre hints at ways to cut through the shroud, and to arrive at a model for working collaboratively in the present. Published in 1984 through United Artists Books, Mayer's imprint with Lewis Warsh, Utopia is such a model, a collection of poems, imagined dialogues, and assorted textual ephemera circling around the eponymous future-oriented destination, all prompted by a deceptively simple question from Bill Berkson: What is your idea of a good time? Featuring contributions from Warsh, Anne Waldman, Ann Rower, and Joe Brainard, Utopia was reissued by Yale Union in 2019, granting new audiences the thrill of encountering world-building exercises that are hyperaware of the political conditions of their making. That ethos is captured in the work's refreshing utopian copyright: "All rights remain unreserved and free including right of reproduction in whole or part or in any form or way that seems pleasing to you."


"You wanna be the next slum goddess of the Lower East Side?"3 Before she had turned 22, Bernadette Mayer was a fixture in a burgeoning downtown scene, though she became exhausted by the sexism she experienced from older male peers. She had gotten her bearings quickly in an adventurous artistic milieu, taking workshops at the New School and editing the influential magazine 0 to 9 with Vito Acconci, but by 1970, she was ready to leave New York for good. She relocated to Great Barrington, Massachusetts for a winter with the inheritance she received from her parents, both dead by the time she was a teenager. Had the money run longer and had she felt less isolated, Mayer might have stayed, but she returned to the Lower East Side, where over the next five years she would eke out a living by collaborating with her peers and teaching workshops at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. An earlier generation of New York poets whose attention to ongoings of daily life could be felt in the verse of Mayer and her peers, their quotidian activities constituting a moveable feast: "I remember the ideal way to live was to sleep until it's time to get up and go to dinner. For a while I could write all night, sleep all day, and get up in time to go to dinner."4

If this was the ideal life of an artist, its appeal was short-lived: by 1975, Mayer decided she wanted to have children, and, with Lewis Warsh, moved to rural Massachusetts and later to New Hampshire, where she taught writing classes at New England College. This decade was a flurry of activity: the couple had three children, published authors and friends through their press, and each won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was during this time, too, that Mayer published some of her most well-known works, including the collection of diaries Studying Hunger (1975), and Midwinter Day (1982). In 1980, Ron Padgett asked Mayer to return to New York to direct the Poetry Project, and for the next four years, Mayer became "the Henry James of grant-writing applications," as she wrote in a letter to Bill Berkson, organizing reading series and wrangling the egos of an artistic coterie whose members were increasingly forced to leave their East Village haunts in pursuit of cheaper rents in Brooklyn.5

The spiral-bound notebook that Mayer kept during the first year of her tenure at the Poetry Project, now available to download and peruse, is similarly a diaristic assemblage, more artifact than artwork, but no less revealing of the nature of artistic labor. The notebook is "a record of Bernadette at work," according to Nick Sturm, "a swarm of notes and reminders and information that keep one's daily responsibilities manageable, or at least traceable"; among what can be traced is the genesis of Utopia.6 Between extensive lists of poets and artists (with their addresses and associated reading fees), drafts of letters to donors inquiring about yearly contributions, and reminders to call the tenants organization and ConEd, what can be surmised is that an artistic community even one as localized as the Poetry Project requires infrastructural support as much as a vision in order to be sustained. While Mayer's notebook contains lists populated by Cecil Taylor and Billy Collins and Robert Creeley, there is also a touching note about needing to procure more cushions to seat people. On one page, Mayer has jotted down the addresses of the Child Development Agency and Social Security Office and the documentation required to secure those critical social services ("2 pieces of identification, birth certificate and doctor's bill").7

Utopia imagines a world that accommodates these needs and services, moving from a place of scarcity to one of abundance. Its preface states its ambitions plainly  "that if you can get enough to eat will sustain itself can move forward & can live till it dies."8 Its pages toggle back and forth across collaborative ideas of a still-to-be mode of existence buoyed by an anarchist-socialist politics. Genres disappear or transform without warning, as letters become essays and poems suddenly give way to dramatic dialogues. If in recent history the late Mark Fisher lamented the "slow cancellation of the future," Utopia leaps at warp speed across the past to plot the times to come, locating imaginary debates in history that begin with Sir Thomas More, then four unnamed Senators, and then Plato, all ringing Mayer's doorbell. These philosophical conversations concatenate with meditations on future laundry machines (large pools operated by the motion of swimmers) and thoughts on the future of sex:

I dream we have some children and all the men and women in the playgrounds begin to kiss and make out for the gratuitous pleasure of it near the monkey bars this redundant spring for free much less that we deserve incessant love having worked so hard at the ever-present stinging like the changing or exchanging of the world from hand to hand, unlike any guard for a personage deemed exempt, we are now again as little as the truly skipping kids.9

For all the gratuitous pleasure of it: here is Mayer distilling the tangible dream of a possible world in which all value is surplus and all transactions ("the changing or exchanging of the world from hand to hand") are equitable. Beginning with biological procreation and working backward to the informal field of playground kisses, Mayer imagines that social reproduction may be stripped of its uneven realities to become something as innocent as play, that which happens as a natural result of people being together without guile or guilt.

With its many lists of "so-called nations of the world with their so-called heads of government, listed in alphabetical order," for instance Mayer's Utopia implies neither comprehensiveness nor completion but an open-ended sense of possibility. It is grounded, as Naomi Jacobs has noted, in the community that gave it shape, spiked with references to Mayer's friends, partners, and children, the book "written as much for Mayer's friends as by them."10 If the confessional tone and gridded images of lost haunts in Memory can now be read as an experiment that foretells contemporary modes of socially mediating the self, Utopia is less easily slotted into our present moment.  The text is neither a map to a world to be built nor an overly prescriptive user guide for the future, but rather, a means to shock us out of our fixation on rigid metrics of success and reroute us from the cul-de-sac of empty individualism.

Jacobs offers that Utopia "presents no coherent social critique, no workable political program; it is not instructive in any practical way," which Jacobs means as a critique of its "frivolity, a playfulness without product."11In other words, the book lacks clear deliverables. Yet, it is Utopia's refusal to demarcate borders of the future that so effectively illustrates the chasm separating the lofty ideals of Mayer's radical vision from the professionalized posturing of contemporary artistic production. Utopia is instructive not only for its idealism, but because of its belief that artists can and ought to define what complete sovereignty should look like. Instead of proffering, say, a half-hearted, ironic bid for President of the United States, the work suggests that artists should instead map the terrain of freedom, aesthetic and otherwise. Absent a program ripe for cooptation into a careerist trajectory, Utopia places agency back in the hands of collective imagination. Instead of a blueprint, it hands over the tools themselves with a note of urgency: whatever can be built must be built with precarity and the threat of failure in mind, conditions that only underscore how cooperation is the only mentality worth aspiring to.

Mayer and her comrades wanted to make the "everything" work,12 something that didn't seek to merely contain the entirety of the world, but to explode the form. Working together to approach a method of improvising and including all that came to one's mind, these artists aspired to shed the trappings of propriety for the fervor of feeling. In the process, they could remain true to the spirit of their vision, sidestepping the disappointment of what little professionalism offered in terms of real spiritual and material support. This is the future that seems so distant now not because calculating careerism didn't exist in the 1970s, but because such an outlook felt less like a necessity dressed up as a reward.

And so, reading Utopia feels necessary, essential even, for scaling the dimensions of what art in its multitude can achieve in a time when political lethargy threatens to undermine art's power. As we write now, capitalist individualism and market-based modes of evaluation seek to swallow the possibilities made by mutual aid and the disavowal of institutional prestige necessitated by the global pandemic. The raucous dream of Utopia is a counter to this threat, a condition and promise hewed to neither time nor place but to the promise of art as that which rejects stultification and embraces imagination as contingent with aesthetics, right next to "money, work, sex, pleasure, marriage, child-raising, religion, laws and property and government."13

Because for all the longings nostalgia induces, for all its potential to facilitate sympathies regressive, nationalistic sentiments among them what it cannot do is recreate what once was. The logic of utopia as traditionally understood hopes to recover the potential for a world that could have been, but Mayer, ever the realist, cuts through sentimentality to offer something humbler and much more provocative. She insists that though we might not have everything we need, whatever is present is for collective use, and what will come will only be fomented through collective effort. As she writes in the epilogue, Utopia is "more a clue / than a place or book / at which you'll look / you haven't given up / on a world have you?"14

Tausif Noor is a critic and doctoral student at the University of California Berkeley, where he studies modern and contemporary art history. His writing on art, literature, and visual culture appears in Artforum, frieze, The Nation, The New York Times and the White Review, as well as in artist catalogues and various edited volumes.

  1. Bernadette Mayer and Philip Good, "Lost in East Nassau and Hay Fielders of the New Normal," Coffee House Press, February 18, 2021. []
  2. Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001), 12.[]
  3. Adam Fitzgerald and Bernadette Mayer, "Lives of the Poets," Interview for Poetry Foundation, September 2010. []
  4. Ibid.[]
  5. Ibid.[]
  6. Nick Sturm, "'We Work at the Poetry Project': Bernadette Mayer's Working Notebook, 1980-81," Crystal Set, April 3, 2018. []
  7. Ibid.[]
  8. Bernadette Mayer, Utopia. New York: United Artists Books, 1984, reissued 2019 by Yale Union, 5. []
  9. Ibid., 83[]
  10. Naomi Jacobs, "Utopian Studies and the Beloved Community," in Utopia-Method-Vision, ed. Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini. Ralahine Utopian Studies Series. Oxford and Berne: Peter Lang, 2007; second printing, 2009: 223-244.[]
  11. Ibid., 21[]
  12. Clark Coolidge, "Kerouac," American Poetry Review January/February 1995. []
  13. Ibid., 17[]
  14. Ibid., 147[]