New Land, New Utopias – Part I: Floating Territory

The Guano Island Act, a US law passed in 1856 and still effective, says that every US citizen who finds an Island on which a certain type of bird excrement can be found has the right to annex it for the United States. With the restriction that the island must be uninhabited, stateless territory and peacefully seized.

But blank spots on the map got rare in the age of GPS and satellite acquisition.

So Leicester Hemingway, younger brother of the renowned author, got creative and claimed the north half of a 30 square km raft curtly in international waters off the Jamaican coast as US territory after finding the required excretions on it. The south half, however, he claimed for himself, declared himself president of “New Atlantis”, issued a currency and printed his own stamps. The micro-state with six permanent inhabitants existed for a couple of years until the raft was destroyed by a storm.
This was in 1964.

But the idea of new territory as the site for new ideas is both very old and up-to-the-minute.

The myth of a “promised land” across the sea and the promise of unclaimed space let hundreds of Europeans dare the dangerous trip to America in the 17th century, fleeing oppression or searching for new systems of government and society, sometimes “only” for an escape from personal or financial misery. The “Western” as the first genuinely American literary genre is all about the lonesome rider making his way into the undiscovered and promising wilderness. The protagonist of Sean Penn’s reality-based movie “Into the wild” leaves behind all his worldly goods and takes off to the unpopulated areas of Alaska.
If undiscovered land comes rare – why not follow the example of Leicester Hemingway and create some. Despite a reverse trend, two thirds of the planet are still covered with water. Stateless territory usually starts 15 kilometers off shore.

Even though unpopulated islands still seem to exist across the oceans, they are often so far off society, it would put off the boldest cowboy. So why not build an island. Moveable solid ground, a place that can be anchored close to the mainland and is yet it’s own cosmos. What sounds like a charming but slightly delusional, hippie-esque idea has been practiced by humans over and over again throughout the centuries.

Of course it is ever shifting phenomena people flea from and new difficulties these floating utopias try to challenge. While the Aztecan Chinampas, (which weren’t actually floating, but very complexly raised promontories) where implemented as extra agricultural space to nourish the ever-growing population of Aztecan metropolises, providing additional cropland and extra-fertile soil, the Uru’ reed-islands on Titicaca lake where a precautionary measure against the belligerent neighbors of the Uru Indians.

The varying concepts of floating islands appearing and re-appearing every once in a while are, it seems, less an outgrowth of Western-romanticism, but tackle, in some cases, very prosaic political issues. Nowadays, where overpopulation on one hand and environmental destruction on the other are striking problems, ideas for the creation of new spaces could very well be pioneering.

Albeit sharing a certain society-dropout romanticism, Richart Sowa`s “Spiral Island” challenges a good deal of these issues. Sowa, initially a British carpenter working in Germany with an affinity for the arts, left his civic live behind after a serious crisis to travel numerous parts of the world, beating his way as a street-musician and portrait painter. In Mexico he learned about the Aztecan Chinampa tradition, and it reminded him of an idea he had captured in a drawing years before: A UFO that had fallen into the sea, floating there as an abandoned piece of trash. Trees had grown on it so it looked almost like an island.

Sowa settled in the hippie-community of Zipolite on Mexico’s west coast and worked out ideas for an artificial island made of trash. Out of financial reasons, at that point. And he had one: He fixed plastic bottles collected in string backs under a huge papier-mâché shell to make it float. But the neighbors got suspicious and alarmed the police. Sowa had to leave.

His second try was more sophisticated. For his second island, this time in Puerto Aventuras, westcoast, he used a wooden panel in stead of the papier-mâché and planted little mangrove trees into elevated sand on his “island”. The roots would grow through the wood and spun around the plastic bottle nets, holding the island together.

He kept enlarging his island in spirals and, with time passing by, managed to implement three beaches, a two story house and a vegetable garden on his handmade paradise. Working on the place for four years, he raised a lot of attention, attracted tourists and even TV. But, again, the neighbors got somehow unintimate.

Real estate property on the coast of Puerto Aventuras is expensive, and people got angry that Sowa should live on his private paradise island for free. He got threatened and sued, until he pulled his island to a part of the coast far from all neighbors. Yet, the contentions where exhausting. In July 2005, Spiral Island got smashed to the coast and completely destroyed by hurricane Emily. Sowa had left the island before at the behest of a friend.

But Spiral Island had raised attention. Sowa had long begun to put a strong focus on environmentalism, so despite being a recycled ecosystem, the island was self-sustaining and had an electricity-free solar- stove and a self-composting toilet. The chief of a local ecological park, Oscar Constandse, was fascinated by Sowas ideas, provided seed capital and helped finding further investors, so Sowa could start again – yet, this time, with 40 000 dollars to pay craftsmen and helpers.

“Joysxee Island” has a diameter of 25 metres and lies off shore the Mexican Island “Isla de las Mujeres” in the Mexican Caribbean. It runs on solar energy only, potable water is collected from rain bassins. And it is growing.

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