Issue 11 : Fall 2006






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Pragmatic Utopias

by Peggy Nelson

20 Aug 2006

Let’s design the perfect society. Why not? It will be a place where we will live in peace and harmony, where our work will be fulfilling and our leisure frequent, where an examination of our lives will reveal that they were in fact well-lived. A place where we will be able to declare our highest ideals and actually bring them into being without sullying their names.


But, there are some practical things to take care of first, things like, where are we going to live, who are we going to invite, what are we going to wear?

In other words, we need to talk about shoes.

Shoes can be utopian, and I don’t just mean those fabulous purple suede mod rockers with the lime-green piping that I found online the other day. Bata-ville: We Are Not Afraid of the Future, is a documentary about a Czech shoe factory that became an enormously successful multinational, and its founder Tomas Bata, who had a philosophy and a vision about how people’s lives could be fulfilling if their work was.

Work collectively, live individually.
—Tomas Bata

The documentary followed a group of former Bata workers from the U.K. on a trip to visit the original Bata factory in Zlin, in the Czech Republic. The directors of the film, Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, conceptual artists from the U.K., appeared onscreen as well, dressed up in matching pink costumes with an applique of a shoe on one side, plus pillbox hats and capes. And fabulous shoes. They chartered a giant yellow bus with “Bata-ville: We Are Not Afraid of the Future” inscribed on its side; a travelogue, through space, time, and ideals.


“It’s essentially a kind of road movie,” said Guthrie. “We go somewhere and we find out about people on the way there. And when we get there we do some kind of left-field sightseeing, and we discover something about those people’s past histories in the process of doing that.”

Tomas Bata had a vision, not only for affordable shoes, but for a way of life as carefully imagined and crafted as his insteps.

Bata-ville was shot on video, placing it in the territory of reality TV, home movies, and the news. Video represents the present and the real: it requires no processing time, no expensive development, and is used to show actual and immediate events. But video also has roots in the art world, where it was embraced by conceptual and new media artists as more accessible and cheaper than film. Video art is often experimental, representing the artificial and the constructed. So video as a medium has a split heritage of both the pragmatic and the utopian.

As does Bata-ville. But not in the way you might think.

A number of things about the film seemed drawn directly from the fine arts heritage of video. The two directors appear in matching costumes; everyone else was in contemporary casual. The subtitle-as-theme, “We Are Not Afraid of the Future,” recurred throughout the film, as Pope and Guthrie repeatedly asked people if they were afraid of the future: the people on the bus, the people they met, the museum and factory guides, the crew. And while on the bus, the travelers participated in various art projects to pass the time. But, one wonders, if this is a documentary, why not just be real?


Ok, let’s get real. We’ll start with utopia. Tomas Bata had a vision, not only for affordable shoes, but for a way of life as carefully imagined and crafted as his insteps. He wanted to provide affordable shoes for everyone, to be a “shoemaker to the world.” Bata built his first factory in 1894, and business grew steadily from there. Each Bata factory was laid out according to the same precise, slightly off-square grid, every machine and every step of the shoemaking process in its assigned place. But each factory was also situated in a fully-designed company town complete with post office, meeting house, and theater, laid out according to the same precise, slightly off-square grid as the factory floor. A town where people would have consistent employment but were also supposed to behave in a certain way: work hard, stay in nuclear families. But Bata also rewarded individual creativity, and not just in shoe production or management techniques; for example, some of the leading Czech animators got their start in Bata’s studios. And it worked. The factories, along with their towns and ideas, spread. By the outbreak of WWII, Bata was the biggest shoemaker in the world, with a presence in 30 countries, including India, Canada, and Australia.


Bata weathered the war years, both hot and cold, and persevered. By the 1960s, some Bata factories even featured tour guides, to educate the curious public about Bata’s methods and theories. Management encouraged people to visit and see the working model of an enlightened society. The pink costumes worn by the directors in the film, it turned out, were copies of actual uniforms worn by tour guides in the Bata factories. By dressing up, the directors were re-enacting the Bata tour, expanding it beyond the factory floor to guide us through the entire Bata way of life, and history. Their shoes were Bata shoes, of course.

The subtitle on the bus, “We are not afraid of the future,” was not a catchy slogan made up for the film but an actual quote from Tomas Bata’s writings about society and work.

We are not afraid of the future. Millions of human beings know nothing of footgear of any kind whatever, and very few of the rest are well-shod. This best shows us how little we have accomplished so far, and what an immense task lies before the shoemakers of the whole world.
Tomas Bata

The art projects were contributions by the participants, who had been asked to bring something to share or do. So the journey, and film, was not just a passive tour but a collaborative project, and not just for the directors, but for everyone involved.

“We did see the journey as being as important as the film... We wanted the trip to be meaningful for the participants and to work on that level,” said Pope.

So what seemed artificial at first turned out to be a pragmatic expression of Tomas Bata’s company and society. And what seemed real – the factories, the towns – were as utopian as any Platonic Ideal.


But it was also very real. The former Bata workers in the documentary had each grown up, lived, and worked in one of these company towns, earned their livelihood, met their husbands and wives, and made their friends there. They were from two U.K. towns, Maryport did not have the full-on Bata-designed town, but East Tilbury did, “it looks like a mini version of Zlin,” said Pope. Bata-ville originated when Pope received a grant to do a project in East Tilbury, which is located near the eastern end of the Thames River.

East Tilbury is part of larger, economically depressed area that is in the process of becoming redeveloped; older economic activities and working-class communities had closed down or become nonviable. As part of this effort, monies were made available to artists. Very aware of Tomas Bata’s belief that constructive work was part of, and indeed made possible, the well-designed life, and that a life well-lived was the best social contribution, Pope and Guthrie thought that they would design an art project to take former Bata workers in the town on a nice vacation.

Bata-ville evolved out of an interest in East Tilbury,” said Pope. “I was invited by the Council to make a piece of work for East Tilbury. It had to be done very quickly and it had to have an impact in the town. There’s tons of regeneration money being pumped into that area, and actually I thought that it would be funny to take people on a free holiday which showed them something about the origins of the place where they lived.”


First, Pope used the site of the former Bata factory in East Tilbury to install the Bata-ville Travel Agency, which advertised trips to the site of the first Bata factory in Zlin. Maintaining a midcentury look in both decor and costume, Pope and Guthrie researched archives and oral histories, produced informational materials, staffed the Travel Agency and encouraged people to sign up for the trip.

“The Travel Agency served as a clever way to fulfill the funders’ pretty tight criteria and initiate a much larger long-term project,” according to Pope in an interview. “My ‘brief’ when I was first asked to think about a project for East Tilbury was that it had to be something that could actually ‘go live’ on the site within three months of the commission. [The Travel Agency] provided an unusual (public/shared) creative space to think more about what the jounrney to Zlin might be and to make some really great connections in East Tilbury.”

With Guthrie, Pope then developed the Travel Agency into the idea for the film, which expanded to include ex-Bata workers from Maryport, a town in the north of England which also had a closed Bata factory. The final participants included “passengers whose experiences of Bata range from the factory floor to the management, from the late 40s to almost the present day,” explained Guthrie, “and also interested ‘others’ who represent a different generation’s attitude to the film’s themes of the future, work, regeneration, etc.”

Today, few people stay employed at the same place their whole lives. Few people even live in the same place their whole lives. But although something is gained from movement, something is also lost. It is that consistency and constancy over time that allows deep camaraderie to develop, that allows a society to be built, that allows a dream to be made real. This is much more difficult and rare, if achievable at all, for today’s nomads of preference and necessity. The tour participants had only good things to say about their working experiences, and a number of them expressed a wish to be back at work at Bata. Because of course while they spoke of their pride in their technical abilities in terms of shoemaking, what most people missed were their relationships at work; they missed knowing they were going in every day to be part of a viable society.

For Tomas Bata, relationships were not a by-product of factory labor but a necessary component. Even, or perhaps especially, at the top, Bata was very much a family concern, and the history of the Bata family is crucial to an understanding of the factories, the towns, and especially the social philosophy and ideals. The film caught up with the current Thomas Bata, grandson of the founder, on the occasion of his 90th birthday celebration in Prague.


“One ‘character’ (or three!), which I am really happy about the way we ‘developed’ in the film, is Tomas Bata himself,” explained Pope (about the three generations of Tomas/Thomas Batas). “I think ‘he’ remains both slightly mysterious, fascinating, and surprisingly ‘real’ at the conclusion, somehow inhabiting the space between being a real person; a symbol (with very different meanings depending on your nationality); a series of questions; a myth; an ideology, all at the same time! A hybrid character ... and maybe also an interesting metaphor for the tension in the film between a fictional and documentary approach to filmmaking?”

Documentaries are necessarily about the past. Even when recording present activities, time flows as the tape rolls, and by the time you’ve finished time has travelled inevitably into the past. The making of this film enabled the participants to make public their private memories. In so doing the film added them to history, which is of course the public remembrance of assembled personal experience. They were not afraid of the future because they were building their utopia, step by literal step.

“I do really hope that Bata-ville might in some way help to put both East Tilbury and Maryport ‘on the map’ at a time when so much is changing in both areas,” said Guthrie. “It might be simplistic to imagine that the film can help people think about what the future of these communities might be, but I do still have the energy to try and get the work distributed as broadly as possible to see if this might happen.”

So a conceptual art piece, motivated by social concerns about the effects of downsizing, becomes itself an incursion into the real, in the present, and the past.

And as for the future? Who is designing our next utopias? Are you afraid?

Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie are currently working on a film about a Tudor-era reenactment society. They can be reached at
Peggy Nelson is an artist and filmmaker who writes occasionally for OtherZine. She can be reached at