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In March of , a group of 42 blue-collar Detroiters shoved off in an vehicle caravan to carve out a new life in the Alaskan wilderness. A plan that had started as idle conversation had became reality. It would be, they envisioned, a liberation from civilization and its discontents.

They knew well, too, the frustrations of urban life from which the two-month-old state of Alaska promised them respite. After a series of meetings, some large enough to fill auditoriums, the final group comprised 21 families, proving themselves sufficiently dedicated to roughing it and establishing a new community. But I had nothing to show for it except ulcers. Some even sold their homes. Their departure was heralded by several hundred well-wishers from the community, offering them with food and money. They had also drummed up a substantial amount of publicity: The Detroit News assigned a reporter to take the trip with them, and Life magazine sent along a photographer.

Alaskans also anticipated them with excitement and hospitality.

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T he trip from Detroit to Anchorage took the caravan a dramatic three weeks, which the press reported on eagerly. It was a trying ordeal, filled with mishaps, as the 59ers encountered heavy snow, vehicle breakdowns, and minor medical emergencies.

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They were greeted in Alaska by an enthusiastic public. Soon after the 59ers encountered their first major setbacks. As the group set upon their destination on the Kenai Peninsula, they found a shortage of land to accommodate them. The reality of the terrain, with its uncultivated soil and its heavy, isolating wilderness, became suddenly real to the 16 people who decided to go back home.

Then, eight others decided to settle in Anchorage and get city jobs, while seven others settled in Kenai. There was a brief flash of hope for rejuvenation in June of that year, when 76 more people came up from Detroit to homestead in Alaska. But none of them stuck around.

Turns out homesteading isn’t for everyone

Reporting on the 59ers in , The New York Times counted five families still living out the homesteading life. Its utopian message produced socialist, apolitical and right-wing offshoots. The show spans some years, and is curated by Adam Sutherland, director of Grizedale Arts, an organization based in the UK's Lake District with an ethos that promotes the use-value of art.

‘The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind’

Many of the contemporary works on view were made at Grizedale or by artists connected to its programme. In one gallery, tableware by more than 20 artists, including Aaron Angell, Laure Prouvost and Francesca Ulivi, lavishly furnishes a banqueting table. The proximity of these works exemplifies the radical egalitarianism with which Sutherland has treated the items in this exhibition.

References to William Morris and the ideals of the arts and crafts movement are dotted throughout, from a copy of his science-fiction novel News from Nowhere , set in a postindustrial socialist utopia, to a drawing by Edward Burne-Jones of Morris climbing a mountain in Iceland. With a wealth of esoteric material on show, juxtapositions are often interesting but they can also be obscure, and although gallery attendants have been briefed to answer questions, it's the kind of show where visitors end up following their noses.

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Morris's influence, especially his championing of the handmade, is evident right up to the present day. The final room is devoted to transdisciplinary groups, including the Fairland Collective, which formed in after working with Grizedale Arts.

‘The Land We Live In – The Land We Left Behind’

Their idiosyncratic list of skills includes photography, anthropology, cheese-mongering and art. A series of arts and crafts-style posters by Kultivator, the Swedish organic farming and visual arts cooperative, came out of a meeting of artists from Scandinavia and the Middle East in Beirut in They can be downloaded for free, enabling anyone to reclaim Morris's aesthetic from the bourgeois niche into which it has been pushed and put it to a use that is closer to its original radical and activist intent.

Main image: Marcus Coates, Turtle Mountain , , digital video still. Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London. She is currently working on a book about the relationships between food and art.

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