Superonda Sofa, Superstudio, 1966. Courtesy of Dario Bartolini (Archizoom Associati).
Walker Art Center, 2015
Q Andrew Blauvelt—editor of the beautiful, vast catalogue for the Hippie Modernism exhibit at the Walker Art Center—writes in his introductory essay, “If the utopic potential of art and its integration into everyday life had been the driving force behind the modernist avant-garde of the early twentieth century, by mid-century this dream had fizzled, replaced by high modernism’s successful incorporation into the very society it had once dreamed of overturning.” How did reading this make you feel about your parents and the generation they were a part of?
A The Diggers’ October 6, 1967 Haight Street performance, Death of Hippie, Birth of Free, declared the “Hippie, Son of Media” to be a demographic illusion constructed by mass media to disarm a restless youth of political power. Blauvelt’s catalogue makes clear that the fate of radical aesthetics is to be made palatable to mainstream society, to be incorporated into and pulled under that stream, or to be made tributary to it. While the Diggers’ performance was an attempt to resist this, many hippies were very open to the exhortation to, as Thomas Frank put it in 1992 in The Baffler, “commodify your dissent.”
In reading this book, I was often reminded of the evolution of the Grateful Dead from a free-form, consciously experimental, countercultural project into a massive corporation selling a lifestyle product and comfortably occupying a penned-off region within mass culture for experimentation with music, drugs, and alternative lifestyles. What began as an art project with the overt purpose of confronting and confounding “straight” society ended up as something resembling a pro football game for people on psychedelics, and nearly as profitable.
Funeral Notice for Death of Hippie, 1967, handbill. Courtesy of Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Q You are avoiding talking about your parents. Why do you think hippies were bad? Were there hippies who did not ultimately sell out?
A Yes, there were many hippie artists and groups who effectively resisted corporatization. Greg Castillo and Felicity D. Scott contribute essays, both of which, to varying degrees, discuss the Freestone gathering of 1970 and describe a split in hippie design culture.
Castillo locates the satirical and brilliant work of the Ant Farm collective on one side of this divide, and the cyber-utopian—and increasingly libertarian—influence of Stewart Brand, a major hippie overlord and the primary force behind the Whole Earth Catalog, on the other. Scott highlights the techno-utopian affinities of both groups but describes the nuances in political and economic ideas between them, which are instructive when considering the development of corporate culture over the remainder of the twentieth century.
Brand’s Randian individualism and almost religious belief in technology as the source of humankind’s salvation were easily incorporated into the preexisting capitalist framework. In contrast, Scott views Ant Farm’s Truckstop Network as exemplary of the group’s consistent skepticism of all power structures—as well as their insistence on the use of technology as a mere means to an end—and of how the collective of hippie artists and architects worked within that framework while simultaneously criticizing it. You might say that they were already practicing a form of post-hippie post-modernism. Brand, on the other hand, seems to embody the precursor of the Bluetooth-encrusted, turtlenecked TED talker of my darkest nightmares, a sort of hippie modernist Ezra Pound, in a much more comfortable cage.
Truckstop Network Placemat (verso), Ant Farm, 1971. Courtesy of University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
Q In his essay “Mandalas or Raised Fists,” Simon Sadler writes: “Cybernetic hippie holism conceived of difference not as binary but as a differential state or condition, or the ‘difference that makes a difference’—as feedback in the constant interactions of the whole system.” Do you think hippies—your parents’ generation—wanted to make a difference?
A As Sadler hints at in the essay you quote from, the holistic “Let It Be” philosophy that underlay hippie culture was predisposed to maintaining the status quo. Like the Buddhist ordering a hot dog, they wanted to be made “one with everything,” including the preexisting economic system. Conversely, Sadler cites the active community engagement of the Black Panther Party, which worked within that same preexisting system with the express goal of undermining it. While running programs to provide food, ambulances, and clothing to the poor black community in Oakland, the Panthers highlighted the binary nature of the black American experience. The predominately white, middle-class hippies—children of media, but also of the postwar American economy—were not as well positioned to see that the end of history was not nearly as close as it seemed.
Still from Death of Hippie, Allan Willis, 1967. Courtesy of Allan Willis Archives at East Bay Media Center.
While it is interesting to think about the many ways in which the hippie failed to confront the world’s most pressing problems, Hippie Modernism is valuable as a reevaluation of the incredible vitality and creativity of the period. The scope and ambition of the projects documented—from Drop City’s experiments in communal living and architecture, to Superstudio and Archigram’s total reimagining of the urban landscape—have exerted a profound influence not only on the cyber-utopian libertarians of Silicon Valley, but also on the decentralized revolutionaries of the Occupy movement, in addition to the art and design of the intervening half-century. Generation is a word that frequently comes up when thinking and reading about hippies. I suppose that means I think there is still something generative about them.