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Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia at BAMPFA

Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia opened at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) on February 8, 2017, a week after demonstrations on the University of California, Berkeley, campus forced the school’s administrators to cancel a speech by the now-former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos.[1] The student-led rally, peaceful by most accounts, was quickly overshadowed by the black-bloc protests that resulted in damaged university property. The University of California Police Department enforced an immediate campus-wide lockdown, and as video footage of bonfires and massed crowds began to circulate through media outlets, sources like the New York Times began describing the largely nonviolent assembly as a “violent demonstration,” conflating images of student-led protesters and black-bloc agitators as one and the same.[2] The following day, Donald Trump responded, via Twitter, threatening to rescind UC Berkeley’s federal funding. Meanwhile, the Berkeley College Republicans, the student group that invited Yiannopoulos, issued a statement on its website that the allegedly violent protests were proof that “the Free Speech Movement is dead,” a sneer toward the 1964–65 campus protest, led by then-students Mario Savio, Bettina Aptheker, and Jack Weinberg, against the era’s university-wide bans against on-campus political activity and assembly.[3]

Barry Shapiro. Handmade Houses, early 1970s; digital image converted from 35mm slide. Courtesy of the Barry Shapiro photograph archive, BANC PIC 2016.003, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Barry Shapiro. Handmade Houses, early 1970s; digital image converted from 35mm slide. Courtesy of the Barry Shapiro photograph archive, BANC PIC 2016.003, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

In the immediate aftermath of the Yiannopoulos protests, the opening of Hippie Modernism at BAMPFA should have felt relevant. At the exhibition’s press preview, Andrew Blauvelt, the show’s curator and director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, commented that the works on view were largely produced between 1964 and 1974—a decade, he noted, beginning with the Free Speech Movement and concluding with the 1973–74 oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in protest of the U.S. government’s support of the Israeli military during the 1973 Arab–Israeli War. The exhibition’s curatorial framework stakes out deep investments in political history, suggesting that design and art associated with the era’s counterculture movements reflected an immersive alternative for resistance through reimagined arrangements for cohabitation. Originally mounted at the Walker Art Center in 2015, the exhibition presented at BAMPFA includes seventy-five additional works from Bay Area artists and collectives, an attempt by BAMPFA director Lawrence Rinder and UC Berkeley associate professor of architecture Greg Castillo to highlight the region as a major site of both political engagement and cultural production. The exhibition largely focuses on the contemporaneous emergence of futurist design in modernist architecture alongside experiments in alternative community planning, in which countercultural collectives were actively engaged.

Community Memory terminal at Leopold’s Records, Berkeley, California, c. 1974; photograph. Courtesy of the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California.

Community Memory terminal at Leopold’s Records, Berkeley, California, c. 1974; photograph. Courtesy of the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California.

Archival materials comprise the bulk of what’s on view. Photographs by Barry Shapiro document whimsically ramshackle houses composed of largely found and reclaimed materials, while lithographs by the Italian design collective Superstudio depict collaged landscapes where nude figures are set among near-barren expanses overlaid with line grids—an attempt, according to Superstudio’s members, to conceptualize a future society where rigid hierarchies imposed by the verticality of urban architecture are leveled in favor of presumed nomadic communities, where consumerism is banished in favor of authentically individuated experience. The most intriguing artifact in the show is an early computer terminal built and programmed by Community Memory, a Berkeley-based collective founded by Lee Felsenstein, Efrem Lipkin, Ken Colstad, Jude Milhon, and Mark Szpakowski. Originally installed in Leopold’s Records in Berkeley, the Community Memory Terminal was designed as a repository for community members to post messages about current issues affecting their neighborhoods. While conceived of as an electronic bulletin board, the terminal was also intended to function as a tool for collective thinking, planning, organizing, fantasizing, and decision making—in effect, an early form of social networking, intended to foster a greater degree of social consciousness. Now obsolete, the terminal appears absurdly clunky by contemporary computing standards: an oversize wood podium with a twenty-five-cent pay slot, an inset monitor, and a color-coded keyboard, with instructions on how to save, back up, and print messages added to the database. Three sheets of printed messages from 1974 are displayed in a vitrine next to the terminal, a gesture that seems both touchingly humble and frustratingly obtuse; the small, faded font on the printouts is made more difficult to read by the physical separation between it and the viewer.

Clay Geerdes. Cockettes Go Shopping, 1972; digital print; 42 x 28 in. Courtesy of David Miller, from the estate of Clay Geerdes.

Clay Geerdes. Cockettes Go Shopping, 1972; digital print; 42 x 28 in. Courtesy of David Miller, from the estate of Clay Geerdes.

Hippie Modernism argues that these objects have a renewed resonance in our political moment, and positions these materials and artifacts as part of a historiography of innovation inspired by cultures of protest and radical thought. During the press preview, Rinder repeatedly declared that this exhibition “feels more relevant than ever,” an indirect acknowledgement of the recent protests against the Trump administration’s policies. None of the curators’ opening remarks, however, mentioned the Yiannopoulos demonstration, electing instead to vaunt the historical (and historicized) ideals of the Free Speech Movement while ignoring the all-too-real unrest just outside the museum’s doors. This disconnection mars BAMPFA’s presentation of Hippie Modernism; for all of its good intentions, the show feels unsettlingly apolitical. While the exhibition’s emphasis on design and architecture is compelling, it means that the works on display often privilege concepts over social justice. For example, a section featuring designs adapted from Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome offers insight into how Fuller’s structure helped reconceptualize Cartesian models of space. It’s a brief yet fascinating survey of an innovative approach toward imagining new built environments. It also feels inescapably retrograde, as do many of the designs and models on display, many of which are more propositional than functional. By comparison, kinetic sculptures like Drop City’s The Ultimate Painting (1966/2011)—an interactive display where viewers are invited to enter a domed structure and tap multiple buttons that project strobe lights against rapidly rotating discs—are mildly amusing objects that invariably come across as carnivalesque distractions. The absence of works by women, people of color, and LGBTQ artists in the main gallery further complicates the exhibition’s political ambitions. A group of artworks and textiles by Lenore Tawney, Sonya Rapoport, Judith Williams, and Francis Butler is tucked away in a small corner gallery on the ground floor, a curatorial gesture that appears reductive and offensive. Rapoport’s stunning works on paper, which superimpose abstract color fields over topographical diagrams based on dam surveys of Idaho’s Snake River, offer particularly powerful counterpoints to the architectural models featured in the first-floor galleries. Clay Gerdes’ 1972 photograph of the Cockettes, the San Francisco-based avant-garde performance group that included queer folk and persons of color, is similarly relegated to an obscure ground-floor gallery, despite being reproduced as the cover image for most of BAMPFA’s exhibition collateral. A small selection of posters and photographs acknowledge the Black Panthers and the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971, but it’s a cursory gesture that smacks of tokenism and self-congratulation. Ideally, Hippie Modernism would force viewers to think about how political struggles can inspire creative possibilities for imagining a better world. Instead, the exhibition comes off as startlingly disengaged, a presentation of artifacts that exist more as curiosities than potent political objects.

Utopia seems like an impossible proposition in our current political state. It would be pointless to enumerate the injustices enacted by the Trump administration. The violence against vulnerable communities—persons of color, immigrants, women, queer and trans folk—is too constant to justify an agnostic response. We all—perhaps particularly art workers—have a collective imperative to confront oppression with critical rigor and acumen, and as discrimination against certain communities becomes a primary driver of federal policy, arts venues from online publications to community nonprofits to eminent institutions need to be continuously reactivated as spaces for political engagement. We need to answer this call. Otherwise, our struggles will become the stuff of obsolete artifacts, collecting dust on a museum shelf.

Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia will be on view through May 21, 2017.

[1]Thomas Fuller and Christopher Mele, “Berkeley Cancels Milo Yiannopoulos Speech, and Donald Trump Tweets Outrage,” New York Times, February 1, 2017, accessed February 19, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/us/uc-berkeley-milo-yiannopoulos-protest.html?_r=0.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Katy Murphy and Patrick May, “UC Berkeley Riot Tests Free Speech, Incites Funding Threat from Trump,” Mercury News, February 3, 2017, accessed February 19, 2017, http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/02/03/uc-berkeley-riot-tests-free-speech-incites-funding-threat-from-trump/.

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