Photo courtesy Walker Art Center
So-called “hippies” are often dismissed as a bunch of stoned-out losers with an aggressively floral fashion sense. Often lost amid the derision is the fact that the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s was the last time in this country that a significant portion of the population challenged the assumptions of American capitalism and dared to imagine a better way to live—one uncomplicated by war, inequality, health insurance, or mortgage payments.
Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, which opened at the Walker Art Center over the weekend, examines this quixotic search for a better life—and discovers, lo and behold, that many of the crazy ideas dreamed up back then have become part of mainstream American culture. Organic food, energy-efficient housing, sustainable agriculture, ride-sharing of bikes and cars, democratization of media, immersive virtual environments, awesome car stereos, afghan sweaters, yoga for moms. Surprise: all of it was thought up a long time ago, by a bunch of commie liberals who didn’t have enough sense to support the Vietnam war or get a job with IBM.
The phrase “hippie modernism” is a shorthand way of acknowledging the era’s cultural influence, particularly in architecture and media. Covering the years from 1964-74, Hippie Modernism is loosely organized according to LSD evangelist Timothy Leary’s admonition to “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” paying particular attention to the ways in which counterculture ideals have resonated and re-asserted themselves in contemporary culture.
Ever wonder where the idea for an inflatable roof over a football field came from? Or super-fun bouncy castles? In the 1960s, they tried to inflate pretty much everything—furniture, rooms, art installations, various “environments”—in a playful effort to circumvent the ideas of permanence and immobility in architecture.
Think Nice Ride and Uber are new ideas? In Provo magazine circa 1966, Robert Jasper Grootveld, Roel van Dujin, and Rob Stolk proposed the “White Bicycle Plan” and “White Car Plan”—schemes to provide free bicycles and electric cars for everyone in Amsterdam. They also did things like print plans for making a bomb and threaten to put LSD into Amsterdam’s water supply. But hey, it was the 1960s. Back then, only the CIA was allowed to dose people without telling them.
Hippie Modernism features many artifacts of the era one might expect—liquid-lettered posters for Jefferson Airplane concerts, Vietnam protest literature, homages to Jimi Hendrix, videos of dancing psychedelic blobs, photos of strange people being “themselves”—but it also features plenty of thoughtful surprises. Section Two, Tune In, is full of underground magazines, pamphlets, and books that trafficked in the sort of clandestine ideas that are freely available on the Internet today. The original Whole Earth Catalogue, the bible of eco-evangelists and budding anarchists everywhere, is on display as well, as are a number of satirical political journals (such as Scanlon’s magazine, where Hunter S. Thompson got his start) that also did a great deal of investigative reporting on subjects that (lean closer so I can whisper) “the government doesn’t want you to know about.”
It pays to slow down and actually read some of this stuff, though. Much of it of is predictably raw, radical, and angry, but some of it is equally funny and outrageous, in a way that so few publications are today. More important is the fact that these publications represent the idea of information struggling to be free and available to everyone, in the hope that it will lead to less political corruption, a better society, and saner ways of living. (Discuss amongst yourselves whether the Internet has or hasn’t allowed this happen.)
Section Three, Drop Out, covers people’s efforts to abandon conventional social structures and invent their own ways of living—their version of utopia. “Utopia” is an unattainable ideal of social perfection, by definition, but that’s never stopped people from trying. In the 1960s, places like Colorado’s Drop City were populated by artists and idealists who erected geodesic domes, grew their own food, and created communal art events that went by the unfortunate name of “droppings.” (One of their domes is part of an installation.) And in a crude precursor to today’s Burning Man Festival, a video by documentarian Roberto Mardones called “The Instant City” chronicles the efforts of folks in Spain who, in 1971, created a series of temporary cities/art installations, pretty much for the fun of it. The video starts with a bunch of people standing around wearing ponchos in the rain, on one of those camping days when you’re thinking, “Jeez, guys, maybe we should check into a hotel.” Utopia indeed.
Part of what makes Hippie Modernism seem so unexpectedly relevant is that many of today’s social issues and movements—Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, marijuana legalization, environmentalism—are either re-inventions or continuations of discussions our society has been having with itself for the past 60 years. These fractures and fault lines in our social discourse feel familiar because they have never really been resolved. Progress (or disaster, depending on your politics) has been made in some areas—gay rights, marijuana legislation, business ethics and regulation—but remains elusive in others: women’s rights, gender pay equity, poverty, immigration, etc. Other aspects of countercultural thinking have gone notably upscale. If you want to shop at Whole Foods, live in an energy-efficient house, and drive a Tesla, for instance, you better be making some bank.
One of the great ironies of the 1960s counterculture, too, is that it was driven by a great deal of entrepreneurial zeal—the kind of imagination and innovation that politicians and CEOs always say they value, then do everything they can to thwart. I mean, if the most innovative and valuable company in the world can trace its roots back to a guy who took LSD, meditated, and read Ram Dass, it stands to reason that students at the Carlson School of Management should be required to do the same. How else is America supposed to stay competitive in the global marketplace?
Hippie Modernism is a huge exhibit—13,000 square feet, hundreds of artifacts and installations, both large and small—so taking it all in at once can be a challenge. No matter how much of it you digest, however, you’ll come away with a feeling that many things in American life are cyclical, if not eternal. Next year is 2016. It’s an election year, the country is mired in an intractable and seemingly pointless war, the economy is weak, the middle class is struggling, environmental disaster looms, and the electorate is frustrated.
Where’s Timothy Leary when you need him?
Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia continues at the Walker Art Center through Feb. 28, 2016.