At BAMPFA, ‘Hippie Modernism’ Proves the Fight for Utopia is Far from Over

Kanyon Sayers Rood sings with the Oakland Symphony in its program 'Notes from Native California'

Kanyon Sayers Rood sings with the Oakland Symphony in its program 'Notes from Native California' (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

A year after the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive reopened in its sleek Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed building, it plays host to Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, an exhibition which did not — surprisingly — originate in the Bay Area.

Curated by Andrew Blauvelt for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Hippie Modernism arrives at the birthplace of the hippie with a thrilling survey of counterculture art, architecture and design from 1964 to 1974 — or, as Blauvelt bookends it, a period of optimism from the beginning of the New York World’s Fair to the end of the OPEC oil crisis.

Barry Shapiro, 'Handmade Houses,' early 1970s.
Barry Shapiro, ‘Handmade Houses,’ early 1970s. (Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley)

If hippies, usually characterized by Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out” mantra, didn’t (and don’t) seem particularly interested in the design principles of modernism, Blauvelt argues in the exhibition catalog that the hippie modern is a slightly different beast, able to realize the democratic potential of new technologies while seeking “a recuperation of the avant-garde’s utopic dream of integrating art into everyday life.”

On both floors of the BAMPFA, the expansive exhibition shows art integrated into new forms of everyday life: living spaces, wearables, publications, new media collectives, concert posters and artistic experiments that defy easy categorization. Conveniently built into the flow of the exhibition are immersive “chill” spaces meant to cocoon viewers from what might otherwise be an onslaught of information for those who didn’t live through the era in question.

Neville D'Almeida and Hélio Oiticica, 'CC5 Hendrixwar/Cosmococa Programa-in-Progress,' 1973.
Neville D’Almeida and Hélio Oiticica, ‘CC5 Hendrixwar/Cosmococa Programa-in-Progress,’ 1973. (Courtesy of the Walker Art Center)

Ken Isaacs’ Knowledge Box (originally constructed in 1962) creates one such space, inside a 12-foot-tall wooden cube with 24 slide projectors positioned outside its six faces, pointing in. Viewers enter the cube through a round-cornered door and a two-minute “slideshow” begins, with black-and-white images culled from 1950s and ’60s magazines flashing randomly on the walls, floor and ceiling. A soundtrack of collaged music and spoken audio recordings plays. The artwork’s title suggests we should be learning something from it by osmosis, but it’s much more fun to stand, turn slowly in awe and appreciation, then loop back around the cube and do it all again.

Even though the Knowledge Box is quite literally a white cube, many of the works escape institutional or architectural constraints. Tucked into one corner of the exhibition, film and photographs of Ugo La Pietra’s Per Oggi Basta! (Enough for Today!) show the Italian artist taking his practice to the streets of 1970s Milan. With a wooden A-frame structure he dubbed Il Commutatore (the switch), La Pietra “switched” his view of the city, laying against the A-frame at different angles to take in building tops, overhead trees and crisscrossing electrical wires.

'Untitled,' c. 1970, Screenprint on paper.
‘Untitled,’ c. 1970, Screenprint on paper. (Collection of Lincoln Cushing/Docs Populi Archive)

Hippie Modernism makes clear that the objects on view are not simply artifacts of a subculture flying under the radar of mainstream media, but the output of a counterculture seeking to reclaim every aspect of public, private and political life. In many cases, these gestures appear completely absurd: inflatable homes, a car cover crocheted from videotape, or François Dallegret’s enigmatic KiiK. Dallegret declared the stainless steel barbell-shaped object “a unique, functional product to help cure body discomforts and mild obsessions.” The KiiK is whatever you want it to be, though for external use only.

“For children under the age of three,” the accompanying poster reads, “consult your kiikologist.”

Community Memory terminal at Leopold's Records, Berkeley, California, c. 1974.
Community Memory terminal at Leopold’s Records, Berkeley, California, c. 1974. (Courtesy of the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, CA)

Absurdity was just one manifestation of the decentralized movement’s underlying earnestness. In display after display, Hippie Modernism showcases experiments in education, publication and building community, from the Colorado artists’ commune Drop City to the Community Memory Terminal, a coin-operated electronic bulletin board originally installed at Leopold’s Records in Berkeley in 1973.

It’s hard to view Hippie Modernism now and not have mixed feelings about the unrealized utopias presented within it. The ideas put forth still have the power to excite and feel new — in part because the society these artists, designers and radicals sought to remake very much resembles the society we currently occupy. On my short walk to BART from the museum, signs of the Feb. 1 protest at UC Berkeley against a lecture by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos were still visible, a fitting reminder that the struggle for utopia — or basic civil rights — isn’t relegated to the past.

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‘Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia’ is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through May 21, 2017. For more information visit bampfa.org.

Author

Sarah Hotchkiss

Sarah Hotchkiss is KQED Arts’ Visual Arts Editor, an artist and half of Stairwell’s. Follow her at @sahotchkiss.

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