Professor Greg Castillo discusses Living on the Earth

Greg Castillo and Alicia Bay Laurel meet and instantly become dear friends at the Summer of Love Academic Conference in San Francisco, July 2017

Utopian Discourse in the Counterpublic Sphere:

Bay Area Counterculture in Print

Greg Castillo, Associate Professor

College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley

Paper for the Annual Conference for the Society of Utopian Studies

“Disruption, Displacement, Disorder” – November 1-3, 2018, Berkeley, California

X – 1   Last year, in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love, I served as guest curator of Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia as installed at the UC Berkeley Art Museum.

I’m an architectural historian, not a trained curator, so my learning curve was steep. I edited down an exhibition originally created for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, then added hundreds of locally-sourced objects to explore the distinctive regional origins of a movement that had global repercussions.

I approached the show as a public history project, reexamining a culture often remembered through dismissive stereotypes.

The dominant architectural stereotype equates hippie builders with Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome.

Hippie Modernism included a reconstruction of one built by artists at Colorado’s Drop City commune as an installation for the 1968 Experiments in Art and Technology show at the Brooklyn Museum.

X – 2   Geodesic dwellings at the Drop City commune, a sort of trippy First World favela, initiated the hippie infatuation with geodesics, as seen at the left.

            I would argue that Fuller’s key contribution to the counterculture was instead the notion of technological breakthroughs occurring “In the Outlaw Area,” as his 1966 New Yorker interview was titled.

In this idiosyncratic origin myth of innovation, Fuller claimed that ancient civilizations advanced only upon taking to the open sea, an “Outlaw Area” that imposed challenges outside the authority of land-based cultural orthodoxies.

X – 3              Stewart Brand popularized “the Outlaw Area” in his epochal Whole Earth Catalog, a crowd-sourced review of ideas, practices, and objects. It opened with the proclamation: “the insights of Buckminster Fuller initiated this catalog.”

The Whole Earth Catalog advanced D.I.Y. (or do-it-yourself) publishing as a medium of counterculture skill-sharing. A decade before desktop publishing, Brand trained other hippie self-publishers how to operate new, user-friendly equipment – namely the IBM Selectric composer and Polariod MP-3 halftone camera – to generate justified copy, shoot halftone images, and create camera-ready paste-ups.

A ‘new materialist’ or Object Oriented Ontology would add these graphic arts devices to pharmaceutical LSD as key non-human ‘actants’ that exerted their agency in hippie self-fashioning practices.

All were included in the “access to tools” promised by Brand’s catalog, which was originally devised as a reference catalog for back-to-the-land pioneers.

            The flowering of Bay Area alternative publishing has become equated with its “greatest hit,” the Whole Earth Catalog, which is too often treated as a default value of counterculture history.

But the phenomenon of Bay Area alternative publishing was much broader in both output and impact.         

X- 4    Among the torrent of manifestos addressing hippie self-invention, that of Alicia Bay Laurel, born Alicia Kaufmann, has been ignored in counterculture scholarship. It was enormously popular and influential in its day, and remains in print in Spanish and Japanese translations 50 years later.

My focus on Bay Laurel’s book Living on the Earth reasserts its role in teaching readers how to become counterculture subjects by estranging the normative arrangement of the modern world, to paraphrase Phillip Wegner, and disrupts the “he said, he did” bias of counterculture scholarship.

            Joan Didion’s 1968 essay ‘Alicia and the Underground Press’ praised Alicia’s skill as a seventeen-year-old journalist for the LA Free Press – just as Alicia was being committed to an insane asylum by her mother upon discovering that her daughter had used LSD.

Involuntarily incarcerated as a minor, Alicia secured her release upon her 18th birthday. She abandoned her privileged Southern California family life and fled North to San Francisco.

After a brief stint as an arts student, Alicia joined the hippie urban exodus to a rural commune, where she changed her last name, abandoning her Kaufman family tree for a native one, the Bay Laurel.

X5 – At the Wheeler’s Ranch open land commune in Sonoma county, Alicia used her drawing skills to address the problem of clueless newbies arriving daily without any of the skills needed for rural living.

During the1967 “Summer of Love,” sensationalist reporting had flooded the Haight-Ashbury district with new hippie converts, runaway teens, drug dealers, and a spectrum of predators.

As LSD supplies dwindled, heroin and speed made rapid inroads. New arrivals burdened free food programs, clinics, and other support services beyond capacity, sending Haight-Ashbury veterans to the countryside in search of greener pastures.

Life on an open land settlement demanded D.I.Y. production skills that few new converts possessed. Alicia resolved to solve the problem with a pen and a sheaf of blank typing paper.

X – 6              To orient newcomers to the Wheelers Ranch Open Land commune, she compiled an illustrated guide for rural self-reinvention. It takes readers on a skill building trip through technological ontology: quotefrom traveling the wilds to the first fence, simple housing, furnishing houses, crafts, agriculture, food preparation, medicine, not unlike the development of our ancient ancestors.”

Bay Laurel begins with a depiction of arrival on the land as a camper, a liminal state of awakening. Once woke, novice communards began their immersion course in mastering tools needed for their performance of an Aquarian rebirth.

Some skills were social, like those of amicable collectivity.

Material tools for Aquarian self-fashioning were to be crafted through adaptive reuse of detritus generated by a throwaway consumer economy. 

X-7    Titled Living on the Earth, Alicia’s hippie Bildungsreise (or journey of self-discovery) assaults middle-class culture with the wide-eyed wonder of a joyful exile.

Panels devoted to making a Mexican peasant blouse or “elegant unbaked confections” are vulnerable to a misreadings as a mere hippie repackaging of repressive gender conventions, rather than the short-lived phenomenon that counterculture scholar Gretchen Lemke calls “difference-based feminism.”

            The potted plant – pun intended – on the right provides a clue to the active ingredient in Alicia’s “Moroccan Surprise” desert recipe.

X-8    Panels on massage and how to get rid of public lice flout a host of bourgeois conventions while illustrating the expansive scope of relations between human and non-human communards at Wheeler’s Ranch.

X-9    Living on the Earth includes an evolutionary narrative of D.I.Y. architecture. It begins with tent making and progresses to wooden shelters. Quote: “If you live on land that has been raped (that is, ‘logged’) you may find stumps that work as foundations for your house.” Outlaw building tips that seem like hippie fantasies describe actual construction experiments conducted at Wheeler’s Ranch, as you can see on the right.

X-10  How-to instructions on hunting and butchering wild game, curing pelts, and making shoes promote skills not typically found among young women raised in West LA.

            In fact, the practices of self-invention inventoried in Living on Earth were crowd-sourced.

In researching her self-help manual for open land acolytes, Bay Laurel interviewed Wheeler’s Ranch residents to compile a master list of useful skills and best practices.

X-11    Panels on childbirth and forest cremation celebrate the alpha and omega moments of Living on the Earth, and make explicit the breadth of this vision of anarchic self-production.

            Bay Laurel’s original goal of creating 200 photocopies of her manuscript foundered on the economic realities of the commune’s voluntary poverty.

Undeterred, she visited the headquarters of Steward Brand’s operationin Palo Alto. Brand sent her across the Bay to Berkeley to Book People, the alternative press enterprise that published and distributed the Whole Earth Catalog.

Reviewing the manuscript, a 23 year-old associate, Sam Matthews was enchanted. His enthusiasm convinced the firm’s founder, Don Gerrard, to secure an $11,000 family loan to have the book printed.

Matthews specified cheap unbleached stock and brown ink to give the finished product a homespun look. All ten thousand first edition copies sold out in two weeks after a rave review in the Whole Earth Catalog. 

X-12    One copy landed on the desk of Bennett Cerf, the CEO of Random House Publishers in Manhattan. He purchased rights and made it a bestseller, with 350,000 second edition copies sold in ten years.

            International success followed. Readers relished the naïve charm of a manifesto so gentle that its revolutionary program is easily missed.  

            Living on the Earth, which taught readers how to quotedig a proper shithole” and live under a tarp, earned Bay Laurel a 1971 ‘Woman of the Year’ award from the fashion merchandizing journal Mademoiselle: proof that mass-marketing had negated the anarchism of her handmade call-to-arms.  

X-13    Living on the Earth was just one of the Book People releases that Random House acquired in its California Gold Rush. Starting with the Whole Earth Catalog, the Manhattan giant turned one alternative press offering after another into bestsellers.   

            In a blunt take-down of what he calls counterculture “lifestyle publishing,” Sam Binkley mounts a Frankfurt school mass-culture critique of such texts as artifacts of a hegemonic consumption regime.

Dismissals of Bay Area guidebooks to self-reinvention as capitalist lifestyle ventures manifest an inaccurate accounting of agency, eliding the shift in goals and audiences as texts moved from regional to global distribution, and from skill sharing to naked profit motive.

            The Aquarian optimism of these texts, Binkley writes, “depended on an ill considered humanism that was sophomoric at best and sentimental and baseless at worst.”

Let’s file away the charge of hippie sentimentality for a moment. I’ll return to it after presenting a radically different formulation of the Bay Area alternative press project.
X-14              In addition to their status as commodities, books transact and consolidate discursive practices about issues of common interest and political significance.

The Habermasian notion of Öffentlichkeit or “the public sphere” relies on a free market in texts as a springboard for social integration and new citizenship ideals.

This, I would argue, rather than superficial lifestyle consumption, is the context of works like Living on the Earth prior to their successful monetization by East Coast profiteers.
X-22              More compelling yet is Nancy Fraser’s feminist revision of the Public Sphere concept. Subjects marginalized by a bourgeois public sphere – she calls them subaltern counter-publics – construct parallel public spheres in which to circulate counter-discourses.
            This, it seems to me, is a precise analogue of the function of the Bay Area alternative press: a regional information conduit that was, as Fraser emphasizes, quote “not an arena for market relations, but rather one of discursive relations.”

X-23              International transmission of Bay Area counterculture discourse and a transatlantic dialogue between counterpublic spheres followed the mass-market commodification of Bay Area alternative press offerings.
            Just over a year after Bay Laurel arrived in Berkeley looking for a means to distribute her how-to guide, the Zurich-based underground journal HOTCHA! conveyed her message to German-language readers.

            You see the book’s review at the lower right, complete with Bay Laurel’s illustrated method of building shelters from scrap.

Before returning to the transatlantic circulation of Bay Area counterculture discourse, I’d like to respond to Binkley’s critique of counterculture optimism as sophomoric and sentimental.

X-17              Intellectuals believe that anxiety is the emotional hallmark of postwar culture. Could there be any other conclusion when WH Auden, Leonard Bernstein, and a host of cultural critics all agree?
            Yes, actually, there is an alternative framing of this conformity, courtesy of the affective turn in cultural history. The privileging of anxiety by transatlantic intellectuals consolidated what historian Barbara Rosenwein calls an “emotional community” unified by quote: “the modes of emotional expression that its constituents expect, encourage, tolerate, and deplore.”

            For intellectual elites, anxiety absolutely defined the postwar era.
X- 18             Haight AshburyHippies, in contrast, founded a community upon Aquarian Love, as celebrated in San Francisco’s “Summer of Love”.

s  l  o  w:       This historically and culturally contingent emotive fused categories of affect formerly segregated in Western traditions of love.

            Aquarian Love conjoined Agape, bonding creator and creation; with Philia, fraternal or communal affinity; and Eros, sensual desire.

            LSD and its “en-then-o-genic” property, which connects its user to a holistic cosmic order, made possible the transgressive excess of Aquarian love.  

            Living on the Earth exuded the bliss of the counterculture’s emotional community. According to Sam Matthews, this auratic quality prompted him to champion Bay Laurel’s odd, hand-drawn manuscript when it arrived at the office of Book People and convinced his boss to borrow 11 thousand dollars from a family member to fund the book’s first edition publication.

            Aquarian love was, of course, quickly commodified to sell a variety of goods in the booming marketplace for hippie byproducts.

            Meanwhile, among “serious” intellectual circles, counterculture emotives, now as then, remain an alienating Terra Incognita – all the more reason to critically scrutinize them with the historiographic tools of the affective turn in cultural research.

X-19              I’ll close this talk with an episode of transatlantic cultural transfer informed by methods of the “visual turn” in cultural studies.

            As Stuart Hall has argued, one can’t decode the meaning of a photograph without considering how it’s quote “regulated by the formats and institutions of production, distribution, and consumption.”
A case in point is this image shot at the Wheeler Ranch Open Land commune in 1969 by photojournalist Bob Fitch. It shows Sue and John Mikhul and their children from two marriages about to enter a sweat bath.

            A homeless family that had lived for years in the camper lurking behind them, the Mikhuls refute the trope of hippies as children of privilege on a low-stakes fun ride before the resumed more affluent lifestyle consumption pursuits.

At Wheeler’s Ranch, the Mikhuls found a community that did not shun them as pariahs before police ordered them to move along.

 X- 20            An Italian design collaborative called Superstudio discovered the portrait of the Mikhul family in a mass-circulation magazine. It became part of a collage in a conceptual art project called Vita Superficie: an ironic vision of a totalizing global infrastructural grid providing utilities and communication everywhere and anywhere. It was one of a series of propositions for what Superstudio called “anti-utopias.”

            Created for a 1972 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Superstudio’s collage shipped the Mikhuls back to the US as savages, stripped of individual identity and family history.

Reduced to a tribal semaphore, the Mikhuls became late contenders in a tradition of ethnographic representation of New World primitives initiated by European explorers centuries earlier.

X-21              The Superstudio essay in MoMA’s exhibition catalogue relayed formulaic counterculture tropes back across the Atlantic to their source of origin.

            Bay Laurel and her fellow communards believed that one could not theorize a path to a non-dystopian future. One had to enact it as a high-stakes performance informed by the practices of fellow travelers.

Superstudio, used the Mikhuls as poster children for a contemporary nomadicism conducted not as an embodied critique of postwar mass consumption, but as a performance art exercise in which quote: “At the most we can play at making a shelter, or rather, at [making] the home, at [making] architecture.” 

The Vita Superficie, with its nihilistic approach to play – a practice revered by hippies as a tool for emancipatory self-fashioning – is about as far from an “outlaw builder” ethos as one can imagine.

X-22              In January 2017, I worked with staff preparators to hang a panel from Superstudio’s Vita Superficie project on the gallery wall of the Berkeley Art Museum for display in Hippie Modernism.

            In an exhibition dedicated to public reconsideration of a regional movement of self-build utopias, we were displaying its transatlantic translation as dystopian irony.

            Historicizing the reproduction, distribution, and reinterpretation of utopian performances is a vital aspect of counterculture scholarship.

I get that.

Still, I’m grateful that no child of the Mikhul clan showed up in Berkeley as an adult to discover how an outlaw childhood had been reprocessed as an object of postmodern art.

Thank you.