What Is Hippie Modernism?
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The Gradient

What Is Hippie Modernism?

The following text originally appeared as the preface to Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015; Andrew Blauvelt, ed.). The exhibition is on view at the Walker October 24, 2015 through February 28, 2016, before traveling to the Cranbrook Art Museum and University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Hippie_animated_gif, Hippie Modernism, Walker Art Center


I first encountered the term hippie modernism twenty-five years ago in an essay by Lorraine Wild, who mentioned it passingly in the context of the design program at Cranbrook Academy of Art—a reference to the process and methodologically oriented character of a certain type of 1970s design.1 Although no examples were shown I could not help but conjure an arresting image in my mind. Perhaps she was thinking of a poster that documented a road trip in 1973 by fifteen students and faculty undertaken in a Winnebago from Detroit to New York. The black-and-white broadside mapped their route and a lexicon of design terms surveyed the terrain of ideas they encountered along the way. Certainly, the piece was the product of a collective process and a self-conscious method. The poster’s orderly modern grid exemplified what one historian has labeled the International Typographic Style.2 However, with its typewriter typography used to define terms such as architecture machine, software, “democratic” design, and design freaks, and a map masterly collaged with the signs and symbols of the roadside vernacular—a gesture right out of Venturi and Scott Brown’s Las Vegas playbook3—the project also embodied a hippie otherness. The poster, like the air inside that packed van, exuded some kind of funk. Titled “The Cranbrook design trip,” the double entendre spoke for itself. After all, what could be more hippie than a collective road trip inside a recreational vehicle transformed into a nomadic design studio for eight days?

Despite the clarity that this example offered, the term still contained an unresolved dissonance: were the hippie and the modern opposing concepts or complementary ones? Why does the notion of the hippie seem so estranged from modernism? At first glance, the culture of the hippies evokes not the modern but the premodern and the preindustrial: an affinity for nineteenth-century pioneer dress and its agrarian way of life, vividly captured in photos of rural communes;4 the stylish period clothing of the Victorian-era Wild West said to have emanated from the vintage clothing stores of San Francisco and the Red Dog Saloon in Nevada, an early site of acid rock;5 or its counterpart, the recurring figure of the American Indian as a countercultural touchstone representing a more authentic spiritual connection between man and nature.6 In these ways, the hippies anticipate the postmodern search for historical symbolism and identity. But the hippie scene also embraced modernism’s fascination with new media, materials, and technologies—taped music, synthesized sound, feedback and distortion, light effects, slide projectors, portable video cameras, television, plastics, reflective Mylar, and computers.7 But unlike the technocratic impulse that viewed scientific advances as intrinsically progressive and socially good, the hippie modern sought alternative uses for such technologies, which were increasingly adapted for personal creative effect and collective betterment. For instance, video and television could fulfill its democratic potential,8 computing could be for personal use and no longer the sole purview of military and corporate elites, 9 technology could be made appropriate for local contexts and more environmentally sound,10 the urban environment could be rehabilitated rather than euphemistically renewed,11 and man and nature could be brought into ecological balance. These ameliorations and alterations typify a reconditioning of modernity through encounters with its hippie other. In a larger context of the counterculture, the hippie modern sought a recuperation of the avant-garde’s utopic dream of integrating art into everyday life. It did so by fusing art and politics and by creating alternative ways of living and thus producing the artifacts, rituals, and experiences that were necessary for this new life.

Hippie_Modernism_Technologies, Hippie Modernism, Walker Art Center

Hippie modernism marks the tension between the modern characterized as universal, timeless, rational, and progressive, and its countercultural other, which adopts a more local, timely, emotive and often irreverent, and radical disposition. I argue that hippie modernism was a momentary reconciliation of these seemingly opposed values as a way of resolving the impasse that faced postwar cultural modernity—caught between the proverbial rock of technocratic progress and a hard place of impending social disaster12 that erupted in crisis in the 1960s and would later be very differently reconciled under the rubric of postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s.


Hippie_Modernism_The_Tension, Walker Art Center, Hippie Modernism

The path forward in art-historical terms was split between those artistic movements more aligned with deeper investigations into the increasingly essential properties of a particular medium or reductive practices (e.g., Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Minimalism) and those movements that actively sought an expansion of the arts into a plurality of new forms, hybrid media, and interactive experience (e.g., expanded cinema, intermedia, installation art, performance).13 Of these choices, hippie modernism would follow the latter course through experiments that drew upon the theatrical qualities and the participatory actions of the Happening, embraced Fluxus’s democratic spirit in its everyone-is-an-artist philosophy, explored the work of experimental filmmakers seeking to expand cinematic experience, and experimented with the fluid nature of light and sound as well as the interactive qualities of kinetic art. From Pop art it drew its lessons about popular culture as a source of inspiration and entertainment as well as its potential for social critique and the dangers of market commodification. Despite these influences, the fate of most countercultural production was that it would be undertaken outside the disciplinary boundaries of art—beyond its studios, galleries, and museums—and enacted in the public spaces and places of popular life: in streets, parks, plazas, discos, and theaters.

While advanced industrial society at mid-century continued its forward march, the 1960s’ counterculture embodied a deep skepticism about modernity’s technological progress in a postwar society. Seeking a promised liberation from stifling social conventions and oppression, it looked back to seemingly ancient or non-Western examples for spiritual and ethical guidance, exploring open social networks and experimenting with collective actions in life and work. It demanded an expanded social conscience for all, while preaching enlightenment and human potential through expanded forms of consciousness one person at a time.

The hippie modern is not invoked to delineate a style, but rather to denote a historical moment—the creative eruption of the countercultural period that I bracket between the Merry Pranksters’ cross-country acid trip in 1964 and the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 to 1974, which brought into dramatic relief the limits of Western society’s progress and geopolitical power. From the thrilling promise of a post-scarcity society to the sobering reality of a stalled economy, the decade unfolded with dramatic speed but concluded like so many idled cars queued at the gas pump. By evoking the word hippie, I do not mean to suggest that all or even any of the artists in the exhibition self-identified with the term or would have described themselves as one. The hippie was and remains a highly mediated figure, one used rhetorically within this project as the same kind of empty signifier to which accreted many different agendas. Or, as the Diggers once said, the hippie was just another convenient “bag” for the “identity-hungry to climb in.”14 I adopt the term hippie modernism as a convenient art-historical bag with which to gather and identify various countercultural remnants. By doing so, I risk a similar co-option that the Diggers tried to burn and bury in their “Death of Hippie” event to cleanse Haight-Ashbury of its insipid commercialism. However, my objective is to contest that fate by drawing attention to this liminal period between an increasingly insular high modernism that furthered the cause of art’s autonomy in society and an emergent hippie modernism that engaged new forms and experimental practices that drew upon the early modern avant-garde’s desire to dissolve art into life.

The period under consideration is a historical transition from one epoch to another: from an industrial to a postindustrial society and from a culture of an ossified high modernism to a nascent postmodernism. Because of this transitory status and its rejection of disciplinary boundaries, the counterculture, until very recently, existed in the margins of so many art, architectural, and design histories.15 This project foregrounds such practices and excavates such histories.

Finding the Hippie Modern

Hippie_Modernism_Hippie_is_the_body, Hippie Modernism, Walker Art Center

The modern conjures the figure of the machine as its preferred metaphor—a creation of man but with no trace of the hand, all smoothness and refinement, an abstraction of labor and an efficient, if indifferent, labor-saving device—something apart from nature. By contrast, the hippie evokes not the machine but the body—sensual and emotive—connecting man to nature, a direct rather than a distant connection wherein man and nature are part of a shared cybernetic system. If the modern was the hardware, then the hippie was the software—offering a new operating system for “Spaceship Earth.”16 It is the collision of these philosophies and aesthetics that defines the project’s center of gravity, the tension between the hippie and the modern.

Despite any differences, both movements shared a similar desire to sweep aside convention and to “start from zero.” In this way they both can be said to be in search of a utopia: whether technological, social, or political. In the modern, the new wants to be invented without history, ex nihilo—out of nothing—zero. With the hippie it must be recaptured, relearned, rebooted—a return to renewed beginnings—a different kind of zero. As Tom Wolfe, who had famously chronicled Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test of 1968, affirms in his essay “The Great Relearning”:

The hippies sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero. At one point the novelist Ken Kesey, leader of a commune called the Merry Pranksters, organized a pilgrimage to Stonehenge with the idea of returning to Anglo-Saxon civilization’s point zero, which he figured was Stonehenge, and heading out all over again to do it better. … This process, namely the relearning—following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero—seems to me to be the leitmotif of the twenty-first century in America. 17

Above: Stuart Hall, “The Hippies: An American ‘Moment,’” in Student Power, ed. Julian Nagel (London: Merlin Press, 1969), 173.


It is this utopic impulse that gives the counterculture its radical edge and avant-garde position.

The interplay of the hippie and the modern can be gleaned in various ways throughout the exhibition—through its process, appearance, and politics. I see the hippie in the patchwork assembly of Drop City’s handcrafted “zomes” and the modern in their avant-garde notion of creating a community to integrate art and life. I recognize the concept in Victor Papanek and George Seegers’s “tin can radio,” a dung-fueled receiver for the developing world—which fascinated the faculty at the Ulm School in Germany, successors to the Bauhaus, but who were nevertheless repelled by its anti-aesthetic form and the decorative cozies knitted by its local owners. I’m reminded of today’s networked culture in the powerful collages of Superstudio’s Supersurface—a cybernetic grid of modernism enveloping the world, its hippie inhabitants living happily in a “world without objects.”18 I can learn through doing—a favorite trope of the counterculture that sought to free education from the tyranny of schooling19—by making my own spaces from the plethora of “cookbooks” offering up recipes for modern living structures, whether plastic and inflatable or wooden and modular.20 I try to decipher the message of the acid rock poster, its vibrating palette a Josef Albers color exercise done, to quote Dave Hickey, “backwards—inside out, too much, and exactly wrong.”21 I read the paperbacks of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and Jerry Rubin, whose countercultural ideas are not locked up in dutiful text blocks on Gutenberg’s press bed but released onto Quentin Fiore’s fluid, cinematic pages—an ironic testament to the fact that the revolution wasn’t televised as much as it was printed.22 I’m immersed in the wondrous images of John Whitney’s technically sophisticated films, whose micro and macro compositions evoke the sacred geometries of a more timeless cosmological order. I wander through Helen and Newton Harrison’s sensuous cybernetic orchard of fruit trees under grow lights, while recalling Richard Brautigan’s poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”23 In these and in other projects in the exhibition, implicit and explicit critiques of modernity are made manifest in the work and in our shared experience of them decades later.

“Turn On! Tune In! Drop Out!”

Using Timothy Leary’s famous dictate to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” the exhibition is loosely organized around these concepts. Attributed to Marshall McLuhan, the phrase is both a countercultural cliché and a handy, but rough, chronicle of the period’s evolution. As such, the first section explores the notion of expanding individual consciousness through altered states of perception—whether through the pharmacologically induced acid trip or its drugless approximation via technological or spiritual means, for instance: the psychedelic canvases of Isaac Abrams, the optical apparatus of Haus-Rucker-Co, or the meditative quality of USCO.


The second section, “tune in,” explores the notion of social awareness and collective consciousness and action, with particular attention paid to the role of books, magazines, posters, and prints as more democratic modes of cultural production and objects more easily circulated through society, including: the weaponized Pop graphics of Corita Kent or in the timely missives of Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party’s minister of culture; the immersive media chamber of Ken Isaacs’s Knowledge Box, with its projected images culled from popular magazines of the postwar image bank; or one of the most widely circulated and successful books of the counterculture, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, which served to connect a far-flung community in common purpose and purchase.24


Third, the “drop out” is addressed through a diverse range of refusals, which often explore the pitfalls and potentials of technology and nature, such as: Drop City, the iconic artist colony turned countercultural commune; the proposed nomadic community of Ant Farm’s Truckstop Network and their roaming Media Van,25 which refused the destiny of network television in favor of portable video; or the recycling of Evelyn Roth, who wove new environments wholly out of the detritus of society’s discarded videotape and thrift store sweaters. Radical architects and anti-design proponents refused the high modernism of 1960s and design’s conventional practice and lack of social engagement. In the words of Adolfo Natalini, one of the founders of Superstudio: “If design is merely an inducement to consume, then we must reject design; if architecture is merely the codifying of bourgeois model of ownership and society, then we must reject architecture; if architecture and town planning is merely the formalization of present unjust social divisions, then we must reject town planning and its cities … until all design activities are aimed towards meeting primary needs. Until then, design must disappear. We can live without architecture.”26


Victor Papanek harbored equal disdain for product design that only served the wants and desires of consumers rather than the real needs of all people: “It is about time that industrial design, as we have come to know it, should cease to exist. As long as design concerns itself with confecting trivial ‘toys for adults,’ killing machines with gleaming tail fins, and ‘sexed up’ shrouds for typewriters, toasters, telephones, and computers, it has lost all reason to exist.”27

In Stuart Hall’s discussion of Leary’s famous phrase, he rightly points out its mechanistic metaphors: one turns on a device like a TV or a radio and we tune in a channel or a program. Tuning in is channeling one’s inner-self while being attuned to the lives of others. As Hall relates: “There is, as the phrase suggests, more than one ‘channel of perception’ through which we experience the world. The trouble with straight society is it that it is tuned in to the ‘wrong station’ and thus getting the wrong message or signal.”28 To “drop out” is to refuse to participate in the organized rituals of normative society—its schools, its military, its economy, and so on—in essence, its way of life. This kind of nonparticipation, however, is too often seen as socially passive and politically apathetic. This project seeks to counter this common misperception of the counterculture’s slacker ambiance, preferring to understand its disengagement as an active form of disavowal. Because it looked beyond modern industrialized Eurocentric viewpoints in matters of spirituality, healing, and technology to other places such as India or Africa, or back in time to the American West of nineteenth-century pioneers or to fin de siècle Vienna in matters of style, the counterculture harbored the kind of tendencies that would later define the stylistic eclecticism and historical nostalgia of postmodernism. For the most part, the search elsewhere was not a matter of reviving earlier historical styles as it would be for postmodernism, rather it was a spatial and temporal displacement in the present day to a contemporaneous world of agrarian peasant practices, vernacular building methods, “third world” technologies, and the like.29 In other words, one did not have to look back into history for premodern, non-Western precedents but rather could find them coexisting alongside advanced industrial society in the present—not at its center, but at its margins.

Utopia Now

If the exhibition is about a relatively brief moment in time, it is not ultimately limited to this era. For every historical example, there seems to be a contemporary corollary. In fact, so much contemporary art and culture can trace its roots to the themes and movements of this period, whether the pedagogical experiments of a socially practiced art, the speculative and open-ended nature of a more participatory and socially impactful design, the discourses of sustainability and resilience in architecture and design, or the harvesting of once radical and visionary ideas into the image banks of contemporary practitioners.


Hippie Modernism is a Janus-faced figure, one side facing forward and looking ahead and the other side facing backward and looking behind. But looking at what? Conventionally, we would say that one sees the future and the other the past. However, they both see the future not simply projected from the current reality forward but one shaped and altered by this backward and forward looking glance—a transfigured vision that holds a utopic potential. It seems unlikely though as the future is always ahead of us, or so we are told, just on the horizon. It challenges, among other things, the idea of that which is in front of us is intrinsically positive and progressive, while that which is behind us is inherently negative or regressive. Technology is constantly presented as a future proposition, one that is in front of us but can also appear as if out of nowhere, out of the blue, beyond our field of vision—even from behind us.30 Technology is portrayed as within our grasp, just as André Leroi-Gourhan conceived that evolution coincides with technological evolution: as humans stand upright on two feet, they free their hands for grasping and their faces for communicating.31 Thus, humans are free to fabricate extensions of their bodies and senses through the tools and technologies that remake them and project them forward. In this historical moment of the hippie modern, the Janus figure sees the future both in front of him and behind him. However, in the hippie modern every step forward recalls a turning back—not a step backward, but a return to that moment when humans originated their technological selves. It is this forward and backward glance that bends or alters the seemingly inevitable trajectory of a relentless forward-facing, technocratic progress.

Utopia, like any tool, is conjured from a future but it is destined to remain just out of reach of the technological self. This unresolvable conundrum defines the struggle. Nearly a decade before those fifteen Cranbrook students and faculty piled into their Winnebago, Ken Kesey and his acid-fueled Merry Pranksters drove their wildly painted school bus across America. Their bus was named Further, which describes a position beyond one’s current location but without directional bias. Even a half-century later, we still ask: are we any further? Such is the question of a hippie modernism.


1  Lorraine Wild, “Transgression and Delight: Graphic Design at Cranbrook,” in The New Cranbrook Design Discourse, ed. Hugh Aldersey-Williams (New York: Rizzoli, 1990), 31.

2  See the chapter “The International Typographic Style,” a reference to the dominant architectural modernism of the early twentieth century but in its mid-century corporate graphic design guise, in Philip B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983).

3  The reference is to the landmark study of the Las Vegas commercial strip by students and faculty from Yale University. See Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972).

4  See the cover story and photo essay, “The Youth Communes New Way of Living Confronts the U.S.,” Life, July 18, 1969.

5  Beginning in 1965, the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, owned by Chandler A. Laughlin III (aka Travus T. Hipp), helped buoy the music careers of the Charlatans and Big Brother and the Holding Company with its unique blend of psychedelic-fueled mayhem, light show displays, and a burgeoning form of electric folk music that would soon become the template for the San Francisco scene.

6  See Philip Deloria’s “Counterculture Indians and the New Age,” in Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s & ’70s, ed. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (London: Routledge, 2002), 159–188.

7  For one fascinating example, see: David W. Bernstein, ed., The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

8  For an account of the intersections between commercial television and early video and media activism, see David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

9  See John Markoff, What the Doormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (London: Penguin, 2005).

10  Two influential books from the period that argue for a downsizing of technology include E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (New York: Perennial Library/Harper & Row, 1973) and Lane deMoll, ed., Rainbook: Resources for Appropriate Technology (New York: Schocken Books, 1977).

11  The reference is to the countless urban-renewal projects undertaken in American cities in the 1960s and 1970s that eliminated various so-called undesirable and unproductive parts of the city. By contrast, projects such as the Integral Urban House (1975), a retrofitted Victorian mansion in Berkeley founded by the Farallones Institute sought to bring a more eco-friendly lifestyle to the existing urban environment. See Sim Van der Ryn, The Integral Urban House: Self-Reliant Living in the City (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1979).

12  The apocalyptic overtones of the countercultural period include the risk of annihilation from a nuclear explosion brought on by the Cold War, a much anticipated civil race war following the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as American cities erupted in riots, or the computer-predicted ecological disaster brought about by overpopulation of the world and its limited resources forecast by the Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits to Growth.

13  See Eric Crosby, “Introduction to Art Expanded, 1958–1978,” in Living Collections Catalogue, vol. 2, ed. Eric Crosby with Liz Glass (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2015), http://walkerart.org/collections/publications/art-expanded/introduction.

14  The full quote states: “The media cast nets, create bags for the identity-hungry to climb in. Your face on TV, your style immortalized without soul in the captions of the Chronicle. NBC says you exist, ergo I am.” Free City news sheet published by the Diggers, October 6, 1967, http://www.diggers.org/images/freecity/fc_c01_l.jpg.

15  See my essay in this volume, “The Barricade and the Dance Floor: Aesthetic Radicalism and the Counterculture,” 15–30.

16  The metaphor can be found in a speech by US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson in 1965 to the United Nations in which he proclaimed: “We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.” Albert Roland, Richard Wilson, and Michael Rahill, eds., Adlai Stevenson of the United Nations, 1900–1965 (Manila: Free Asia Press, 1965), 224. The term was, however, popularized by R. Buckminster Fuller in his book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969).

17  Tom Wolfe, “The Great Relearning,” in American Spectator 20, no. 12 (December 1987): 14.

18  See William Menking, “The Revolt of the Object,” in Superstudio: Life without Objects, ed. Peter Lang and William Menking (Turin: Skira, 2003).

19  See the foundational text Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

20  Among the many “cookbooks” of the period are Ant Farm’s Inflatocookbook, Ken Isaacs’s How to Build Your Own Living Structures, and Victor Papanek and James Hennessey’s Nomadic Furniture books as well as Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook series and Steve Baer’s Dome Cookbook and Zome Primer, which are all featured in the exhibition.

21  Dave Hickey, “Freaks,” in Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, ed. Christoph Grunenberg (London: Tate Publishing, 2005), 64.

22  See Sam Binkley, Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), in particular the chapter “Book as Tool: Lifestyle Print Culture and the West Coast Publishing Boom.”

23  The poem was written in 1967 during a period when Brautigan was poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology and was published and freely distributed by the Communications Company (Com/co), the printing arm of the Diggers. The poem can read online at http://allpoetry.com/All-Watched-Over-By-Machines-Of-Loving-Grace.

24  For accounts of the Whole Earth Catalog, see Andrew G. Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2007) and Simon Sadler, “An Architecture of the Whole,” Journal of Architectural Education 61, no. 4 (May 2008): 108–129.

25  For an account of the Truckstop Network project, see Felicity D. Scott, Ant Farm: Living Archive 7 (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2008).

26  Adolfo Natalini, lecture at the Architectural Association, London, March 3, 1971, quoted in Superstudio: Life Without Objects, ed. Peter Lang and William Menking (Turin: Skira, 2003), 20–21.

27  Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), 15. The emphasis is in the original.

28  Stuart Hall, “The Hippies: An American ‘Moment,’” in Student Power, ed. Julian Nagel (London: Merlin Press, 1969), 173.

29  For one account of such explorations, see Alison J. Clarke, “The Anthropological Object in Design: From Victor Papanek to Superstudio,” in Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, ed. Alison J. Clarke (Vienna: Springer, 2011), 74–87.

30  For a deconstruction of the concepts of anteriority and posteriority as well as his conception of the “dorsal” turn as it relates to humans and technology, see David Wills, Dorsality: Thinking Back through Technology and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

31  See André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).


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