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Meet the Free-Loving Folks Behind Hippiedom In This Out-of-Sight Exhibit

Framed around the Summer of Love, this multimedia exhibit makes hippiedom relevant again.

by Diana Shi
Mar 25 2017, 11:40am

Cohen, Jimmi Hendrix, 1968

Channeling plenty of peace, love, and artistic style, a comprehensive exhibit in the Bay Area focuses on the hippie movement of the 60s and 70s. An era defined by a free-spirited way of unconventional thinking, the time genially welcomed the wildest imaginings from artists. Experimentation with  drugs and new-found interest in social justice contributed to the era's status as a tentpole in modern American history.

The exhibit, which previously showed at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center, fills the halls of UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives (BAMPFA), with furniture, books, artifacts, and classic "Hippie Era" films. With a mixed-media approach that encourages a fully-immersive experience of the time, the show combines art, architecture, and design. The show's themes portend to current times, alluding to the relevance of "struggling for Utopia." The search for a world of balance and harmony can feel impossible in an increasingly more dystopia-like state , and a look back on the time of free love can clarify present-day experiences.

Cockettes Go Shopping by Clay Geerdes. 42 x 28 in. Courtesy David Miller; Estate of Clay Geerdes. All images courtesy BAMPFA

Creators spoke to co-curator of the exhibit, Greg Castillo, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture at the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, about the raucous of the hippie era:

Angels of Light Portrait of Debra-Bauer and Rodney Price

Ashby, New-Possibilities Show poster, detail

Isaac Abrams, Hello Dali, 1965. Oil on canvas, 84 x 60 in

Blunk stool

Creators: What were some of the main concepts you hoped to communicate through the Hippie Modernism exhibit?

Greg Castillo: The exhibition conveys the breadth of creative invention unleashed by the counterculture. That's not to deny the old adage about "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" being at the heart of hippie culture. But they're complicated — and that's where the excitement is. Take sex, for example. The delirious "acid drag" art of San Francisco's Cockettes and Angels of Light troupes liberated gender as a social performance decades before that concept was theorized by philosopher Judith Butler. The exhibit includes acid blotter papers and a liquid light show as high-tech hippie folk art, but also examines the role of LSD as what the Whole Earth Catalog called a macroscope — a zoomed out counterpart to the microscope — as a tool of holistic vision and catalyst of environmental consciousness. As for rock-and-roll, a wall of neon rock posters features vibrating color fields and amped up visuals inspired by the sensory overload of pharmaceutically enhanced concert experiences: the hippie [movement's] contribution to advertising as a commercial artform.

Butler, quilter coat

Chicago Women's Graphics Collective, In Celebration of Amazons poster

What kind of distinctive lessons or parallels do you see the show striking with current events?

With the current administration's plan to dismantle the EPA, there's a "déjå vu all over again" quality to seeing an eco-mandala promoting California's Office of Appropriate Technology: the world's first state agency working toward environmentally sustainable practices and the first state agency to be dismantled under an incoming Republican governor in 1983. An exhibition gallery dedicated to the art of protest showcasing posters from Black Panther Oakland, the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island, student anti-war broadsides, and Women's liberation are precursors of Black Lives Matter, Native American land battles around the Dakota Access pipeline, and the Women's March on Washington. They remind us that the injection of embodied politics into what had become the deadened spaces of mechanized traffic remains a crucial legacy of the 'Sixties, one that needs revival more than ever.

What were some of the most enjoyable or interesting aspects of the curation process?

Without a doubt it was meeting counterculture veterans on their own turf to scout materials for the exhibition. Being ushered into a darkened San Francisco Victorian with a floor-to-ceiling display of framed LSD blotter papers patterned with eclectic abandon. Asking about a one-of-a-kind "technicolor dreamcoat" seen in a period photo and having the artist pull it out of a cabinet where it had lived in a plastic bag for nearly half a century. Or handling stunningly beautiful artwork by the now-famous artist Martin Wong in the home of one of his fellow Angel of Light drag communards. 

The "Free the Love" app is an inspiring addition to the exhibit. What encouraged you and your co-curators to add such a contemporary element to the exhibit?

The "Free the Love" concept was the brainchild of Rich Silverstein of GS&P, a madly creative designer who insisted that, for our embattled times, the hippie "free love" revolution was a notion worth retrieving. For the app's "love tour" of counterculture sites, I assembled its map with help from Adam Hirschfelder of the California Historical Society. The "Free the Love" app, the Hippie Modernism exhibition, and the host of other events around the Bay Area marking the 50th anniversary of Haight-Ashbury's Summer of Love share one overarching goal: to celebrate alternative cultures as a source of Bay Area exceptionalism that will continue to empower its progressive future.

Community Memory Terminal at Leopolds Records, c. 1974

Hippie Modern: The Struggle for Utopia shows at BAMPFA through May 21, 2017. To learn more about the exhibit, visit here.

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