BY Joseph Akel in Reviews | 20 MAR 12
Featured in
Issue 146

Diggers, Mimes, Angels and Heads

BY Joseph Akel in Reviews | 20 MAR 12

The Diggers The Death of Money, 1966, Performance still

With the spectacle of violent uprising all but commonplace these days, it’s perhaps too easy to reminisce about a time when peace and love were the mantras of dissent. But, given the current climate and with the spectre of Occupy Wall Street still looming over Zuccotti Park, a show dedicated to the counter-cultural happenings of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury heyday reminds us that, for a particular generation, ‘love is all you need’.

It’s the storied antics of The Diggers, a loosely based cohort of improv actors with a social bent, which preoccupied the exhibition, ‘Diggers, Mimes, Angels and Heads’. Taking their name from the proto-communist land reformers of 17th-century England, The Diggers were a visible force for change amidst the haze of the Summer of Love. Active between 1966 and 1968, the group, an offshoot of a mime troupe, claimed to eschew conventional symbols of political protest, staging instead absurdist street performances, all the while doling out free food daily and establishing a Free Shop, the Free Bank and a medical clinic that continues to operate to this day.

Culled from the archives of gallery owner Jack Hanley’s collection of printed ephemera from the era, the show’s ode to beats and freaks amounted to a psychedelic Wunderkammer on Manhattan’s west side. Gene Anthony’s photographs of Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Digger-founder-cum-celebrity Peter Coyote were interspersed with facsimiles of Digger hand-outs and newsletters. Meanwhile, images of The Diggers’ performances, such as The Death of Money funeral procession (1966), were juxtaposed with reproduced mainstream media articles warning of the coming ‘hippie invasion’. Elsewhere, a wall dedicated to psychedelic rock concert posters, notably from Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom performances by the likes of the Grateful Dead and The Doors, displayed the vibrant colours and vivid imagery of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test set. Video projections of interviews with Peter Berg and Coyote only further added to the heady mix that comprised this archival exhibition.

In one of those mordant ironies that hindsight lends history, The Diggers came to identify themselves with what they viewed as the one percent. Borrowing the idea from a Hells Angels inside reference, The Diggers believed that one percent of everything should be free and advertised as such, demonstrated in a poster reproduced for the show. Beneath a hazy depiction of two Gold Rush-era Chinese migrant workers smoking, a caption reads ‘1% Free’. Not happy to be part of the 99 percent, or what they termed the mainstream, The Diggers and their fellow band of outsiders were happy to exist at the margins of society, a place they saw as truly free.

And yet, with a show such as this, so personal in its presentation of history, it is important to temper it with a cool eye. One cannot help but think of those for whom the same era was one of an intense struggle simply to be embraced by mainstream society. From positions of privilege, it is too easy to disparage the trappings of society when access to it is so readily accessible. The very same year of the so-called Summer of Love, the US experienced some of the worst violence in the country’s history. ‘The Long, Hot Summer’, as it came to be known, was the turbulent culmination of simmering tensions and untold strife in America’s painful march towards inclusive civil rights; the riotous, fiery ghettos of Detroit and Newark were worlds apart from the warm, if not intoxicated, embrace of Ginsberg’s Golden Gate ‘Human-Be-In’. Indeed, love is not free, but rather something many have paid for, and many still continue to do so.

Joseph Akel is a writer based in New York and San Francisco, USA. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric Department of the University of California, Berkeley.