BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 17 OCT 13
Featured in
Issue 158

The Whole Earth

BY Sarah E. James in Reviews | 17 OCT 13

Back cover of The Whole Earth Catalog, 1969, edited by Stewart Brand

‘The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside’ was an epic and in some ways audacious exhibition. Curated by Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke, it told the story of the slip from (and slippage between) the countercultural communality, eco-psychedelia and cybernetics of the 1960s to the networked neoliberalism of today. Specifically, it asked how we can makes sense of the legacy of the Californian counterculture in the present, and how some of the central ideals and issues that emerged in 1968 became the basis not for the commune but for Internet capitalism. One of the most significant figures of the exhibition was Stewart Brand, whose Whole Earth Catalog was described by Steve Jobs as the precursor of Google. Founded by Brand in 1968, the name and ethos of this countercultural/ecological manual, derived in part from a satellite photo of Earth seen from space, which was famously illustrated on the manual’s cover. The exhibition pivoted around the symbolic function of this image of Earth as seen from the outside, in terms of collectivity, ecology, systems theory and the newly mediated nature of everyday life that it represented – pictured and experienced from new perspectives and time zones, via television, satellites and their feedback loops, which also took on different political and symbolic functions from the late 1960s.

Here, just as in Franke’s previous exhibition series ‘Animism’ (2010–12), also staged at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), the curatorial agenda was ambitious and politically attentive. Based upon the constellation of art works, which were presented not strictly as aesthetic objects, but also as artistic and social positions that were put to work, activating new relations and tensions among the works themselves, but also mobilizing them in relation to cultural artefacts from the period. This combination worked to re-map the historical, political, cultural and aesthetic geographies and temporalities that they articulate and problematize. This might sound a little abstract, but in fact it evidenced a curatorial practice that approximates a kind of cultural geography, with the exhibition repositioned as a complex visual and audio essay.

Here, the essay was conceived in seven chapters, including ‘Universalism’, ‘Apocalypse, Babylon and Simulation’ and ‘Self Incorporated’, whose themes were presented through text-heavy panels. Within these sections, works by West Coast artists past and present – such as Ant Farm, Eleanor Antin, Jordan Belson, Bruce Conner and Jack Goldstein – were accompanied by contributions from a younger generation of international artists including Nabil Ahmed, Martin Beck and the Otolith Group. Music – by the likes of Sun Ra, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and David Bowie – played a central role, helping to delineate the qualities and contradictions of the newly mediated and incorporated culture of the 1960s onwards, as well as evoking its de-alienating, radical countercultural and popular pasts.

Because of the immense amount of contextual texts and films, the visitor also had a lot of work to do. The art works in the show were left to fend for themselves in what felt like a kind of Cold War trade-fair of cultural history. Some of the works sat very comfortably in this context, such as David Lamelas’s film Desert People (1974), a version of the American road trip made in Native American territory, or Conner’s 1976 Crossroads, which shows the mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll unfolding in slow motion. Some works engaged directly with psychedelia, ecology or cybernetics – such as Suzanne Treister’s HEXEN 2.0 (2009–11), intricate diagrams and tarot cards that depict Brand as the ‘Hanged Man’ and Norbert Weiner as ‘The Chariot’. But other works had more superficial relations to the exhibition’s themes, such as Angela Bulloch’s Night Sky: E.T. from Pluto (2008/2012). On the whole, the paintings – including works by Goldstein, Eric Bulatov and Adrian Piper – fared less well, sometimes seeming more like tentative wall decorations bordering the main event. But in many places clever effects emerged through the staging of intersubjective dialogues between works. For example, Dara Birnbaum’s hypnotic Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978–9) and the Otolith Group’s Otolith I (2003) produced a complex conversation about the mediated politics of feminism, bio-political exploitation and the immaterial and spiritual labour of women from 1970s televisual America to a futurist global imaginary, via the colonial past.

In many ways, the West Coast focus of the exhibition was problematic: it seemed to repress the global ramifications of both countercultures and systems capitalism that underlined the curatorial premise. And yet, it also worked against recent reassertions of the Californian avant-garde (such as the 2011–12 ‘Pacific Standard Time’ initiative in Los Angeles) by exploding these geographies and gesturing toward (if not dwelling enough upon) the longer and more global histories and futures of neoliberalism’s frontiers. Further, despite being largely confined to an American context, many of the works knowingly played on the production of relevant local mythologies – like Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson’s short film East Coast–West Coast (1969), in which they perform an argument over the clichéd roles of Californian and New York artists of the 1960s to absurd and hilarious affect. Similarly, Jack Smith’s short film Scotch Tape (1959–62) – depicting a dance around the garbage heaps of New York – made for a provocative gesture to the urban ‘other’ of the Californian hippie dream.

The West Coast focus enabled the universal claims of information capitalism to be undone through their localization. Crucially, the exhibition also offered a knowing critique of the HKW, which was itself gifted to West Germany by the US in the 1950s as a symbol of capitalism’s Utopian postwar cultural universalism. In this sense, ‘The Whole Earth’ should also be understood as a precursor to Franke’s next project, ‘After Year Zero’, which, framed around the ideas and politics of ‘collaboration’, will further historicize, localize and decolonize the postwar emergence of global and universalist ideologies, this time by seeking to decentre Western hegemony via the global South.

If the curatorial framing of Franke’s ‘Animism’ was all about a deft dialectical stepping between mapping and unmapping, a kind of bid to un-discipline modernity’s foundational narratives and decolonize its colonial imaginary, ‘The Whole Earth’ charted the West’s postwar colonial expansion and inward intensification. If ‘Animism’ was couched as a complex response to Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1993), ‘The Whole Earth’ asserted a more deliberately and unashamedly idiosyncratic, authored narrative that sat somewhere between the bold editorialism of Edward Steichen’s ‘The Family of Man’ (1955) and Adam Curtis’s highly stylized montaged documentaries, such as The Century of the Self (2002). Indeed, the exhibition’s provocative magazine-like editorial display had much in common with Steichen’s exhibition, documentation of which was featured in the opening chapter’s display panels, just as excerpts from several of Curtis’s films were included throughout the show. However, Diederichsen and Franke can’t take credit for authoring the exhibition’s grand narrative; that was provided by Fred Turner’s 2006 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, which they cite as an important source.

But the curators were bold in embracing such grand narratives. And, in their hands, the story of ‘The Whole Earth’ was given a more expansive cultural and material history. Through this intensive historicization – and their focus on the cultural and ideological production of the capitalist information society – they attempted to query the politics of information and its boundless containment and totalizing incorporation. This urgent political project of relocating an outside – a place where real resistance, subversion and protest is possible – was also made to take on a new urgency, embedded in the broader ‘Anthropocene Project’ (2013–14), an ongoing series of workshops and events at the HKW engaging with the new, post-millennial period marked by mankind’s influence over Earth’s history, and the ecological and political ramifications of these relations in the future.

Sarah E. James is an art historian and writer based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Her next book Paper Revolutions: An Invisible Avant-Garde, is forthcoming from the MIT Press.