Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

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Review of Counterculture Conference

I had the pleasure of attending an interdisciplinary academic conference in San Francisco, “Revisiting the Summer of Love, rethinking the counterculture,” on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love.” Co-sponsored by Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement and the California Historical Society, the conference offered a compelling “history-from-below” focused more on grassroots community organizing and coalition-building than the usual suspects (Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, et al). The editors of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture  gave me the opportunity to reflect on the conference and offer some summary/synthesis. Here’s the first couple of paragraphs:

The season has passed into myth: San Francisco’s 1967 “Summer of Love,” a sybaritic outpouring of song, sex, dance, poetry, and drugs when tens-of-thousands of young people flooded into the Haight-Ashbury district in search of a hippie utopia. That winter the Human Be-In marked a “gathering of the tribes” in Golden Gate Park: Allen Ginsberg chanted, the Grateful Dead provided the soundtrack, the Diggers distributed free food, and Timothy Leary enjoined the crowd to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” By then the North Beach beat bohemia had flowered into the Haight-Ashbury’s psychedelic subculture, with musicians, poets, and artists living semi-communally in rundown Victorian houses. The “San Francisco Five” designed iconic acid rock posters for performances by the likes of the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish at the Avalon Ballroom and The Fillmore. The Monterey Pop Festival made legends out of then relatively unknown performers, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

Fifty years later, another “gathering of the tribes” convened in San Francisco – nearly 175 scholars, students, archivists, activists, and counterculture veterans – to make sense of what had happened half-a-century earlier. Northwestern University’s Center for Civic Engagement partnered with the California Historical Society to present “Revisiting the Summer of Love, Rethinking the Counterculture,” an interdisciplinary academic conference with the stated goal of “celebrating and reexamining the Summer of Love and its associated events, contexts, and implications.” Director of the Center, Dan Lewis, outlined some of the ambitions for the conference in his introductory remarks. He hoped that participants would model new methods and approaches to a period too often caricatured in pop culture or dismissed in academic circles. He issued, in effect, an institutional mandate for universities to get serious about the counterculture, to “reset the agenda,” in his words. In his plenary address, historian Michael J. Kramer (Northwestern University) suggested a methodology drawn from the counterculture itself: a “kaleidoscopic” openness to history as multifaceted, open-ended, and variegated, oscillating psychedelically between micro- and macrocosmic perspectives.

Here’s a link to the review.

RIP David Bowie

Ashes to Ashes, stardust to stardust…

R.I.P. Catherine Coulson

Ashland, OR, where my family lives, is mourning the passing of a beloved community member and Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor, Catherine Coulson.

Although she played an astonishing array of characters on stage, she will forever be identified with the iconic role of the “Log Lady” on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It’s a pretty awesome legacy, in my opinion (as you might tell by my pen and ink drawing of her in the role), and one that Catherine embraced wholeheartedly. When my dad told her it was my birthday and that I was a fan of Twin Peaks she sent me a signed postcard and reminded me that “the Owls are not what they seem.” It was just one small example of the generosity and benevolence she was known for in the Ashland community. I’m deeply saddened I won’t be able to see her on the boards at the OSF or revel in her resuming her role as the Log Lady for the Showtime reboot of the series, but I know that she’s reunited with her log in the White Lodge.

Exhibition Review: “Unfortunately, It Was Paradise”

paradise1The journal Contemporaneity has published my review of Regina Mamou’s haunting series of photographs, “Unfortunately, It Was Paradise” (Chicago, IL — City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, 2013-2014).  Using various Midwest utopian communities as her subject allowed Mamou to explore the relationship between geography and ideology — how certain utopian ideals and convictions become embedded in physical spaces . I admired the way she put pressure on photography to elicit psychological and spiritual states, something she is continuing to investigate in her new work (check out her website). It was a pleasure to reflect on her thoughtful, fascinating series.

Mist shrouds an open field; the softness suffocates. In Fieldwork (Blue) Regina Mamou stages the paradox of immanence and imminence—God always and everywhere on the verge of appearing: a stifling remoteness, an intimate distance.  The “field” could be visual, physical, conceptual; The “work” is the visual object, the photograph, or the physical work of agriculture, or the conceptual realm of the divine: God in the godliness of good works, of work accomplished in the service of collective wellbeing.

The review is available as a PDF for download through Contemporaneity’s website.

Left Front Podcast Interview

Industrial Frankenstein

Henry Simon – Industrial Frankenstein, 1934

Thomas Seely of Art Uncovered was kind of enough to host me and Jill Bugajski on his podcast to discuss The Left Front. Thomas asked interesting, relevant questions and it was a pleasure to discuss with him some of the exhibition’s central themes and ideas. One of the most abiding pleasures of working on The Left Front was giving interviews and gallery talks with my co-curator, Jill, whose intellectual curiosity and articulate enthusiasm never ceased to inspire and educate me. At this point we’ve done television, print and podcast interviews, and I’ve appreciated every opportunity to promote an exhibition I feel really passionate about, and get the word out about artists I consider wrongly neglected or overlooked. (I’m also pleased that people keep bringing up Henry Simon’s Industrial Frankenstein, since it’s one of my personal favorites from the show, but one that had a precarious life on the checklist until we finally installed.) Check out The Left Front interview and other Art Uncovered podcasts here. 

Guernica essay on The Left Front

John Reed - Ten Days that Shook the WorldRoslyn Bernstein of Guernica (the masthead: “a magazine of art & politics”) has offered a thoughtful and ruminative take on The Left Front. She was kind enough to spend time with me and my co-curator, Jill Bugajski, in the Grey Gallery, asking us questions as we gave her an unofficial tour of the exhibition. The interview happened soon after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, so the resonance of recent events with The Left Front (which features a strong dose of controversial political and social satire) was on our minds.  As the first paragraph suggests, the exhibition also had a personal resonance for Roslyn:

My association with the left goes back to my high school years in Long Beach, NY. It was there, in a friend’s basement, that I first read issues of the Communist Party newspaper, The Daily Worker. Several of my friends’ parents had been thrown out of the New York City school system during the McCarthy years and they had gone into hiding in this small beach town, 45 minutes outside the city. Occasionally, I saw flyers and posters in the basement, too, demanding better working conditions and higher wages for the proletariat; they were left over from rallies in Union Square and from secret meetings in Greenwich Village.

Read the rest of her essay here.