Counter-Architecture: West of Center at the Denver Center for Contemporary Art
The short-lived encampments that sprung up this fall in
major cities to protest economic inequality bring to mind the much longer and
more fertile period of rage against the machine that lasted between roughly the
Summer of Love and the Oil Crisis. To
get a sense of what it may have looked like, you can take a trip to Denver to
see "West of Center: Art and Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965-1977" at
the Museum of Contemporary Art there (through Feb. 19, 2012; you can also
catch it the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art next fall, September 19
through Jan. 13 of 2013; a lot more material is also at http://mcadenver.blogspot.com). There you can see how things truly fell apart–in a beautiful way.
The encampments of the late 1960s were both shorter in
duration and more ephemeral, or they lasted quite a bit longer–Drop City, the
most successful commune, thrived in the arid plains of Colorado for more than seven years, between 1965 and 1973. Even the places that put down roots, however, did so lightly, and with
messy, ad hoc buildings their collaborative makers cobbled together. The point was not to make structures, which were just the embodiment of power, or even things, which were the stuff of
consumer society, but to tune in, turn on, and drop out. The counterculture was exactly that: against a coherent culture.
Image credit: a scene from Drop City, a documentary film by Joan Grossman and Tom McCourt.
That makes it difficult to exhibit, and the Denver show
suffers from the issues that bedevil most exhibits about process or events: the
action has gone out of the debris that the curators have carefully collected as
relics of the movements. The protest
posters and magazines framed and laid under glass lack the power and punch they
no doubt once had hanging on walls or passed from hand to hand. The handmade
costumes drape rather than glitter and glow. What the show does have is video evidence of the real contributions the
searchers, drop-outs, and rural revolutionaries had to offer: the making of
As the show and the catalog both point out, the
counterculture moved away from and against the city as well as any enclosing and permanent structure. They dreamed of permanent revolution, women's utopias in Oregon, and other forms of communion with others and nature. The self-forming communities depended on happenings and events, often focused around music
more than protest, to bring people together and create a temporary village. The light shows, some of
which the organizers have lovingly recreated, offered participants at least
visual access to other worlds. The
magazines connected outlaw communities to each other across the country,
announcing get-togethers as well as making social connections.
The core of "West of Center," both spatially and in terms of
the arguments it makes, is an evocation through film and photographs of the collaborative dance performances Lawrence
Halprin (the landscape architect who gave us Sea Ranch) and his wife Anna
organized in Marin County. Participants
explored their own and others’ bodies and the landscape in walks, dances, and exercises. If anything remained, it was piles of
driftwood they assembled. The video
recordings give some sense of the ways in which the Halprins and their friends
–architects, dancers, laypeople of all sorts—sought to create not a physical
new world, but a place of deep and embedded connection.
You also get a sense of what it meant by watching the “orgy”
scene Anna Halprin contributed to Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie
Point, in which the writhing bodies in the desert contrast with the slow motion
explosion of the modernist house in which the film’s evil developer lives. Counterculture and counter-architecture, these
makers were unmaking, un-building, and revealing architectures of sensual
power. It is only too bad that we have
to live with the ruins, but perhaps they can be the building blocks for other
virtual worlds enabled by the kind of technology and community of which the
subjects of this exhibition could only dream.