11 Sep 1995
The Psychedelic Fantasies of the Sixties
Dan Graham's Reflections of the Hippies
I sometimes wonder how rich an artwork has to be to inspire interpretations so opposite to mine - so antithetical to what I take to be the main gist of the piece. Are the contradictions that are necessary to produce such a diversity of readings located in the artwork, or in the social experience of the observers who constitute the artwork's public? I'm thinking of Wild in the Streets: The Sixties (1994), the tragicomic rock opera by Dan Graham and Marie-Paule Macdonald recently published by Imschoot, uitgevers as an illustrated pop-up book. In the liner notes, Mike Kelley writes: 'For those of us who are now long past the age of 30, the age at which you became useless, it is a bitter experience to look back and see how a generation was seduced by this cult of youth.' 1 While there is a certain despair in the work, Wild in the Streets: The Sixties, as I see it, is wistfully nostalgic for the youth culture of the decade and sullen about its demise. An earlier work by Dan Graham, Eisenhower and the Hippies (1967), is permeated by a similar longing, though this time for the 50s from the retrospective vantage point of the late 60s. 2 Taken together, these artworks suggest two poles in a mini-history of the hippies, one contemplating the emergence of hippie culture, the other its end. The 'bitter experience' behind these works though, is not in their consideration of how the 60s generation was 'seduced [read: duped] by the cult of youth,' but precisely in the waning of this cult, and by extension the dissipation of its Arcadian dreams.
Tending toward quietism, the hippie culture of the 60s was an apolitical, polymorphous, sexually promiscuous counter-culture embodying a philosophy that stressed the need for pacifism, creativity, gratification and community. It translated these values into a radical break with society's institutions, culture and lifestyle. Instead of aggression, destructive productivity, obscene commercialism and conspicuous consumption, the hippie culture affirmed peace, love, sensuousness, environmentalism, and a simpler, less materialistic life. The ideal community was envisioned as one where everyone was turned on and happy and floating free. 3 Marshall McLuhan suggested that in these group activities, the electronic would take precedence over the mechanical, and the parameters of individual identity would dissolve into the collective body. The new tribal culture broke with the nuclear family structure in favour of a new communal structure primarily underpinned by various forms of Dionysian excess: casual sex, psychedelic drugs, and very loud rock music.
At the late 60s rock concerts in particular, the mesmerising aspects of the music combined with the spellbinding effects of the commonly used drugs to produce psychedelic fantasies where everyone was equal. The aim was to break free from the rationalised, disciplined, and mostly middle-class world of one's parents by becoming what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari described at the time as 'deterritorialised'. This type of experience, in which all sense of a discrete and coherent subject is taken apart, was a crucial element in the youth revolt against the Oedipal father, both at home and in the nebulous 'Establishment' which sought to quell freedom in any way it could.
At the same time, though, there was inherent in hippie culture a pursuit of an Arcadia that seemed to many to have been lost with the passage of time. Such quests culminated in psychedelic fantasies of returning to a pre-capitalist attachment to the land by moving to the country, to the desert, getting away from the city, and by extension escaping modernity. These visions were the way in which nature, culture, time, and the notion of modernisation were critically assessed. What was conspicuously repressed in these psychedelic fantasies, however, was a sense of historical memory of the period Walter Benjamin once referred to as the 'just past'. 4
Unlikely as it may seem, Dan Graham's Eisenhower and the Hippies proposes the crucial role played by the late 50s in the formation of the hippie culture of the 60s. Part photo-journalism, part poetry, the work takes the form of a simulacrum of an illustrated magazine article, but it is psychedelic visual art at the same time. The formal strategy employed by Graham is to acknowledge that since aesthetic communication in a society of advanced mass culture usually takes place through the magazine medium, the conventional mode of exhibition can be effectively short-circuited by placing the work directly in the context of a magazine. Graham inscribes the work itself from the beginning within the distribution channels through which it will be received anyway.
It hardly needs stressing that this reconfiguration of public space can be seen to have been informed by the Pop art of the early 60s. I want to go further, however, and propose that Eisenhower and the Hippies is bound up with Pop art strategies not only in its questioning of uniqueness and originality, but also in its reflection on the historical moment that had just passed. Allan Kaprow noted this aspect of Pop art in his provocative essay 'Pop Art: Past, Present and Future' (1967). There is noticeable in Pop Art, Kaprow writes, 'a remarkable degree of soft irony, often deliberately sentimentalised, tinged with a subtle nostalgia for a period recently gone by... For all its directness, apparent objectivity and detachment from personal emotions, most pop art evokes a romance for the era ... of the artist's childhood.' 5
Eisenhower and the Hippies is ostensibly about an exhibition of paintings by Dwight D. Eisenhower held at the New York Cultural Center in May 1967. Graham's essay is partly a parody of a typical think piece in a magazine, but it is also a highly ironic, psychedelic reflection on the Eisenhower era of the 50s, the time of the artist's childhood, through the lens of the mid-60s. The irony is that although the 60s counter-culture was avowedly anti-Eisenhower, anti-conformist and anti-suburban, Eisenhower and the Hippies suggests that many of its values - such as those about a communal future and about some great past - in fact look suspiciously like the middle-class dreams of the previous decade. These ideas were embodied in the demeanour of the era's President, who campaigned under his nickname 'Ike,' encouraging the identification of the middle-class American with his suburban qualities. Eisenhower reciprocated with a populist campaign of 'People-to-People' programs, renaming the nation's defence policy 'Power-for-Peace,' and offering such populist dicta as 'America does not prosper unless all Americans prosper,' or 'We espouse the cause of freedom and justice for all,' suggesting elements of the Arcadian, classless society. The younger generation of 'flower children,' writes Graham, 'seems content with the president of the Era of Tranquillisers.'
In contrast to the moralism of the New Left of the decade who would confront the Establishment head on through activist strategies such as protests and demonstrations, the hippies, like Eisenhower, 'sincerely disliked conflict.' 'I make it a point to avoid hating anyone,' Graham quotes Eisenhower as saying. And, like Ike, Graham observes, the hippies want to be loved by all of the world's inhabitants. Their choice of weapons is to promote understanding among people; rather than confront the Establishment with hate, the hippie community preferred 'to love the Establishment to death.'
Mesmerising reflections lead the way through Eisenhower and the Hippies as the reader is told that 'a proliferation of alliterative p's was the hallmark of the Eisenhower presidency ... pot, pussy, peace, and perversion.' Then, likening the Eisenhower era to the latter days of the Roman Empire that gave way to the emergence of the Piscean-Christian era, Graham's voice drifts into an astrological lotus land. Gradually, the depth of the narrative floats to the surface and the tone itself gets stoned. Graham's writing becomes muddled and ambiguous: 'In Be-Ins, a "separate but equal" philosophy prevails. Each participant is free to do his or her individual "thing" apart from everyone else's (or his or her "thing") is more important than anyone else. The only important thing is that everyone be doing their "things" together.'
As the text proceeds in trance-like prose, the picturesque narrative presses relentlessly downward, the sub-headings beat a path, and the paragraphs read like stanzas of a baroque poem. The essay swells into a psychedelic affirmation of incoherence and meaninglessness. An unexpected coda to the text brings memories of dialogue fragments and dream images bubbling to the surface. The effect of the tour is magical, mystical - Graham sinks into the ground of the psychedelic drug culture of the 60s and pops to the surface again in 50s suburbia: 'Heeeere, lovely waddle, waddle dog ... Have you made the beds? The hot dogs are in the freezer. I hear all the restaurants are open. Yes, I love you too. This is the agony I go through having a son like that. He's up in his room rebelling. Oh, now he's going to laugh. She rambles on, bugged again. Get that in. Strawberries topped with cream. Hey, I see another fire. It's only steak cooking time...'
Like the conventional opera, which adapts a popular story, Graham and Macdonald's Wild in the Streets: The Sixties is based on Wild in the Streets, the 1968 film directed by Barry Shear that became a cult classic for a generation. Their rock opera is written for a cast of 10 to 14 year-old youths and a group of teenage musicians who play very short psychedelic rock songs (15 to 30 seconds) at predetermined moments in order to advance the narrative. The set is dominated by a 'rustic hut' called The Berry Farm, in a verdant, pastoral countryside. But rather than the conventional barns and cows, the distant landscape comprises of rows of post-War suburban tract houses, several cylindrical oil storage tanks, and other architectural structures which one would expect to find on the margins of modernity where the city meets the country. The interior scaffolding of The Berry Farm, which serves as the official residence of the US President, resembles both the frames of an incomplete new suburban house and the set design of a Ready Steady Go-style TV programme, equipped with modern telecommunications equipment and crash-pad furnishings. On the walls, amidst an array of psychedelic and op art posters, is a huge photographic blow-up of President Eisenhower. Two more sets are placed in the wings: one represents the interior of Congress from which several inaugural addresses will be made, and the other the fields of a concentration camp where those over 35 will be confined and drugged with LSD.
The opera's tragicomic story-line provides an allegory of the promises and contradictions of late 60s youth culture. On the most immediate level, the narrative is a farcical reflection on American democracy which, unlike the Parliamentary system, elects Presidents directly. Following the film fairly closely, Graham and MacDonald's opera begins with the grass roots campaign of the opportunistic, 'Kennedy-image "New Politician"' John Fergus, who is running for state congress in California on a platform that promises to lower the voting age to 18. Remember that in the late 60s it was widely believed that the young, because of their numbers, would soon take over power. As Time magazine reported in the January 1967 issue that nominated the '25 and under' generation 'Man of the Year,' the baby-boomers 'will soon be the majority in charge.' 6
In another scheme contrived to secure the youth vote, Fergus asks the rock singer Neil Sky, the 24 year old whose name is a fusion of the Neil Young and Sky Saxon of The Seeds, to perform at his political rally, a request with which the latter complies. At the rally, however, Sky introduces his new song 14 or Fight!, which calls for the lowering of the voting age to 14:
Johnny Fergus wants to change the voting age to 18.
Man, the boy who does my income tax is 15.
Johnny Fergus, you give us the vote when we are 14.
14 or Fight! 14 or Fight!
We're going to do it right
We've got the number now
We want the vote now...!
Sky's enthralling performance, broadcast live on television, induces teenagers to riot. The extent of the riots is so enormous that the US legislature pass constitutional amendments lowering the voting age - to 14! Following the amendment, the water supply in Washington is laced with LSD by Sky's political strategists. More riots take place, a state of emergency is called, and both the President and Vice President soon resign. And in the ensuing vote, members of Congress, stoned on LSD, elect Neil Sky as President of the United States. Sky's rapid ascent suggests the importance of sound bite culture in American politics, echoing Jerry Rubin's battle cry: 'we gotta reduce politics to the simplicity of a rock 'n' roll lyric'. 7 The importance of the media is reasserted by the Berry Farm's hi-tech media tools, including television cameras and oversize monitors.
Wild in the Streets: The Sixties also touches on the youth fantasy of escaping from the nuclear family, an institution perceived to be in crisis anyway, in search of a communal culture where young men and women live together as brothers and sisters. 'Runaways are the backbone of the youth revolution,' wrote Abbie Hoffmann in the late 60s, 'A 15 year-old kid who takes off from middle-class American life is an escaped slave crossing the Mason-Dixie line ... America has lost her children.' 8 Of course, the backbone of the alternate communal structure was drugs and rock music, both of which facilitated the escape from the conscious self. 'Are you stoned?,' asks one hippie communist to another in Graham and Macdonald's opera, to which comes the reply: 'Words... aren't necessary any more.' The dialogue fades off into a smoky, dreamy phantasmagoria of stoned observation: 'Dig... You see a beautiful, naked "Flower Child" in a field running in the breeze on the one hand and on the other hand you have a politician selling us on the War wearing a business suit and you show the two images to a child. You know which one the child will pick, man.'
But Wild in the Streets: The Sixties is also a parody of hippie generational politics, crystallised in the youth slogan 'Don't trust anybody over 30.' Upon his election by the teenage vote, Neil Sky makes 30 the mandatory retirement age, with the over-35s checking into a 'rehabilitation camp' where, 'in groovy surroundings,' they receive mandatory LSD everyday. The farcical nature of these generational politics is doubled, however, in the Oedipal relationship between Neil Sky and his adopted son, Jim Morrison. Sky's narcissistic identification with the child alludes to the perception that this phenomenon ran deep in 60s American culture. Then, following a dialogue between Neil Sky and Jim Morrison in which the former asserts his paternal authority, the child rebels, declares his 24 year-old father to be 'too old,' and proceeds to run away from home.
The set for the opera's final scene depicts a landscape with the three figures of the German Romantic painter Philip Otto Runge's The Hülsenbeck Children (1806) collaged into the foreground. Two children, no more than four of five years old, pull a cart in which an infant is seated. Like Runge's painting, Wild in the Streets: The Sixties envisions children as genuine, spontaneous, irrational beings that imagine themselves living a magical Alice-in-Wonderland life, in absolute harmony with nature. Of course, the dream of going back to a primal state of what Herbert Marcuse at the time referred to as 'polymorphous sexuality,' where life instincts still dominate the death drive and 'the human body is [an] instrument of pleasure rather than labour,' was also a prime motivation for leagues of flower children embarking on the psychedelic drug experience. 9
Sky searches languidly through the melancholic landscape for his runaway son with Eisenhower, his beagle. At one point he stops and looks at his reflection in a pond, Narcissus-like. Disrupted by the movement of a crawdaddy sliding beneath the still surface of the water, President Sky grabs the animal and kills it. Soon thereafter, Jim Morrison emerges out of the landscape with a gang of small children and, accusing his father of having killed one of his pets, announces that he and his generation are going 'to put everybody over ten out of business.' Comic and tragic, farcical and outrageous, the generational conflict of the 60s is reduced to the absurd. And yet it goes right to the core of the Utopianism of that culture. 'Our leaders are seven year-olds,' stated Rubin, along with Hoffmann one of the organisers of the anarcho-hippie phenomenon that came to be known as the Youth International Party (Yippie), 'everything the yippies do is aimed at three to seven year-olds... Our message: Don't grow up. Growing up means giving up your dreams. ' 10
1. Dan Graham and Marie-Paule Macdonald, Wild in the Streets: The Sixties, pub. Imschoot, uitgevers, 1994, Gent, Belgium.
2. Eisenhower and the Hippies was recently republished in Brian Wallis, ed., Rock My Religion: Writings and Art Projects 1965-1990/Dan Graham pub. Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1993, pp. 6-11. Graham's Eisenhower and the Hippies was initially to be inserted in Arts Magazine in the summer of 1967. When these plans fell through, Graham then submitted the work to Artforum, whose editor also rejected it. Ultimately, it was not published until Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer agreed to include the piece in O to 9, 6 July 1969, pp. 30-37.
3. See Warren Hinckle, 'A Social History of the Hippies,' Ramparts, March 1967, pp. 5-26.
4. Walter Benjamin, 'Paris - the Capital of the Nineteenth Century', 1935, trans. Harry Zohn, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, London, Verso, 1983, p.159.
5. Allan Kaprow, 'Pop Art: Past, Present and Future', The Malahat Review, July 1967; reprinted in Carol Anne Mahsun, ed., Pop Art: The Critical Dialogue, pub. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms Inc., 1989, p.63.
6. 'Man of the Year: Twenty-five and Under,' Time 89:1, 6 January 1967, p.18.
7. Jerry Rubin, 'Do It: Scenarios of the Revolution!' , pub. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1970, p.113.
8. Abbie Hoffmann, 'Revolution for the Hell of It', pub. New York, Dial, 1968, p.74.
9. Herbert Marcuse, 'Eros and Civilization', pub. Boston, Beacon Press, 1966, p. 15.
10. Rubin, ibid. p.87.
First published in Issue 25