‘The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside’ at HKW

Review for Bang Bang Berlin, 2013

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The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside
Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 26.4 – 1.7, 2013
Curated by Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke

In 1966, American writer Stuart Brand began a campaign to have NASA release the satellite image of earth seen from space, an image of ‘the whole earth’. His idea was to replace the ubiquitous mushroom cloud with a positive symbol of unity, interconnectivity and global responsibility- encouraging us to embrace a larger perspective. Two years later this image formed the cover of The Whole Earth Catalog a compendium of ideas, products and practical advice aimed at helping individuals and communities to live in an ecological and socially sustainable way. An essential instruction book for counter cultural living, the Whole Earth Catalog is often cited as a precursor to contemporary information networks such as Google.

This exhibition, set to the backdrop of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s Anthropocene Project, attempts both to reveal and question the intertwined history of Californian utopian ideology and the development of information systems and network capitalism, with all the ensuing connections and contradictions.

Over two years, the HKW is hosting a series of exhibitions, conferences and events exploring the implications of a world where ‘humans create nature’. Contrary to the Romantic notion of nature being something ‘out there’, separate from us with its own independent power, intelligence or harmony, science now tells us that we have entered a new geological time frame, the Anthropocene where (beginning with industrialization) mans impact on earth’s ecosystems has reached a point where we are shaping nature. We are living in ‘the age of man’. This raises many crucial questions, not only in terms of how to deal with impending environmental catastrophe but also questions as to how we now understand relationships between concepts such as ‘artificial and natural’, ‘global and local’ and fundamentally how we define ourselves as humans.

The Whole Earth explores these ideas through the framework of another seeming dichotomy; that of the hippie counter culture born in California during the sixties, with its D.I.Y attitude of self-built simplicity and local resourcing, and the global digital network, which, as soon becomes apparent traversing the exhibition, have been married from the very beginning. It also highlights how Romantic ideologies about ‘nature’ both supported and undermined political freedoms and oppressions.

The exhibition itself is laid out as an archive of visual and textual material, art works and film footage spanning a breadth of defining political, social and cultural moments since the image of ‘the whole earth’ first entered public consciousness. Displayed on a network of freestanding panels, the structure of which is reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller’s utopian architectural geometries, the works/ texts are divided into sub themes which loosely follow a chronology. The gallery walls then host several larger works and film pieces; Angela Bullochs’s Night Sky which represents a view of the galaxy as seen from another star- thought to have the conditions capable of hosting life -is an timely reflection of the change of perspective offered by the whole earth image, between being on earth and seeing it from the outside. Warhol’s Outer and Inner Space (1965) continues to shift perspectives as Edie Sedgwick has a duologue with her pre-recorded self, creating a kind of hypnotic double vision. Alex Slade’s large scale photographs float at the heart of the exhibition; suspended from the ceiling they are at first glance romantic, expansive landscapes however on closer viewing document industrialized and subsequently abandoned landscapes outside LA, the desert which is both the beginning and end of Californian Utopia.

The exhibition needs time, if not several visits to take it all in. Alongside the lengthy texts and film archive, the contradictions and surprising interconnections are worth some contemplation before returning. Far more than a typical (on first look dry) exhibition of archival material, The Whole Earth is a veritable Aladdin’s cave. Mysticism meets cybernetics, meets transpersonal psychology, psychedelia, activism and ecology, footage of Jefferson Airplane loops as Jordan Belson’s mesmeric abstract film sits quietly between Ana Mendieta’s feminist performance art and Francisco Varela discussing Radical Constructivism. We are led through utopian idealism, JFK pioneering new frontiers to British punk rock and environmental apocalypse. Again and again we find emphasis upon global interdependency and personal responsibility. The Tao Te Ching, described by Brand as the ‘first systems theory book’ forms part of this ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ which aims at dissolving boundaries, both geographical and of the ego (‘the policeman in our heads’) – a dissolution of borders reflected again in the digital information age. All this is presented to us while at the same time critiquing the romanticisation of our search for ‘new frontiers’; by the time we had hit the pacific wall, the reality beneath this utopian myth was genocide of Native American culture.

While there are no fixed answers, this exhibition serves to highlight the complexity and depth of interconnectivity between systems of ‘the whole earth’, technology and ourselves. We are nature. Though sixties counter culture may now seem naive in light of this new ecological awareness of Anthropocene, we could say the Californian spirit of idealism, innovation and global consciousness continues in Silicon Valley- Brand himself being a spokesperson for the positive role of technology in developing an ecologically sustainable future. As his initiative ‘The Long Now Foundation’ challenges short term thinking and our shortening attention spans, so does this exhibition… which, if one can slow down and give it the time and attention it deserves, is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent, substantial and important exhibitions Berlin has seen for years.