A recent exhibition, The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside, interrogated what pale blue fragments lie in the wake of the whole earth’s broken promise. Review by Hannah Black
Images of the moon landing in 1969 show American astronauts taking giant steps on new territory. The footage is at once haunting and banal, US colonial and purportedly global, an impossible multiple charge that must be one of the reasons for the psychically protective conspiracy theory that it was all a studio set fake. On the way back from a visit to Diedrich Diedrichsen and Anselm Franke’s encyclopaedic exhibition The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside at the Haus der Kulteren der Welt in Berlin, I saw a Red Bull ad featuring contemporary space icon Felix Baumgartner, suspended above the earth, about to begin his pointless descent. Where the astronauts ascended, a triumph of western capitalist ingenuity, Baumgartner falls straight down, a single vulnerable body, the melancholic Fordist opening credits of Mad Men played out on a cosmic plane. The main pleasure of watching his fall was not the triumph of science, but its possible failure: the chance that something might have gone fatally wrong.
The Whole Earth, which closed at the beginning of July, was the second big show of HKW’s Anthropocene series, a high concept programme situating the present conjuncture in the long history of the earth: the contemporary moment as the final domination of second nature over first. Scientist Paul Crutzen proposed the term ‘anthropocene’ to indicate a geological age of the human. HKW’s use of the concept exudes institutional confidence, fusing an invocation of contemporaneity, the long sweep of geological time, and the bonus that it excludes absolutely nothing. More problematically, the idea of the anthropocene, like much eco-discourse, is full of hidden fissures: there is, in reality, no unified humanity that confronts nature as one equally guilty and equally implicated global subject. The neutral scientific phrase ‘human behaviour’ stands in for the rapacity of capitalism, naturalising exploitation and ignoring how the causes and effects of ecological change are split along the faultlines of race, gender and class.
Diedrichsen and Franke’s show is a corrective intervention into this analysis free analysis, critiquing its implied Eden (the intact earth) via an anti-history of pop culture. The show’s premise is the famous NASA image of the globe released in 1968, the blue and white sphere from which Neil Armstrong and colleagues departed and towards which Baumgartner plummets, a telos – from corporate ascent to individual descent – that forms a similar arc to that described by the show’s main argument. The curators interrogate the ‘blue planet’ image as a false holism, an ideological insistence on an indivisible global mankind, and a narcissistic involution of perspective. Like Adam Curtis in his series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (excerpted in the show, which, like Curtis, draws extensively on Fred Turner’s book From Counterculture to Cyberculture), the curators pin some of the blame on Stewart Brand, the cybernicist hippie who campaigned for the image’s release and displayed it on the cover of his famous Whole Earth Catalog. This was a guide to ‘sustainable living’, including a mixture of instructions about farming, crafts and so on, and advertisements for the necessary equipment. Both the terminology and the ethos exemplified by the Catalog – ‘sustainability’, ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ – have been enthusiastically taken up by current forms of capitalism. The now familiar argument that California hippie culture was not co-opted by neoliberalism, but rather was neoliberalism’s crucible, is evident here, but Diedrichsen and Franke grapple with this ossified counterculture in great detail, exploring its ambiguities and gaps as well as marking its seamless transition into the corporate.
The curators also emphasise the Catalog’s credentials as a kind of precursor to the internet, following the development of the California tendency through into the development of the personal computer and the internet. Brand’s faith in the ‘whole earth’ ideology bears the mark of the hippie obsession with connection, a thread that runs through the show, taking in the Californian turn towards Eastern mysticism as well as technologies of connection such as the personal computer and the internet, which Brand helped to facilitate and popularise. As Diedrichsen and Franke make clear, the hippie discourse of communality lacks any real analysis of capitalism, and uncritically supports togetherness as always already a good thing. Yes, we are all connected, not by cosmic vibrations but by value in motion, and some of us might want less rather than more of this unwilled connection. Among other uneasy connections, the show traces the multiple readings of outer space as nationalist expansion, frontier, global unity and an Afro-futurist repudiation of a racist earth. ‘We have returned to claim the pyramids’, as George Clinton announces in Parliament’s song ‘Mothership Connection (Starchild)’; less lyrically and from an earthbound perspective, Richard Pryor’s roughly contemporaneous joke expresses a similar antagonism: ‘Let’s help those white motherfuckers get to the moon, so they leave us alone.’
Diedrichsen and Franke’s argument unfolds from the centre of the space, where a series of panels discusses the ‘whole earth’ in terms of ’60s anti-state protests, including the Chicago uprisings of 1968 when protesters chanted the slogan ‘the whole world is watching’ at violent police. The slogan is juxtaposed with the Grateful Dead’s description of the lives they soundtracked, ‘You are the eyes of the world.’ This moral surveillance, exemplified in the ‘whole earth’ perspective, converges with the surveillance technologies deployed by the state. Stewart Brand thought that images of the whole prompted eco-awareness by making it clear that the earth is not an infinitely resourced flat plane but instead a compact sphere; at the same time as the earth was apparently offered to all, its borders were sealed shut: planet as panopticon. What is already paradise becomes already prison, in the same moment. Right behind this section of the show, another super-compressed history rifles through images of trashed Hiroshima and briefly describes how Nazi technological innovations were later deployed by the US. The NASA earth image supersedes the mushroom cloud; an image of total destruction is supplanted by a holistic image of total creation. In this reading, the globe picture contains and represses the mushroom cloud, itself an impossible metonym supporting something essentially unfigurable. ‘No image is capable of representing the evil of the Shoah,’ emphasise Diedrichsen and Franke. And yet the (American) protest generation of the 1960s arose from the ashes of the war brandishing NASA’s blue ball as the sigil of an intact world, already complicit with a violent and deliberate forgetfulness that would flower into (among other things) the Cold War. The detail that the first images of space were produced by Nazi V2 rockets is here just a grim flourish.
This breathlessly dense argument is supported with video, text, images and so on, arranged on cheap looking display modules consisting of black tubing, card and trailing wires. The flatpack aesthetic echoes another of the show’s many contentions, that models of ‘self-esteem’ invented and developed alongside systems theory present a monadic and endlessly perfectible persona occupying its own mini-universe: ‘the actualised, emancipated, admired, narcissistically spiced up self has become,’ says a tranche of typically voluble text, ‘an ingredient in many of the intangible products and forms that…play an important role in the post-industrial economy.’ The shadow of Ikea-ification falls on us all. Here it is materially evident not only in the bolted together furniture but in the vast array of ideas and works on show; visits to the show eat up hours as you trail around what feels like an endless industrial hangar, throwing what you can into the trolley: mushroom clouds, cybernetics, dolphins, Larry David, Jefferson Airplane, Parliament, Bob Marley, desert, ocean, outer space… and more… . Perhaps the only reason this show isn’t just a book is that if it were a book it would have to be the internet.