Last week, Machine Project hosted a presentation by twenty-something archaeologist Annie Danis; one in a series of talks she's coordinating about archeology from the contemporary past. Danis discussed hippie trash, literally stuff she and her peers had dug up from a late 60s early 1970s midden, collapsed pit house, and hippie-teepee on a commune site in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico (just north of Taos). The dig, directed by Kaet Heupel of Columbia University, is on the lands of New Buffalo. That commune was relatively well known for its "goin' native" take on the back-to-the-earth movement. It was also the inspiration for the commune represented in the film "Easy Rider." According to Danis, the artifact they all secretly hoped to find was a stale dirt-laden joint. No luck. They did however find a potsherd with the word "love" inscribed in it. Danis' area of study on the dig was medical waste. In her presentation she focused on stories and speculations around unearthed condoms, birth control pills, and lotion for the treatment the "hippie bug" -- scabies.
Danis also shared a slide picturing an acrostic. Playing off the two A's in archaeology it spelled out ARCHAEOLOGY AS ART. She explained how her métier, like ballet, is an activity you "do." And particularly in regards to archeology of the contemporary past, what you're really doing, according to Danis is a form of social practice art (appropriately she also participates in a site specific performance collective called Alamo LAbs). You get folks from a certain generation to tell stories by looking at older stuff. Two of the more well-known examples of this form of archaeology puts it into perspective: one involved a "dig" in a Ford Transit van; the other involved the study of a somebody's living room mantel. At New Buffalo part of the excavation involved unearthing stories from the community of New Buffalo around Taos, about the stuff found.
In 2004, digging in a used bookstore, I came across issue 5 of "Avante Garde Magazine," from 1968. Inside I was surprised when I found an article called "High On the Hog Farm." Current day "New Yorker" art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote it. The Hog Farm was a commune located in the hills above Sunland, a town in the far north of the San Fernando Valley. It was headed by Hugh Romney (née Wavy Gravy). Gravy and the commune were here in L.A., before decamping for New York. At Woodstock, they provided free food and security for the famous rock festival. The article captures the rituals, characters, battles, and architecture of their happening in the hills. I'm drawn to hippie culture and particularly interested in the remnants of hippiedom in our culture today. With this in mind, I invited Annie on a trip to try and locate the site of the old Hog Farm in Sunland. With a trowel in her bag, she came conspicuously dressed in a paisley patterned mini-dress.
Annie, what did you think of our hike today?
Danis: Nothing like some hippie hunting to start your weekend off right! I found it fascinating; I love experiences that make the layered history of places, especially places as crazy as Los Angeles, really apparent.
In your talk at Machine you discussed the concept of the "contemporary past." What is that, and how does that relate to both the artifacts and ideologies of the 1960s?
Danis: The contemporary past is a flexible thing -- you might say it's loosely the past of the current generation and a generation or two preceding it. The funny thing about it, though, is it's constantly changing. There is a sense in which the contemporary past is related to a notion of being "super-modern," which makes the present become the past almost immediately. It makes what just happened historical, in the blink of an eye. The stuff of the 60s sit squarely in that recent past, and is one of these moments in history that is constantly being rehashed in the present in a very obvious way. (See retro nostalgia and my dress as just two examples.) Personally, I didn't experience the countercultural movements of the 60s and 70s, but my parents certainly did. And a lot of what I know about that time come from a kind of close memory, like that of parents or pop culture. Looking at hippie stuff through the lens of archaeology gives us a whole other perspective on what was (and maybe still is) going on. Letting the objects themselves speak in harmony with the people who lived at New Buffalo makes the story of counter-culture deliciously complicated and rich. It lets the things ask questions of us, while at the same time we ask questions of things.
In conversation, you mentioned a recent project people carried out using methodologies of archeology to perform an "excavation" of the culture at Zuccotti Park during its occupation. You also mentioned that some of your colleagues at New Buffalo considered themselves anarchists. Why do you think anarchists or progressives are drawn to the rear looking discipline of archeology?
Danis: The OWS archaeology is interesting -- there was a conference session at the most recent meeting of the Theoretical Archaeology group dedicated to the archaeology of contemporary protest. Some students from Columbia and Barnard examined different aspects of the materiality of OWS in Zucotti Park including mind mapping and a study of the Tree Of Life Shrine. Because of the intense immediacy, both in time and space, but also in relevance; people are trying to figure out what OWS is right now. And we're using every tool we have. Why shouldn't archeology, that is the study of material culture in the "past," be one of those tools alongside architecture, design, and the like?
To your question, though, I'd say that a few of my colleagues might consider themselves anarchists -- and more surely, many have activist practices in a range of issues and forms. Anthropology and archaeology often attract people with vested interests in the way society functions because it studies how it has functioned in the past. This includes everything from Neolithic toolmakers to hippies. It is an opportunity to look at the fantastically large set of strategies people have used to organize, survive, and create. I suppose it makes sense then, that those of us looking for new or different ways of living "today" would be interested in how others did it yesterday.
There are two ways to get up to the old Hog Farm place. One is through an old gated horsey community nestled back in the low oaken hills there. In the Avante Garde article Schjedahl suggested that the gate went in to help keep the hippies out. The other way is a dusty fire road starting down by the Big Tujunga River. In case you didn't notice it -- up here in the Northern Valley, all of the sudden you are in The West. The sky lies back blue today, and on the dusty dry trail we walk upon, the city recedes into a vestige over a horizon above mesquite slopes. A strategic cut off sends you up a steep stretch of dust, which flattens out to the site of the former Hog Farm. The wind here is power. And this hot afternoon, it's immediately clear why this place would have been hippy heaven from a glamorous city's forgotten back 40. Woe begotten mixed with the sacrament coming from the blessing bestowed on those living at the edge of the known world. The place sits on a promontory, on one side it looks over a new golf course in the wash and all that flows towards pounding city life -- on the other it's an empty vast National Forest's wilds:
Administration of the commune is on a daily rotation basis with everyone, kids included, taking turns as "Dance Master" or "Dance Mistress." "When you have this many people living together," Romney observes, "you've got to dance or you step on somebody's hand." The Dance Master sees that things get done by someone who wants to do them. He coordinates. He mobilizes the as-needed "garbage runs". Several times a week, by law, the supermarkets throw out tons of perfectly edible vegetables and fruit. The Hog Famers browse in these remains, unobtrusive parasites on the nutritive wastes of an affluent society. The Dance Mistress sees to the day's meals. Vegetable stews and cheap brown rice feed the people. A New Deal enthusiasm and willingness to experiment with even the most disreputable metaphysics is the rule. Mediation in some form is universally practiced with breathing meditation the most popular form. Besides "the Circle Joke," there is the "Gong Bong." Also performed in a circle. Gong Bong requires hyperventilation -- 14 deep drags of fresh air, reaching a climax as all stand and let out their last breath "with whatever sound is inherent in that breath." By such means, reinforced by periodic, reverent use of pot and LSD, a constant high -- called samadhi in the lexicon of Zen -- is sought. But there is no more dogma to their religion than there is conventionality in their lives. Hog Consciousness means living absolutely in the moment, and dogma is a drag. Says the Commissioner of Talk: "God is just what's happening. We are the sum of our desires. How do we know 'What is Right?' You know in the moment, while it's happening. ... Our crops are in the heart, and those are crops you cant' plow under."1
Isolated still, today the Hog Farm land seems to be in the ownership of a church. The main building is still there, though perhaps expanded. Danis and I walked around comparing photos of the old place to what's here now. There were no pieces of geodesic dome laying about, no bell-bottom trousers poking from under a rock down a ravine. We tried to find "High Hill" which was "a rise overlooking the Farm and specially reserved for the purpose." No luck. Danis noted that there had been a lot of disturbance of the soil around the place, and suggested that digging there may not be so fruitful. At one point she bent down to examine a piece of "old blue glass". We guessed it could be a medicine bottle, or perhaps maybe a fragment of some psychedelic wonderkey-juju-whosamowhatsis. Otherwise we saw nothing giving the slightest hint of this place's considerable countercultural pedigree- except if you see a hammock hung between two stately trees as groovy.
On our way back to our car, we looked up a side ravine. Aloud, I imagined to Annie that up there lived a community of recalcitrant hippies hiding out from the economy. They continued to survive there, enjoying the fruits of the affluent society still here. Annie added, jokingly, that perhaps they lived there next to a settlement of old order Mormons.
Annie, what is the concept of "the past in the present?"
Danis: The "past in the present" refers to the idea that we are constantly re-hashing, remixing, and remaking history. Archaeology is the process of creating the past (or new narrative of the past) in the present, and in that sense is a productive act. Archaeology MAKES stories, and these stories about the past become part of our present moment. Looking at the recent past just makes this "story making" more evident, because the archaeological narratives speaks in concert with all the others we may already be familiar with (oral histories, written narratives, etc.). I've been exploring this idea from the "scientific" side with archeology and from the "creative" side with Alamo LAbs. Both of these modes are ways that the reality of the past inhabiting the present can be brought to light.
1Peter Schjeldahl, Living "High on the Hog Farm, " Avante Garde 5 (1968): 44-51.