The Anthropocene Series // California über Alles

Article by Alison Hugill in Berlin; Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Anthropocene Series looks at shows in the two year project launched by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, from January 2013 to December 2014. Through a series of comprehensive exhibitions, the Anthropocene Project investigates a paradigm shift in the natural sciences toward a human-centred understanding of nature and provides new models for culture, politics, and everyday life.

Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) opened their two-year research study ‘The Anthropocene Project’ in January of this year. The project proposes the Anthropocene–the ‘age of mankind’–as our current geological epoch, in which it is now widely believed that humanity forms nature. The Anthropocene model suggests that the Earth’s current geo-processes are primarily effects of an expanding human population, technological innovation, and economic development.

In the context of this greater research project, HKW recently launched an exhibition exploring, in its innumerable manifestations, the history of the famous photograph of the ‘blue planet’ and the power of the 1960s ‘Whole Earth Catalogue.’ The Whole Earth catalogue–a compendium of DIY tools for eco-friendly, utopian living–was the catalyst for what came to be known as the ‘Californian Ideology.’ As the exhibition makes clear, this movement saw an alliance between hippie culture and cybernetics, flagrant orientalism and the romanticization of nature.

While the opening of the Anthropocene Project as a whole–including a three-day research conference–promised very little in the way of self-criticality, this exhibition refreshingly questions environmentalist politics of sustainability and their tendency to be complicit with neo-liberalism and the capitalist mainstream. The curators, Diedrich Diedrichsen of Spex magazine fame and art critic Anselm Franke, accomplished an archival feat in their meticulous analysis of this era of naive idealism. The far-reaching exhibition contains everything from documentary footage (clips from Adam Curtis’ ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’), to pop-cultural and scientific paraphernalia to contemporary art and historical artifacts, all attesting to the vagaries of this eco-political movement.

The show exposes the naiveté of the hippie movement and its free-loving communes, not in an effort to present their politics as inherently flawed but rather in order to pinpoint where the desire to live “outside the system” was wholly re-appropriated by eco-capitalism and the ‘network society.’ The subtitle of the exhibition “The Disappearance of the Outside” suggests, at least in part, that the Whole Earth philosophy managed to subsume notions of difference under a rubric of false unity. The communes, in many ways idyllic for their inhabitants, begin to smack of neo-fascist ideology, as they are presented in the context of this exhibition. The fight against the individualism of the American Dream took the form of a community based on questionable notions of shared essence and, ultimately, through emphasis on collective self-management, turned back into a kind of business model, giving capitalism a ‘human face.’

The most succinct criticism displayed in the exhibition space comes in the form of the punk response: the Dead Kennedys’ 1979 song ‘California über alles’ explicitly targets “Zen-fascists” and Californian Governor Jerry Brown, who was largely responsible for solidifying the ‘Californian Ideology’ within party politics. The rest of the pieces in the exhibition serve to build up the holistic picture of this particular brand of counterculture.

The Whole Earth exhibition is rife with archival material that, in its masterful curation, offers a narrative of the 1960s fascination with eco-friendly ‘alternatives’ and their almost seamless re-appropriation into a greater capitalist system. The idea of the Anthropocene rests upon this historical juncture and the current politics of sustainability have inherited much from this ideology. The exhibition poses critical questions about this (counter)cultural heritage and the way in which it has influenced transformations in politics and art over the last fifty years. The exhibition requires hours–maybe over the span of a couple visits–to absorb but it is well worth the time.


Additional Information

Exhibition: Apr. 26 – Jul. 01, 2013
John-Foster-Dulles-Allee 10 (click here for map)

There will be a conference to accompany the exhibition on Friday, June 21st at 6pm and Saturday, June 22nd at 2pm, with theorists Mercedes Bunz, Katja Diefenbach, Erich Hörl, Tom Holert, Fred Turner and others.


Alison Hugill has a Masters degree in Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Alison is the Arts & Culture Editor of Review 31 and is based in Berlin and Bergen, Norway.

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