New York

“Counterculture”

Exit Art

“Counterculture,” a survey of the last thirty years of “Alternative Information from the Underground Press to the Internet,” displayed some 1,000-plus items organized around such general themes as “Students, Youth, and the Rise of the Underground Press,” “Black Panthers and Third World Struggles,” “Feminism and Gay Liberation,” and “Punk Subculture and Zines.” Walking through this exhibition, fresh and full of discoveries, was at times like browsing through the drawers of a Wünderkammer. Those new to the material could familiarize themselves with “alternative information,” while those more familiar with or perhaps active in one or more of these territories may have felt like Walter Benjamin unpacking his library.

Unfortunately, the sheer size of the show dictated installation practices that more often than not rendered the material mute. The walls were covered with posters, newspapers, and broadsheets, some hung so high as to be illegible. Although the materials could also have been enjoyed for their graphic design and visual interest, the presentation was never adequately stated or developed in these terms, nor did wall labels for the “alternative information” on view ever discuss the items in visual terms. Special viewing tables and ledges displaying books and magazines under plastic made it impossible actually to read these texts. While the desire to protect fragile materials was understandable, less comprehensible was the lack of explanatory labels to supply the necessary contextual information (of eighty-four informational labels, only thirty discussed at any length the political and social issues addressed). The Students for a Democratic Society were described only as codifying “the idea of students or youth as an oppressed class,” the Black Mask were “nihilistic” and “proto-punk,” while the platforms of many activist groups—the Weather Underground, the Diggers, Palante and Collaborative Projects Inc.—were not discussed at all. What made The Realist (shown here in abundance) truly “alternative,” even by today’s standards, for example, was its intermingling of reporting and fiction, which questioned the notion of journalistic truth and assailed the pseudo-objective standards of mainstream media, but this editorial practice went without comment in this show. In the amorphous section on ’zines, the contents of most publications remained completely unexplored; one was unable to tell simply from the covers that the CVS Bulletin or Retrofuturism promote plagiarism and collective authorship or that Factsheet Five is a ’zine about ’zines.

“Counterculture” should have been able to stimulate discussion about the contemporary implications of our countercultural past and present, but there was little to grab hold of. The inadequate contextual information made the exhibition feel incomplete, a sentiment reinforced by the lack of Internet access promised in the exhibition’s subtitle (the only access was a single terminal connected to Exit Art’s homepage).

It is with the resurgence of alternative presses and publishing collectives—many steeped in the traditions forged during the ’60s—as well as the influence of the Internet that makes a historical exhibition like “Counterculture” of interest. The addition of a reading room might have enabled viewers to judge the contemporary relevance of the sociopolitical issues presented and made more clear the diverse, alternative methods employed for disseminating and exchanging information within America’s subcultures. As it stood, however, the exhibition treated its printed matter too much as artifact, thereby becoming little more than an assortment of radical-chic collectibles. Instead of activating the reader’s interest in the currency of these debates, the presentation enforced a passive nostalgia for a lost epoch.

Kirby Gookin