San Francisco Art Institute honors 50 years of pre-internet tools for self-sufficiency via Whole Earth Catalog

San Francisco Art Institute/Courtesy

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The January 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog includes a page titled simply “TRUTH, CONSEQUENCES.” In this section, readers may peruse a list of sayings from an apparently eclectic range of sources — including Ram Dass, Charles Manson and even a lingerie ad from 1968 — and respond by checking off “true” or “false.” “It’s a bit hard to bullshit the ocean,” reads one quote, attributed to musician David Crosby. “It’s not listening, you know what I mean?” You decide, the catalog seems to suggest, whether his observation holds up to scrutiny.

If such a segment in a magazine seems odd to you, well you’re right — it is. But oddness was something the Whole Earth Catalog, an American counterculture magazine that turned 50 this year, embraced fully. During its 32 years of existence, the catalog made a name for itself as one of the leading sources of everything self-sufficiency, a destination for the DIY mindset before widespread access to the worldwide web.

In its most recent exhibition, the San Francisco Art Institute, or SFAI, pays tribute to this quirky publication as literature, visual art and a magazine. “Whole Earth Catalog 50th Anniversary” offers a bird’s-eye view of the publication’s life via 142 original copies marking the years. The exhibition begins with the first published Whole Earth Catalog, which features the first color image of Earth — taken in 1967 — on its cover, and ends with a mini-edition from 2002. The result feels akin to a crash course on the catalog and its legacy, but one told by the publication itself instead of by overshadowing captions or explanations from the art institute. SFAI lets the magazines talk for themselves.

And talk they do. The listed contributors alone often speak to the reach of the magazine’s work — the catalog worked with the Black Panther Party as guest editors of a 1974 edition, collaborated with City Lights co-founder and beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti on one from 1978, and teamed with science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin on a 1985 edition. The catalog clearly positions itself as a platform for thought deviating from the mainstream — expression it clearly stresses as worthy of attention.

Equally interesting to surveying contributors are the titles and graphics featured in the publications on display.

With an update in publishing software and layout, some of the editions could pass for contemporary magazines dealing with relevant issues. Take these headers and titles from mid- to-late ‘80s Whole Earth Catalog publications: “Computers as poison” (1985), “Digital retouching: the end of photography as evidence of anything” (1985), “Islam: beyond stereotypes” (1985), “Joining Russia and America into one country,” “Doing Drag & Male Identity” (1987), “The Rights of Robots” (1988). At times, it seemed, the catalog had its finger right on the pulse of issues that mainstream media would regularly consider decades later.

Other text highlighted on the covers shows off the magazine’s, well, wackier side — one example from 1992 simply proclaims “Telegeography, Sex Zines, Useful Plants” in unassuming white text.

So maybe not every edition of the Whole Earth Catalog was particularly profound. But a common thread runs through the collection: an appetite for exploration and self-sufficiency.

The SFAI emphasizes this focus of the publication by quoting it in bold type on the walls of the hallway in which the magazines are displayed: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” the wall reads. It’s an empowering statement of human potential, a fantasy of control, a suggestion of our human responsibility to take advantage of the great power increasingly possessed by mankind.

The statement that seems to most aptly sum up the spirit of the exhibition, and thus that of the Whole Earth Catalog, comes from a 1976 edition of the publication. The magazine quotes American explorer and professor John Wesley Powell on its cover — “We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not,” Powell writes. Here, you can almost see him shrug affably: “Ah, well! We may conjecture many things.”

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].