Two on Altamont: Sam Durant | Sam Green
December 6th marked the 40-year anniversary of what’s well known only as “Altamont”—the end of the sixties. Los Angeles-based independent curator Jenée Misraje talks with two artists (named Sam) who’ve dealt with the history of Altamont in distinct ways.
1969. It began with Richard Nixon assuming the White House, the last public performance of The Beatles, and the release of Led Zeppelin I. That summer Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and a multitude experienced peace, love, and harmony at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. 1969 ended with the arrest of several Manson family members in connection to the Tate / La Bianca murders and with the controversial free concert that took place on Saturday, December 6, at Altamont Speedway.
Poorly planned and marred by violence, the day-long spectacle was captured by filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and incorporated in the documentary Gimme Shelter (released in 1970). It was attended by over 300,000. There were reportedly four births and four deaths (three accidents and one homicide). The victim of the homicide was eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter, a young black man from Berkeley who was attending the concert with his white girlfriend. The Hells Angels had been hired as the event’s security. Hunter attempted to approach the stage during the Stones’ performance of Under My Thumb. According to the official account, Hunter had pulled out a gun during a fatal scuffle with the Angels broke out. He was stabbed and beaten to death.
Several years ago, while conducting research for my thesis, I began examining the era of the late 60—particularly 1969. I was focused on the art produced in ‘69, as well as living artists whose work was rooted in this moment. I engaged in conversations with fellow curators, scholars and others who had a prominent interest in the late 60s—and among those were the artist Sam Durant and the filmmaker Sam Green.
Early in his career, Sam Durant developed a body of work concerned with the late 60s, specifically figures and events like Robert Smithson, the Stones and Altamont. For example, in his sound sculptures Proposal for Monument at Altamont, Tracy, CA (two works; one composed in 1999 and the other in 2003) Durant employs audio snippets of the Stones, played in reverse. The 1999 version has a recording of Brown Sugar blaring from unseen speakers, while the 2003 iteration plays the Stones’ performance at the moment of the attack on Hunter, again, in reverse. Durant’s video installation Entropy in Reverse (2003) is a double-image projection of a borrowed segment of the Maysles’ concert footage, presented backward.
Sam Green is the creator of The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 (1997); Pie Fight ’69 (2000); The Weather Underground (2003), which received an Academy Award nomination and was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2004; and Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall (2009). His somber and graceful lot 63, grave c (2006) is a journey to Hunter’s unmarked gravesite at Skyview Memorial Lawn in Vallejo, California. Green is currently working with musician Dave Cref on Utopia in Four Movements which he describes as using “the collective experience of cinema to explore the battered state of the utopian impulse at the dawn of the 21st century.”
To mark the 40th anniversary of the ill-fated concert and because of their shared interest in Altamont as subject, the progressive movements of the time and the era it all took place, I asked each Sam to answer a set of questions, separately, by email. I turned to these two for their distinct insights, curious about the potential crossover and differences in regards to what actually happened there and where we find ourselves four decades later. Both Sams have produced work that was the outcome of an intense examination of Altamont—both created works that attempted to resolve Altamont in some way.
In your opinion, what is Altamont?
Sam Durant: In my works about the subject, the Altamont concert is used as a marker for the end of the 60s in several senses. The Woodstock concert took place in August of 1969. It was a kind of fulfillment of the hippie generation’s desire for utopian, communal experience. This event, three days of peace and love at the end of the 60s marks the beginning of my project, which is a reflection on the moments when the celebration slides into trauma. Unable to play at Woodstock, the Stones wanted to do their own version of a free concert on the west coast. This concert at the close of the 60s was a signal of the end of the utopian ideals of hippie culture. Altamont was pure disintegration, an example of cultural entropy. The combination of concertgoers freaked out on bad acid and the Hells Angels acting as “security” was a disaster. By the time the Stones took the stage, the scene had imploded. Amidst the chaos and fighting the Hells Angels killed a concertgoer during the Stones set. The Stones were the dark side of rock and roll, the entropy in pop, re-iterated by Hells Angel leader Sonny Barger’s charge that they got exactly what they were looking for. After Altamont, there was no going back, things had irrevocably changed.
Sam Green: It’s funny, during the making of the film I did on [Meredith] Hunter and afterwards, I have had countless conversations with people about Altamont – mostly with people of that generation, and more specifically, people who were there. I’ve always been amazed by the seemingly wide range of experiences. Some people who were way off in the back had a pretty good time there that day. Others, who were getting smushed [sic] or beaten up in the front, had a much more difficult experience. So, I don’t really think there is one version of what happened. Sure, there’s the Gimme Shelter version, which in many ways has become the authoritative history. Since then, Altamont has become shorthand for the end of the 60s. That’s certainly how I keyed into it: reading lots of books on the period and seeing that reference countless time. But something like that is made up of a million different subjective experiences. One of my friends has what I think is the best Altamont story: she was stuck in San Francisco taking the SAT that day! She wanted to be there but couldn’t. Personally, I’m not that interested in the truth of what happened. I am somewhat interested in the symbolic meaning Altamont has taken on in the years since.
Also, in the movie I made, The Weather Underground, I mentioned Altamont as a significant event in pushing the members of the Weathermen towards violence. Altamont came at a specific, bleak moment in terms of the mood in the U.S. and especially within the counterculture and anti-war movement. In the film, I mention the publication in Life magazine of the photos of the My Lai massacre—that happened in December ‘69 and made a big impression on the public—it was the first time people had seen such violent and disturbing images from the war. Then there was Altamont. And Charles Manson and followers were arrested that same month. They were the 60s gone terribly wrong.
Why raise the subject years later?
SD: I think it is important to reevaluate history continuously. In the case of Altamont there was no external motivating factor, it came up through the research I was doing at that time, around 1997. Altamont came up through my investigation of Robert Smithson’s ideas and works that were developed during the late 60’s and early 70’s, particularly his idea of entropy. I reconfigured the law of entropy to fit into a cultural and political setting at the end of the 60’s. It became part of a linkage which included the National Guard shootings on the campus of Kent State University in May of 1970 and Neil Young’s song about the event, Ohio; Smithson’s work Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) done on the campus just prior to the killings, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide note in which he quotes Neil Young.
SG: I had always been somewhat interested in Altamont. At a certain point, I became curious about Hunter. I had read so many references to the concert and his murder, but I had never seen a photo of him or read any more details about who he was. I started to dig around San Francisco to see if I could learn something about him – just out of curiosity. I came up with almost nothing. Except for the cemetery in Vallejo where he was buried. Again, out of curiosity, I went out to Vallejo, to see what was there. I was really saddened that he was buried in an unmarked grave. It really got to me, the fact that he has some small notoriety as a footnote in the history of the 60s, but as a person, he seemed to have been completely forgotten. That made a big impression on me, and lot 63, grave c is mostly just a poem about that, this fleeting quality of life and memory.
Artists, curators and historians have been placing a greater amount of attention to this time in history; for example: P.S.1’s current exhibition 1969 and published works like Rob Kirkpatrick’s 1969: The Year That Changed Everything or Marianne DeKoven’s Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the Postmodern. What do you think of the current level of interest in 1969? Why not 1968 or 1970? Where might an examination of this year lead us today?
SD: I haven’t been paying close enough attention to the things you are referring to to really make an informed comment. I would suspect that it is primarily because of the 40th anniversary. I could be mistaken, but it seemed to start in ‘97 with the 30th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” and then the 30th anniversary of May ’68 and just last year again with the 40th anniversary of May ’68, which was perhaps more important in Europe. May ‘68 was a very significant moment in recent history, and perhaps because of all that has happened in its wake, especially the “Fall of Communism”, it has become a spectre that seems to haunt the present. Its many veterans are now in positions of influence and have certainly commented far more knowledgeably than I could. I’m thinking particularly of Tariq Ali who co-authored an interesting book on the year 1968. It might be that 1969 haunts the U.S. more than ’68. It was the year that J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO really sank its teeth into the progressive and radical social movements in this country; destroying, imprisoning and killing much of the leadership of those movements, particularly the Black Panther Party. The documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton makes this abundantly clear.
In 2009 we still live with it. The U.S. Patriot Act is the legacy of COINTELPRO. The recent and ongoing case of the San Francisco 8 is a direct result – for those defendants, 1969 is still happening.
SG: I was initially drawn to the story of the Weather Underground because it was NOT the story of 1968. I think that there was a very one-dimensional narrative of the 60s that began to take hold in the 80s and 90s that included the Civil Rights Movement, SDS , the war, Woodstock, the huge traumatic events of ’68, and then a couple of people went crazy and the 60s ended. Of course, I am being a bit flip here, but there really was this version of what happened, perhaps exemplified by Todd Gitlin’s book Days of Rage where the 60s really ended with the hallowed events of ‘68. Growing up in the 80s, I was always puzzled how the 60s, or that version of the 60s, could become the Reagan 80s that I saw all around me as a teenager in East Lansing, Michigan.
To me, 1969 was interesting because it wasn’t 1968 with its endless paeans and tributes. Things got much more complex, morally ambiguous and difficult, and in many ways closer to our own time. It seemed to me that 1969 was a doorway into a much more complex history of that time—a history that shows that what we consider the 60s really lasted well into the 1970s. I read a fantastic book when I was doing research on the 60s called Revolution in the Air by Max Elbaum. It’s a book about how many of the political radicals regrouped in the 1970s and joined or formed hard-core Marxist-Leninist organizations like the RCP or Line of March. Elbaum refers to it as the “new communist movement.” I was amazed by how many people were involved with this, how serious their organizing was, and how completely and utterly forgotten this history is.
Yes, in hindsight, these people were for the most part completely wrong in their analysis of the world, but that doesn’t mean that they and their efforts didn’t exist. The Weather Underground as well was a group that formed in 1969, after most people feel like the 60s ended, and lasted until the late 70s. It really was a 70s story – although that is my argument, that the 60s really lasted much longer than that standard notion of the decade would have us believe. I always think that the 60s really ended around 1977. Perhaps Punk Rock signaled a new era. 1977 is incidentally also when the Weather Underground finally broke up.
I read a line recently in a book by Slavoj Žižek: “every history is a history of the present”, which resonates with my interest in history. I feel understanding that time in a fuller, more complex and nuanced manner allows us to better understand the present and allows us to understand how the politics and political ruptures of that moment still linger with us in very charged ways. Just look at Bill Ayers‘s appearance in the 2008 election!
In the case of Meredith Hunter, he is (to borrow SG’s words) a recurring “historical footnote” but a “forgotten person.” Although politically and socially progressive groups like the Weather Underground and the Panthers stood at the forefront of what they deemed necessary to create real change in this country—it must have seemed completely unfathomable to one day have a black U.S. President. Here we are, 40 years later—any feedback?
SD: It’s been almost incredible how quickly and spectacularly the (obviously false) notion of post-racialism that Obama’s election supposedly signaled has come crashing down. I don’t mean to minimize the significance of the U.S.’s first black president, something I don’t think anyone could have imagined, really. I am still moved that it is a reality! And I have to admit it makes me a little bit proud to be a citizen here. But so far its impact seems to be largely symbolic. Of course he cannot be expected to just turn around 400 plus years of the murderous racism that is the very foundation of our culture. Racism is a very effective political tool used by elites to divide lower classes and keep them fighting among themselves rather than against “the power,” as Chuck D. recommended. The powerful are not going to give up this weapon without a fight, that’s for sure. The other thing that Obama’s election should further clarify is that racism is ideological, it has nothing to do with a person’s skin color. We see that non-whites can enforce it just as easily as whites; Clarence Thomas, Condoleeza Rice, Alberto Gonzales, Michael Powell, Rod Paige, etc. I don’t mean to call these people racist or self-hating, they may or may not be, just to make the point that as non-whites they can uphold the policies of institutionalized racism as well as their white counterparts.
SG: Yes, it is amazing, and I’m sure in 1969, absolutely no one would have been able to imagine it. But on the other hand, many at that time were foreseeing a revolution in this country within the next 5 years. So in some sense, perhaps things unfolded in a less-than-groundbreaking manner from that perspective. It goes without saying that Obama’s election is remarkable and extremely significant. It’s also a huge endorsement of the notion of patience and slow, steady progress—the long-haul perspective on social change.
Sam Durant is a multimedia artist whose works engage a variety of social, political, and cultural issues. His work has been widely exhibited internationally and in the United States. In 2006 he compiled and edited a comprehensive monograph of Black Panther artist Emory Douglas’ work. His work can be found in many public collections including The Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth, Tate Modern in London, Project Row Houses in Houston, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Durant teaches art at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California.
Sam Green is a San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker. His award-winning documentaries include Utopia Part 3: the World’s Largest Shopping Mall, lot 63, grave c, The Rainbow Man/John 3:16, N-Judah 5:30, and Pie Fight ’69. His film The Weather Underground was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004, broadcast nationally on PBS, and included in the Whitney Biennial. Mr. Green is currently an Artist in Residence at the Exploratorium museum. He teaches at the University of San Francisco and the San Francisco Art Institute.
Jenée Misraje is an independent curator and writer based in Los Angeles. Past curatorial projects include Erlea Maneros as part of the Curators Lab award program at The Fellows of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Solo Solo: Jenée Misraje and Joe Sola at Crisp London, England; and Reclaiming: Inter-generation at 627 South Carondelet, Los Angeles. Misraje has managed numerous land art and site-engaged projects, as well as installations by Christoph Büchel, Edgar Arceneaux and Charles Gaines. Misraje received her MA in Curatorial Practice from the California College of the Arts, San Francisco. Her thesis was titled Proposal for a Monument at Altamont, Tracy, CA by Sam Durant.