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86 CHAPTER THREE The Diggers: Politicizing the Counterculture Unlike the Living Theatre, which evolved into a community-oriented street theater group only after twenty years of experiments that mixed creative and political impulses, the Diggers articulated their countercultural ideas through public performance from their inception in the mid sixties. “We were doing a piece of theater called the Diggers,” Peter Berg remarked, “and it involved the audience,” emphasizing the collapsing of boundaries between art and everyday life, between performer and spectator that typified this aesthetic. The Diggers performed their street theater mainly in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, distributed free food in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, and made free clothes available in their “Free Store.” For the Diggers, theatricality went hand-in-hand with their community-minded efforts to better Haight-Ashbury, the home of a burgeoning counterculture. Former members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a politically oriented theater company, started the Diggers. Their work with the SFMT provided practical theater experience (including public performance), but the Diggers’ work was primarily driven by their relationship to the burgeoning HaightAshbury counterculture. Like the Living Theatre, the Diggers focused on marrying countercultural lifestyles to a more transformative and oppositional political vision. Their most important work created street theater that illustrated the counterculture’s ethos of personal liberation, infused with a dose of leftist politics. In the process, the Diggers’ public performances and free ser- The Diggers 87 vices—from the “Intersection Game,” which tied up traffic at a busy intersection to dramatize pedestrians’ right to the streets, to their appropriation of abandoned buildings to provide housing to indigent young hippie migrants— challenged conventional conceptions of public space. Specifically, the Diggers sought to create an anarchist community that circumvented the money system, which they believed caused American society’s most pernicious evils. The group’s numerous broadsides and manifestos proclaimed that the free food and free clothes they offered were “free because it’s yours.”1 The Diggers’ communal understanding of property, which contrasted markedly with mainstream America’s emphasis on personal material aspirations , reflected the influence of the seventeenth-century English utopian group who were the Diggers’ namesake. The English Diggers believed property should be held communally rather than only by the privileged classes. In 1649 the group took direct action to construct the kind of society they envisioned when they began digging and planting upon the commons in Surrey. The original Diggers, who based their society on ideals of peace, love, and mutual sharing, lasted only a short time, but their principles were revived three hundred years later in Haight-Ashbury.2 The modern Diggers undertook numerous initiatives to subvert the prevailing capitalist economy, actively committing themselves to implementing practical means for people in their community to live without money and publicizing their work with events such as the “Death of Money” parade. The Diggers tried to act as a political conscience for the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. Their rhetoric and public actions underscored certain moral contradictions in the hippie way of life, which, they argued, were more materialist than many adherents professed. Their October 1967 “Death of Hippie” parade tried to reclaim the counterculture’s spirit of personal freedom from the commodified and “stereotyped hippie artifacts” that many young people donned as a superficial badge of a media-generated phenomenon. The parade attempted to retire the word “hippie,” which the Diggers believed the media overused, rendering a potentially powerful countercultural movement devoid of its idealistic significance and authenticity.3 Though the Diggers experienced mixed results in sparking political sensibilities among hippies—mainstream journalists noted that Digger politics often eluded the grasp of younger, less sophisticated hippies in particular4 —the group initiated several free services in the community and dramatized the possibility of radical personal liberation. In doing so, the Diggers in public performances such as the “Intersection Game,” “Death of Money,” “Death of Hippie,” and “Invisible Circus” further eroded the boundaries between art and life in a process the art world Happen- 88 Chapter Three ings had catalyzed earlier. Drawing from many of the same influences—Beat poetry, improvisational jazz, and the musical experiments of John Cage—that spurred the Living Theatre’s work at the time, Happenings, which began in 1959, set a precedent for performance in nontraditional venues, for applying artistic practice to everyday-life events, and for participatory experience by an audience who became increasingly indistinguishable from the artists. The Diggers ’ public, participatory events, however...


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