The Buster Simpson exhibit at the Frye Art Museum (showing through October 13, 2013) contains a good amount of work from the artist’s four-decade long career. Almost all you need to know about him, his philosophy, his urban interventions and eco art in general is in and right outside the gallery. The retrospective even extends to Post Alley, where Simpson installed flying and crisscrossing laundry lines.
But the center of this solar system of installations, artifacts, videos, sculptures and events is displayed on the wall near the gallery’s cafe. It is a fragment from a Seattle Times story called “Odd Parcels.” Written by Alf Collins, the article opens with a picture of young Buster Simpson sitting on a “Stonehenge-like jumble of concrete rubble.” He is at once in the deepest past and the distant post-apocalyptic future, the world before and after the urban, the times before and after the human. But why is he here, in this strange and culturally dusky zone, and why is it here that we find the core around which this whole exhibit orbits?
What first must be understood about Simpson is that though he was a part of the hippie movement (his first major work was, indeed, a sculpture for the Woodstock Music and Art Festival in 1969), he broke with it in one fundamental way. While most hippies saw the city as the problem, as an environmental disaster and wasteland, as a corrupter of human nature and its profound and nourishing relationship with the rest of nature, Simpson saw the city as a part of and continuous with nature. While many hippies fled the city, making the woods and rural towns their homes, Simpson did not leave but instead saw the city as the solution to many of the ecological challenges of our times. It was almost impossible for the standard-issue hippie to see this way of thinking as anything other than nuts; from his or her perspective, the earth could only be saved if humans lived with the trees, became self-sufficient and owned less stuff.
Kevin Tomlinson’s documentary Back to the Garden, Flower Power Comes Full Circle gets to the heart of what was then the dominant hippie-mode. Filmed in rural Washington in 1988, Back is about a community of hippies who abandoned the city (Seattle in particular) for an existence they imagined to be truer, healthier (spiritually and physically) and environmentally sustainable. They saw themselves not as the past but as the future. If humankind wanted to avoid extinction, the hippie way of life would have to become the mainstream way of life. They were the pioneers of the new and coming post-growth economic order. And in a way, they were right. To a certain extent, we have all become hippies—we aspire to eat locally, buy organic vegetables, eat less meat, recycle waste, politically support renewable forms of energy, and see ourselves as inside, not outside, nature and the grand biogeochemical cycle. But the big difference is that we are doing this in the city.
This is where Buster Simpson was ahead of his time, back in the mid-’70s, back before most people had ever heard anything like the ideas expressed in David Owen’s now-famous book, Green Metropolis. Owen:
"Spreading people thinly across the countryside may make them feel greener, but it doesn’t reduce the damage they do to the environment. In fact, it increases the damage, while also making the problems they cause harder to see and to address... Thinking of crowded cities as environmental role models requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief, because most of us have been accustomed to viewing urban centers as ecological calamities."
Life in the city turns out to be greener than life in rural areas. Humans in the woods do more damage to the environment than humans in densely packed urban cores. The reason why hippies failed to see things this way is because it’s counterintuitive. But Buster Simpson did, and that’s why he sat on that jumble of concrete, and that’s also why that image in the timeworn newspaper is at the center of his retrospective. “Simpson has been working with the wreckage of building and construction as an artistic statement growing out of [a] recycling ethic,” stated The Seattle Times. That debris came from the construction of I-5 and was dumped in an area that would become Myrtle Edwards Park. In his proposal for the redevelopment of that park, which he submitted in 1974, Simpson argued that the city should preserve the debris and incorporate it into the landscape. The concrete was a part of the city, and the city is always a part of nature, and nature is a part of the universe. In short, Simpson urbanized the hippie ethic—an ethic that’s become a part of our daily lives. We are not only all hippies, but we now live in Simpson City.