The Imagine a World exhibition at the High Desert Museum focuses on past and present efforts to create utopian communities. Participants joined for assorted reasons, including religious persecution, environmental concerns, and anti-war sentiments.
The communities featured are in the Western United States. Founding members often thought of the West as an idyllic, “empty” place to settle. However, they did not always consider who was already living in these environments.
As you enter the gallery, two life-sized astronauts suspended in front of a bold painting of bison catch your eye. Two bright paintings adorn the walls next to this display. These works represent Indigenous futurism. They highlight how important cosmology, science, and futurism have been to Native peoples. Grace Dilon, Ph.D. (Anishinaabe) states that Indigenous futurism is part of the process of “returning to ourselves.” The goal is to recover “ancestral traditions in order to adapt in our post-Native Apocalypse world.”
Imagine a world of eco-laboratories
In 1970, Italian American architect Paolo Soleri began constructing Arcosanti. It’s a small, shared space community integrated into the landscape. This Phoenix, Arizona community combines elements of architecture and ecology.
In 1991, Biosphere 2 attempted to determine if people could live self-sufficiently within an enclosed ecosystem. The eight participants lived within a 3.14-acre glass enclosure in Oracle, Arizona. However, after 16 months, oxygen levels fells dangerously low. There were also problems with food supply and tension among the residents. The experiment didn’t meet its goals, but the current owners, the University of Arizona, continue conducting research at the site.
Earthship Biotecture imagined a world using recycled construction materials to create energy efficient, self-sustaining homes. For example, they built walls from tires rammed with earth. Houses often include solar energy. Residents collect rainfall from their roofs and use recycled gray water to water their gardens. During the pandemic, interest in living in self-sustaining homes increased dramatically. A recent news story referred to the Earthship concept as a “conspiracy of enlightenment.”
Imagine a world of utopian communities
At the back of the gallery, a photograph of a colorful bus hangs on a rainbow painted wall. This display features the Hog Farm community. Original members took care of pigs on a California farm in exchange for rent. The group provided security at Woodstock and, after describing their community to concertgoers, the commune scene blossomed. Hog Farm members currently live on a 700-acre ranch in Northern California. First established in the 1960s, it is the “longest running hippie commune.” A short film, The Hog Farm Movie, is available on iTunes.
Drop City was a back-to-the-land community in Trinidad, Colorado. It’s described as the “first rural hippie commune.” This community, created in 1965, included geodesic domes using designs popularized by Buckminster Fuller. A small geodesic dome is part of the exhibition at the Museum. Former member John Vurl noted how this community attempted to “withdraw energy from the old system and use it to reshape society and the world.” Members learned it’s hard to break out of established systems and the community disbanded by 1973. The documentary, Drop City, is available for free viewing on the video streaming service, Kanopy.
There are several interactive displays in the center of the exhibit space. Green, motion sensitive signs around the gallery give visitors more info with a wave of the hand.
The exhibition also features the community of Rajneeshpuram. You can’t miss the Rolls-Royce Silver Spur parked near the entrance. Their leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, used a car like this, one of ninety-three he owned. In 1981, this religion-based group selected a site in the “empty” West near Antelope, Oregon. Their version of utopia included shopping malls, fire departments, a police station, an airstrip, and an organic farm. The community also included water conservation and recycling programs.
A large display case shows memorabilia from the community. Images of the Bhagwan decorate postcards, a fan, necklace, and meditation booklet. Another booklet refers to the site as an “oasis.”
As you can see by the items creatively displayed in the Rolls-Royce’s trunk, the locals were not happy with people taking over their community. A bumper sticker reads, “Save an antelope; Bag a Bhagwan.” A printed T-shirt reads “Nuke the Guru.” There’s even a fly swatter with “Bhagwan Swatter” engraved on the handle.
The Rajneeshpuram members’ attempts at taking over Wasco County escalated. Followers changed the names of Antelope’s streets and took over the local school. In 1984, the followers poisoned potential voters with salmonella sprinkled onto salad bars in The Dalles, the county seat. This was the beginning of the end for Rajneeshpuram. Wild Wild Country, a limited series on Netflix, describes this short-lived community.
The Imagine a World exhibition will be at the Museum through September 25, 2022.
Did you ever wonder what happened to the buildings when followers abandoned Rajneeshpuram? Three of the greenhouses are in my next-door neighbor’s yard. Once home to a successful tomato growing business, they now serve as temporary shelter for our resident mule deer herd.
This is a reprint of an article I wrote for High Desert Voices, a newsletter published by and for volunteers at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. This article was featured in the May 2022 issue.