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History of UCI commune to be displayed

UC Irvine exhibit reflects on campus's short-lived 1960s experiment with communal living.

By Deirdre Newman, Special to the Daily Pilot

5:44 PM EDT, July 17, 2012

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UC Irvine — The year was 1968. The Age of Aquarius was in full swing. The Tet offensive was pushing forward. And, Joan Didion's "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" was published.

It was amid this period of cultural and political upheaval that UCI , still in its infancy, hosted an experiment in intercultural exchange and immersion in social scientific learning. This experiment lasted only about a year, but its ramifications raised several questions that the Social Sciences faculty used as a springboard for later research.

The experiment was a commune known as The Farm, and it is the subject of an exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center on campus, now underway through July 20.

Artifacts from the Farm are being displayed in advance of UCI's 50th anniversary in 2014, according to Robbie Kett, co-curator and a Ph.D. in anthropology. Kett and co-curator Anna Kryczka, a Ph.D. in visual studies, were interested in exhibiting a unique and quirky part of UCI's history in anticipation of the 50th anniversary celebration, Kett said.

The exhibit includes a timeline showing where The Farm activities fit into everything else that was going on in the 60s, both globally and here in Orange County. It also includes photographs and a short film of Alfredo Tzum, a potter who spent time working and teaching at the Farm, demonstrating the techniques of Mayan pottery making. And, there's an artistic model of how The Farm was laid out, replete with a model chicken coop and school bus, both of which students turned into living spaces.

The Farm was the brainchild of Prof. Duane Metzger, who in 1967, submitted a proposal for a site for social scientific education and research. He compared the function of the Farm for the School of Social Sciences to that of an artists-in-residence program or a scientific laboratory.

The location was situated behind what is now the Anteater Recreation Center. The entire ranchland that UCI inhabits had previously supported a Native American settlement, as well as Spanish and Mexican expansions into California.

The Farm provided a counterpoint to the prevailing industry of the time in Orange County – the Cold War military and aerospace industries. As a result of the dominance of these industries, helicopters and aircraft could be seen and heard flying over the ranchlands of Irvine and the new UCI campus.

After getting the green light from founding UCI Chancellor Daniel Aldrich, experts from the field sites of various faculty and grad students in Mexico'sYucatan peninsula, Guatemala and Samoa came to the Farm for short residencies during 1968 and 1969.

While they were there, UCI social scientists sought to document their native practices and expedite the process by which students acquired skills for anthropological research. These experts also had the opportunity to demonstrate their skills as crafts people.

The most visible of their projects was the construction of a pair of traditional Maya structures – one in adobe and one in thatch – overseen by a group of Ixil Maya from Nebaj, Guatemala. The Ixil also demonstrated weaving techniques and taught visitors how to make tamales.

A Samoan chief made a canoe, which can still be seen on campus in the Social Science Tower. These indigenous experts were viewed as informal faculty.

As part of this cross-cultural exchange, several UCI anthropologists conducted fieldwork in the Yucatan, learned to speak Yucatec Maya, and conducted group projects in the region.

The Farm was shut down in the early 1970s, as faculty became increasingly frustrated with what they perceived as the Farm's failure to encourage sustained interaction between the native experts and students, as well as concerns about counter-cultural activities.

But, a primary school, known as the Farm School, still exists here and serves as a center for the study of cognition and learning, continuing to stress the importance of experiential learning.

However, the future of three remaining farm houses on the site is uncertain, as preservationists are lobbying to have them recognized as significant historical landmarks.

As this exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Center will only be on display through July 20, Kett and Kryczka hope to take the exhibit elsewhere in the future to spread a story they believe is important for a widespread audience to see, Kett said. It may also show up somewhere else on campus, he added.

In the bigger picture of current anxieties about the state of higher education and its funding, shedding new light on the Farm raises several questions about the history, function and future of the California university, according to an informational brochure Kett and Kryczka published to accompany the exhibit.

"The experimentation that took place at the Farm would be more difficult in a present moment characterized by institutional and academic 'rationalization' and 'streamlining,'" the brochure stated. "Yet the history of the experiment at the Farm points to the potential of such collective efforts to produce generative and unexpected results in the face of tenuous, uncertain circumstances."

If You Go

What: "Learning by Doing at the Farm"

Where: Outreach Gallery (3100A), Contemporary Arts Center UC Irvine.

When: Through July 20

Gallery hours: 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; or by appointment by emailing ucifarm@gmail.com.

More information: sites.uci.edu/thefarm/