W a l t e r z A l t e r
p o r t f o l i o
a r t i c l e s
S.F. Mod Scene Interview
Blink Magazine 1998
Walter Alter ran a scooter repair shop in San Francisco in the 1980's that became the hub of the Mod youth sub-culture in the area.
Q- How did you start the Batcave?
W- It was just sheer crazy fate. I was bouncing from one temporary living situation to another. I was a starving artist and I was living at my grandmother's place in Marin County north of San Francisco. That's where I started meeting the first Mods and started fixing scooters in her back yard shed. She later died and I was forced to move my operation.
I had some punk friends I met in the scooter scene. We used to hang out and go see Flipper, UXB, Dead Kennedys and all the local SF punk shows together. This punk couple, Jon and Nancie, got married and were living in a house trailer that we had borrowed from a neighbor and moved behind grandma's house. That's where they spent their honeymoon. They later found a house in San Francisco and I moved in with them for a short period of time. That became real intense. We were at war with the neighbors because we used to do these crazy sculpture assemblies in the front yard. We planted the yard with plastic coat hangers and odd bits of industrial debris that we'd find laying on the streets or sticking out of debris boxes.
Eventually that whole situation disintegrated and I ended up moving in with another buddy for a few months, Christopher Pitman, who was one of the original Batcave 5, we called ourselves "The Black Sheep Squadron", but in the meantime I was working on scooters in the garage of a bomb throwing anarchist named Jim Gilman and he was putting together a magazine called "Processed World" with his girlfriend Freddie Baer. Both of them were really great people but then we had this political falling out over some fine point of ideology.
We almost came to blows over it one day in the garage, arguing over whether or not the Kronstadt Rebellion was a true anarchist movement or whether it was sparked by external influences. Anyway, it was just one of those crazy-ass arguments and I ended up having to move out of his workshop in the Potrero District of San Francisco. So I was stuck and not only that, my living situation was again disintegrating.
When I was working at Jim and Freddie's, I met Ted Langlois, who was a long time scooter guy. We had him pegged as a real hard core fascist because he was a gun salesman and looked imposing and had a way about him that seemed awful sure of himself while we were all insecure rebels and revolutionaries trying to figure out if it was all going to come down next week or whatever. We were a little bit leery about him but in passing he once mentioned that he had a basement and if we wanted to work on scooters in his basement we could.
So I called him up and asked, you know, I had like 3 days to move out of this place we had at the end of the Panhandle in Golden Gate park. And I said, well listen, I wonder if I could move a couple of scooters down there and some boxes of parts down to your place and we could wrench together for a little while...which appears to be my standard operating technique (laughs), I mean you got Uncle Willard from off the farm is coming to stay a few days and stays for a year or two.
Anyway, I ended up down there and sort of worked my way into a living arrangement at the back of his garage. That was I think about 1979, 1980 something like that. That's how I ended up at the Batcave. Sort of depending upon the charity and good will of strangers.
Q- Where does this name "Batcave" come from?
W- Oh, that was Liz Pepin's idea. Liz was putting together a magazine called "Whaaam". It was a Mod magazine. She had just put out issue #1 and it was a takeoff on the Batman comic books and TV show where you'd see the fights punctuated with "Biff!" "Pow!" "Sock!", these star burst cartoon text balloons. She a sort of Batman and Robin identity going for the magazine and she took one look at the place and it was a natural, it was a total fit. And I naturally became the Batman, there was no avoiding it. And I got into it and began collecting Batman memorabilia.We had a lot of rubber Halloween bats hanging around the Batcave.
Q- How long was the Batcave in operation? How did it escalate to really being famous, how did word get around?
W- Well the Batcave lasted probably 6 or 7 years and it grew pretty fast. I had already been known as being one of the last Lambretta scooter repairmen on the West Coast. Lambretta scooters, unlike Vespa motor scooters, went out of business in the late '60's and then all the parts dried up and all the dealers and repair shops closed down so when the Mod revival on the West Coast was starting up it was mostly Vespas, well a few Lambrettas. The more we started looking for Lambrettas, the more we started finding them. So, essentially, the Lambrettas slowly got revived. As I started working on them, I started meeting other people. Word of mouth traveled. Most of the Mods were pretty mobile and they'd end up in LA at a show and started talking about this crazy artist that was fixing scooters on the side and then I'd have people call me saying they were fixing scooters and wanting parts. I had this guy call me from Seattle, he had "Atomic" scooters up there, a little hole in the wall operation, you know, an ex hippie listening to ska and reggae. Word traveled and the mechanics created a bit of a community. Rob Noxious had a shop in Santa Barbara. There was Vince Mross with West Coast Lambrettas in San Diego and there was a shop in LA working on Lambrettas.
We started hearing about Lambrettas and finding them really cheap since they were abandoned by the factory. People had them in weeds in their back yards, sitting under trailers and RV's, growing under blackberry bushes...we hauled one out of a lake and actually salvaged some parts. Over the years I put maybe 40 -60 Lambrettas back on the road. We were able to get some kids up on wheels on a very low budget who maybe wouldn't have been able to afford a scooter otherwise.
Q- Did the Batcave become a meeting place for people rather than just a garage.
W- Absolutely, yah sure, it was a Mecca, there were actually pilgrimages to the Batcave (laughs). People would come down from Sacramento, Reno, wherever, needing parts. Word kind of traveled, even to Europe and we had two scooterists who were riding on these German Heinkels from Europe across the US stop in and there was a guy who was scootering up to Alaska. People heard about it particularly if they were involved with scooter clubs. We got written up in a few magazines and the Mod community was pretty close knit so everybody knew what was going on pretty much.
Q- You got involved with the Mods. How did that happen?
W- Well, when I first started working on Lambrettas, I talked my grandma into buying me a Lambretta, she was Italian and I had to sell my VW bus and I was really broke going to film school on the GI Bill at San Francisco City College and I was commuting by bus and it was a pain in the butt and I needed some cheap transportation. I talked grandma out of $160 and went and picked up this Lambretta SX 200, top of the line, beautiful '67 Lambretta, and I commuted to the city out there on 101 with commute traffic and it was a lot of fun.
While I was in Kentfield, I'd go on errands and leave the scooter parked around town and I met some guys who had some scooters, some skateboard punks and some bicyclists who were bombing down Mt. Tamalpais on these old Schwins that they bolted gears onto that later became mountain bikes. I mean, mountain bikes were essentially invented by these young punk kids that I was hanging out with. They went to SF and some people drove by and saw their parked Lambrettas and they made the connection and from that point I moved to SF. I was the old guy and they trusted me, I was a father figure for them and I helped them with their adolescent hormonal imbalance problems and it was great fun. I always enjoyed working with youngsters.
Q- Now were these mostly Mods you were talking about?
W- Well these were mostly scooter kids and they met some folks in the city that were more into the Mod scene. Marin County was more of a Punk offshoot. There was this band called "The Pukes" and Rickie Puke had a scooter and we would hang out together and I'd go to all their gigs. There was also another Marin County punk band called Unexploded Bomb or UXB and kind of a metal punk crossover band called White Stagg and they'd do gigs together. That was more of the punk skateboard end of the spectrum. The Mods were more of an urban phenomenon in the Bay Area at first.
Liz Pepin was originally a punk but got involved with the Mod esthetic and had a scooter and became sort of the mod "mama" with Whaaam magazine and that grew and became bigger than the punk scooter boy end of the scene.
Q- Where do the scooter boys fit in?
W- Well, the scooter boys were more like the punk element with short cropped hair and the bomber pilot jacket, the baggy 6 pocket pants, the Doc Martin boots, that was their uniform, traditional skinheads instead of Nazi skinheads. The trad skinheads were the ones who segued into being scooter boys and that was their look and feel. An the Mods were of course, reflecting back to the British Mod scene which was based on Italian clothing designs, looking sharp, learning all the latest dance steps and just having a superior attitude. The intensity was a bit watered down except for the newbies who were naturally trying to impress everybody. That was mainly the two camps, the two schools of thought involved with the whole scooter scene.
Q- Was anybody with a scooter considered a scooterist, were there any sort of tensions going on inside the Batcave?
W- No, absolutely not. I stomped that jive out. I hated the fact that there were elites cropping up here and there or attitudes that put one clique against another, and I did my best to insure that everyone was welcome at the Batcave at anytime and that there was a truce in the Batcave at all times, nobody got in anybody's face, and actually I think people came to respect that a lot and that's why there was very little dissention in the scooter scene in San Francisco.
We had problems with the Bay Area Skinheads. The BASH boys would practice their baseball technique on some of my mod friends and we had some BASH boys living around the corner that made things a little bit exciting from time to time. But that was the only real schism in the scene or the only real problem. In Santa Cruz there was a little clique of Nazi rockers combing their hair like Gene Vincent and riding around in cut down, cafe'd out BMW motorcycles which were really nice by the way, looking pretty good. They'd beat up on the Mods every once in a while. But usually everybody pulled together, us against them and there was very little dissention. There would be occasional little flareups over a girlfriend, the usual thing and I'd do my best to settle it down, but the Batcave was definitely neutral territory.
Q- Did you organize a lot of rallies
W- I didn't do too much of that sort of thing. I was just too busy fixing bikes and trying to find parts and I had a VW bus that was sort of the scooter ambulance and I'd get called out to pick up bikes here and there. When we had rallies, I'd be the mechanic and had a set of tools standing by. I was just a little too busy. I was also an artist. I was doing big video sculpture installations in a lot of the dance clubs and I had an industrial noise band I was working with and we were having a ball. I was a little to busy to do the organizing, but the scooter clubs would do that. There was Secret Society, the Burgundy Tops, there was a great scooter club called the Scheming Bitches that was an all girls scooter club down on the Peninsula. There were about a half a dozen clubs in the Bay Area when it was really going on and they organized all the rallies.
Q- When did this start to die down and when did the Batcave officially close, when did that happen?
W- The scene started to chill about 1989 1990. I don't know that the scene cooled off so much, but actually the landlord, the guy who owned the building where the Batcave was, tolerated us for a long time. I was paying like $75 a month rent to live in this place in the middle of San Francisco, it was really a sweet setup although very spartan. I mean, I was living off a hot plate, my shower consisted of a hose coming out of the hot water heater. At night I'd just spritz off in the garage, back the cars out of the garage and let the water run until it was cool enough to stand and use a little shower head...anyway, that's how I was living for 6 years. But I loved every minute of it., loved the mice scampering across the floor, didn't mind the spiders in the corners near the furnace for the house, didn't mind the seepage from old Lake Valencia, the fill of which the house was built on.
After 6 years I was ready for a move and one of my art buddies and a couple of pieces of property he got his hands on and was being the landlord and one was a former meat packing house that was right south of Market, and ideal location, and huge and though totally trashed. We moved in anyway and it made an excellent music studio. So in about 89 I moved out of the Batcave and started concentrating on art rather than scooters. By that time there were two scooter shops in San Francisco that had opened up that also worked on Lambrettas so I really didn't have to be there at that point. First Kick scooters started up and then Barry Guinn opened San Francisco Scooter Centre, so those bases were covered. I was getting a little fried, tired and worn out from it. It was a sad day when I'd go look at my tools and just not feel that same quiver of excitement (laughs). Kinda nice holding a torque wrench in your hand and know exactly how tight you’re going to put that head bolt. Like BB King, the thrill was gone.
Q- Once you moved and started working on your art you pretty much got out of it completely
W- It was a long slow segue. I couldn't resist. Kids would call me up and say I got this problem, my scooter is broke can you come get it and so on. So I worked on scooters at the meat packing place on Grace alley. But not too many of them. I actually had a guy who tried to get me to work on a Cushman motor scooter which was an all American thing that was big and goofy and used like threaded pipe for the frame, it was like farm implement technology compared to these elegant Italian scooter that were created by engineers that had a sense of beauty.
But little by little I just segued out so that about by 92-93 I had moved to Oakland and was pretty much out of the scene by then.
Q- So were you surprised to hear from me and that I'm doing this film, did a lot of things start coming back
W- I knew that the Mod scene had died out considerably, but Secret Society's guys had become really close knit. They grew up with the scooters and the scooter club when they were in high school and college and it was so much a part of their identity and their social structure that they kept it going because they liked hanging out and doing what they were doing on their scooters. Burgundy Tops in Sacramento and Secret Society in San Francisco essentially kept the scene going and it looks like it's in it 3rd or possibly its 4th revival at this time. They are still holding rallies. Their Scooter Rages were really top draws and they've been doing those religiously for perhaps 8 or 9 years and that will always pull the troops together from as far away as San Diego or Portland and Seattle. They always have top notch bands and big rides and offered really nice trophies for the scooter show and get really big venues for the rave with big exhibition areas. It was just a full on weekend of partying. You were human wreckage when Rage was over. The Rages essentially kept it going.
Q- It's actually on Rage number 13. I was talking to some people in Ohio and they plan on coming in January so I really see it coming back and there's definitely a revival happening. There's a Mod scene in Toronto right now.
W- These scooter kids all had kids themselves so there's this generational thing as well that kind of gets in the family. I know in England, there are grandpa Mods (laughs) and 3 generation of Mods with little kids growing up on toy scooters.
Q- That's definitely the way it's going. Anybody who was involved in that scene remembers what they liked about it and maybe it rubs off on other people and they come and continue with it
W- Well, a way of life is a way of life, you know. It's not like going on vacation for a little change of scenery and do something other than what happens at the office. This was a serious way of life. It was the assumption of a cultural identity. That separates us from the furry apes.
Q- Now what was your cultural identity?
W- I dunno. I was just sort of a renaissance guy, you know, I did a little bit of everything. I liked the idea of reading some deep dish books on philosophy, getting bored with that and going out in the shop and turning a little wrench, getting greasy and holding together little bits of industrial progress. That to me was a nice spread of talent and interest.
Q- Do you think that any of the sub culture scenes kind of give you any kind of motivation to do something, did a little bit of that rub off on you?
W- I didn't know Mods from beans. I remember vaguely growing up as a teenager, the Mod Rocker riots in England. And when I first started the Batcave it didn't dawn on me what it was. I mean Mods, oh yah, England, the '60's, the Beatles...you know the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who were all Mod bands when they started so it kinda was a scene back then. But as far as the contemporary one, I thought that's nice, and oh boy I get to hang out with young people which I really like. I've never had friends my own age and didn't miss it a bit. Actually I've got the mind of a 13 year old trapped in a 50 year old body. (laughs) That's always been a great appeal to me...what was the question?
Q- (laughs) Hanging around with a bunch of Mods, did any of that kind of rub off on you, any of their ideals, their way of life or their reasoning ?
W- I really couldn't consider myself a mod. I was a little bit old and I saw myself as an elder keeper of the wisdom, whatever, they needed somebody to talk to about a broken heart and hang out and if they were having problems with their parents. I'd smooth it over and give them some tips and tricks about dealing with the roller coaster ride of life. But as me being a Mod, nah. I never went out and bought like pointy tipped shoes. I never wore a necktie...well once or twice I wore my Batman necktie (laughs).
I was too form follows function. That was the artist in me. I'd rather wear a pair of shop overalls or a pair of camo BDU's rather than dress up. And then my living arrangement didn't allow for keeping up a natty appearance. My wardrobe was total thrift store quality.
Q- Yo were really identified with the scooter boys?
W- Yah, I guess I would have been more scooter boy than Mod
Q- As far as musical scenes, you said you were involved with a band, an industrial band?
W- Yah, we did industrial noise music. We tried to see how much equipment we could destroy in one night and collected tape decks and old musical toys like Casio VL tone mini keyboard that we'd run through 9 different amplifiers and get it totally distorted and I'd build these sculpture assemblages with all these electronic foot pedals, guitar pedal effects and various other electronic sound making devices. And we'd just wire them together and run them through a mixer. Our gigs were basically mixes of various timbral excesses and sonic detonations. We'd play it loud and painful.
Q- Does that go along with your artwork
W- Yah, part of it. It was a little separate. My artwork is more like large sculptures. I'd do a sculpture for a club or a performance somewhere else. I kept them pretty separate. But the approach was the same- a lot of found object. I liked that Dada sense of taking bits and pieces of common place life and rendering them uncommon or extraordinary simply by changing their background. By placing them against a new background so we notice it for the first time.
Q- What kinds of clubs did you have these installations at?
W- Most of the big rave clubs. There were these promoters who would find big galleria spaces or warehouses. They'd either rent or break into a warehouse. I did virtually all of them for about 4-5 years- Science Club, Glasshaus, Townsend Club, HoHo Club, Das Club, Club DV8, DNA Lounge, The Trocadero. I'll show you my resume, it's all there.
And I had a collection of electrical conduit, lightweight tubing that I wrapped together with big rubber bands made out of truck tire inner tubes. I'd build these big sculpture assemblages. And I had about 30-40 old TV's that I'd set into the sculpture and turn them all on and throw in a little barbed wire or broken car body parts, give it a sense of the immediate present. They were pretty popular. I worked pretty steadily, a gig once or twice a month. I actually had a gallery for a while but they didn't know what to do with me. I made a sculpture piece that they had crackling in the background, but they couldn't sell it. Who's going to buy a stack of bent tubing and old TV's, hell their electricity bill would go through the roof.
Q- Do you think your art accentuates where it's placed?
W- Site specific is the term. They were site specific assemblages. It was Dada, it was nomadic, performance oriented, happening oriented, so it was temporary, designed to go along with the building of temporary cities or the celebration of one thing or another that was part of that situationist happening art movement. Dadaism was incredibly revolutionary and broke through a lot of boundaries and it democratized art incredibly. It made art an important or potentially an important part of the proletariat culture, the working class culture, because they were so accessible, they'd just throw parties together anywhere it was possible and do performance art. And again they'd often use found object, the throwaway refuse of an industrial society. When things became obsolete, which occurs rather rapidly in industrial society, then that trickle down factor allowed a lot of starving artists to have some pretty all right equipment to play with and that's how we came by most of our musical equipment, that's how I came by all my TV's. I never paid more than $5 for a television set and it just made large scale art accessible to someone who didn't have a huge studio and overhead cranes able to haul big girders and weld and rivet things together.
Q- I don't see how artist can be so organized to get cranes and crews and people together...
W- There are two ways to go about it. Either you're an incredibly charismatic kind of person that draws acolytes and followers around you like Mark Pauline and Survival Research where the pure genius of his work attracts like minds and they work together for the joy of it for very little money. I mean those guys struggle. And ten you have your downtown grant artists who then get on the big money wheel and they hire people to write them grants and they segue from getting art grants to getting these big city hall gigs where they do a little sculpture piece and make enough money to retire for the rest of their lives in the Arizona desert and live like Georgia O'Keefe from one sculpture piece. But I think the former approach is the more rewarding because there you create culture and true memory rather than artifacts to be studied in a disinterested analytic way. You create culture, you create interaction and involvement.
Q- Do you think that through your activities at the Batcave that you created culture?
W- It was there before me. My great epiphany was when Liz Pepin took me to see the movie "Quadrophrenia" for the first time. It was then that I knew that I was part of something big. And it preceded and it was bigger than me. I just was maybe a little hinge point, at least in San Francisco. But I never got a big head about it or thought that there was some great destiny being formed for the nation there.
Q- Well, was it nice to be known as the Batman?
W- Oh, it was a ball, yah, I liked it a lot. I was sort of a minor, local legend and I was totally up to playing the part a little bit. But I was always straight with the kids, they knew the could come in and be regular.
Q- When was the last time you got a scooter related phone call, except from me?
W- Well actually Liz put on this little art show where she collected a bunch of artifacts and photos from the Batcave days and rallied a bunch of people I hadn't seen in years from the Batcave days and we met at this coffee shop that is owned by a Vespa rider up on Portrero Hill. She had this really nice display where she took all these record covers and magazines and had a sample of the Mod uniform, nice 60's narrow cut suit with thin lapels, thin tie, shoes and some '60's girls' apparel that was hung up on the wall that was really nice. That was a few years ago and the latest event that I attended. I had been called back from time to time to judge the scooter shows for the trophy prizes. I did that for about 4-5 Rages over the years. I've always kept in touch and have been friendly with the folks who got me the Batcave, Ted and Lani Langlais and their three kids. We've always kept in touch because we became really good friends.
Q- So you're still in contact with people...
W- Yah, there are websites and keep in contact on the computer and then Ted and a couple of Secret Society guys decided to go to the big Vespa factory 50th anniversary. So they rode across the country, had their scooters boxed and shipped to England, got back on them and then rode to Italy to the big Vespa rally. That was on the Internet as well. I kept in touch with them. One of the fellows had a laptop and logged on with a diary every day with photos that were scanned in. It was actually a very simple and elegant early use of the Internet to do a sort of a documentary report of an ongoing event.
Q- Another thing I want to ask you about also, to get away from the scooter scene, about the Burning Man event you were involved with.
W- Oh yah, sure, Burning Man in the Desert. That's fun. I'm going up there this year. I helped organize it 4 years ago, I worked on the set up crew. I had fallen in with bad company once again and had got involved with these people who would go out on the desert just to do art called Desert Siteworks, about 40 or 50 artists. They were connected to Burning Man as sort of a spinoff but it was a much smaller operation and consequently a lot easier to put together. But they had some fairly involved art work. They'd bring like half a dozen generators and they'd to this neon sculpture in the sand hills in the desert. They were incredible! Out in the middle of nowhere, next to this dry lake that stretches a hundred miles in length and twenty miles wide, this Salvador Dali landscape with neon tubes glowing red and yellow that stretched across these dunes twisting crazily next to a natural hot springs. So there we were, listening to the sound of didgeridoos, soaking in this hot spring and looking at art, doing performance art. It was new agey and shamanistic oriented as well as there was also a sense of working with some of the indigenous cultures as well so we were always mindful of the fact that we were on borrowed land. It was incredibly exciting and a preparatory sidelight to Burning Man, get some artists together in the middle of nowhere and let all hell break loose.
Q- Is that how Burning Man came about?
W- This was Desert Siteworks. Burning Man began maybe ten or twelve years ago, some people got together to do a solstice celebration out on Ocean Beach in San Francisco and brought their drums and flutes and whatever else and they danced and partied and got stoned and it sort of caught on so they did it next year only with a bigger bonfire. Then someone came up with the idea let's do something like a Wicker Man kind of symbolic sacrifice to whatever, the gods of air, I don't know, (laughing) the gods of combustion... So it just grew. Once they had the man, the burning man as the theme there was just no stopping it. They kept building bigger and bigger men and eventually they got shut down by the Army. Ocean Beach was part of the Presidio at that time. A big truck pulls up and troops pile out the back, it was almost like Warsaw in the 1940's. And they all got arrested and kicked out so they had to look for another place to do it
Somebody hit on a real remote desert site. The biggest dry lake in the Western Hemisphere is the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It's huge, you drive out on this thing and it just never ends. It's where they occasionally do the land speed record. It's long a flat and there's a little town called Gerlach which is on a rail head and they have gypsum mines there so all the world's dry wall comes from Empire and Gerlach Nevada and that's their claim to fame, and hunting too, elk hunting. During elk season there are like temporary taxidermy stands that set up on the outskirts of town. I don't think they tie the animal to the car fender any more to parade the trophy through the village. They get an elk, dress out the meat, have the head mounted, drive home with a little something to put on the wall with the bric brac.
That was their claim to fame until Burning Man came along. Then it was becoming more and more difficult to get land use permits from the BLM because it kept getting bigger and bigger and more of a mess to clean up, which they did admirably. The whole idea of using the desert was to leave no trace. They scour a ten mile circle of the desert at the end of the even with a hundred volunteers. This year there was some bogus mining outfit wanted to shut Burning Man down for no good reason and it turns out that the head of this mining company was a Christian fundamentalist and they didn't like the pagan goings on there and the nudity and some of the ecstatic experiences and whatever. So they rallied as many old attendees as they could to write letters, attend meeting and help get the permit approved. One unexpected ally that came to their defense was the town of Gerlach, who turned out to really really love Burning Man because it bought all the store owners a new Winnebago or a Bermuda sea cruise. So the town of Gerlach marched into these meeting rooms and said, look our survival depends on this event and they were very helpful too in providing meeting places for training because now the thing is so big they have to train monitors and facilitators and monitor trash generation and whatever. So they train now in Gerlach and the Mayor of Gerlach considers their role in Burning Man as part of their civic pride.
Q- I saw it advertised in the paper. They have a web site where you can register. I heard it about a year ago.
W- You gotta go. It's $80 but it's an entire week. It used to be just a weekend but this year they're doing it for the whole week. But you gotta outfit yourself. You gotta bring water, food, the comforts of home and lots of sun screen a breathing apparatus because when the dust storms hit (laughing) you want to duck, just put your head in a pillow case or disappear somewhere for a while. It can be pretty intense.
Q- Are you going this year.
W- Yah, I got my ticket. I'm working with a side event, one of their official communities called the "Chapel of the Burning Book". It's going to be a poetry extravaganza. I'm considering doing a poetry reading punctuated by gunfire. But I think I'll plan on doing it the last day in case I get kicked out.
Q- That's good planning on your part...
W- Well, gunfire is no big deal because four years ago when I was on their crew, there were a lot of anarchists involved in this event and a lot of them are hard core, hard bit revolutionary anarchists and guns are no problem for them. They actually had some gun events at early Burning Man. They had a Golf and Skeet event, where somebody would hit a golf ball in the air and everybody would try to shoot it out of the sky. They had a Drive By Shooting Gallery where you sat in the back of a pickup and they'd drive by this hillside that was covered with target silhouettes and you could just blast away at them. And, they had a stuffed animal shooting gallery. So that's not such a big deal, but I think they are tapering down. I don't think there will be any more gun events.
Q- This must be turning into a big money maker for them.
W- There was 5,000 attendance last year, maybe 7,000 this year...they actually lost money last year because the State of Nevada seized their profits because they were afraid they weren't going to be able to cover the cost of clean up or something. Anyhow it was a bogus, some mafia guys decided to extort money out of this event. But they come fairly close to keeping their heads above water. This year they've crossed all their T's, dotted all their I's and they've got contractual arrangements with the Port A Potty people, food concessionaires and licensing for documentaries, so they're getting a little smart about the money. Unfortunately when things reach a certain scale, when freewheeling, no holds barred anarchy reaches a certain scale in an event such as this, it goes capitalist, that's all there is to it. It's just a progression, almost a natural law. At least it's going to be capitalism with a human face, for a good cause.
Q- It's grown from a weekend to a week.
W- Yah, it's grown big. They'll probably get 8 or 10,000 people there, it's a city! This has always been one of the big dreams of the hippie communards and the situationists that grew out of the revolutionary marxist end of the Dada art movement. The situationists like the idea os temporary cities. And that became a whole art movement where you create big structures, domes, whatever, come together for a big celebration and then disappear. So it's the culmination of that esthetic. A lot of European intellectuals will be at this event (laughing). They'll be seeing the fruits of their theory.
Q- Do you think they couldn't do that at home?
W- I can't see that happening anywhere in Europe. Maybe in some wastelands of Sarajevo or maybe on the ocean. Raft together some derelict cement barges and take over a few square miles of ocean. They don't have the space for that. Maybe Morocco, in the desert there. Maybe Libya (laughing). We could open up Libya, be the avant garde of hands across the Mediterranean.
Q- Maybe you could start that new movement.
W- Nah, I'm too lazy.
Q- It seems like you're a pretty busy person
W- Well, not so much these days. I was involved in a video project that kept me off the streets for three years. I was in front of the computer all day and when I wasn't using the computer directly for the video, I was using it for my fun. But I like to write articles. I've written a number of rants and tracts about art, technology and consciousness. I've got them on the Internet and distribute them almost to the point of annoyance. Actually I just got invited to write an article in some avant garde postmodern punk art 'zine. The title of the article is "Stupidity as a Weapon of War"- where you try to engineer stupidity into your adversary and then you don't have to work as hard to defeat them. That's how the game is being played now, particularly in the era of information warfare. There aren't any hot wars excepting in backwards areas. Today you fight back with propaganda, with psyops, even your home population to get them to back the war effort. That's essentially how the electronic industrial nations wage war any more. You propagandize the enemy, but really subtly, I'm not talking about helicopters with loudspeakers, that Vietnam crap, but subtle engineering and manufacturing anxiety and low grade panic in a society. It can be done very easily. Everything from that to weather warfare, all clandestine methods of waging war upon a nation, all forms of sabotage and mole operations and keeping your opponent from becoming politically strong by whatever method is not detectable. That's kind of what I'm interested in and am writing this article about.
I've watched too many art movements and too many inventive human geniuses get stomped out by the forces that be so I'm trying to network with people who want to protect human genius and make sure that the works of like Buckminster Fuller, for example, are preserved and employed as a part of progressive culture.
Q- You see yourself as one that is not of the mainstream culture. Is that something that is natural to you?
W- I've been an outsider since my nervous breakdown in 1966 when I got out of the Peace Corps and ended up on the fringes of the "Summer of Love" and my head exploded, that's pretty much what happened. I was on the ward with no key for a little while and came out an absolute basket case and spent the next ten years putting my internal psychic structures back together brick by brick. I managed to do that and come out on top of it. It gave me this incredible capacity to distance myself from cultural norms. I was in total isolation, had no friends for years and years, so I just turned back on my own resources and read tons of books about everything and had time to think about stuff and I did some art and then I got drafted. It was the height of the Vietnam war and I went into the USN which was a stable environment for me. I ended up getting stationed in the middle of the Mojave desert for three years. It was ideal. It was remote and I was a little strange. People didn't find a relationship with me as necessary to their happiness so I ended up being a loner even in the pressure cooker society of the military. They left me alone. I would go out on weekends into the desert and commune with coyotes, sidewinders and creosote bush and check out Indian petroglyph sites, ghost towns and old mining camps. I lived pretty solitary the whole time.
I feel that our species of human being are essentially solitary sentient beings, solitary independent beings. We have society not so much any more as necessary to survival, but as a pleasurable intelligence enhancing tool. Society makes us smarter because it gathers and creates communal knowledge, a knowledge base from many sources. As society progresses through human history, it becomes less a matter of necessity and more a matter of choice. So we can become a federation of sentient independent beings rather than a kind of cosmic consciousness commune thing where there is a single consensus mind set, a consensus that may not be honest. It's very hard to go against the consensus in communal societies
I like it better when people who are strongly independent come together by choice, a shared esthetic like Burning Man or whatever, or a shared philosophical approach based on inquiry and they come together to test and probe their ideas and the ideas of other people. That to me is an intelligent reason to create society rather than having to band together in order to hunt buffalo a little more effectively. That's what science and technology has provided for us; it's provided a surplus of survival commodities for the first time ever in human history. We can now abandon our internal psychic survival apparatus, the adrenaline driven aspects of our collective character.
Q- Do you feel that though because naturally you're not of the mainstream that you saw these kids at the Batcave that were obviously trying to get an identity other than mainstream, they were able to talk to you since you're so approachable...and you could influence them that way?
W- Because of industrial culture for the first time in history I think you had a split between the generations. I think young people wanted to rebel against the parental generation and all that authority. I think this was stronger in industrial societies than in any time previous. Young kids are almost inherently rebellious anyway, and finding fault with the hypocricies and injustices of a world that they thought as children was ideal and as they grow and learn autonomy over their lives, they see that a lot of it was a huge illusion that was painted for them and they resent it. Somehow that works to create a rebelliousness and a deeply beautiful desire to prefect to make it better. So young people have a built in idealism and that sets them apart from the conservative end, the older part of society which is basically trying to protect itself and stave off the ravages of old age and death.
Q- Looking back though, are you glad of everything you got involved with from the Batcave...you said that was a great time, do you have any regrets?
W- No, I loved being part of that. If I were to sit down an engage some philosophical questions like, if I could change something would I change it? But if you are in a position, a frame of mind that you are able to sit down and make that analysis and have the free time to go, "Hmm, what would I have changed if I could?"; the fact that you are able to do that means you are in a good place and you wouldn't want to...really you couldn't change anything because you might have ended up dead in a ditch or living in a cardboard box under a freeway overpass or, you know, suffered some other quirky, fickle twist of fate, you never know. You could of sneezed wrong, chaos math tells us that. A butterfly flapping its wings means typhoon over New Guinea, so you don't know if you could change one atom of what occurred, if you are in a good place now. If you are in a bad place, of course, then the tendency is to be a little more relative. Your philosophy is not based so much on principle but it is based more on comfort levels, which is always dangerous.
So I want to make a world where everyone's comfort level is ideal. Then they don't have to worry about scarcity or having to steal from someone else rather than having enough to begin with.
Q- How do you think you were known?
W- I was a minor functionary in the San Francisco art scene for a short period of years. I was also disliked rather strongly by a number of my peers and I accept that as an honor. I was a bete noir, a troublemaker and a heretic. I like to think of myself as a pariah among pariahs.
Q- So do you think that the age of Batman is now over?
W- Oh, yah, sure. It's been gone for a while. But I cant think of those little nocturnal creatures flitting about a nocturnal moonlit landscape without a good deal of nostalgia. And I still drive the Batvan. I've got a '58 Volkswagen bus that has been my "sidekick" for 20 years. It's on its fifth engine and I'll probably be buried in that vehicle or maybe burned like a Viking in his longboat or maybe even blown up. That would be fun. (laughs) I'll hire the Louazeau family to do it up right, those building demolition people
Q- As well as your ashes spread in the Batcave?
W- You know what, I want my ashes spread over this huge tire dump out near Fresno, California. There's about 9 square miles of old tires that to me is just an incredible art piece on its own. It's an incredible landscape of these black donuts. You can spread my ashes there.
Q- Why Walter Alter, where did the Alter come from?
W- It just rhymed. It sounded good. I was in film school at San Francisco City College in 1975 and I had to start signing my work and I was caught up in all that media jive ass "There's my name up there" kind of thing, but at the same time I thinkit's kinda clever (laughs). And it kinda rhymes. I'm sort of an armchair poet as well so I can handle it.
Q- It could also be the alter ego of...
W- It could, it sort of resonates in a "Finnegan's Wake" way.
Q- Is there anything you want to add, you want to express...non political!
W- Oh, god, no, other than we should be optimistic about the future. I mean if you can't have an optimistic picture, if you see predictions of gloom- an environmental or terrorist Armageddon around every corner, under every street lamp, you're just going to live a short, nasty and brutal life. It's unfair to do that. One can't be an idealist and want to make the world better without understanding that we're going to survive on this planet. For all its ills, industrial and technological society has created the tools for permanent surplus in all survival durable commodities and there's not reason whatsoever why every human being on earth cannot experience the same level of comfort and intellectual inquiry that the intelligentsia in the Western World does. This is doable, it's a matter of policy. It's a failure of policy only that keeps the world in starvation and grinding chronic poverty and underdevelopment.