Professor Richard Crandall ’69 and Steve Jobs ’76 at the 1991 Reed Convocation.

Professor Richard Crandall ’69 and Steve Jobs ’76 at the 1991 Reed Convocation.

Part Five

Radical Traditionalist, 1990-2011 

Excerpt from Chapter Thirty-eight: Thinking Out of the Box

One of my favorite things about Reed was the constant, spontaneous expressions of creativity that just came out of nowhere.”

–Lena Phoenix ’90

“There was a reaction against earnestness. Let’s be ironic and detached: that was the thing in the ’90s.”

–Nic Warmenhoven ’96

Student life at Reed in the 1990s was marked by increased attention to multiculturalism, feminism, and gay rights. After a burst of campus activism over sexual and gender rights in the late 1980s and early ’90s, sexual mores at Reed began evolving toward the sex-positive movement rising in the broader culture. This movement celebrated and promoted open sexuality, making no moral distinctions among different types of sexual activities. Sex-positivity was also incorporated on campus into third-wave feminism, which challenged many of the notions of second-wave feminists from the 1970s and ’80s with regard to ideas about oppression and empowerment.

The strain of wacky, subversive humor that had long characterized the Reed community took on new expression in the 1990s. Unlike the earnest protests that had marked the ’80s, activism over geopolitical or cultural issues among students shifted to creative pranks and demonstrations of direct action, designed to generate publicity with playful twists of ironic distancing. Clever and sometimes bizarre or madcap Dadaist expressions of intellectual jest became a common occurrence at Reed.

Lena Phoenix ’90: One of my favorite things about Reed was the constant, spontaneous expressions of creativity that just came out of nowhere. There was a spiral staircase that went from Commons down into the mailroom area on the floor below. Sometime during the night someone spray-painted extremely meticulous, accurate DNA sequences on every single stair. It was brilliant.

Steve Koblik, president 1992–2001: I loved it when Reed students would come in and say they wanted to do something that I thought was outrageous, rash, undoable. It may not have anything to do with what they were being asked to do in the classroom, but it did reflect what Reed was about – taking risks, reaching beyond the normal, being willing to be successful or unsuccessful, and recognizing that the ride is the best part of the experience. 

Robert Mack ’93: In science everything was cold and cut and dried, just yes or no. It was kind of boring, which was why a lot of people didn't like it. So we wanted to have something within the realm of science that people could really get excited about with the kind of passion and emotion that the softer disciplines had.

Nitrogen emerged as the unsung hero, and the more research we did into it, the more that just became obvious. Nitrogen is an inert molecule or compound, and two nitrogens stick together very solidly. The three pairs of electrons that they share geometrically is a very stable shape, like a pyramid. It's a fundamental building block of chemical relations. It is also eighty percent of our atmosphere. Hemoglobin’s absorption of oxygen is greatly assisted by nitrogen in the atmosphere. Finally, nitrogen is the workhorse of a plant’s growing cycle, in which it carries things from the soil up to the leaves, then goes back down and gets more. 

We announced the establishment of Nitrogen Day I in the Quest newspaper “to preserve spiritualism and awe while rationalizing and deconstructing the world around us.” Chemistry professor Tom Dunne and other faculty members gave speeches about nitrogen at the event.

Bear Wilner-Nugent ’95: The joke was that nitrogen is so ubiquitous that you can do anything and say it's about nitrogen because you're breathing nitrogen, and there’s nitrogen in your food and your drink. There were innocent pleasures at the event like spontaneous nitrogen haiku contests and people wearing shirts with the nitrogen box from the periodic table on them, and doing handshakes with the triple bond. It was a surrealist holiday run by scientists.

Igor Vamos ’90: Phil Bender ’91 and I formed a club called the “Guerilla Theatre of the Absurd” and sought funding from the student body to do “interventions” around campus, different weird actions, theatrical things that were surprising or unusual. A lot of the stuff was just meant to disrupt the regular flow of things.            

Portland had renamed Union Avenue, which ran almost the length of town, as Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard. That commemoration was sort of a hot-button issue for racism and racial-justice issues, and set off a big public debate in Portland. There was a huge amount of support for a kind of reactionary movement to return the street back to its original name. 

Greg Haun ’90 and I came up with a plan to change this other street in Portland, Front Avenue, to Malcolm X Boulevard. We meant to illustrate that in a political continuum there is always a more radical edge. And if that more radical edge sort of scares people a bit, then maybe they'd be a little bit more willing to adopt the softer, middle ground. You don't know where the middle is until the edges are defined. Our point was that Martin Luther King, Jr., would not have achieved the level of popularity that he had back in the 1960s without there being a Malcolm X.

Front Street was another long street, so there were all different kinds of signs to make: regular green ones, and black ones for the historic district. We printed hundreds of them. We also made highway directional signs that were twelve or fourteen feet wide with letters a foot tall. We hung up the street signs for Malcolm X Boulevard overnight all along Front Street. We didn’t come out in the media, we just called ourselves “Group X.”

Nic Warmenhoven ’96: The Guerrilla Theatre of the Absurd did things like switch the voice boxes in talking Barbie dolls with those in talking G.I. Joe dolls and then return them to the stores. So the kids would buy a G.I. Joe doll that said “Let's go paint our nails,” or buy a Barbie doll that said “Let's kill the enemy.” 

Thomas Strong ’94: Direct action was the model of early-’90s activism – staging events, being in the public eye, trying to raise awareness or make public intervention – as opposed to, say, writing to your legislator or working behind the scenes. It was very much about visibility and generating discussion.

Rose Campbell ’96: “Eat Bugs for Money” was an event that was put on by me and my friend, Alexa Harcourt Green ’96. Alexa's brother had the idea. He threw it out there like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you ate the bugs and it would be like ‘Name that Tune,’ but instead of bidding up to buy something, you would be bidding down. How little money would it take for you to eat a bug?” We were like, “Oh, yeah! That's a great idea.” We launched it at Renn Fayre our sophomore year. Our original idea that maybe somebody would eat a cricket for five dollars. Little did we know how very little money people would eat large amounts of bugs for. It was like a mob mentality where people get into situations in which, for that particular instance in that particular group, the norms of social behavior become completely different. People do things that they would not normally do, myself included. After that first year, Eat Bugs for Money took on a life of its own, becoming the biggest event at Renn Fayre.

Bear Wilner-Nugent ’95: Eat Bugs for Money consisted of several qualifying rounds, during which contestants bolted down crickets, mealworms, ladybugs, and other relatively innocuous beasties, and then elimination play intensified in the semifinals, which were dominated by the official mascot species of the event, a type of cockroach known as the “blaberus.” “Eat the blaberus!” was an early slogan. The favorite final-round bug was definitely the profoundly well-appendaged and thick-carapaced giant Madagascar hissing cockroach, and during that round the entire crowd went, “Hiss-s-s-s.” 

Greg Lam ’96: The Guerilla Theatre of the Absurd morphed in the early 1990s into the “Guerrilla Theatre of the Hors d’Oeuvres,” led by Nick Warmenhoven ’96 and Thomas McElroy ’97. A lot of their pranks had to do with food. At one they dressed as waiters and served food in the library to protest the new no food or drink policy. At another, they got some portable hot plates, tables, and a kitchen setup that turned the library lobby into a full-service, late-night cafe.

Luke Weisman Miratrix ’96: Greg Lam ’96 was also famous for his extremely abridged version of the Iliad, which was, “Shit happens, then your armor clatters thunderously. Such was the battle of Hector, breaker of horses.”

Nic Warmenhoven ’96: The Guerrilla Theatre of the Hors d’Oeuvres picked a Friday in April that was the busiest for visits of prospective students and their parents, and that also coincided with a Board of Trustees meeting on campus, to stage an action that played off of the South Africa divestiture controversies of the 1980s. We demanded that Reed divest all of its assets in Canada, because Canada was secretly behind global warming, which was going to turn all of their tundra into fertile cropland. We put up posters that read “Reed out of Canada Rally” with big Xs over maps of Canada. On the Friday the prospies came, we gathered about two hundred people in Eliot Circle. I was talking through a bullhorn, ranting about the Canadian warming machine and how the college was supporting this indirectly by investing in all these companies that did business with Canada. We burned a Canadian flag and smashed bottles of Canadian beer, working the crowd into a fervor, chanting “54-40 or Fight! Divest!” and “We’re here. We’re queer. We don’t need your Canadian beer!” Then, together we stormed into Eliot Hall and marched up to President Koblik’s office, insisting on occupying the office until the college divested from Canada.

Jon Rivenburg, director of institutional research: I was with the investment committee of the trustee board during the protest, and they were asking, “What’s going on outside?”

Nic Warmenhoven ’96: Four years before, divestment from South Africa had been a real issue at the college. Now, four years later, we were brazenly staging this mockery of it with the divestment from Canada protest. It says a lot about how the era evolved. There was a reaction against earnestness. “Let’s be ironic and detached” — that was the thing in the ’90s.