Published as: "Acid Waves: The Tide Comes
In For The Psychedelic Era." ART FEATURE, The
Santa Barbara Independent, October 20-27, 2005, p 158.
Chemistry and Creativity: The Flat Tide
of the Psychedelic Era
In 1957 Life Magazine introduced mainstream America
to the Magic Mushroom. A former banker and self-financed mushroom
hunter, R. Gordon Wasson took a small expedition into the Mazatec
villages outside Oaxaca, Mexico to confirm ancient Maya rumors
that there was indeed a fungus that caused hallucinations. Established
knowledge denied such a thing but a timely letter from an Austrian
living in Mexico sent Wasson south. There he discovered a mushroom
cult that still used the small, brown fungus in healing and prayer.
Breaking the objective and perhaps ethical barrier of western research,
Wasson participated in the ceremony and, eating the mushroom, confirmed
for himself its intoxicating effects. When Life Magazine published “Seeking
The Magic Mushroom” in their May 13, 1957 issue, they not
only broke an aging bias in science but also helped to send a new
generation of American youth into the unknown wilds of the mind.
Hallucinogens would later become synonymous with the 60s as would the
expressive freedoms of psychedelic experience. Ideas and insights derived
from participation would become the new standard, jumping in with both
feet instead of relying on the accepted wisdom and traditional behavior
of the past. Rather than being just another flippant denial of authority,
however, this youth-oriented movement would coalesce into a larger,
living creative force, at least temporarily.
The American response to psychedelics is both in keeping with the culture
Wasson had discovered in rural Mexico and is also a departure from it.
What Wasson discovered in the dark, dusty home of Maria Sabina was the
expression of a culture that had accepted the use of mind-altering flora.
These plants and fungi were used in culturally and perhaps physically
beneficial rolls providing “direct access” to the source
and cure of illness. But their use was controlled and the experiences
resulting from them were made conventional through conditioning. That
is, whatever you would see would be an expression of what you were told
Western culture, on the other hand, had throughout history denied the
use of hallucinogenic substances by the general population. Direct access
to any kind of “spiritual essence” while under the influence
was judged to be bad for the social structures that held the community
together. If one person saw a green bear and another a silver horse and
both believed them to be supreme gods, what would happen to social cohesion?
The American youths who accepted the use of these substances that were
borrowed from other cultures or synthesized in a laboratory had also
rejected, to a certain degree, the structuring function of the historical
image bank that would supply meaning to their psychedelic experiences.
So the method became: Get in, hold on, and see what happens… The
general scientific consensus of this method is that it heightens personality
traits, individual memories, and the things that make you who you are
and not someone else.
It is interesting then that such a personal and unique experience could
become the basis for a group movement. “Feed Your Head” a
documentary showing in the back of “High Societies” at
UCSB’s University Art Museum helps to put this process into perspective.
In retrospect the logic appears quite sound and flows something like
this: People tend to gather around a common interest, such as music.
Therefore the people attracted to a concert will all share at least
this one common bond. But since psychedelic music belonged not only
to a style but to an emerging philosophy concerning essential questions
of how to live in the world, the simple act of gathering along with
the rising popularity of these events and the growing quantity of potential
peers, confirmed the “rightness” of this emerging philosophy,
thereby encouraging it to grow, and providing a social network (the
club) for it to develop collaboratively. Around music, a personal,
drug-induced encounter became the basis for the development of a new
community. An idiosyncratic and unique experience fortified social
The rock posters that advertised these events themselves became models
for how the idiosyncracies of the unconditioned psychedelic experience
can become elements towards a larger purpose. Each artist brings his
own style to the work but the style conforms itself enough to shared
traits as to be able to be seen as belonging together. The works express
the utopic, new community optimism where individuality is encouraged
but somehow doesn’t end up pulling the group in a thousand directions
at once. Green bears and silver horses are still both animals, right?
If you can relate to it, this is one of the most powerful elements in
the legacy of the psychedelic era, the often-referred to sense that
something was happening and that this “something” could
be felt all over. The opportunity to meet others who shared this feeling
came naturally at music events. It is a testament to this feeling that
even though “it” is described in the most vaguest of terms,
we are still discussing “it” 40 years later. What was it?
Is it still here? If so, where?
This is a messy question because the main object is a “feeling” and
the closest anyone can seem to come to identifying it is that it was
a feeling of “change”. That isn’t much help. It’s
like replacing a notion with a whisper. And perhaps that is why attempts
to rekindle this feeling are doomed to fail. “It” was something
that happened. “It” is not something that is happening any
longer because something else is happening. But again I ask, what? What
I don’t know!
Everywhere there are attempts to answer this. A host of exhibitions in
Southern California and in Europe this year reflect new institutional
interest in art about consciousness and change. UCSB’s “High
Societies”, MOCA’s “Ecstasy: In and About Altered
States”, and “Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era” that
originated at the Tate in Liverpool, England and is now touring Europe. “High
Societies” is the most specific show of the three focusing on
one collection of rare posters, artifacts from a decade and a half
of concert promotion. “Summer of Love” draws a wider ring
around “the psychedelic era” by including documentation
of experimental film, the light shows that accompanied many psychedelic
rock concerts, posters, collage, photography, and sculpture. This show
attempts to represent the general historical context of the 60s. “Ecstasy” is
probably the show that offers the freshest insight into where we are
culturally some 40 years after the San Francisco acid wave and perhaps
is also the most depressing…
“ Ecstasy” reaches back to 1990 and gathers art from the last 15
years. Starting in 1990 the show also coincides with the second rise in cultural
interest in psychedelics: the resurgence of LSD, the proliferation of Ecstasy,
and the new Rave culture (a scene that is still alive and changing today). But
this second wave came after Nixon, the Controlled Substances Act, the DEA and
the War on Drugs. So the American scene after 1973 is irrevocably underground.
In Europe, however, the social setting allowed for this second psychedelic era
to flower more fully than in the tightly regulated American scene. It is no accident
that of the 30 artists in the MOCA show 17 are from across the Atlantic. The
rest are spread around the globe from Japan, Australia, Canada, South America,
and the United States.
But the real surprising result of this show is
that whatever failure the show has (and critics have been pointing
out many) it does offer a view into the flip-side of the attempt
to create social cohesion around individuality. We return to the
question: If everyone has their own personal vision of consciousness,
how the mind operates, or what altered perception is good for,
what happens to social, or in this case, creative cohesion? Not
Another quality of the MOCA show is the emergence
of two themes that update or perhaps comment on what has become
of the optimism and freedom that swirled around discussions of
mind-altering drugs and consciousness in the 60s. Rodney Graham’s
19XX video Halcion Sleep shows the artist asleep in the back of
a moving car. Outside it is raining. Water beads and drizzles down
the windows. The rear wiper intermittently clears the blurry window
revealing passing traffic and dimly lit buildings in the darkened
night. The only action in the video happens when Graham’s
eyes briefly flutter and his body tenses to keep from rolling out
of the back seat as the car comes to sudden stops. Otherwise, Graham
is completely self-absorbed, oblivious to the outside world. Under
the influence of the sleep-aid halcion, his body is living through
a day that his mind won’t need to bother with.
This quality of oblivion is the dark-side of messing
with consciousness: the negatation of memory, experience, and self-hood.
It is the useless function of drug-induced escapism but is perhaps
the new common quality of the drug experience. The opportunity
to escape and the desire to bring escape to us is also, one might
say, a central feature to the ever-expanding entertainment business.
Of course we all have the choice to participate in this entertainment
but its hypnotic effect and constant mutation tends to increase
our involvement without our full permission. Before long, we are
just going along for the destination-less ride.
Again looking at the MOCA show with expectations
based in the offerings of the psychedelic era, we find one sculpture
in the cavernous space that truly lives up to the measure. The
60s are defined, in part, by the quality of change, that this change
had something to do with conscious (social, political, personal,
or spiritual), and that this change in consciousness was happening
on a mass scale. With this magnitude of participation, the sense
that the past was fading in the explosion of the present and that
this was creating a brand new tomorrow right now would be hard
to deny. And perhaps this is why there were so many new laws created
in this time. The threat loomed large, giving both positive and
negative results. The Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and
the Fair Housing Act, all came out of the 60s. So did the federal
scheduling of LSD and the War on Drugs. And even though the new
legislation promised a new, more fair tomorrow, personal freedoms
would prove easier to abridge than civil liberties would be to
Tom Friedman’s untitled sculpture of compressed,
blue foam casts a silhouette of a single, square, vertical column
that towers over the viewer. Walking around the sculpture we find
a tiny, blue airplane attached to an edge of the “tower” at
its nose. This is the impossible, split-second both at and before
the moment of impact, after the approach, before the explosion
into the twin towers, just before everyone’s lives changed.
The sculpture is caught in that static moment of fear, dread, disbelief,
and imminent devastation. Of all the events that shaped our contemporary
lives, changed our consciousness on a massive scale, a change that
rocked societies across the globe, a change that is undeniable,
and chanegd the way we were going to live our lives forever after,
this is it.
It is strange and perhaps sad that this kind of
event, a political act of terrorism would be in a show about consciousness,
but looking over recent history it is perhaps the most honest.
If expanded awareness fueled the civil rights movement in the 60s,
the political protests against Vietnam, the social critique of
aging and oppressive structures, what better event to include in
a show which is ostensibly about coming into naked contact with
the world as it is, and not looking away from that which is frightening,
terrible, or disturbing. This is as fitting as the photographs
of the Black Panthers that accompany “High Societies”.
It is the counter balance to behavior that could easily lead to
a state of oblivious denial of the world around, to the half-asleep
complacency the psychedelic era promised to destroy and replace
with a new, better, and more exciting tomorrow.
Eric Beltz, 2005