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 to see.

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 bonds.

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 is happening?

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 much.

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 uphold.

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.

What happened?


Eric Beltz, 2005