Notes on the (art) activism of psychedelia
Writer: Lars Bang Larsen
The psychedelic art and subculture of the 1960s is usually, and correctly, associated with the pleasures and pains of mental exploration. In this respect, the archetypal psychedelic image is the blobs of coloured paint pulsating in the heat of an overhead projector’s powerful light bulb, projected onto the wall of a discotheque or concert hall: a kind of kinetic, abstract painting that emulates the intoxicating effects of psychoactive drugs floating in the bloodstream. Of course, the introversion of psychedelia is indicated by all the dictums of the genre: ”freeing your mind”, exploring the ”mind at large” or enjoying the great vistas of ”the inner Hebrides”.
But there is more to the story of the psychedelic mix of pleasure and protest. In terms of space, the idea of the psychedelic defied the human and societal scale of reality in order to break down barriers between inner and outer reality: what took place during the trip at cell level would be homologous to cosmic events. It wasn’t just about out-of-body experiences, but also about what took place outside the body and mind.
It is significant that the psychedelic counterculture developed at the same time as the civil rights and antiwar movements in the US and the youth revolt, both of which introduced emancipatory ideas into patriarchal society. Hence the notion of ”breaking on through to the other side” also implied the introduction of otherness into social space: the ethos of the subculture wasn’t just psyche-delic (meaning mind-manifesting, from the Greek psycho – mind, and delos – arising from), in that a big part of the subculture’s agency was connected to activism. In this sense we might propose an etymological supplement and call the subculture ”socio-delic”, manifesting the social. This would emphasise the fact that the psychedelic counterculture embodied different attempts at redefining the political.
At the first ”human be-in”, which took place in San Francisco in 1967, the rift between introversion and extrovert activism became apparent. An article in the underground newspaper International Times describes the conflict between those who took political disenchantment to the streets, and those who dropped out of society and into themselves, the psychedelic way:
The dichotomy between political action and dropping out seems to have been the major issue raised by the first Human Be-In. The editors of the brilliant San Francisco Oracle, which was mainly responsible for organising the Be-In, counter criticism with the viewpoint that, sure, the Vietnam War has to be ended, but ”you’ve got to straighten out your own head first. How can we ever have a groovy, happy society unless everybody in it has reached his own nirvana?” And Berkeley’s political activists (and this writer) counter with: What happens in the meantime – do people go on getting tortured and shot and burned alive? How long will it be before [US president] Johnson decides to straighten out HIS head?
According to this account, the engagement of the underground was divided into an activist, confrontational scene and a soul-searching one. It is understood that never the twain would meet in the unresolved dilemma between which approach had priority in the definition of reality, and how to act upon reality. Authentic behaviour remained an open question. And of course, this split does describe a state of affairs which would persist and even become radicalised up through the 1970s, when one wing of the counterculture became militant and the other went new age.
But as witnessed in the following years of the late 1960s, a third way developed which merged the premises of both poles of underground engagement: not one that could necessarily heal the split between a humane society and a groovy, inner nirvana, but one that made it clear how social space, as well as the nervous system, could be a space for agency.
In the era’s revaluation of established political discourses, the political itself became a limit, and the concept of resistance was problematised by activists of various stripes. This was partly a reaction to the Soviet block’s authoritarian, bureaucratic ”realisation” of socialism, and in opposition to this it was necessary to establish a political form and content that did not emanate from the pulpit and the credos of the party programme.
Echoing Antonin Artaud’s anti-authoritarian dictum that ”all literature is pig-shit”, International Times proclaimed that ”all politics is pig-shit”: an unambiguous message that ideological coherence and conventional methods for mobilisation were under attack. In this way the struggle for redefining the political went to the bone of human behaviour.
In counterculture’s phasing out of political convention, Being itself became a political statement: to act, dress, consume or talk in certain ways; to ”wear” certain attitudes, to live in a collective or to inhale youth culture through psychoactive smoke became political statements.
The social body could also be turned on and sent tripping, in actions that would turn the street into a theatre. In the US, counterculture found a characteristic form in a loosely organised movement who called themselves the Youth International Party – the Yippies, a non-party without formal leadership.
Among their most famous actions was an anti-war rally in 1967 where thousands of demonstrators surrounded the Pentagon and chanted ”om” in order to expel the evil forces of the military-industrial complex, and make the US Army headquarters levitate and fly away.
The year after, on the occasion of the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, the Yippies ran their own candidate for presidency, a pig named Pigasus, in a parody of the status quo in American society. These actions – calibrated to become prime time TV and press photos – are examples of how the political purpose itself was deconstructed in the social event: the intention with such actions could be to overturn the government, but could equally well consist of a manifestation of the freedom to ”do your own thing”. Resistance was not formulated but acted out, performed through creative lunacy and a tough frivolity.
Incoherence was a sign for radicalism in the Sixties; Jerry Rubin – one of the chief ideologues of the Yippies – ironically bemoaned:
The left immediately attacked us as apolitical, irrational, acidhead freaks [sic] who were channelling the ‘political rebellion of youth’ into dope, rock music and be-ins. The hippies saw us as Marxists in psychedelic clothes using dope, rock music and be-ins to radicalise youth politically at the end of a policeman’s club. The hippies see us as politicos and the politicos see us as hippies. Only the right wing sees us for what we really are.
As I mentioned above, this creative lunacy often took the form of media events (or ”media freaking” as it was called). The Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who worked on the News York scene in the 1960s, always made sure that her street happenings would have a sufficient cast of naked dancers to entice media coverage.
In the end, her fame outside art circles paralleled that of Andy Warhol and other big luminaries, and the media gave her the pet name “Dotty” after her signature strategy of covering people and objects in cosmic polka-dots.
Also for the Swedish artist Sture Johannesson it wasn’t enough to drop acid or inhale psychoactive smoke (”in the end we became too stoned” – förstenade, as he punned). Instead, one had to turn on society and make one’s social being whole and radiant.
Johannesson was an atypical exponent of psychedelic counterculture in the sense that his psychedelic art grew out of his affiliation with the Scandinavian wing of the Situationist International. His posters were connected with the art scene rather than the music scene, which was typically the case. Apart from his graphic work he independently organised Galleri Cannabis together with his wife Ann-Charlotte; a place for the Malmö underground to hang out, get high and produce and exhibit art.
In a poster from 1967 Turn on The Institutions: The Kingdom is Within You, Johannesson propagated to turn on one’s inner kingdom as well as institutions. Within an oval blue frame with yellow art-nouveau-esque lettering, a b/w rendering of the royal castle in Stockholm has been equipped with a neon sign that beams out the edifying message in pink to the Swedish people, ”the kingdom is within you”.
The poster was a competition proposal for a public work of art, and predictably Johannesson’s piece for a democratic revision of the monarchy was never realised. However, the poster fuses political and psychic events and makes them simultaneous: The poster’s message seems to be the necessity to make mental as well as public space vibrate with new visions (as embodied by the pink neon sign).
By turning on, you could dethrone the king, crown yourself the king or queen of your inner kingdom, as well as make society’s institutions serve new, consciousness-expanding functions! In the ecstatic society thus proposed, the mental and public realms were part of the same time-space continuum; or, to use a sculptural metaphor, they were made of the same matter that was worked upon by drugs or visionary ideas, and hooked up to each other in a reality that was soft and pliable.
A little described, but typical development of psychedelic countercultures in the US as well as Europe was the affiliation that the underground had with cybernetics; ”the science about control and communication in complex machines such as the computers and human nervous system”, as Norbert Wiener put it in his curious formulation.
In the late 1960s, Sture Johannesson went from producing underground posters to collaborating with IBM in Stockholm in order to create digital graphics, and on the West Coast of North America the heads from San Francisco would hang out with the nerds in Silicon Vallery, creating some of the world’s first microchips with the purpose of controlling light shows for acid rock concerts.
This was a part of the psychedelic scene’s fascination with new technologies - cybernetics was the new trip: it now seemed possible to use the computer for purposes that LSD and other drugs had promised in terms of spontaneous communication with the Other and within the social body. In a striking turn of phrase, the Finnish scientist and musician Erkki Kurenniemi described the relationship between human and machine in terms of bio-feedback.
This implied hooking up the human mind and body to the computer, in order to allow the machine to filter and speed up the information running in the individual’s nervous system, to connect it to others and ultimately to improve and immortalise the human body, cyborg-style. Hence flesh and mind could be transcended beyond mental space and beyond any known social horizon.
In a true avant-garde fashion, the breaking down of limits showed the way ahead, in a radical re-imagining of the world that even deconstructed the foundational terms of political activism.
For example, if there was no longer such a thing as an individual subject (but only a number of nervous systems hooked up to each other), how would you constitute a mass and hence a mass movement? An awful lot of power would seem to fall into the hands of those who wrote the computer programs!
That social horizon, of course, is what we are stuck with today – albeit in a less utopian fashion. In his famous essay Postscript to the Society of Control (1990), Gilles Deleuze talks about the way social control today is a modulation, ”a kind of self-deforming form that changes for every moment”.
In this way control is no longer disciplining, but has become a kind of massage in which information itself rubs against our subjectivity – or in which subjectivity is rubbed into societal instrumentality.
In the society of control, there is no longer any opposition between mass and individual: individuals have become dividuals, subjects who are divided up and parcelled out. Through these modulations and massages of subjectivity, capitalism wants to sell its services and buy human agency.
To use Kurenniemi’s term, this is bio-feedback the capitalist way, inasmuch as the idea of self-deforming forms is a rather psychedelic one: that of constant shape-shifting and permutation, a form of control that interweaves the nervous system with the social space.
Beyond the possibility to use psychedelic art and culture as a means for understanding the development of late capitalism, the question is if there is a way of reinventing psychedelia’s viral and anarchic forms of resistance in a globalised capitalism that has commercialised the representations of psychedelic art, and has turned many of its key terms into ideological tropes.
However, the questions that psychedelic (or socio-delic) art and activism asked are still relevant today, in the challenge that contemporary life poses us, to reinvent relevant forms of activism and criticality: What political forms and languages are relevant today? What are the limits to communication? What kind of connectivity does the subject have with the community? How can we understand the media and use them in a constructive way?
LUE TEKSTI SUOMEKSI Taide 5/06