NEW EXPERIENCE THAT BOMBARDS THE SENSES
Amid throbbing lights, dizzying designs, swirling smells, swelling sounds, the world of art is "turning on." It is getting hooked on psychedelic art, the latest, liveliest movement to seethe up from the underground. Its bizarre amalgam of painting, sculpture, photography, electronics and engineering is aimed at inducing the hallucinatory effects and intensified perceptions that LSD, marijuana and other psychedelic (or mind-expanding) drugs produce—but without requiring the spectator to take drugs. [Viewers] . . . become disoriented from their normal time sense and preoccupations and are lifted into a state of heightened consciousness. In effect, the art may send them on a kind of drugless "trip."
From LSD and fascination
with mind-expanding visions
comes the drugless trip
The proliferation of psychedelic art bears out the statement of a leading LSD expert that this is the Year of Turning On without Drugs. If most of the U.S. doesn't already know this, it soon will. Psychedelic art is invading not only museums and colleges but cultural festivals, discotheques, movie houses and fashion shows. Like other major art movements, it is sure to affect furnishings, clothes, ads and other aspects of everyday life, becoming—like Pop and Op--another household word.
Psychedelic art is not all new. It derives from earlier innovations of art and electronics, as well as from such old-fashioned devices as the kaleidoscope and slide projector. Some of it even incorporates ancient Oriental philosophies and American Indian lore. But what is new about the art is its complex integration of all these techniques and elements as well as its overall purpose. "We try to vaporize the mind," say a psychedelic artist, "by bombing the senses." How well the art succeeds depends heavily uip the receptivity and patience of the spectator. A recent exhibit at the Riverside Museum in New York City, put on by a pioneering group called USCO, indicated that a lot of people are eager to let psychedelic art turn them on. Many of the thousands who flocked to the show brought along their lunch so that they could settle in until closing time.
Intense visions of light are familiar features of trips on drugs, and light has naturally become a prime ingredient of psychedelic art. For Jackie Cassen, a specialist in psychedelic slideshow, light makes possible an art in which "everything moves and is immaterial." With her partner Rudi Stern at a seminar in Millbrook, N.Y. (above), Jackie projected onto a transparent screen the slides she had painted with images inspired by the hallucinations that she experienced under LSD. Simultaneously, the two partners created dancing patterns on the screen by projecting light through a bowl filled with water, oil and marbles. As they worked, the projector behind them cast their shadows on the luminous vision. With such fantasies in light, Jackie Cassen tries to "release" the mind. "Art should be a vehicle for meditation," she says.
A wide variety of light systems—neon, strobes, oscilloscopes- is incorporated into the art made by USCO, a group of artists, poets, film makers, engineers and weavers who live and work communally. In their New York show, a plastic "eye" (right) aflame with interior lights seems to stare hypnotically at viewers. As some of the lights turned off and on, they activated gels suspended within the "eye." The resultant slow movement tended to diminish the viewer's sense of time.
USCO's use of light is often symbolic. In a nine-foot-high painting stands a male figure representing Shiva, the Hindu god of creations, whose out-flowing energy is symbolized by the central, pulsating light from which painting lines radiate. Superimposed upon the Shiva is a seated Buddha who is on an "inward journey," his "divine light" immersed in the center of his being. At the edges of the canvas, red lights throb in the steacy rhythm of a beating heart. These luminous fluctuations, allied with the symbolic imagery, are intended to induce contemplation.
Psychedelic artists, bombarding the spectator with all kinds and combinations of effects, go after every available nerve ending from the eye to the soles of the feet. The voyager who wants to blast off into inner space has the choice of many routes. Richard Aldcroft, shown at left and on the cover, is enjoying a private and highly intense psychedelic experience which is largely visual. He is wearing translucent hemispheric goggles which prevent binocular vision - the normal state in which both eyes see the same image. Instead, he sees separate images with each eye and his mind tries to fuse them. The effort disrupts his sense of time and place and produces the disorientation which is basic to the psychedelic experience. Color patterns appear unexpectedly, assaulting his double fields of vision. They can be aesthetically beautiful—or terrifying. The images are created by Aldercroft kaleidoscopic machine, which he call the Infinity Projector. It casts a slow flowing sequence of ever-changing patterns. The machine performs nightly in Aldercroft New York loft where viewers curl up on mats by the hour to watch its patterns.
The spectators below are immersed in a contemplative, mystical environment created by USCO at the Riverside Museum. Sitting around an aluminum column, spectators listen to a collage of stereo sounds and smell burning incense while watching paintings with pulsating lights. The USCO artists call their congenial wrap-around enriornment a "be-in" because the spectator is supposed to exist in the show rather than just look at it.
Such psychedelic art is not nearly so potent as LSD or other mind-expanding drugs, but most of its techniques do have a direct physical and mental effect, either tranquilizing or disturbing. Throbbing lights break up the viewer's time sense and give it a new rhythm. Under the incessant flickering of strobes, people appear mechanized, their movements jerky as in old time movies. Trying to form meaningful links between rapidly changing slides can be frustrating, like watching a film in which every frame is a wholly different scene. Looking into a strobe with closed eyes, or seeing exhilarating patterns of nonexistent swirling light. After listening to a nerve-wracking drone for a long time, the noise seems either to vanish or take on musical overtones. Trying to tune in on everything calls for enormou discipline. If it works, the spectator feels he is being transported to mystical heights.
USCO also puts on a road show, called "We Are All One," that has been performed all over the country. It simulates the psychedelic experience by use of slides, movies, strobes, oscilloscopes, stereo tapes, a dancer and a heartbeat. The show has some inspired moments when all the audio-visual equipment combines to create a sensory overload that makes some viewers feel they are having LSD-type hallucinations.
The show finds its most receptive audiences at colleges. Young people who grew up with TV and transistor radios and who take electronic equipment for granted have no difficulty in attuning themselves to the audio-visual bombardment. Older people who prefer what is called a rational sequence experience, i.e., just one move or single radio station at a time, tend to freak out.
Most of the producers of psychedelic art have taken drugs and use their hallucinatory visions they experienced as guides for their work. For Brooklyn chemistry professor Dr. Gerald Oster, a single trip on LSD was all it took to launch him on an art career. "It made a fabulous impression," he recalls. What struck him particularly was the "stunning magnificence of phosphenes," those dancing dots, swirls, radial lines and other luminous images that one can see when the eyes are closed or the fingers are pressed against the lids. To convey " the spirit of this marvelous internal visual phenomenon," Dr. Oster began to make paintings whose geometric and spiral patterns incorporate the effects of visual bounce, blur and pull familiar to Op art. In addition, the patterns are painted in phosphorescent colors which glow in the dark like phosphenes and even change shapes and their brightness diminishes. In the photograph at the right, Dr. Oster is shown superimposed upon one of his paintings, pressing his eyelids to stimulate the phosphenes whose agitated motions are suggested by the painted patterns that emanate from their creator.
The way things have been going, psychedelic art was bound to come about. It is a logical merging of routes that art has been traveling for half a century. The Dadaist helped set the course during World War I. Their anarchical performances—simultaneous screaming of poetry and banding of drums, an orgy of gymnastics amid a conglomeration of masks, marionettes and junk drove audiences wild. The the prime source of psychedelic art are the innovations of recent years: the "Combines" made by Robert Rauschenberg, who urged paintings with radios, lights, an electric fan: Allan Kaprow's "Happenings," freewheeling "environments" involving lights, taped sounds, textures and human antics: Op art, with its illusionistic vibrations; and the mechanized construction of kinetic art.
In fact, just about everything going today is apt to be grist for the psychedelic art mill. The USCO group, in particular, shifts effortlessly from multichannel audio hookups to woven rugs, from "proving out" Marshall McLuhan's theories on media to projecting Hindu philosophies. Their art is concerned both with tuning in on "divine geometry" and showing people "in a concentrated way what's going on around them all the time."
Many psychedelic artist first gained recognition and employment in discotheques, which they decked out with flashing slides, movies and strobes. USCO's first big commision was to supply The World with 2,000 slides and 2 1/2 hours of 16 mm films and to build the control console which operates the projection equipment. Psychedelic artists Jackie Cassen, Rudi Stern and James Morisset have all done work for the Cheetah in New York.
Psychedelic discotheques naturally play host to psychedelic rock 'n' roll. Many of today's song lyrics allude to "acid" (LSD) and to pot. In fact, some songs have been kept off the radio stations which worry they might encourage the use of drugs. But true "acid rock" goes deeper psychedelically than just lyrics. It employs a monotonous, harshly amplified drone sound which can act as a a psychedelic stimulus. In the midst of a routine rock 'n' roll number, for instance, the players may focus on a note pattern which is repeated again and again, louder and louder, until it becomes a single unvarying sound. The listeners ears may ring long after the passage has ended.
Oriental music is a strong influence on psychedelic rock 'n' roll. It has given birth to "raga rock," derived from the ragas—India's ancient melodic forms—that Ravi Shankar plays on the sitar. The Byrds have tuned up their 12-string electric guitars to produce the haunting tones of a sitar. George Harrison has actually used the Indian instrument in two of the Beatles' new albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Similarly, the Rolling Stones have used a sitar in Paint It Black. The spread of "raga rock" has had curious results. Ravi Shankar, long considered one of the world's most esoteric performers, now finds himself a pop hero. This year one of his records was reissued just for the popmarket, and after his last London concert he was asked to appear on a TV teen show.
Psychedelic specialty shops are springing up on both coasts. The first of its kind was San Francisco's Psychedelic Shop, which offers eye-jarring silk-screen prints, Oriental jazz, poetry magazines and free Captain Marvel comics. New York City has the Head Shop which offers psychedelic art posters, bright-colored paper-weights and diffraction jewelry—silvery disks that radiate colors of the spectrum and which can be worn as cufflinks earrings or pasted on the forehead like a third eye.
Peacock feathers, diffraction disks, paperwights, bvuttons with the slogan "Psychedelicize Suburbia" have one thing in common—the circular shape of a mandala—a form that symbolizes the universe to Hindus, Buddhist and now to psychedelics. One of them has called the mandala "a meditation machine." Psychedelics are seeing mandalas everywhere. One filmmaker is going about New York City filming manhole covers which he sees as perfect mandalas
To a tuned-in mind, almost anything can have psychedelic import. Paisley patterns, for example, are considered extremely psychedelic. "Be careful when you walk on an Oriental carpet," cautions psychedelic apostle Dr. TImothy Leary, "because you're stepping on somebody's psychedelic vision."