Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

Psychedelia and the Site of Cinema
Jacob Korczynski

Scattered across a spectrum of artistic activity marked by aesthetics as much as by decadence, the psychedelic era has settled into a shortened narrative consisting of a series of historically fetishized images and sounds. Forty years after the culmination of a counter-culture during the so-called Summer of Love, an exhibition of the same name arrived at its first American venue after opening at Tate Liverpool in 2005. In developing this exhibition, curator Christoph Grunenberg sought to establish a historical survey of an era that is often a point of reference but not a subject of critical analysis, and furthermore, to situate psychedelia within the larger socio-political arc culminating in the years 1967 to 1972 and its climate of societal revolt, which included the civil rights movement, second wave feminism, and opposition to the Vietnam War. However, the curatorial link developed between psychedelia and this milieu is unresolved, uncertain, and even tenuous. While the former is shaped by the internal and solitary revelation of the hallucinogenic trip, with individuals giving themselves over to the effects of outside forces, the latter, in stark contrast, is marked by the collective action of communities working directly against systems that maintain or support racism, sexism, and militarism through the isolation and control of individuals.

Grunenberg attempts to contextualize the geopolitical developments of the late 1960s and early 1970s through the documentary photography and cultural ephemera he has assembled in Summer of Love and yet he fails to connect the period to the experience of psychedelia. The dominant role of the historical document, tracing a multi-city genealogy of psychedelia that includes London, New York, and San Francisco, holds the contemporary viewer at a distance from the soft focus of psychedelia and its immersion of the individual into a temporal experience that expands both perception and consciousness. Although primarily instigated by hallucinogens, the psychedelic experience in the Summer of Love exhibition is cultivated through a spectrum of cinema. In a study of American experimental film published in 1967, Sheldon Renan considered the mutations of expanded cinema then emerging and concluded: “The forms of cinema are proliferating. Every new way of creating or controlling light is potentially a new form of cinema.”1 Whether through a montage of moving images or the coalescing of various projected forms, the role of the cinematic experience in Summer of Love occupies two roles: first, cinema animates the exhibition, unfolding as an ongoing temporal experience that the contemporary viewer may enter into, in contrast to the fixed perspective of the historical documents, and, second, cinema and its situation within the gallery site creates a space where the dynamic of the individual and collective experience of the psychedelic is negotiated.

The unfolding experience of cinema provides an entrance into psychedelia’s time-based, altered states of vision within the finite space of the traditionally static and object-bound museum. Here, the psychedelic experience is based upon “constructions whose outcomes we cannot anticipate but must experience in their (our) duration.”2 As Philip Monk observes, the now ubiquitous space of the black box cinema within the gallery site has been derided in the context of other large format exhibitions such as the 49th Venice Biennale for establishing temporal and physical constraints upon the viewer.3 In Summer of Love, the black box space successfully isolates viewers in a focussed cinematic experience while the continuous temporal cycles or permutations of each work allows the viewer to formulate their own entrance and exit. Furthermore, cinema presents an opening through which psychedelia’s internal isolation of the individual connects to collective experience. As Chrissie Iles states in her catalogue essay, “Liquid Dreams,” which examines the role of cinema and its extension of the light show: “While tripping, whether alone or with others, was an internally felt, solitary experience, the light-show was communal.”4 While other traditional media such as painting and sculpture are presented in Summer of Love within an institutional context to accommodate the experiences of individual viewers, in contrast, cinema, as a medium that developed and evolved as a popular form, is presented here for a collective reception.

Where some artists featured in the exhibition position their experiments with light as an exten- sion of the visual codes attached to the spectacle of psychedelic music, Thomas Wilfred’s Luccata (Opus 162) (1967–68), avoids these ties to pop culture. Although it was produced during the era surveyed in Summer of Love, this work was the final manifestation of an ongoing project that predates the emergence of psychedelia, stretching back to Wilfred’s early experiments with light at the beginning of the twentieth century. Luccata (Opus 162) does not surround the viewer, but rather, hangs upon the wall, appearing as if to open a window onto a larger world just beyond the dark. Through the use of a self-constructed and designed optical mechanism, Wilfred’s continuous animation of light ebbs and flows across a spectrum of colours and drifting ethereal shapes. Embracing emerging technologies in order to project a new experience through space and time, Luccata (Opus 162) evokes a sense of the viewers’ disparate experiences coalescing, establishing a prelude to the historical survey of Summer of Love. As Chrissie Iles asserts in “Liquid Dreams,” psychedelia’s quest for new vision was indelibly linked to the expansion of the eye through cinema and the evolution of optical apparatuses that developed both prior and concurrent to the projection of moving images. Wilfred’s project suggests that those shifts in cinema, which unfolded during the psychedelic era, are part of a long lineage of technologies of vision that began long before the projection of moving images and continues to echo in the contemporary expansions of film and video.

Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment (1965/2005) mirrors the space occupied by Wilfred’s work at the entrance to Summer of Love, and, as with Luccata (Opus 162), there is no soundtrack to guide one’s experience of the work. With only the sound of the projectors, the viewer is left to contemplate the role of technology in facilitating psychedelic experience. Here, variations in temperature cause a sequence of five liquid crystal slides to produce constantly shifting mutations of colour and pattern. While many of the other artists featured in the exhibition work with light-based installations or performances as a means to produce a kinetic frenzy, Metzger’s environment, with its slowly evolving, subtle alterations in form and hue, raises questions regarding the tension between the still and the moving image. Furthermore, in Liquid Crystal Environment, the ongoing erasure of each slide sequence for a constantly emerging series of images foregrounds the simultaneous presence of both creative and destructive impulses as manifested in Metzger’s prominent role in the development of Auto-Destructive Art. Much like Liquid Crystal Environment itself, Metzger’s practice has remained constantly in flux. If Wilfred is a pre-psychedelic artist, Metzger could be considered post-psychedelic, as an artist who worked through the era and remains active and engaged with contemporary issues, extending his concerns with the form of installation to implications with the environment and ecology, as well as the reproduction and consumption of socio-historical documents. The practice of Metzger, like those of other senior artists featured in the exhibition, problematizes the presentation of psychedelia as a unified aesthetic, revealing the broader themes and movements of the era beyond the narrative offered by Summer of Love.

As the psychedelic era drew to a close in 1972, Peter Wollen revised his study Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, originally published in 1969, in a new conclusion. Wollen wrote that he was wrong to believe that cinema’s future lay in the full use of all available forms, a continuous maximization. To critically develop the traditionally passive viewer into an active participant, cinema should instead be structured around the contradiction of codes.5 It is this tension between immersion and distance, and the link to psychedelia’s simultaneous isolation of the individual and the assemblage of the group, that awaits the viewer at the conclusion of the exhibition. Here, the central role of the cinematic experience in Summer of Love is laid bare in the film program located in the Whitney Museum’s Kaufman Astoria Studios Film and Video Gallery. Cutting through a series of largely obsolete historical film experiments is Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother (1968). Here, the viewer is confronted by sequences of rapid montage and the cyclical superimpositions of images: the R.E.M. dream state of an albino struggling to awaken, the threat of violence to the docile bodies of flower children, the frenzied ritual of witchcraft, the dark spectre of the Hell’s Angels, and the fields of Vietnam broken by the landing and dispatch of a US helicopter. These images refuse to retain a fixed meaning within the film, instead occupying multiple sites throughout the dense collage, returning to the vision of the viewer in new juxtapositions just as quickly as they disappear. Psychedelia’s expansion of the mind emerged concurrently with the ongoing expansion of cinema by artists, and between its combined objective and subjective modes of documentation and hallucination, Anger’s film asks the key question posed by Summer of Love: what remains of an ephemeral moment—that is, what is history? This question is also the title of a series of collected lectures by historian Edward Hallett Carr, where he states: “You can, if you please, turn it into literature—a collection of stories and legends about the past without meaning or significance.”6 Carr could be referring to the anchoring of Summer of Love in the photography of pop-culture figures and ephemera, including the record sleeves and concert posters that trivialize the ongoing implications of psychedelia as a footnote of a misspent youth for baby boomers. In attempting to make a socio-political context for the psychedelic era self-evident, Grunenberg establishes the nostalgic pitfall of a fixed perspective, and the exhibition’s historical documents remove the viewer from any opportunity to enter an ongoing experience as is offered by the show’s cinematic works. Here, Carr offers a contrast between the historical canon and, on the other hand, history as a continually moving process with the historian (a space alternatively occupied by artist, curator, and critic) moving alongside it as described in his final chapter, “The Widening Horizon.”

While for Carr “The Widening Horizon” refers to the emerging of future narratives, in this context, the widening horizon glimpsed in Summer of Love is the window onto the world opened by moving image media and the multiplicity of its forms embraced and expanded by psychedelia. Anger foregrounds the malleability of the moving image, thus decentralizing the authority of the historical archive and unsettling the iconography of his practice. The collage of Invocation of My Demon Brother itself exists as a series of documents, and yet, as demonstrated in Summer of Love, the very form and function of cinema to continually evolve and dissolve across other media betrays these records. Summer of Love has only just begun to reposition the remnants of what has passed, and, here, cinema contributes to an institutional archive dominated by the stasis of the fixed image. “And yet—it moves.”7

  1. Sheldon Renan, An Introduction to the American Underground Film (New York: Dutton, 1967), 252.
  2. Philip Monk, “Paint It Black: Curating the Temporal Image,” Prefix Photo (Spring/Summer 2004), 21.
  3. Ibid., 17.
  4. Chrissie Iles, “Liquid Dreams,” in Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, Christoph Grunenberg, ed. (London: Tate, 2005), 68.
  5. Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, 2nd ed. (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), 173.
  6. Edward Hallett Carr, What Is History? (New York: Random House, 1961), 176.
  7. Ibid., 209.

Image: Kenneth Anger, still from Invocation of My Demon Brother 1969/2004, 2004. Ultrachrome archival photographs.

You Might Also Enjoy
Folio FOut Now