Psychedelia and the Site of Cinema
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 The dominant role of the historical document, tracing a multi-city genealogy of psychedelia that includes London, New York, and San Francisco, holds the contemporary viewer at a distance from the soft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.
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