Interview with Ken Johnson

Isabel and Scott from Leaders in Software and Art recently spoke with Ken Johnson, the author of a new book about psychedelic consciousness and art, Are You Experienced?.

In this interview, Ken Johnson gives us his views on why the artists who make fun of pop culture get more credibility within the art establishment today than the artists who inspire pop culture; why high art doesn’t pay much heed to bitforms, Eyebeam, or digital art in general;  why today’s art is not just about aesthetics but about experiences; and the thesis of his book, Are You Experienced, which is that the 1960’s psychedelic culture of consciousness-expansion unconsciously but pervasively altered the landscape of art and created postmodernism.  We also chat about Burning Man, psychedelic drugs, and artists.

Ken writes sharp-tongued reviews (Shepard Fairey, The New Museum) and, unlike LISA, doesn’t “cheerlead for new movements”, but we hope to get him to few of our salons for a little “consciousness raising” about software art anyway.  We just figure that an art critic who defines his personal utopia as “a place .. where all disconnected loose ends weave into a coherent yet ever-fluctuating web of thought” (p. 225, Are You Experienced) was born to write about the Internet.

Ken Johnson Bio: Ken writes for the arts section of the New York Times covering exhibits in galleries and museums, and has written about art for numerous publications including Art in America and the Boston Globe.  He also teaches a writing seminar at the School of Visual Arts. Ken has an art degree from Brown University and a masters in studio art with a concentration in painting from SUNY Albany. His book Are You Experienced – How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art was published in June 2011.  Ken tried to live in Boston for a couple of years but succumbed to the gravitational pull of NYC.

Scott Bio: Scott Draves is a software artist and founder of the Electric Sheep, a benign cyborg mind made up of 450,000 people and their computers, who together create a continuous flow of evolutionary art with Scott’s open source genetic algorithms.  Scott taught briefly at SVA as well, has a degree in math (also from Brown University), and a PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon. He works at Google.

Isabel Bio: Isabel Walcott Draves is founder of Leaders in Software and Art and a freelance Internet business strategy consultant.  Starting in 1996 she was the founder and CEO of SmartGirl, the first social media site by and for teenage girls on the Internet.  She has a degree in literature from Harvard University and an MA in communications, communication and technology from Columbia University.  She also tried to live in Boston for a couple of years but succumbed to the gravitational pull of NYC.


ID: Thanks for agreeing to an interview with Leaders in Software and Art.  It’s a really nice book.  Except for that butt plug Santa.  (laughter)

KJ: Everyone’s got something to object to.

ID: I like almost every piece in there except that one.

KJ: Oh you don’t like that?

ID: Well I mean, I appreciate the humor of it but I don’t like the look of it.

Santa with Butt Plug by Paul McCarthy (photo by Peter Dewit)

SD: Oh yeah, it’s ugly.

ID: But I like the picture of it with the kids, that’s fine. That makes it better. But where were we?

When I read your book I really wanted to speak with you about it, because of the aspect of it where you talk about psychedelic art as originally “outsider art” which eventually made its way into the whole fabric of the established art world.  I feel like we are facing the outsider problem with digital art right now, and wondering just how computer art might become more generally accepted.

KJ: Well, high art can be influenced by subcultures from the ground up. Like artists could appropriate pop art, popular culture…

ID: That’s okay.

KJ: That’s okay because they’re still like critiquing or manipulating.  But this kind of demotic popular culture that just went everywhere…

SD: It wasn’t just like an invasion of the art world; it was an invasion of all of the academy and authority.

ID: So digital outsider art has never really been accepted by the insider art world.  Or in the ways that it has, it’s been in kind of its lowest form, like the eight bit art, the sort of ASCII text version. Cory Arcangel taking apart 1970’s video games.  Which is really different from what’s happening now, where people are writing code and doing generative art that’s pretty sophisticated from a mathematical perspective.  And some of the stuff that’s pretty intricate and beautiful in terms of what it looks like, as opposed to just having the conceptual side down. So I think there’s…You know the thing that most reminded me of it was when you were talking about those rock n’ roll posters.  Because I admire Marius Watz who’s a friend of ours who does this, and Scott too.  A lot of times their work has been commissioned to make rave posters.

Blues Project poster by Victor Moscoso

Rave poster by Marius Watz

SD: Well Marius was more than… I mean that was his job; that was what he did for a long time. That was how he started making art.

ID: Yeah. Right. And Scott was a VJ for a long time so he was showing the visuals and doing the light shows at raves.

SD: Yes. Although it was different.  That’s not how I got started; I got sort of pulled into it later. So different starts, different paths but that’s how we ended up.

KJ: I have very little experience myself with rave culture.  So I could learn something about that from you.

ID: But so then eventually, with the psychedelic outsider art, I mean from your book… it went mainstream, a lot of its imagery did.

KJ: Where are we going with this?

ID: Well that was where I started out thinking; oh we should talk with you about your book for LISA.  What are the parallels with technology art?   But let’s come back to this later.  I think Scott has some ideas for questions to ask first.

SD: You know, I just read your book over the past week.  The first thing I noticed about it was that your approach was different from most people who are out there talking about psychedelics in art, which was not to focus on the visual, the appearance of stuff, but to get into the concepts.  The effect of psychedelic culture on the conceptual part of art, and really, using it as a lens for all art.  My reading of the book was just like, “Oh this is a great survey of modern art.” You know what I mean? And half the time I wasn’t even thinking about psychedelics. I was just learning about art.

KJ: Right. I think that it hinges on something that happened in the mid-60’s, when you had a large percentage of youth, middle-class youth, realizing that consciousness could be manipulated in really interesting ways.  And I think to put it really in broad terms, prior to that people probably generally thought consciousness was sort of “normal”. There was reality, and there was consciousness.  And reality was what it was, and the job of your consciousness was to respond to it appropriately and accurately.

SD: It was Platonic and rational.

KJ: So when a lot of people started doing psychedelics, you’d have this experience where the world appeared to be very different. And then that hooked up with the idea that maybe altering consciousness is a good idea.  Because then reality itself changes, or at least our relationship to it changes. And that, in itself, becomes something.  A new state of reality.

To go back to that idea of “normal consciousness”, when you looked at art, say Abstract Expressionist painting or Mondrian or classic modern art, there was the idea that here were artists creating these objects that had some kind of significant formal dimension.  You responded to it with a normal state. It was basically the aesthetic …. it doesn’t change your consciousness; it gives you an experience of aesthetic order, maybe. I think at a certain point a lot of artists, consciously or not, signed on to the idea that the purpose of art was not to make aesthetically superior objects but was to create experiences that would alter the viewers’ consciousness.

ID: I was wondering if you got pushback on that matter or if people quibbled with it.  If they said, “Look, this artist has never used psychedelic drugs at least that we know of, and this piece doesn’t have that sort of psychedelic vibe that we’re all familiar with,” and yet you’re calling it psychedelic because it’s “making us think in a different way” or because “there’s a whiff of weed about it”. I love how you say that: “Am I wrong or is there a whiff of weed about this?” Like it’s just an interesting conundrum, an oxymoronic text for example or something like that [and suddenly it’s referencing marijuana]. Have you talked to people about that? Have people complained about it?
KJ: Some people.  I know that Chuck Close, who’s in the book, doesn’t agree with the thesis.  To him making art is about a kind of pragmatic problem solving. It has to do with constructing this visual thing called a painting and it’s about the process of that. But I think that what I’m talking about is in a way sort of the unconscious of the art world.  As far as the art world goes it’s sort of unconsciously present.
ID: Like it fell prey to it, or it was manipulated by these changes in the zeitgeist without even knowing it?

"Frank" by Chuck Close.  Photo by Tim Wilson.

KJ: Right.

SD: Well, art engages with our culture and…

ID: And it was all over the culture.

SD: Yeah. I think you said somewhere in the book, “Not every single person took LSD, but America took LSD”.

KJ: Yeah. That was this guy Nick Bromell who wrote a book about music and psychedelics.  One of the things though that I think is different about my book from, say, What the Dormouse Said; The Dormouse says that there were these hippie computer geeks and they were doing psychedelics and having fun and creating a personal computer, and maybe the idea of the personal computer somehow was related to psychedelic kind of ideas about global connectivity or something. But it doesn’t really, in very specific ways, talk about what is psychedelic experience actually like and why is it somehow commensurate with computational kinds of thinking.

ID: Yeah. I haven’t gotten past the introduction of that book, but I noticed immediately how different it was from yours because they started out saying, “We just want to explore what the people who invented these things were doing.  They were doing drugs, they were hanging out.”  And you said the opposite of that.  You’re like, “I don’t care what the people were doing, I want to look at what their art is saying.”

KJ: Right.

ID: So I really noticed that difference there.

KJ: Right.  And if you look at this (indicates Scott’s Generation 244 playing on-screen)… There’s this guy named Klüver that I talked about who wrote a book in 1928 about the effects of mescaline on himself, and it’s a scientific study.

SD: He categorized the different visual things that he saw…

KJ: Yeah. And what struck me when I first saw [your stuff] on your website was, when I’m stoned, at certain times when close my eyes, that’s the kind of stuff I see.


SD: That’s pretty weird isn’t it?

KJ: Yeah.

SD: I’ve heard that too and I felt the same thing and often my work has been called psychedelic for that reason but it’s kind of a coincidence. I didn’t set out to reproduce that effect.  It just comes out of the math and it’s evolved, maybe, out of everybody’s influence.

KJ: So it suggests that if you read say Gregory Bateson, that the mind operates cybernetically also.

SD: I’m a huge fan of Gregory Bateson and one of my questions I was gonna ask about was his relationship to the book, because he really didn’t come up that much.

KJ: I didn’t start reading him until I finished the book. I had never really read him before.

ID: Because William James is in there.

SD: William James was all over it.  Which is great. And I thought that the varieties of religious experience and his use of nitrous oxide … I don’t know, did he ever do psychedelics? Was that available to him?

KJ: I think he tried… He tried something. I think it was peyote and it didn’t work for him. It was disappointing, it just made him sick.  I think he had fun on nitrous oxide.

SD: I know he did. There was one of his quotes that I always liked that he was able to write down, to capture. “There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference,” which I find really insightful.

KJ: You know I forget where I read this, but when it was first invented, in the mid-19th century, it became kind of really popular and people organized these “entertainments” where somebody would do nitrous oxide and then behave in this goofy way.

SD: Everyone would laugh. (Laughter) Why’d it ever go out of style?

KJ: I don’t think it ever did really! But actually, that’s a good point, which is some people will say, “well there have been psychedelics available since the dawn of human history.” I mean, maybe it was because somebody ate a psilocybin mushroom that language came about.  Who knows?

SD: McKenna said it.

KJ: Yeah. The mushrooms came from outer space so it’s an alien kind of virus that’s required. And so there are incidents reported of say, poor people in England gathering mushrooms just for food, and eating them and then having these experiences of insanity and having no idea, or feeling thinking basically they were poisoned. So you didn’t have a culture that made sense out of those kinds of experiences. They had opium but mainly people took it for medicinal reasons or just to relax or something. But there wasn’t a culture that made hallucinating and having these kind of narratives that come to mind seem really worthwhile, something you’d want to do. Except for, you know, underground people who wanted to derange their senses for whatever reason, because it was creative. But when you have a broad middle class thinking, “this is a great thing to do”… I don’t think that’s ever happened in human history.

ID: Not like drinking.

KJ: Yeah. In alcoholic cultures, it’s more of social lubricant.  Nobody drinks in order to get so drunk that they hallucinate.  (laughter) I mean it happens but you don’t want to go there.

ID: But I think the hallucinogens are like a more introspective thing and not necessarily a social thing.

KJ: Yeah. I have a chapter called Drunk vs. Stoned and I talk about that.

SD: Yeah, well there’s all the different drugs that have different effects, they have different cultures that develop around them. I mean marijuana is one that’s been around for a long time and has been not necessarily appropriated in America, but in the East is widely available and used for a lot.  As was opium.  But the “mechanical age” or whatever, being able to refine the drugs and manufacture them on a large scale and distribute them, I think really changes how they affect people.

KJ: Well, you have supply and demand. The question is, where did the demand come from? Some people might say to me, “Well, you’re attributing this massive change in cultural paradigm to people taking drugs.” It’s not really that, it’s the intersection of a lot of social developments coming together with that.

SD: Yeah. It’s hard to pull apart exactly what was causing what.  It was all happening together.

ID: So that kind of makes me think of another one of my questions.  Along with the sort of rising social acceptance there’s also the social opprobrium, the illegal side…

SD: It wasn’t illegal when it started.

ID: Right, but the question that I had for Ken was I was wondering if you felt inhibited or hampered when you were writing your book about the illegality of drug use. I mean, you’re saying, “When I did LSD…” and you’re interviewing artists and they’re like “When I got high…” and this stuff is illegal.  So did people say, “Don’t quote me on this” or was there discomfort?

SD: Who said, “Don’t quote me on this?”  (laughs)

ID: No, come on. Is there stuff that you didn’t put in?  Was this a problem, or is it just basically so accepted that people don’t even think about that?

KJ: Well my purpose…I mean when I originally came up with the idea I thought, this would be cool to go and interview artists who emerged in the 60’s and it was really happening and it was new and exciting and ask them about it. Nobody ever had done that.  If I had done that, or somebody did that, then you’d find out what kind of pushback or anxiety that would cause.  In this case… I don’t know. It’s an interesting question because psychedelics are different from narcotics and they’re different from speed and they’re different from meth. They’re not addictive.  Pot can be sort of addictive but not so strong as heroin, but it did get associated with other drug cultures because it’s called a drug. And yet it’s so celebrated. Pineapple Express. It’s like smoking pot has replaced… like it used to be drunks in movies or on TV where funny people were drunk. You don’t see that much anymore, but now it’s stoners who are comic, like the movie Smiley Face or Cheech and Chong.

SD: Yeah. I’ve seen those.

KJ: What’s funny about people who are stoned in movies is not physical slapstick; it’s what they’re thinking. Psychedelics goes to what we’re thinking.  In a way that, to me, is more important than the visual effects, or the hallucinations. It makes people make connections, or they have these epiphanies that are funny or sort of awesome.  I suggest that they enhance certain functions of mind, or certain psychological functions that we use to organize the world.  We have a narrative function. Like, “I left my house, I drove down the Grand Central Parkway, I drove down 125th Street, I finally got here and I met you guys.” This journey I went on, I have to hook them all up and have a sense of purpose and destination and all that.  Like my mind makes it into a story.  I have to.  Otherwise it’s just random events. So when you smoke pot or do acid or something, that function gets pumped up.  I talk about that in the book.

SD: That was Huxley’s valve or whatever it is?

KJ: The “reducing valve”.  I don’t think that theory is true but I think it’s more about…

SD: You’re talking about the consciousness expansion.

KJ: Yeah. But the drugs have like more focusing effect. Like, I did mushrooms a little while ago and I was looking at a photograph and then I was noticing how dimensional it looked.  It was a picture of a guy on the street and it looked totally 3-dimensional, like he was way out in front. But our perceptual … somehow the brain turns what we see into pictures, and it separates things in space. So when you’re stoned, it enhances that so things are more distinct, more clear. So anyway, they have the effect of making you think about consciousness itself.  I think other drugs, which I don’t have much experience with, in a way sort of relieve you from worrying too much about consciousness.

ID: So it’s about seeing things from a different perspective.

KJ: Well, yeah. And that’s the nature of art today unlike, say, art in the mid-century where there was always this idea that there is one stream of artmaking that was above all the others as being central and most relevant and most important. And after the 60’s, that really is completely gone. Nobody can say what the most relevant kind of thing is, whether it’s this (indicates Scott’s art on-screen) or making cartoonish paintings like Peter Saul. They can’t say.

peter saul by aaron gustafson

SD: That’s why the movements are gone and now it’s every man for himself.

KJ: Well, there are lots of different trends and families. So art historians sort of throw up their hands and they say, “Well, it’s postmodernism. And postmodernism equals pluralism and so you have to take each kind of thing on its own terms.”  And the tendency is to separate them and therefore not see what the underlying kind of aquifer is that feeds them, which is what I was trying to do.

ID: So can we talk about a little bit about the artists that you feature in the book?  One of the artists that I was kind of surprised to miss was Chihuly, because I look at his work and I’m like, “Whoa!”.  I know that was not really what you were about, but no one’s ever really done anything like that, that I know of.  Glass, sculpture, all over the place, huge, colors (waves arms around).

KJ: Well…

ID: And that’s just to pick on one person. How did you make the decision to choose who to put in there?

KJ: It was pretty much according to my personal interests.

SD: So these are the artists you are interested in?

KJ: Yeah. Some of them are artists that have been taken as really consequential in art. Chihuly’s a little bit… I am not a fan.

ID: Too commercial?

KJ: Yeah. But there are people on the west coast working with transparency and cast plastic and the certain kind of surface, you know what they call the Finish Fetish movement.  To my knowledge, nobody ever attributed that to psychedelic interest, but just think about it.  Hallucinogens make you really responsive to surfaces.  I really didn’t go into that in the book, but that’s another example.

ID: Do you make any effort to include any kind of canon, or to create one?

KJ: No. That’s the last thing I would want to try to do. I mean, there are people in there that are very minor.  I mean, nobody knows who this artist is.  [Ken points to the Elisabeth Aldwell painting The Lone Deranger on p. 222, which includes text saying “Baby Trance sees Simon Posford (who’s not really there at all; she’s hallucinating him!)”.]

SD: I don’t know her, yeah. But the musician is huge.

KJ: Who’s that?

SD: Simon Posford.  Who has an album The Lone Deranger.  And it says something about Simon in the text.


KJ: Ah. I didn’t know that!

ID: That’s small print there. (laughter)

KJ: I didn’t know that Simon was what you would call psychedelic kind of music.  I gotta check him out!  (laughter).

SD: He has two acts, Shpongle and Hallucinogen. So. Hallucinogen would be a giveaway.  Shpongle means nothing unless you hear it. Check it out.

KJ: And this (points to another picture) is a friend of mine. I wanted to have the most famous artists, like Richard Serra, who’s considered by many to be the greatest living sculptor. And someone like this woman who lives on the Lower East Side and lives a hand-to-mouth existence.  Because it is this culture that ranges; we’re all part of it.

SD: Yeah, well if you just look at the top, that’s a huge selection bias.  You’re not gonna get a feeling for the whole art world from just the most famous …

KJ: Right. And so when you say canon … I come out of a psychedelic kind of mindset, and part of that is non-hierarchical. It’s not to create a canon or an order of excellence or something like that.

ID: That’s a big point.

KJ: I don’t care who gets the medal at the Kennedy Center.  Or whose painting sells for 17 million dollars. Those are irrelevant to me.

ID: Yeah. And What the Dormouse Said really covers that too.  And the whole Internet culture came out of that, the non-hierarchical. You don’t need a center of command, everything can just be peer to peer and people can share.  You don’t have to necessarily buy it.

KJ: Oh right.  I know there are people involved in the art world, maybe you, that are interested in making art that will be able to circulate in that way, outside the gallery system. I’m still interested in objects just because that’s what I like.  I like to look at paintings and sculptures and things like that.

ID: So what about on the upper end then?  So you have Koons, Serra and arguably it’s a stretch. I don’t know, with Koons it’s probably not a stretch to call it psychedelic, those shiny balloon toys, but with Serra it’s a little bit of a stretch?  Do you think?

serra by greg headly

KJ: Have you ever walked into a Serra sculpture?

ID: Yes, but I’ve never done acid so I can’t really match the two.

KJ: He said in interviews that the forms that he creates, those spirals or the torqued ellipses, they are forms that don’t exist.  They have no prior existence. You would understand this better than I, Scott, but they’re not forms that have ever been used architecturally.  You go in and they don’t seem psychedelic “like that” but they are…the walls tilt in this way that you’re not accustomed to.  I think there’s a very big development in art since the mid-60s of installation art in which a lot of it is like fun house art.  Lights, distorting mirrors, halls of mirrors. Like a rave, where it’s a pleasant experience, but your ordinary senses are addressed in ways that normally you hope isn’t gonna be all the time. (laughs)

ID: Distortion.

SD: It’s a trip.  It’s a little vacation from normal states.

PART II — Art and Tech

ID: You know it’s kind of interesting, when you talk about the fun house mirrors.  We just interviewed Daniel Rozin for our blog. Have you seen his work? He does a lot of stuff with mirrors and software and computer hardware. So it’s like a whole bunch of little mirrors like tiles, but then there’s a camera on you and as you move this way or that way the little mirrors all kind of adjust themselves to look back at you.

KJ: Oh, does he show at bitforms I saw that work.

SD: They’re mechanical mirrors.

ID: And some of his work is screens that act like mirrors but they mess you up. So you look in it and there’s like a messed up version of you looking back at you.

KJ: Yeah.  I think in the art world that I am mostly in, a place like bitforms, or Eyebeam, doesn’t have that high a profile.

SD: Well, digital art doesn’t have a high profile.

KJ: Yeah.  I’m not an advocate for it and I’m not I don’t have a particular position on it and I haven’t really given it much thought as to why.

ID: I’m really curious —

KJ: There’s suspicion of, you know, is it a gimmick…is it a gimmick…is it just like…

SD: (sarcastically) Oh, it’s “just a fad.”

ID: No but I’m really curious to hear you maybe muse on why that might be so, because of course in a world of software artists, that’s full of software artists, everybody is looking at bitforms.  Everybody’s looking at Eyebeam.

SD: And it’s a big question.  From the inside of the world, it’s hard to tell how it’s viewed.

KJ: From the inside of the?

SD: Of the software art world.

KJ: They are less aware of how they’re viewed from?

ID: The insider art world.  People are aware, but they don’t know why.

SD: It’s hard to understand.

ID: Is it the medium? Is it how it started? Is it they just haven’t been around long enough? Is it that it’s hard to understand? Like sometimes technical stuff (makes whooshing noise and hand gesture) goes right over people’s head.

KJ: Well I think one thing is that it can be thought that what you’re seeing are only technical effects.  Rather than one person’s vision.  So…I don’t know. I mean I would hesitate to make large statements about it.

ID: Right.  If you haven’t thought about it then…

KJ: And I don’t, you know, it probably seems strange to you that it’s not …  Do you know Leo Villareal

SD: Sure.  We’ve been though the Disorient thing at Burning Man.  For years now.

KJ: Did you see his…I wrote a review of his recent piece.

SD: I’ve seen a lot of his pieces but not the most recent 3D thing [turns out we went to see it the following week].

ID: We really like the one in the basement of the —

KJ: National Gallery?

villareal natlgall john schneider

ID: Yeah, that’s nice.

SD: There was a section in your book on computers or “cyber-psychedelia”.

KJ: You probably haven’t seen the Ryan Trecartin show at PS1?  He’s like the “hot young” … who people talk about on the net.

SD: I’ve seen his stuff online.  Drives me insane.

ID: Oh, is that video guy who puts makeup on and he’s super frenetic?

SD: Yeah.

ID: How did he get to be…

KJ: So big?

ID: Yeah.

KJ: I think it’s partly his charisma as a performer.

ID: Yeah. I think charisma is a lot of it. Otherwise you get famous after you die. (laughs)

KJ: Also he’s playing with… there’s a meta-level to how he’s playing with computer graphics and, I don’t know what the right language is, but he’s kind of a pop artist in a way. He’s using standard programs to create patterns and sort of familiar motifs that he sees in television and pop culture in general. So the visual element is, in a way, goes with the nature of the language that’s used, which is a kind of “found language”.

SD: Yeah.  It’s what you can do with a laptop. There are all these standard tools you can find on a laptop.  They’re being recombined.

KJ: In a way it’s a much more complicated, not necessarily more sophisticated, but a more complicated version of what Cory Arcangel is doing.

SD: I also found it when I saw, when I see his stuff it really reminds me of the Club Kids. You know those guys?

KJ: I don’t know the Club Kids.

SD: They were…they came in the New York scene I guess in the late 80s and early 90s.

ID: One of them committed suicide [actually, he was murdered].  They wore really funky clothes.

SD: They had totally outrageous outfits.

ID: They made the movie Kids about them, right?

SD: No, it was called Party Monster.

KJ: Oh I know what you mean yeah.  So it’s the Studio 54 kind of days, right?

SD: Uh… no it was a bit later. It was the clubs or maybe they went to like a …

ID: They were like our age, right? It was like they were teenagers at the end of the 80s.  Anyway, well maybe that’s part of the explanation for it, if it’s familiar to people. I think it’s hard to like get your head around something that’s completely new and different. But one of the things I wanted to ask you was that you covered Burning Man like really only a tiny bit, right? You talked about Baby IKKI.  There’s so much at Burning Man…

KJ: You know actually you’re getting…you’re kinda… there’s something here that …My excuse for talking about, or my way of talking about Burning Man is talking about Baby IKKI and that’s kind of making fun of Burning Man. I’ve never been to Burning Man.  But in the realm of art that I tend to focus on, there’s still a certain separation between what artists do and what mass culture does. It may manifest itself as critique in some psychological way, or it may manifest itself as satire.  I think when you’re talking about some of bitforms’ things, and Eyebeam, there’s an anxiety that it may be more part of the broader culture than –

ID: Than “a comment on it”?

KJ: Yeah.  Right.

ID: Yeah, that’s interesting. So there needs to be some kind of separation layer.

KJ: And it may be on a spiritual level, or a philosophical, or just pure personal eccentricity.

ID: Your thesis is that psychedelics were the zeitgeist of the 60’s and because of that, although originally peripheral and unaccepted by the art establishment, the reality-expanding influence of psychedelic experiences eventually found its way into even the highest accepted echelons — Koons, Serra — of fine art.  What I was struggling to ask you before is whether you think the art establishment is prepared for the transition when the defining zeitgeist of “my” youth – IT, internet, mobile connectivity – makes its way into the “canon”.  I see this as an inevitability.

But the way I read you, you don’t seem to allow for this happening at all and I’m guessing you don’t see it this way.  What do you think of this concept?  Is there any way to read the two “zeitgeist” theories as analogous?  And if not, why psychedelics but not the Internet?

KJ: I didn’t mean to sound resistant to new technology. I’m kind of agnostic about it. I’m sure that artists will continue to explore and use new tech in interesting and mind-expanding ways. But I hesitate to make larger claims about it either way. Artists will continue to produce work by hand, too.  The human body will not become obsolete, I don’t think. I don’t believe that any particular way of making art is
better suited than other ways to consciousness expansion. I try to take things on a case by case basis, and I don’t cheerlead for particular new movements. I’m not immune to gee-whiz effects — I like lava lamps and screen savers. But I want some personal, psychological, poetic and philsophical depth, too (which I don’t find in Dale Chihuly, which strikes me as offering more decorative spectacle than
personal substance). When novelty becomes an end in itself, you know you’re on the wrong track.

A more complicated question is whether psychedelic drugs and the Internet belong together in the same category as expanders of consciousness.  Timothy Leary thought so, but I don’t. Drugs operate directly in the body at a molecular level; art and other external media operate on the senses first. Any experience alters consciousness in some way great or small, and there’s no doubt that the Internet is altering global consciousness. In my book I briefly considered the fantasy that some non-pharmaceutical, cybernetic visual (or auditory) technology could have effects on a person’s consciousness like those of psychedelic drugs. Whether achieving that holy grail is possible interests me less than the fact that it has urgently motivated many film, video and cybernetic artists since the early 1960s. Gene Youngblood’s “Expanded Cinema” makes the case for film as a consciousness expander  — his book is a great artifact of 60s-style psychedelic utopianism. But his most extreme hopes for new media have yet to be realized, I think.

PART III – Psychedelics, Religion and Burning Man

ID: Your comment on spirituality reminded me of another one of my questions. You made a comment about secular “seekers” in the psychedelic cultures who have given up religion to have other kinds of spiritual experiences, and the sort of “God experience” of some of the psychedelic drugs is what I was imagining. What I felt like you were suggesting is that some of these “ hippies” might have their drug-induced experiences be a substitute for organized religion. And that made me think about the Byzantine era and all the pictures that used to be of Jesus, and Mary, all of the whole religious images thing. I mean it started breaking up obviously long before the 60s but is it…do you see a resurgence of that spirituality?  Has psychedelic work maybe replaced Jesus and Mary as common topics?

KJ: Yeah that’s kind of…yeah, I’ve been thinking that. The word psychedelia works for me because it includes actual drug taking and the culture that makes those drugs meaningful. So I think psychedelia, which kind of blurs into “new age”, has become like what Christianity was for people in the Medieval and Renaissance times. Although it’s not articulated in that way.

SD: Sometimes there are groups that take that analogy seriously.

KJ: Well Alex Grey is building a temple upstate and seems to be heading towards creating something like an institution, a psychedelically-based religious institution.

ID: And there are all the Native American and South American cultures that have that as part of their religion, and the whole ayahuasca thing…

KJ: Which has become popular amongst celebrities now.

SD: The one I was thinking of is called the Rhythm Society which came out of San Francisco. It was very much modeled on a sort of religious, church replacement.

KJ: What was it?

SD: It started in the early 90’s and is ongoing.  Did you ever hear of Bob Jesse?  He was one of the authors, you know Johns Hopkins did this psilocybin experiment,  starting a couple years ago? He’s one of the co-authors of that paper.  Anyway, he’s one of the founders of the Rhythm Society.

ID: But they had a lot of parties.

SD: Yeah, and there’s a liturgy.  It’s a very organized and self-aware relationship between it and religion.  Their objective is primary religious experience.  They organize their events to facilitate that, and held them in a church.

KJ: Using what? Psilocybin?

SD: Everyone had their own choice [and officially drug use was not tolerated].  They didn’t have the sacrament that they could hand out, for legal reasons. But the events were held in a church on Saturday night and cleaned up by Sunday morning so that the normal congregation could come in.  So the architecture was part of creating the environment of awe. And the social set that went with it… the church has a social function as well as a religious function, so they adopted that to it.

KJ: Well, one of the things I think is that people who write about art are not the same as the artists. I mean art historians write about art.  And they filter out a lot that they don’t think is relevant to what a scholar thinks is important about art. I think that artists believe all sorts of crazy things, that certain intellectuals and theorists would dismiss as new age or just general silliness, but that artists are really inspired by. Like what you’re talking about. And by looking at art itself I think you see that a lot. I think it’s interesting what you’re saying. I don’t really know that much about psychedelic cultures now. I’m going to give a talk at Horizons this fall. When I finished the book, I thought “I’m done with that. I’m going to move on to something else.” But now I’m finding that I’ve only just opened the door. (laughter) And now I’m going to be giving talks and stuff and a lot of it is going to be what I’ve learned since.

ID: That’s really interesting. So are you expecting a sequel?

KJ: I don’t know where it’s going to go. My first thought was I wanted to write a book about metaphor. Which is an under-addressed topic in visual art. There’s a lot of talk about it in literature, literary theory. But the Formalist prejudice in art is the tendency to view art in terms of style, or say, political ideology, or to view art as commentary.  The idea of metaphor, as being of the essence, I don’t think has been addressed. I think metaphor when it’s extended becomes myth. One of things I’m interested in is folklore.  What is the live mythic stuff that’s going on among artists now, and among people in general? Not talking about Zeus and Venus and established myths, but things people actually more or less consciously believe if you ask them. They’ve done surveys and I mention it in the book.  If you actually look at what people believe it will tend to be sort of pantheistic or paganistic.

ID: “There are angels”…

KJ: Yeah, there’s that, or

SD: “God is everywhere”…

KJ: “God is everywhere”.  (speaks this at the same time as Scott).  And I think that level of consciousness animates art.  That’s where the real juice of art is.  It’s not in the highly articulated theory of the Frankfurt School.

ID: Well, I think it’d be really interesting to hear your commentary as an art critic on Burning Man if you can manage to get out there and go. I haven’t been; Scott’s been for many years.  But the art that I have seen, the pictures of the art and the artists that I’ve talked to coming out of there — Some of it’s pretty amazing.  And these people work as artists, but they’re not “famous” necessarily. We had a woman speak at LISA, Kate Raudenbush, and she makes structures that are laser cut steel with intricate patterns, but they’re set up in such a way… one of them that she talked about the most, in the very center of it, there’s a mirror, but the way it’s structured is sort of tiered like a pagoda, very tall.  And when you look into the mirror you see yourself in the middle of this mandala.  With the squares and the multiple things, and there’s a certain way that the light hits it so, it’s designed to be like a temple or spiritual experience and it’s just a really beautiful structure.

Futures Past by Kate Raudenbush

There’s another one that I remember where people went in and it was all, I think it’s laser cut wood also very intricate and not done by Kate Raudenbush.  And people wrote their little hopes or dreams, prayers and they would stick their little note paper in the crevices or just write on it and at the end they burned it all. A couple of these notions are really interesting to me like creating something that’s first of all a ton of work, that took a year to make, huge, transporting it to the middle of nowhere.  And then it becomes a crowdsourced piece where everybody is literally interacting with it.  And then at the end of the thing you just burn it down! I just feel like there’s a lot going on there and it’s of course, the center of psychedelic everything for America that week.

KJ: Well, I couldn’t find any, it may exist, but the only books I could find writing about it was just this booster kind of celebration. I haven’t found any serious criticism about Burning Man.

ID: I think you would be the first.  And you would be a perfect candidate for it because you’re interested in the –

KJ: The whole thing of event art is a different thing.  It’s like a parade float or something. And I say that never having been there, I don’t mean to offend anybody. But yeah, I’ve looked at pictures. Some of it looks really cool.  Some of it looks (pauses) sort of gimmicky or, I don’t know.

ID: In my opinion, there’s a lot of stuff there that the people who’d go there call “art” but I don’t really consider art. It’s like, Oh, you know, I decorated, I face painted my entire nude body, how artistic. I decorated my car, wow. You really have to have a filter. But I think there’s stuff there.

SD: Well it’s big and it’s made by the participants.  So some of it is good and some of it is bad.

ID: Leo Villarreal did a lot of that, did he get his start there?  Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know.

KJ: I don’t think that’s the platform that got him in to New York gallery world.

SD: Yeah. His stuff was conceived here, I don’t think it comes from Burning Man.

KJ: His sort of minimalism isn’t what people normally think of as Burning-Man-esque.

SD: Yeah. His stuff isn’t characteristic of Burning Man either.

KJ: I know, I thought about going, but I didn’t know how I was going to get 200 gallons of water up there,  and I actually asked Leo if I could go along on his bus and he said he’d have to talk to his collaborators. Are you on the bus with him when you go or do you go on your own?

SD: I never literally rode on his bus I just took a plane, but one year I camped with him at what’s called Disorient and I projected my stuff out of his bus.

KJ: See I think actually what would be more interesting to me …Burning Man, it strikes me as being sort of a pop-folk phenomenon.

SD: Yeah.

KJ: So it’s a kind of raw material. I was interested in what the Baby IKKI piece because it was an artist going there and sort of trying to make sense out of it. And I know a lot of artists go there.  And a lot of artists that show in New York galleries that you don’t think of as burners.

SD: It’s really different on the West Coast, where lots more people go.  Only a few New Yorkers go, but in San Francisco it’s like the city practically shuts down for a week.

KJ: Talking to you, I started thinking, geez, there’s this world, I sort of opened this door to this other world that hasn’t been part of the art world. (ID: down the rabbit hole!) You know I read a guy like Erik Davis. Do you know that writer?

SD: Sure.

KJ: He’s a good writer.

SD: He’s good. I was thinking about suggesting him to you.

KJ: Yeah. I should read more of him and… he’s a West Coast guy so…

SD: But he lived in New York for quite some time.

KJ: Did he?

SD: Yeah.

KJ: So, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find myself going there looking.  You know, the art world is a very narrow place.

ID: Ken, you have to expand your consciousness (laughs).

KJ: Yeah! Well…

ID: Can I put you on the LISA salon list where you can every month that you can see the little one picture and a small bio of the artist that are speaking and if somebody catches your eye, you can come.

KJ: Yeah, keep me posted.

ID: Scott, any more questions that you want to ask Ken?

SD: Yeah, sure. Why embrace expanded consciousness but reject deprogramming?

KJ: Deprogramming.

ID: Do you know what you meant by that, Scott?

SD: Well there was this section when you were talking about expanded consciousness and giving the benefits of acid being it shows you consciousness can be a variable.

KJ: Right.

SD: It gives you a larger perspective on the world and then you talked about Huxley’s theory and then you said the CIA was using it. And they were doing deprogramming, there was a whole establishment. I think maybe also psychotherapists were trying to use it, where people had been traumatized and they would deprogram you with LSD.

ID: To get you out of PTSD?  They do that now, don’t they?

KJ: I don’t know.  It seems the idea that you could strip accretions of “bad consciousness” and get down to some kind of kernel of good consciousness and then regrow doesn’t make sense to me. It seems like a kind of mythic thinking that probably is a very old concept, that you can get rid of the old and be reborn somehow.

ID: Isn’t a lot of drug use like that?  It’s like an element of escaping.  Certainly addicts it’s like, “Oh I hate my life like this, let me take this drug again, ’cause it fixes it temporarily” or… There’s a little bit of something going on there.

SD: Or replace one drug with another…

KJ: Well do you think that what they’re doing at John Hopkins, and I think they’re doing something similar at NYU, where they’re using psilocybin and say that they induce something that’s indistinguishable from a true mystical experience and that you can give this to people… and it will act as a re-orienter, like it will reorient your neurological fabric.  Would it eliminate conflicts or anxiety?  The twisted accidents that happened to our minds over a lifetime?

SD: Like a chiropractor?

KJ: Yeah, like a chiropractor.

ID: Do you think we would still be at war in Afghanistan and Iraq if everybody were just high? (laughs)

KJ: Well that’s what people thought in the 60’s. The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, that’s the people who invented Orange Sunshine. There’s a wonderful book about them.  They were importing hash and opium from Afghanistan in order to finance what their real mission was, which was to get everybody in the country to take Orange Sunshine, because they believed it would put us on the right footing. So they would give it away free, drop it over at rock concerts from planes.  It was cheap to make I guess.

ID: We need to get some of these tech guys who have made so much money and have them start the other party, the way those Koch guys are funding the Tea Party.  Just get all the rest of the money to fund the Peace Party.

KJ: I think it was Neal Goldsmith, or some people told me that there are… There must be a serious psychedelic kind of movement consciousness among computer people, right?

SD: Yeah. It’s really substantial.  Especially on the West Coast in the computer industry, it’s really widespread.  I’m not as plugged in here.

KJ: And it’s not thought of as just recreation, it’s thought of as a serious kind of exploration of thought.

ID: Something that you do to work. Like “I have to figure out this coding problem now, I’m gonna get high.”


KJ: Is that right?

SD: Yeah.

KJ: I wrote a lot of this when I was stoned.

ID: I was going to ask you that actually. (laughs)

KJ: Not in the morning when I do my editorial stuff.  But there’s something about weed that loosens up the flow of thoughts for me.