There is a strange loop lurking behind psychedelic experiences. Like dreams, these unique visions are often ineffable, intensely personal and impossible to share directly. And yet they have inspired countless people throughout time to make visionary art, to craft objects and images that channel something of those sublime, bizarre, mythopoetic realms into our shared human world. But here is the loop: this art in turn shapes and influences later voyagers, becoming part of the cultural “set and setting” that always informs even the most singular psychedelic experience.
In a modern world with little support for visionary traditions, the making of these objects and images has created a psychedelic visual culture in the margins of the mainstream. This stream of images — at once sophisticated and trite, commercial and illicit, sacred and profane — is now part of popular culture, superficially familiar through fractal shapes and tie-dyed hues, neo-tribal mandalas and trippy cartoons. And yet we rarely know or think about this culture deeply.
In this three-week course, we will explore three influential domains of visual and material culture that have shaped the last sixty years of modern Western psychedelia. These are:
Haight Street Print (Week 1)
The art and artifacts that emerged from San Francisco in the 1960s — principally rock posters and underground comix, along with newspapers like The Oracle — psychedelicized print culture and taught the world what psychedelic experience looked like. We will concentrate on the remarkable work of Rick Griffin.
LSD Blotter Art (Week 2)
In the 1970s, LSD started to be distributed on blotter paper, usually printed and perforated. The form became dominant in the 1980s and 1990s, and its tiny little billboards present a cornucopia of psychedelic themes, myths, gods, appropriations, and jokes. We will also look at the development of “vanity blotter”: blotter art without LSD that is now traded as a collectable.
Burning Man (Week 3)
From its feral and post-punk beginnings, Burning Man grew into the center of new psychedelic visual culture by the late 1990s and 2000s. Its explosive and immersive visuality radiated through a myriad of new forms: architecture, sculpture, light-art, costumes, art cars, schwag.
Erik Davis, PhD, (www.techgnosis.com) is an author, award-winning journalist, and scholar based in San Francisco. His wide-ranging work focuses on the intersection of alternative religion, media, and the popular imagination. He is the author, most recently, of High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies, co-published by MIT Press and Strange Attractor. He also wrote Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica (2010), The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape (2006), a critical volume on Led Zeppelin (2005), and the celebrated cult classic TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (1998), which is still in print. Erik’s scholarly and popular essays on music, technoculture, drugs, and spirituality have appeared in scores of books, magazines, and journals, and his writing has been translated into a dozen languages. For a decade, he explored the “cultures of consciousness” on his weekly podcast Expanding Mind, and continues to speak widely on podcasts and at universities, conferences, retreat centers, and festivals. He graduated from Yale University in 1988, and earned his PhD in religious studies at Rice University in 2015.
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