Observing the appearance in recent years of fluid and undulating imagery, like a resurgence in analogic forms, a return of mysticism and animism, and deep anxiety about the environment, Swiss-English artist Joan Ayrton puts into perspective the sensations of our time with the psychedelia that rattled society in the late 1960s. Psychedelia in today’s context, stripped of its folkloric trappings, becomes a prism on current and future disturbances, particularly in times of crisis…
Switch (on Paper): Your protean body of work attempts to analyze the “instabilities and disturbances in the physical world”, particularly through its mineral or geological elements. Seems quite ambitious.
Joan Ayrton: Until recently, the term “geological” referred essentially to earth sciences, however over the past years, the word’s use has clearly expanded beyond the strict confines of scientific study: geological temporality, which is basically so slow that it can only be conceived of through true effort of the mind, has become contemporary, flowing through human time and in our day-to-day world. Thus we are called to live, reflect and work from within the geological, as a sensory data in our present time.
It’s in considering this infiltration of our minds, language (we speak of political earthquakes or tsunamis…) and contemporary practices that I’ve been conducting my own work over the past few years, formal research--in painting, photography and film--and theoretical research on issues related to the gaze, image and representation, by delving in multiple ways into the complex relationships between the human world, the mineral world and modernity’s deviations. For example, I’m currently developing a photo series the image of the dam, that technical prowess of the modern era and object of pure catastrophic phantasy. I’m also preparing a film that examines the gestures of a Tokyo artisan who works with marbling, a mineral that arises from little technical “aberrations” caused by mixing paints. I often cite a text by Robert Smithson to define my personal relationship to geology: “(…) One’s mind and earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason (…)”. Here, science is not taken literally. Smithson (who knew science well) draws on its metaphorical power to describe a phenomenon of thought, reverie, an abstract geology. As for me, I’m looking for poetics of instability, of trembling or of disordered matter...
Switch (on Paper): You put forth the hypothesis that there is a resurgence of psychedelia, or at least of a contemporary psychedelics.
Joan Ayrton: These past few years we’ve seen a fluid, undulating, disrupted digital imagery emerge, or another imagery that is the opposite: analogic and experimental. We also see immersive, invasive installations that offer sensory or synesthetic experiences. And then, behind these forms, there is a resurgence in mysticism, animism and shamanism; third-wave feminism has brought on hydro-feminism1 or a return of care… The artist is also a curator, researcher, poet, sometimes healer; they work alone, in a group, in a collective, in a community. Out of these shifts in status, these instabilities (intentional, fertile, necessary), out of this need for an emerging body, it seems, come several psychedelia. The one I’m concerned with isn’t a revival of the so-called “clichés” of 1960s psychedelia; I’m busy with what is revealed in an “altered or augmented state of consciousness” in the now. And from this observation a question arises: I ask from where this psychedelia is resurging. That is where my research begins.
Switch (on Paper): You evoke in psychedelia the search for primeval landscapes, “often involving humans physically intertwined with eroticized landscapes”.
Joan Ayrton: Diving into the history of psychedelics and LSD, with its inventor Albert Hofmann, its artists and authors, then into the texts and artworks that are not usually part of that register, brought to light the omnipresent phenomenon of expanding thought or consciousness, an intellectual and spiritual adventure that influenced the literary and artistic scene well beyond what commonly comes to mind. And so I read, or re-read, through the filter of LSD, writings by Richard Buckminster Fuller, Gene Youngblood, Stewart Brand, Ursula Le Guin, or Robert Smithson: the excerpt quoted earlier suddenly reads to me like a literal description of hallucinatory experience.
Also, the rediscovery of these works and writings reveals a very strong geological presence, starting with recurring themes that one could call “primeval landscapes”: volcanoes, deserts, mountains and the cosmos. And there are often, indeed, humans physically involved with these eroticized landscapes. I’m thinking of Judy Chicago and her pyrotechnic Atmospheres, Gina Pane between sky and earth, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point and Sun Ra’s cosmic conquests… People’s minds were also powerfully imbued with another burgeoning imagery of the time: NASA’s conquering of space. The late 1960s, already marred by the trauma at Hiroshima, also saw the Cold War, the nuclear threat and incredible scientific and technological advances, not only in space, but also at the heart of volcanoes2 and the bottom of the oceans, as well as with the advent of cyberculture. The year 1968 alone saw a complete revolution in geology with the recognition of theories on continental drift and shifting tectonic plates, the Apollo 8 mission—the first glimpse of the Earth viewed through human eyes—but also the very first computer demonstration, also known as “the mother of all demos”, before an audience of 1000 computer engineers. The first sent email, the first hypertext, the first mouse. Writer Alvin Toffler named the shock generated by too much change in too short a timespan Future Shock, as was the title of his book published in 1970. And at the same time, also in California and still in 1968, you had the peak of the hippie movement and acid trips… This is the shock, and the vertigo it elicits, that I’m looking at. The psychic states provoked by scientific progress and their ensuing apprehension and perceptions, and the often still-unconscious conviction—sublimated through drug use?—that disruption is inevitable, set into motion by imperialisms…. A great ecological momentum was born from this fear, along with what could be a new kind of spleen, people looking for a return to the landscapes predating man, or an escape forward into an emancipated future. It was long before the term “Anthropocene” was coined. Yet it seems a form of geological anxiety was already there, manifesting itself so well that one wonders whether psychedelia is not a geological phenomenon in and of itself: Man senses that everything has been disrupted, so he invents a molecule to disrupt his brain. LSD is a powerful antidote to this fear, plunging mind and body into an immobile, hallucinatory, mystic dream, sometimes terrifying, but always in a state of time expansion or loss of consciousness, like in the NASA astronauts. In this sense, drugs were profoundly subversive: they brought on a resistance that pitted temporal disorientation—a mental dive into a long span of time—against the obligations of production in a capitalist society. The ecological anxiety—even if deaf—which I believe still haunts minds, perhaps today those of the young artists I see around me, seems to stem from the same state of mind, this dread in the face of too much future surging into the present.
Switch (on Paper): The image of psychedelics rapidly deteriorated, growing outdated and even eccentric, with its colorful clichés of the hippie world. How do you explain this?
Joan Ayrton: It seems to me that psychedelic art has been especially discredited in the field of visual arts. It is rarely used as a reference, even when there are clear formal connections. It seems, on the contrary, to have a repellent effect: it’s true that this association with hippies almost automatically elicits a reaction of recoil, or even slight ridicule. This folklore associated with the genre is also evident when it comes to publishing. You rarely come across publications on psychedelic art where the typography and layout are not caricatured. One of a few recent publications that actually manages to avoid this trap is the magnificent exhibition catalogue for Hippie Modernism, the Struggle for Utopia held at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2015.
In truth, I believe the “unstylishness” of psychedelic art was a tool and a consequence of the LSD repression that was so radically widespread in 1965 in the United States. The same goes for Art Nouveau, from which psychedelia took great inspiration: born in reaction to the outrageous excesses of industrialization, Art Nouveau also had its own characteristics of organic rhythms and ornamentation, plants and biology, its own invasive nature, and modern, socialist aspirations to glorify the artisanal to the detriment of industry, to bring beauty to daily life. And yet the movement was suddenly repressed, condemned and also considered out-of-style (it was called art nouille — “wet noodle art”). Art Nouveau was meant to be a utopian moment, but also an ecological jolt, an extravagant appropriation to counter the excesses of a modern world coming into being, an intuition of the disruption to come.
To summarize, what I see in the forms appearing today harken back to what might be called a “cycle of worries”: an echo of what occurred in the past, in the 1960s with psychedelia and in the late 19th century with Art Nouveau (one could even go as far back as to the late 18th century Rococo): a quake, a shift in just a few short years, in which time forms go off the deep end, bend, disobey—that’s how I see it—away from the straight lines of modernity, from a patriarchal order that wants to reassert its rights—in what you might call a sexism of forms—so that immediately, these currents are discredited.
Switch (on Paper): Should we consider our society as infatuated with another perception-modifying psychotropic?
Joan Ayrton : Every era has its drug that is associated with a major artistic revolution—especially musical ones—or social revolution, but it seems as though LSD had an unprecedented follow-through when it comes to its intellectual and metaphysical potential. In Politics of Ecstasy, Timothy Leary announces a growth of our lexicon : “It is possible that in 20 years our psychological and experiential language (pitifully small in English) will have multiplied to cover realms of experience and forms of thinking now unknown”3. The phenomenon gave rise, amongst others in the hippie community, to a computer revolution, utopian par excellence: Inspired by the expanded potential of the brain, it became the brain’s extension through its networking and interconnective properties. The project was also political and subversive by virtue of it allowing a connected, horizontal, egalitarian community to emerge in complete anonymity of its users (however, in a rather homogenous world, mainly male and white, as Fred Turner4 remarks). And so the personal computer and the Internet were born, with their systemization of knowledge that directly intertwined human consciousness and the world’s architectural totality.
From this standpoint, LSD really shaped our time. And yet we know just how quickly information technology can be perverted, indentured to speculation and profit, and exploited for mass surveillance. But to get back to psychotropics and altered states of consciousness, the shift in collective perception that I’m looking at today goes beyond, it seems, the context of partying and drugs (even if they play a role) and urge me to look at the digital world, or actually its virtuality, communities, and cognitive potential, which are now post-human; and more broadly at the hold that neoliberalism has over our existence, our dependence on social networks, the economic and financial uses of the Net, the drastic increase in societal and environmental disruptions in an overly-connected world, and thus, I believe, the geological that has infiltrated the psyche of present times. All this constitutes the context—how anxious it is today!—in which the forms I’m looking at emerge. I am not, however, looking for a more precise explanation of what made them come about, that would clearly be a mistake. They are there, and they echo past forms.
Switch (on Paper): You are an artist, not an art historian, and even less a geologist. And yet your process entails a forensic analysis of artistic and scientific materials, excavating them much like geologists would out in the field.
Joan Ayrton: I really like this analogy! In my work, an idea is born most often from an image that stops and hits me for reasons that are usually mysterious at the time. But by more or less consciously persisting in resolving that initial enigma, the thinking takes shape within a process that remains empirical: I find a pathway from one reading to another, one field of thought or knowledge to another, proceeding through assemblage, making connections, in layers (stratified). It is a slow way of building, rugged and uneven, and it most often yields a formal idea, or sometimes a text to write. In this case the hypothesis leads to a real research that encompasses my artistic work, an in-depth investigation and a curatorial project. It also draws on the curiosity and pleasure I take in seeing what young artists are doing.
Switch (on Paper): We hope your research will lead to an exhibition. Without necessarily naming all the artists that you would consider inviting, who are the ones that most embody this contemporary psychedelia?
Joan Ayrton: Hanako Murakami (1984 – Japan) delves, for example, into the physical and conceptual origins of photography before the term even existed, back to a time when we were first fixing light onto photosensitive surfaces. From an experimental and empirical practice, sourced from notes by Niépce or Daguerre, combining the original chemical processes and contemporary technologies, emerges a profoundly mineral, cosmic, practically atomic imagery. Ana Vaz (1986 – Brazil) creates her films and performances through overlapping images, words, texts, voices, “between ethnography and speculation, frictions and fiction”, analyzing—across the history of imperialism and systems of domination—our relationships to the Earth and other species, to our farmed or wild environments. A co-founder of Black(s) to the future, a collective of speculative experimentations, artist, curator and researcher Mawena Yehouessi (1990 –Benin) creates physical, virtual, graphic, philosophical spaces that are above all commons, or sub-commons (in reference to the poet and researcher Fred Moten) that work on the notions of alternative futures or alter futurism while calling for theoretical indiscipline.
In her performance entitled TLCD for “LCD Therapy”, Carin Klonowski (1986 – France), artist, researcher, poet and editor, curator in the collective Syndicat Magnifique, proposes a digital relaxation session, a hypnotic dive into the material of the screen, in an enchanting, sublime black mirror, followed by its material reality, in the pixels and liquid crystals that “bring forth” the image through the screen’s very alchemy, its coded colors. Lola Gonzàlez (1988 – France), for her part, dramatizes in most of her movies a community of people the same age as she—friends and family from her life. In Veridis Quo (2016), about fifteen of them, women, united in a large house on the seaside, are waiting for who knows what, maybe war (they have weapons), maybe the end of the world. One day they wake up and almost all of them are blind, and with curious resignation, they organize themselves and begin to march toward the top of a cliff. Their eyes whitened out, they all simultaneously turn toward the sea in what seems to be a collective hallucination, staring at a horizon they cannot possibly see.
Though we may find “psychedelic” hints that are more literal in some works and artists, it isn’t the reading we would initially have in others. Yet in all of these examples, I see this phenomenon of hallucinatory thinking, sometimes spiritualist, magical, and above all collective, shared. With a strong presence of landscape and geology. And emanating from these forms, the possible contours of new utopia. Also, if my historical research led me to a first wave of psychedelia that was almost entirely headed by masculine names, another wave was quickly uncovered, mixed and powerfully activist, whose reach no doubt went further and is resurging today. In the end, I do not intend, with this research, to produce a generational analysis, rather I am trying to observe the signs and establish connections. Above all, I find clues in the writings by protagonists like the Syndicat Magnifique collective, which describes itself as: “growing up between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the digital turn, the Syndicat builds curatorial projects that produce seductive and inclusive atmospheres. Its theoretical objects—voracity of the image and communication networks, the imperative of personal development and political productivity, individualism and defiance—are as much a source for concern as for formal exaltation.”
Switch (on Paper): Finally, a last question that of course has to do with our current situation. Has the health crisis we’ve just experienced these past few months changed how you see your investigations?
Joan Ayrton: Yes, obviously, the shock is so huge that I only speak now in the conditional, that’s how great the impact has been on my certainties. A few weeks ago I was talking about melting ice caps, Australian forest fires, the theories of collapse on which contemporary utopias and disillusionments are now built. We were still in the era of visible and objective consequences to an altered world, but a world that was still multiple and fragmented. The sudden appearance of the virus projected us into a planetary-scale reality. The state of astonishment in which we find ourselves is global, and unprecedented. And we who are so busy with geology, it was through biology, the living, and not the inert that this catastrophe arrived. In an interview published in Le Monde on April 8, historian and political commentator Thomas Gomart speaks of “an acute crisis in interdependence, reminding us that the living world is biologically interconnected” quoting Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, geologist, paleontologist and philosopher, and author of The Phenomenon of Man which came out in 1955 and was a major influence on R. Buckminster Fuller and Gene Youngblood, in particular. What we perhaps read and hear the most at the heart of this global upheaval, are the manifestations of an insatiable need to think individually and collectively about what is happening, to reflect. The noosphere as evoked in The Phenomenon of Man—the “sphere of reason” that surrounds the planet and materializes the entirety of humanity’s consciousness—is completely relevant today: “No doubt,” writes Teilhard de Chardin, “…an imaginary geologist coming one day far in the future to inspect our fossilized globe, the most astounding of the revolutions undergone by the earth would be that which took place at the beginning of what has so rightly been called the psychozoic era. And even today, to a Martian capable of analyzing sidereal radiations psychically no less than physically, the first characteristic of our planet would be, not the blue of the seas or the green of the forests, but the phosphorescence of thought.”
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Thanks to Clara Schulmann, Vanina Géré, Virginie Yassef, Benoît Hické, Erik Bullot, Jeff Guess and Riccardo Venturi.
This research project was the subject of a lecture entitled Topography, Art and Earth, given in March 2019 as part of the « Thursdays at the Villa Medicis » with Gilles Tiberghien at the invitation of Riccardo Venturi.
Cover picture: Lola Gonzàlez, Veridis Quo, 2016, HD video, 15 min. Production Centre d'Art Passerelle (Brest) and Ars Futura. Courtesy galerie Marcelle Alix © ADAGP Paris