The Art of Tripping, a documentary by Storm Thorgerson

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How does this sound? 100 minutes of solidly informative documentary about the use of drugs by artists from the early 19th century on; a production that calls upon a remarkable cast of contributors (see below), with music by David Gilmour, and the whole thing “devised and directed” by Storm Thorgerson, better known as one third of the great Hipgnosis design team.

The Art of Tripping was broadcast in two parts in 1993 during the Without Walls arts strand on Channel 4 (UK). David Gale was the writer, with actor Bernard Hill playing the part of the narrator and guide. The programme managed to deal with a contentious subject without indulging in hysteria or insulting the intelligence of the audience, a rare thing today. Twenty years ago it was still possible to make a documentary about a popular subject without having any low-grade celebrity-du-jour offering their wretched opinion. The contributors here who aren’t medical people are almost all writers of one kind or another; Thorgerson and Gale punctuate the proceedings with a few actors who impersonate various historical figures.

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Without Walls was a very good series on the whole but this for me was a real highlight (no pun intended). In addition to it being a rare example of Storm Thorgerson working in television, the direction showed how it was possible to match the theme without recourse to cliché or flashy visuals. There isn’t a single moment of archive footage either. Thorgerson’s history of “socially unacceptable” drugs is structured as a journey through the levels of a multi-storey building, from ground floor to roof; being familiar with the director’s free-associative working methods I can imagine this being a result of thinking about getting high. Bernard Hill encounters the various commentators in successive rooms, each of which is furnished and lit to suggestively imply the drug in question. The use of lighting as a key motif is a smart one, and another metaphor, of course, for literal and symbolic (or spiritual) illumination. Editing effects are also deployed to thematically correspond to the different substances.

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This would be very successful even without a wide range of contributors but Thorgerson and company assembled a stunning array of different writers, many of whom I’d never seen on TV before, and many of whom didn’t turn up again. Some of them fill dual roles, so JG Ballard is on hand to enthuse about Naked Lunch, and appears later talking about his bad LSD trip. Similarly, Brian Aldiss talks about Anna Kavan, and also about Philip K Dick. Below there’s a rough list of the drugs covered and the people involved. In the two decades since this was made many of the people involved have since died, the director included, so the film now has the feel of a historical artefact. The Art of Tripping can be see in full at YouTube. This is how good British television used to be.

Opium
Dr Virginia Berridge (author), Grevel Lindop (author), Marek Kohn (author), Dr EMR Critchley (author), Phil Daniels (as Thomas De Quincey), Dr Tony Dickenson (neuropharmacologist), Dr Ian Walker (author), Thom Booker (as Edgar Allan Poe), Dr Peggy Reynolds (author)
Hashish
Prof John Hemmings (author), Ronald Hayman (author), Patrick Barlow (as Theophile Gautier), John McEnery (as Charles Baudelaire), Jon Finch (as Gérard de Nerval), Bernard Howells (lecturer, King’s College, London), June Rose (author), John Richardson (author), Margaret Crosland (author), Danny Webb (as Jean Cocteau), Robin Buss (translator), David Gascoyne (poet), George Melly (collector, Surrealist art)
Mescaline
Prof Eric Mottram (University of London), Francis Huxley (nephew of Aldous Huxley), Jay Stevens (author), Laura Huxley (widow of Aldous Huxley),
Psilocybin
Brian Cory (as Robert Graves), Paul O’Prey (author)
Marijuana / Nitrous Oxide
Harry Shapiro (author), Carolyn Cassady (author), Prof Ann Charters (author), Allen Ginsberg (poet)
Kief
Paul Bowles (author)
Heroin
JG Ballard (author), Prof Avital Ronell (author), Hubert Selby Jr (author), Brian Aldiss (author)
LSD
Dr Oscar Janiger (experimental psychiatrist), Diana Quick (as Anaïs Nin), Prof Malcolm Lader (psychopharmacologist), Dr Timothy Leary (author), Todd Boyco (as Andy Warhol)
Amphetamine
Lawrence Sutin (author)
Cocaine
Robert Stone (author), Prof. Annette Dolphin (neuropharmacologist)
MDMA

Previously on { feuilleton }
Storm Thorgerson, 1944–2013
Hipgnosis turkeys
Enter the Void
Opium fiends
La Morphine by Victorien du Saussay
In the Land of Retinal Delights
Haschisch Hallucinations by HE Gowers
Storm Thorgerson: Right But Wrong
Demon rum leads to heroin
The art of LSD
Hep cats
German opium smokers, 1900

Weekend links 141

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From the Beautiful Faces series (2012) by Tran Nguyen.

• “What possessed a generation of young European artists, and a few Americans, to suddenly suppress recognizable imagery in pictures and sculptures? Unthinkable at one moment, the strategy became practically compulsory in the next.” Peter Schjeldahl on the birth of abstraction.

• “A profanely mystical work of hyperpurple theory-porn, ObliviOnanisM is an auto-erotic intellectual fiction envisioning the phantastical unending odyssey of a young woman, Gemma, whom you will never know.”

Psychedelia—An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way of Life, a 520-page history of psychedelic culture by Patrick Lundborg. Related: Ken Kesey talks about the meaning of the Acid Tests.

[Hodges] made a convincing case that Turing’s teenage crush on a fellow schoolboy, Christopher Morcom, was an important catalyst for his lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between brain and mind. Morcom’s unexpected death at the age of eighteen was a shattering blow to Turing, who began to reflect on whether his friend’s consciousness might survive after death or whether it was simply a result of complex material processes and expired when life did. Hodges also linked the famous “Turing Test”, in which a computer attempts to pass as an intelligent human being, to Turing’s own dilemma as a gay man in a homophobic world. (Turing called his test the “imitation game”, and Hodges observed, “like any homosexual man, he was living an imitation game, not in the sense of conscious play acting, but by being accepted as a person that he was not”.)

Michael Saler reviews three books about computing pioneer Alan Turing

• Paul Gallagher at Dangerous Minds looks at Flowers, Lindsay Kemp’s theatrical staging of Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.

David Pearson designed a new edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for Penguin.

• Quadtone – Lumisonic Rotera: Mariska de Groot plays a light-to-sound instrument.

“Cash Mobs” Go Global—Battle Spreads Against Chain Store Dominance.

Cities and the Soul: a feast of Italo Calvino links at MetaFilter.

25 dessins d’un dormeur, Jean Cocteau, 1929.

Haunted Decor: a Flickr group.

Computer In Love (1966) by Perrey & Kingsley | Computer Love (1981) by Kraftwerk | Computer Love (1992) by The Balanescu Quartet

Weekend links 70

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Faustine (1928) by Harry Clarke.

• This week’s Harry Clarke fix: 50 Watts reposts the Faust illustrations while Golden Age Comic Book Stories has the illustrated Swinburne.

What Goes Steam in the Night is an evening with contributors to The Steampunk Bible hosted in London by The Last Tuesday Society on September 6th:

Co-author S. J. Chambers invites you to the official U.K. celebration of her book The Steampunk Bible (Abrams Image). Part lecture, part signing, and part entertainment, S. J. will be accompanied by contributors Jema Hewitt (author of Steampunk Emporium ) and Sydney Padua (Lovelace & Babbage) for a discussion of the movement, a special performance by Victorian monster hunter, Major Jack Union, and inevitable hi-jinks and shenanigans to later be announced.

• RIP Conrad Schnitzler, an incredibly prolific electronic musician, and founder member of Tangerine Dream and Kluster/Cluster.

Golden Pavilion Records reissues fully-licensed late 60’s and 70’s psychedelic, progressive, acid-folk & art-rock music.

Dressing the Air is “an exclusive consulting and online resource for the creative industries”.

Luke Haines explains how to cook rabbit stew whilst listening to Hawkwind.

Wood pyrography by Ernst Haeckel from his home, the Villa Medusa.

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Satia Te Sanguine (1928) by Harry Clarke.

The truth is, the best novels will always defy category. Is Great Expectations a mystery or The Brothers Karamazov a whodunnit or The Scarlet Letter science fiction? Does Kafka’s Metamorphosis belong to the genre of fantasy? In reality men don’t turn into giant insects. And it’s funny. Does that mean it’s a comic novel? […] At a time when reading is in trouble, those readers left should define themselves less rigidly.

Howard Jacobson: The best fiction doesn’t need a label.

Pace the redoubtable Jacobson, Alan Jacobs believes We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.

How Ken Kesey’s LSD-fuelled bus trip created the psychedelic 60s.

Salvador Dalí creates something for Playboy magazine in 1973.

JG Ballard: Relics of a red-hot mind.

Electric Garden (1978) by Conrad Schnitzler | Auf Dem Schwarzen Kanal (1980) by Conrad Schnitzler.

Weekend links: Apocalypse not now

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The Kurtz compound prior to destruction. An Apocalypse Now storyboard, one of a number which will be included among the extras on the Blu-Ray release of Francis Coppola’s film when it appears in the UK next month. The film is given a new cinema release on May 27th.

Radio broadcaster Harold Camping, a man denounced by fellow Christians as a false prophet, achieved one thing at least this week by making himself and his followers a global laughing-stock after the Rapture failed to materialise. I would have put money on him blaming those terrible gays somewhere along the way, such complaints being so common among a certain brand of American fundamentalist that you could write their sermons for them. Sure enough, here’s the old fool blathering about “lespianism” and describing the beautiful city of San Francisco as a cesspool. Shall we chalk this up as another victory for the gays, Harold? Related: No dogs go to heaven.

The internet has always been a home for ridicule but occasions like this bring out the wags in droves. The Oatmeal showed us how God is managing the Rapture using a Windows Install Wizard, and also pointed to a selection of sarcastic tweets. Meanwhile, this page has a comprehensive catalogue of previous apocalypse dates; the biggy is next year, of course.

Burroughs himself was no stranger to prosecution. In 1962 he was indicted on grounds of obscenity. Naked Lunch was not available in the US until 1962 and in the UK until 1964. The writer Norman Mailer and the poet Allen Ginsberg had to defend the book in court before the ruling could be reversed. In Turkey, it is now our turn to stand up for the novel.

Turkish writer Elif Shafak criticising the paternalism of the Turkish state in trying to protect its people from troubling novels. Related: William Burroughs publisher faces obscenity charges in Turkey.

An A–Z of the Fantastic City by Hal Duncan. “This guidebook leads readers and explorers through twenty-six cities of yore (Yore, while included, is one of the shorter entries).” Illustrated by Eric Schaller.

• The creepiest Alice in Wonderland of all, Jan Svankmajer’s semi-animated Alice (1988), receives a very welcome re-issue on DVD this month. With Brothers Quay extras and other good things.

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Robert E Howard’s sinister magus from the Conan stories, Thoth-Amon, as depicted by Barry Windsor-Smith. From a portfolio of five Robert E Howard characters, 1975.

What is computer music (or does it matter)? Related: A History of Electronic/Electroacoustic Music (1937–2001), 511 (!) downloadable pieces.

Unearthly Powers: Surrealism and SF: Rick Poynor explores the Tanguy-like strangeness of Richard Powers.

Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s search for a kool place.

The Library of Congress National Jukebox.

Vladimir Nabokov’s butterflies.

Amy Ross’s Wunderkammer.

Rapture (1981) by Blondie | Apocalypse (1990) by William Burroughs | Rapture (2000) by Antony and the Johnsons.

Psychedelic vehicles

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Further: the second version of Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster bus.

The word psychedelic, like surreal before it, slipped from its original meaning through appropriation. Humphrey Osmond’s neologism was first coined in drug-related correspondence with Aldous Huxley in 1957 and was specifically intended to describe the “mind-manifesting” quality of the hallucinogenic drug experience. The drug-inspired art and music which came after the experiments of the Fifties quickly assumed a gaudy and chaotic aspect derived from the intense visual abstractions of LSD trips. Huxley in The Doors of Perception (1954) rejected these fractal visions as trivial and distracting—he was more concerned with the deeper spiritual revelations—but a new way of seeing in a new era required a new label. Art and design which is vivid, florid, multi-hued and quite often incoherent is where the term psychedelic is most commonly applied today.

Of the three vehicles here, only Ken Kesey’s bus can be regarded as psychedelic in Osmond’s sense, this being the renovated school bus which travelled the United States in the mid-Sixties dispensing free LSD to those it met along the way. These events were recounted in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and the creators of last year’s Milk, Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black, have a film in preparation based on Wolfe’s book. Milk was a film about gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk, and Ang Lee (director of Brokeback Mountain) has a new film of his own due shortly, Taking Woodstock, which concerns Elliot Tiber, the gay organizer of the Woodstock Festival of 1969. Both stories bracket the psychedelic era. Is this coincidence or do I detect something in the air? But I digress….

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For the chaotic and decorative nature of the psychedelic style, look no further (so to speak) than Janis Joplin’s 1965 Porsche. I saw this in 2005 at Tate Liverpool when it was touring with the Summer of Love exhibition of psychedelic art. One of  Joplin’s very last recordings before her death in 1970 was a birthday song for John Lennon so it’s perhaps fitting that the third vehicle here is Lennon’s lavish Rolls-Royce. His 1965 limousine came originally in black livery but two years later he decided he wanted it painted like a gypsy caravan. There’s a great page about the car here including details of its decoration, created in consultation with Marijke Koger of Dutch design group The Fool.

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In a small way these three vehicles encapsulate the psychedelic period, from optimistic, proselytising origins following the revelations of hallucinogenic drugs to decline into a mannered, highly-commercialised graphic style. Ken Kesey died in 2001 but his second bus is still active while the cars are now museum pieces. Perhaps the real psychedelic spirit prevails after all.

See also: George Harrison’s Mini Cooper

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dutch psychedelia
The art of LSD