Altered States

Curator Lars Bang Larsen. (All photos: Virginija Januškevičiūtė)

YEAH YEAH, by now we’re well aware that the outside is the inside, that we all exist within this giant urtext that we can never really get out of. Well, for some of us, that just isn’t enough: The lure of a beyond, if only as a conceptual inference, with all its potentialities and numinosities, is simply too great to be cast into the aside of passivity. Altering one’s consciousness—chemically or via other means—can become the noblest of pursuits; away from the hippie rhetoric and the narcissism of self-enlightenment, the psychedelic experience might also be considered as a research methodology into realms of knowledge that resist institutionalization. Of course, the further one goes, the higher the risk of never returning to the safety zone where consensus reigns—though every pleasurable journey has risks embedded within its rewards.

On Saturday, a dozen researchers and around four times as many audience participants convened in the Lithuanian capital on the final weekend of “t:h:e: r:e:a:l: after psychedelia,” a group exhibition curated by Lars Bang Larsen at the Contemporary Art Centre, for the First Psychedelic Synod. As distinguished from a “symposium”—which might elicit images of a hippie acid orgy—a synod is the traditional term for an assembly of clergymen meeting to make decisions on vital ecclesiastical matters—“a cluster of empowered voices.” Serious business indeed.

“We don’t know what a psychedelic synod is,” Larsen admitted. “We’d like to find out.” The real aim, however, was clear: to “abolish hippie dominance” over psychedelic thinking, to bring articulative integrity to that mode of exploration that dare not speak its name. Indeed, the ambition of Larsen’s exhibition, and much of his writing around the subject in general (his dissertation was on “global psychedelia”) was to isolate psychedelia from its countercultural and legal entanglements to probe its potential essences and, well, high points. “What remains,” Larsen declared, “is a promise: a sense of becoming.”

First up was Gintautas Mažeikis, head of the department of social and political theory at Vytautas Magnus University, whose talk “Experience of Self-Othering: Between Altered States of Consciousness and Replaced Thinking” connected Timothy Leary, Aleister Crowley, and Lithuanian neo-shamanism, ultimately rejecting the traditional Jungian assessment of the collective unconscious in favor of a Frankfurt School perspective that Mažeikis deems a “soft transcendental approach.” For the non-Lithuanian participants among us, the highlight of Mažeikis’s presentation was a screening of a short film by local psychedelic explorer Jerry Geraldas Jankauskas made during Soviet times, when tripping out served as a tool of resistance against the psychic abuses perpetuated by the totalitarian regime against the populace.

Gintautas Mažeikis, head of the department of social and political theory at Vytautas Magnus University.

Recalling Robert Smithson’s assertion that vision is an authoritarian system, Yann Tytelman proposed a politicization of psychedelic thought via Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, Louis Wolfson’s Le Schizo et les langues, Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, and the history of alchemy. Tytelman, head of the visual arts department at Geneva University of Art and Design, turned us on to the history of psychedelia in the Francophone zone. It was quite its own thing—the French never took to the hippies, viewing their “program” as a very American (read: unserious) form of lifestyle politics, and by the time psychedelics arrived in France in the early 1970s the hippie movement had all but burned out. Instead of a countercultural wave, then, there was a dispersed group of individual explorers who etched out their own paths, including the band Magma, who utilized an invented language and engineered a form of psychedelic rock distinct from normative associations with the genre.

The director of education at the CAC, Audrius Pocius, was tasked with engaging primary- and secondary-school students (!) with the exhibition. He began by asking: “Is there a way to talk meaningfully about a psychedelic means of education?” In arriving at his positive answer, he devised a board game for a group of fifteen players divided into three teams. In playing, the borders separating the teams become blurred, the whole is no longer seen as a sum of its parts, and failure—losing—emerges as the thing to be embraced, the fuel that keeps the game running.

As the afternoon wore on, intrepid reconceptualizations of psychedelic ontology began to emerge from the unlikeliest of disciplines. Kristupas Sabolius is a philosopher from the University of Vilnius who has been researching the problem of imagination for more than a decade. (Sadly, his writings have yet to appear in English.) He arrived at a conception of anamorphosis, a perceptual effect employed by visual artists for centuries (and frequently experienced by users of psychedelic drugs), through a rigorous discussion of the history of reality as a philosophical concept from its inception in the High Middle Ages to Kant’s separation of reality from existence. “Being is always more than reality,” he concluded. “Existence is always more than essence.”

Psychologist Arūnas Kuras.

Til Mycha/Fungiculture journal were the sole participants in the Synod that also featured in the exhibition. Artist Beth Collar and curator Heidi Ballet read several texts by Mycha—a fictional author comprising Fungiculture editors Helen Stuhr-Rommereim and Silvia Mollichi, who aims to harness the potentialities of a psychedelic writing without the use of drugs—against a projection of images by Jennifer Evans. They were followed by Vadim Grigorian, who works in luxury culture as a marketing man, and whose presentation focused on his personal explorations of chronobiology through a garden he is developing at his home in the French countryside.

Eglė Rindzevičiūtė offered a fascinating history of cybernetics, from its origins in World War II through its heyday in the 1960s, its integration into various disciplines in the ’70s, and its influence on Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, with its nonmodern insistence that we have never been separate from our animal selves. Indeed, cybernetics’ refusal to differentiate among mind/body and culture/nature/machine sounds ringingly clear to anyone who’s ever been on acid.

Clearly, given the scope of the day’s offerings, even those who haven’t were able to get a lot out of the First Psychedelic Synod. This most intense program came to a close with the personal reflections of Arūnas Kuras, a psychologist who experimented with psychedelics professionally during the Soviet era. While Kuras asserted that his use of drugs helped in the way of self-understanding, he ultimately advised against them, as he felt that they halted his spiritual development for several years. Sad news for all artists out there, according to at least one medical professional: Tripping is not the best way to enrich your creativity.

Instead, Synod participants were fortunate to have our minds expanded in other ways, perhaps unwittingly mirroring the aesthetic experience, as summed up by Larsen: “That is, when you, out of enthusiasm for an artwork, meditate on it until it falls into bits and pieces, and it must be stitched back together with words and ideas to become an event.”