Arguably, a psychonaut is anyone who’s ever experienced REM sleep—or more particularly, anyone who’s tried to pinpoint the coordinates of a city they’ve only visited in dreams. The term psychonaut, or mind-sailor, seems to have been first used–-admiringly—in a 1970 essay by Ernst Jünger on drugs and inebriation. Efforts to categorize and codify routes to trance states, however, date to early Buddhist and Hindu texts and possibly to the walls of pre-historic caves. They encompass philosophical investigations of Greek drama and laboratory attempts to discover why—physiologically speaking—Jimi Hendrix might have seen a purple haze and not an olive green one.
The course readings for Anastasia Yumeko Hill’s Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism (UCSB, Winter 2011) for the most part span only the 19th through 21st centuries —an exception is Euripides’ Bacchae. But they cover the exploration of deliberately altered consciousness from a number of compass points: art, philosophy, chemistry, psychoanalysis, cybernetics, anthropology, spirituality, and media studies. To name some. Among the syllabus authors: sociologist/critic Walter Benjamin, dolphin researcher John C Lilly, painter and media artist Teresa Wennberg, and Zen Buddhist abbot Joan Halifax.
The kind of paradox encountered when the mind tries to study itself was elegantly stated by Benjamin in his 1929 essay, Surrealism (one of the course readings) “The most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance.” Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism attempted both—pairing class discussion of “Trance and Form,” “Intoxication and Surrealism” and “Psychotechnology” with field trips to a variety of immersive experiences including a ritual sweat in a traditional sweat lodge and an acoustic sound bath in the Integraton, a geo-magnetically enhanced wooden dome built on the edge of the Mojave desert by aircraft mechanic turned ufologist George Van Tassel.
Hill’s survey of Psychonautic literature begins with psychedelic pioneers Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzger who faced a paradox similar to those Benjamin described when trying to program an LSD experience. A subject might have difficulty remembering an intention, or balk when reminded by the bodiless head of Ishtar. Altered realities demand altered language: Leary and his colleagues found it in Tibetan Book of the Dead whose specialized vocabulary reinforced the idea of trip as initiation. Hill pairs them with contemporary writers–Technosis author and Wired contributor Erik Davis (“Spiritual Cyborg”) and UCSD new media theorist, Lev Manovich—who look to digital paradigms to suggest broader questions of aesthetics, perception, and social reality.
Fittingly the course finale was an outdoor festival in Isla Vista—attended, Hill says, by about 200 people. The 19 students, whose backgrounds included film and media, art, philosophy, and environmental studies, presented group projects oriented around themes covered during the semester: Dionysia, 19th century Mesmerism, Surrealism, Psychedelia, and Techno-Spiritualism. The idea, Hill says, was to “give a sense of how we experience and construct meaning around culturally and historically specific variations” of altered consciousness.
Drawing on writing by Edgar Allen Poe and working with a student outside the course who practices hypnotism, the Mesmer group “reproduced Mesmer’s salon wherein ‘patients’ could receive treatment from a hypnotist accompanied by two of the students dressed in 19th century garb. They also created an oversized see-saw with a large mirror erected in the center, blocking each see-sawer’s view of the other and creating a very disorienting spacial experience.”
The festival also had a guest star, artist Gary Hill. In a workshop with students before the event he showed a piece of his concurrent NYC exhibition of surf, death, tropes & tableaux: The Psychedelic Gedankenexperiment—an installation of sculpture, painting and manipulated video, accompanied by mediated viewing devices. Gary Hill, a pioneer of new media art and “electronic linguistics” is also Anastasia’s father. As a girl she appeared in some of his works. In a time-honored generational reversal– though one that almost always involves some alteration of consciousness—he now appeared in hers. At the festival he performed sound and voice improvisations to student videos and invited visitors to experiment with handheld wands that transform the user’s gestures into a remotely synthesized music.
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