An Interview with Lars Bang Larsen
with Silvia Mollicchi and Helen Stuhr-Rommereim
Lars Bang Larsen is an art historian and curator, and perhaps the world expert on psychedelia in art—or at least the expert whose thinking on this subject has most importantly informed our own. When Fungiculture was in its very nascent stages, we stumbled across an essay by an entity called Dexter Bang Sinister entitled “Black & White Psychedelia” in the Serving Library. This essay is a collaboratively, “psychedelically” edited adaptation of Lars Bang Larsen’s PhD thesis exploring various psychedelic art movements and framing their legacies. The essay presents a history of psychedelic art and asserts that the psychedelic “is … can be addressed as … has the speculative potential to become… an aesthetic of radical openness and events-effects, of unexpected reconstruction and ultra-rapid lines of flight.” We were already referring to ourselves as a “psychedelic journal,” and found in this essay an articulation of exactly why. We also saw in Lars Bang Larsen a potential partner in thought, so we decided to discuss psychedelic thinking with him further. Here we present our exchange.
Silvia Mollicchi & Helen Stuhr-Rommereim: There seems to be a special relationship between collaborative practices and psychedelia. The irritated materials that you refer to may resemble composite dynamic meshes with heterogeneous textures, that hold together multiple subjectivities. First off, what are the main characteristics of irritated materials? Then, is it even possible to be psychedelic on our own or is psychedelia a business of collectivities?
Lars Bang Larsen: The title suggests material that is volatile; literally ‘angry’ or opaque, in response to a sick society, as the cliché goes; to a pathology of the body politic. It also suggests that the material is being irritated, being ‘messed with’, i.e. by the art or the artist. These are results of a problem-oriented artistic practice that relates its analysis to culture at large and at the same time sceptically examines itself. To the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, irritability is a fundamental life principle: a lower limit of stimulation that is not necessarily understood negatively, but also as frictional heat and excitement, or other ways in which tolerance is pushed. In a similar way, I think about irritated materials as borderline phenomena that importantly also sit at the limit of the human. The artist Sture Johannesson characterizes the drug as a ‘working material’, which is an appropriately ambiguous way of putting it I think: it is an (artistic) material to work with, and conversely a material that works actively on the artist. So you’re absolutely right in asking if it is possible to be psychedelic on one’s own. I would say definitely not. Psychedelia is always a business of collectivities, assemblages, but primarily between human subjects and non-human materials, and secondly between several human subjects and nervous systems.
Psychedelic matters pick up vibes and are sensed rather than understood, this made us think about affect and the use of it as a conceptual mechanism in academia. Is there any relation between psychedelia and affect and, if so, of what type?
Oh yeah. When it comes to visual art, art’s psychedelic relation takes the nervous system as its site of production to develop a critique of experience. In this respect psychedelia is historically crucial to artistic experiments that follow through on art’s affective promise to undo the characteristics of human intention, perception, shape and motility. Here affect remains properly estranging and de-familarizing.
Discontinuous, gapy, discretized (and so digital) materials appear to have a better chance to be ‘irritated’, and so to activate a psychedelic effect, as opposed to continuous and smooth surfaces – this is apparent also in the structure of the B+W Psychedelia essay. What is the relation between digital aesthetics, in the broadest sense of the term, and psychedelia?
This brings us back to cybernetics. Hallucinogenic drugs were often understood as new media in the counterculture: only machinic and cybernetic concepts seemed sufficient to address vibrations, intensities, micro-speeds, and other challenges to human perception that occur on the trip. Even Timothy Leary, the “high priest of LSD”, described the psychedelic lifestyle using machinic metaphors: ‘tune in, turn on, drop out.’ Turning on and tuning in is done to a radio, a radar system, or a thermostat. Similarly, poet and graphic artist Henri Michaux talked about being prodded and moved by robotic mescaline that turned him into a semi-automaton. So the digital has much to do with the very conceptualization of those imbalances and energized, synthetic asymmetries you talk about. All the examples I’ve just quoted are historical, of course, so the question is how the relation between digital aesthetics and psychedelia plays out today—let alone what we mean today when we talk about psychedelia. The Otolith Group have explored this issue brilliantly in their 2011 film Anathema, in which they manipulate appropriated television commercials for LCD technologies to show what has happened to the plasmatic vistas of the psychedelic image in the era of advanced, image-borne capitalism. Cultural theorist Mark Fisher has written about the film that it ‘demonstrates the liquid erotic lure of communicative capitalist tactility… Anathema asks what would happen if the promises made by capital actually came true. Its conjecture is that we would be in the very (libidinal-dreaming) space which capital cannot but rely upon, even as it continually inhibits us from attaining it.’
If psychedelia is related to vibration and affect as a means of expanding our field of vision and reception capacities, isn’t most art like that once we detach psychedelia from the use of drugs? Could psychedelic thinking be in general the kind of thinking required for making art, or is it something more divergent or specific?
If you define psychedelia like this, you come close to giving a neurophysiological definition of art. There are Pavlovian aspects to psychedelia that are hostile to art. And ‘psychedelia’ is an almost colonial term in its totalizing tendency. So both for the sake of art’s psychedelic relation and for the sake of other types of art, I don’t believe that art is psychedelia minus the drugs. And I don’t think that art’s psychedelic relation has primarily to do with visuality and perception. It has to do with processes of embodiment and disembodiment, it is a language form, it is biopower, it is a paranoiac method. However you could argue that art’s psychedelic connection is prolix, a bundle of relations touching on how all artworks “begin to move” under patient contemplation, as Adorno has it; that is, when you out of fidelity to an art work meditate on it until it falls into bits and pieces
What does it mean then to bring psychedelia into more traditionally analytical fields of thought, i.e. argument-based writing?
Thorny issue, that. Or thorny issues, because you’re addressing both thinking and writing. I think that actually the psychedelic trip, in all its non-sentimental sensitivity, can be a way of thinking with the senses. To add the question of field of knowledge or discourse, I believe it has been important to me to try to give art’s psychedelic relation its due in art history. There is nothing gained from keeping it underground: psychedelia has been spectacularized and commodified many times over, anyway.
Having said that I do see the necessity of keeping experimenting with the writing of psychedelia. I guess I should smoke PhD and start writing again. You should never get comfy with acid thinking, and closure is definitely to be avoided!
What are the tools that psychedelia provides for everyday life?
It is a great tool for manifesting the strangeness of the historical space we live in.