THE ART, CREATIVITY & POLITICS OF PSYCHEDELICS
THE ART, CREATIVITY & POLITICS OF PSYCHEDELICS
As the access to and public discourse around psychedelics expands, Platform ponders their role in visual culture and beyond.
For a lot of people, the art and aesthetics related to or inspired by psychedelics are tied to a specific time period. People think '60s and '70s when they consider those things. Do you feel like that's changing at all? And if so, how?
I think there's definitely a long trend cycle for things like art and design. You see it so much more clearly in things like fashion, but when it comes to overall aesthetics and what's popular culturally in different moments, you can see these things repeat. I think we were due for an aesthetic reminder of some of those eras.
I'm 39, so my parents grew up during the late '50s through the '60s, and if I look back at pictures of them, I see hints of that. I think becoming an adult and hitting the ages where they were at those times, you start to think about your place in it and the place of those visuals–whether it's art or fashion or design.
They feel exciting because you can connect to them in a way that that cycle allows in our minds. I think it's correlating with a huge influx of interest in plant medicine, whether it's cannabis, which of course we do other work on [at Broccoli], or mushrooms or psychedelics.
What would you say are some of the most exciting developments that you’re seeing happen with psychedelics, generally?
I think one of the most important parts of all this progress around plant medicine and psychedelics is both access and de-stigmatization. Whether or not you focus on the individual effects that people are going for, I think everyone's always searching for help living in this life, in this world. And a lot of people do turn to plant medicine and psychedelics for that. Then I like to look at the bigger picture and ask: What does it mean for all of us to be able to access these things that have been criminalized? What are we missing out on? What can we learn from these things as we approach them through a different lens?
That access is really important. I think there is a challenge that comes with all of this because the systems that these plants and substances are getting put into are built into the pharmaceutical world and the corporate world, and it's hard to reconcile those two things. There's this intimidating tension that comes along with the positive feelings of access and reducing stigma. It's a really complicated mental space to exist in.
How is access changing? What does that look like and mean for people?
Something like cannabis is quite tangible to look at because over the last few years, we've gone from only a couple of states having legal adult-use cannabis access to many. The number of states that have added legal cannabis is astounding. If you're over a certain age, you can go into a dispensary, buy a product and leave with it and go and consume it at home or wherever.
Almost half of the states have some type of framework either in place or about to be in place, and the positivity around that is quite exciting. There are a lot of people who might have been interested or might have benefited from cannabis in some way but did not seek it out because it was illegal. For those people to be able to say, "That was the barrier for me, now I can go and get something that might help me deal with whatever it is that I'm trying to get a helping hand with," that's cool. And that's happening with psychedelics right now as well, but at a slower pace. It's taking a different framework, so I don't know what it’s going to turn into, but if there's something out there that can have a positive impact on people's lives, they should be able to access it.
How do you feel it's being framed differently? Are there any specific elements or factors that you feel are making that progress slower compared to other kinds of substances?
Well, it seems like they're considering psychedelics as a higher-risk item that an individual can't be trusted with on their own. In Oregon where I live, the approach that they're taking for psilocybin, the psychedelic element of certain mushrooms, is a clinical approach. They will have clinics where you can go and receive a guided mushroom therapeutic experience. I'm sure there'll be a lot of variation between how esoteric it'll get, but you have to be trained in order to be one of those therapeutic guides. You can't just get the mushrooms at the store, take them home, and do them in your backyard. That's a huge difference between what we have right now with cannabis and what they're talking about with psychedelic substances.
Do you feel that extra caution is warranted, or do you feel that perhaps that's due to certain business or pharmaceutical interests?
I think a little bit of all of it. The knowledge and education we can have for people who are the ones dolling out the advice or dolling out the actual drug is useful. But I ask that question again about access: Is that actually the experience that everyone needs? There's no one-size-fits-all for anything in this life.
For someone who knows that they're comfortable and experienced enough to take a few mushrooms in their backyard, why can't they do that? But then the person who doesn't do it, they probably should get a little help because they might not have a good experience. Circling back to aesthetics of design, I think if psychedelics are treated as a clinical substance, a drug to be taken in a clinical setting, do you even get to have fun with design? Do you get to create a brand around psychedelics? Should you create a brand around psychedelics?
There is a really interesting question that we do talk a lot about internally with Broccoli, with cannabis, with other kinds of these substances: When is it medicine? And when is it fun? And what role does design have, or what responsibility does it have, in that space? Is medicine supposed to look fun and cool with great branding? It's starting to.
What's your view on the responsibility that companies like that do or do not have?
I guess it depends. There is no set of rules for this. When I look at cannabis, there is absolutely a broad spectrum of space to have fun with it or take it seriously–as in medicine-serious–or something in between.
The ways in which people use it are so broadly defined by themselves. If you know that you just like to smoke a joint and watch a funny movie or go on a silly little walk, and you want your joint packaging to look cute and fun and reflect the experience that you want to have, that exists. That's really cool because you get to really have a seamless experience from intention to the physicality of the experience of what you hold in your hand. And then that translates into the experience that you have walking down your street and looking at some pretty flowers, which is one of my favorite ways to use weed.
But if you're someone who's like, "I'm doing this because I have nausea from chemotherapy and I don't care what the packaging looks like. I need it to be powerful. I need it to be potent. I need it to work, and I need it to be really clear about what it is so that I know I'm getting the right medicine," that also exists. You can get the thing that just has just the information you need and nothing else. That's what makes sense in a scenario like that, too.
Then there's this whole range in the middle that could go either way, and you can pick based on the brands that you like, the farms that you like. Or you can pick based on the potency of what's inside and not the branding. When you talk about potency, do I want there to be psychedelic brands that sell really powerful psychedelics but make it look like a fun afternoon, no big deal with cute fun packaging? I'm not sure if that makes sense.
One of our magazines, Mushroom People, wasn’t just about psychedelics. In fact, that was a smaller portion of the magazine, which is really about the fungi world as a whole. It was fun to get to play with the psychedelic aesthetics of mushrooms without it being a sales pitch for taking psilocybin. Mushrooms are trippy and crazy on their own even if they're not a drug, so getting to tap into that part of nature is fun. Nature is its own type of psychedelic expression, and it doesn't always have to be about what's happening to me when I take it. It's half about appreciating how nuts the natural world is. Mother Nature has given us all this weird stuff to look at and to try. There's a lot there without having to ingest it.
Do you think there's anything that's sort of misunderstood in the public mind when it comes to the use of psychedelics and its relation to creativity?
I think that we as human beings all seem to be looking for something that will fix our problems, make life easier, and give us a shortcut to happiness and to feeling at peace with living. I don't think anything can promise that. So, when I hear someone say, "I do this for my creativity," it's like, "You don't know what you're going to get out of that experience." You might feel more creative or you might just go down a black hole and question your whole existence.
I know that there's a lot of conversation about setting and the intention that you have going into any type of experience, whether it's a psychedelic or a cannabis experience. There's an element of control that people want to exert over the thing that's about to happen to them, but you really don't have full control.
I do think that drugs in any form can be really interesting for creative output and opening your mind up to new ideas. I certainly come up with plenty of silly ideas smoking weed that are going to be fun and pleasurable for our Broccoli reader. But there's also an interesting thing that happens once you let yourself have those thoughts. Maybe you needed a bit of a kick from a plant to help you get there, but I think that once you unlock those doors, they can stay open and it's more of a practice. If you can find a way to have that kind of clarity of mind where your thoughts just happen to you with or without a substance, then I think you can access a similar type of thing. There's plenty of research about how going for a walk is one of the most creative things you can do. I absolutely believe it because walk thoughts fit in perfectly with shower thoughts, which have a strong correlation to stoner thoughts.
I feel like the key isn't necessarily the drug, it's letting yourself exist without your normal stressors. Anything you can do to reduce your stress is probably going to be similar to anything a psychedelic drug could do for you as well. I would find that much more useful. I wouldn't stop in the middle of my day and do a bunch of mushrooms. At least I know when my walk will end.
I know people have really great luck with micro-dosing too. I personally have tried it and it makes me sleepy, so I'm not sure what's up with that. One of the interesting things about psilocybin becoming more legal in Oregon is that there are different kinds of psilocybin. There are different strains of mushrooms, the way there are different strains of weed plants. And having any input on what my experience might be is fascinating because I've certainly never had that before with mushrooms.
Are there any artists or designers or anyone in the creative sphere making work tied to psychedelics that you think is really intriguing right now?
There’s an artist that we worked with on a few things, Bethany van Rijswijk. She is an incredible writer and collage artist. She's the kind of person who thinks plants are so deeply fascinating and approaches them from a scientific perspective of understanding what a plant is for, its history and medicinal uses, but also brings in a lot of mythology and folklore.
You really need that texture when it comes to the history of indigenous uses of plants. If you leave out the myth, then you miss the point of why people were drawn to these things and what experiences led to a greater understanding of a plant. She has a very beautiful way of tying all these ideas together. I learn a lot from her writing, and her collage art is so beautiful. It feels like the kind of art that I dream about when I'm falling asleep in that half-lucid state.
We commissioned Bethany to do the art for a 44-card mushroom-themed oracle deck. Kind of like we would use the term mycelial thinking in the way that the mycelium of a mushroom connects things, we have all these interesting prompts in it to try to help people think. Not only about their introspective world, but about how they're connected to their community, their environment, the experiences they're having. We’re also republishing a book that she wrote and published a year ago and doing a broader distribution of her books.
I think that plants and plant medicine force you to be in nature. I've never wanted to be in front of my computer when I'm on a substance, ever. And you can also find that on a walk. You're like, "Just out here connecting, listening to birds, feeling my feet on the ground, feeling these textures." There's a lot out there to be experienced and anything that encourages you to take in the texture of your world is pretty positive.
How are you personally hoping to change the aesthetics people associate with psychedelics and cannabis? How would you describe your own approach in your work?
Humans are very visual creatures, and there's no denying that people carry stereotypical images of cannabis and psychedelics in their minds because of how these things have been portrayed in pop culture over the last few decades. It's not always a positive image and usually reduces them to something easy to mock or dismiss. Our approach with Broccoli is to bring things back to nature, for example, by showing the actual plants and expressing their beauty in their truest form. The first cover of Broccoli is still a perfect example of this: we worked with Amy Merrick to create simple, beautiful flower arrangements with cannabis, and it drove home the idea that cannabis is just a plant, a flower that can be appreciated like any other. When in doubt, look to nature!
Where do you hope that a deeper understanding of psychedelics, not only the mechanisms of how they work but also their applications, can take us culturally?
I hope that we can find a way to take things from nature in a way that isn't destructive. I don't think we've figured that one out yet at all. This is something that many people are talking about, the environment and climate change. We have to exist here and if we are too selfish, then it's not going to go well for anybody.
We split Mushroom People [a special edition, single-issue magazine for mycophiles from Broccoli] into sections and each section asks a different question. A lot of it asks, "Well, what is the mushroom? What do mushrooms do? What do they mean to us? What do we want from them?" Finally, the last chapter is, "What do the mushrooms want?" Because we are in a culture as humans where we take from the environment and use things, but we don't really have a great way to give back. It was a fun mental exercise: here we are, asking these mushrooms to fix our brains, fix our oceans, fix our pollution, decompose our bodies. They're fixing all our problems, but what do they actually want? Are they on board with this?
I don't know what the mushroom version of anthropomorphic computation is, but we need to be as symbiotic with each other and our environment and our planet as possible. I think that there is a correlation between people who care about plant medicine and that desire. All I can hope is that there's going to be enough money and resources given to the people who do have authentic caring. That it won't just be another machine of capitalism and consumption. If it's nature, we want it to feel like nature and it's really, really hard to hold onto that as things develop.