24 Jul 2020
Artists, experts, scholars, specialists and Len Lye film fans will share their insights on the artist and experimental filmmaker in a brand new series coming to Instagram weekly, inspired by the current exhibition 'The Absolute Truth of the Happiness Acid' (6 Jun — 1 Nov 2020).
To launch this series, media scholar Alla Gadassik reminds us that Lye's work is not only to be seen or heard but to be felt and expressed (particularly in the body) and that by simply tuning in to the actual rhythmic and sensory effects, we achieve the same euphoric bliss as psychedelics.
“Turn on, tune in, drop out” is the most iconic phrase in American psychedelic counterculture, promoted by controversial psychologist Timothy Leary as a path to personal and social happiness aided by drugs like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD, or acid). Leary’s phrase intentionally uses the language of media advertising, channeling the “turning on” and “tuning in” of radio and television toward a different kind of virtual trip. As the phrase implied, postwar Westerners were already consuming reality-altering drugs on a mass scale – the drugs of non-stop media broadcasts and their mind-numbing, brainwashing effects on slack-jawed bodies hanging limp on living room armchairs. In contrast, Leary and fellow counterculture spiritualists called for short-circuiting the faulty wiring of modern brains and thereby rebooting society one consciousness at a time. As Leary later wrote in his autobiography Flashbacks:
“Turn on" meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers engaging them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. "Tune in" meant interact harmoniously with the world around you — externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. "Drop out" suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. "Drop Out" meant self-reliance, a discovery of one's singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change.”
Around the same time that Leary’s phrase grew in popularity and public awareness, Len Lye began touring a lecture on his work he titled “The Absolute Truth of the Happiness Acid.” The parallel to LSD was deliberate. What Lye promoted, like Leary, was a way to attain happiness by activating one’s neural and genetic equipment; interacting more harmoniously with the world; externalizing, materializing, and expressing internal perspectives; and discovering one’s own singularity amidst mobility and change. The key difference was that Lye’s method to accomplish these things wasn’t to drop acid, but to tap into his genetic code (his DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid) by making and enjoying abstract (“absolute”) art using his body. Forget TV and LSD, tune into abstract animated film!
Part of Lye’s philosophy as a filmmaker and kinetic artist was to make work that didn’t rely on any specific cultural knowledge, artistic training, or even language among its audience. All you need to do to “get” Lye’s work and be transported by it, as far as he was concerned, is to have a body and a pulse (to this, we should add a capacity to see and hear). Lye’s approach to art may seem naive in the context of the highly intellectual and politicized world of avant-garde art at the time and since then. And he may also be taking a huge leap with his assumption that audiovisual art taps into a universal form of aesthetic experience. Yet it also explains why written descriptions of his work are doomed to miss the mark. It’s not just that moving images and sounds are incommensurate with words. There’s something about trying to “make sense” of films like Kaleidoscope, Color Cry, or Particles in Space that fails to translate their direct rhythmic and sensory effects on the body.
Consider how often our intensely happy and unhappy moments are expressed through facial and bodily contortions or barely legible interjections like “blargh!” and “ewww!” or “squee!!!” and “woohoo!!!” When we follow such animated exclamations with a tepid clarification or a confession that “it’s hard to explain,” we’re not revealing a problem with our communication skills. We’re recognizing that we need to invent gestures and sounds for something that just feels a certain way. So, the next time you see an animated film by Len Lye or encounter one of his kinetic sculptures, consider turning your body on and coming up with your own moves and strings of sound that resonate with your internal experience. You’ll be tuning in to Lye’s work just fine.
Stay tuned for further exploration into Len Lye's work in the weeks to come.
You can follow Alla on her Instagram: @allacontentgenerator
Alla Gadassik is a media history and theory professor at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada. Her research bridges the disciplines of cinema studies, philosophy of technology and histories of media practice. Particular areas of interest include cinematography, film editing and animation methods as they transformed across different disciplines interested in movement.
Len Lye, Color Cry, 1952.
Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation.
From material preserved and made available by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.