Though nowadays “psychedelia” conjures seedy visions of black-light velvet posters, gnarly wizard-shaped bongs, and totally rad screen savers, there was a time when the investigation of mind-altering optics engaged a number of serious film artists. “Kinetica,” a series of classic and contemporary abstract animation, proves that there’s more to turning on and tuning in than merely dropping out. During the counterculture’s post-war heyday, the confluence of psychoactive drugs, Eastern-tinged spiritualism, and emerging electronic technologies produced a heady crop of experimental movies that brought the hieratic visual language of modernism to dizzy new heights. An expanded cinema emerged to meet the desire for expanded consciousness, envisioning drugs as a new technology and technology as a new drug. Though the psychedelic moment was soon downplayed by avant-garde historians and the gallery-addled structuralists of the ’70s, later generations of artists continued the synesthetic possibilities of film and video.
Hypnotic and transporting, this hallucinogenic subgenre of experimental film weaves brain-bending cantrips from light, color, motion, and sound, often taking cues from other movements like op art and electronic music. Though not all of “Kinetica” ‘s selections are equally successful (particularly the newer works, which devolve into familiar Photoshop fantasies), the best can push viewers into a visceral, oceanic sublimity.
The series is compiled and distributed by the Cronenbergian-named iotaCenter, a Los Angeles institution dedicated to “the art of abstraction in the moving image.” Its California provenance is fitting, since the most advanced forays into acid abstraction were created by a tradition of West Coast artists. Beat-era San Franciscan Hy Hirsh spearheaded the sensibility, and is represented with a number of newly restored works. Inspired by bebop improvisation and action painting, Hirsh’s films pulse with astrobrite primary colors and snaky-smooth rhythms. In Chasse des Touches (1959), Hirsh wiped his fingers through trays of colored oils to create a zippy streamline dance to a Thelonious Monk tune. Scratch Pad (1961) and Eneri (1953) use emulsion etchings and oscilloscope waves for similarly jazzy, multilayered effects. On the East Coast, Mary Ellen Bute also employed oscilloscopes to create films like Mood Contrasts (1956), which plays like a populuxe Merrie Melodie.
Hirsh died in 1961, but had already influenced a younger set of Bay Area artists, including legendary polymath Harry Smith, whose hand-painted chockablock phantasmagoria Film No. 3 (1949) is included in the series. Zen Buddhist Jordan Belson took a more overtly spiritual tack. Reverberating circles form his Mandala (1953); as its title implies, the film creates a mesmerizing object of contemplation and oblivion. Belson also worked live. His Vortex Concerts at Morrison Planetarium in the ’50s laid the groundwork for the far-out light shows of later decades, like those of Fillmore-era projection band Single Wing Turquoise Bird, included in the series with a record of a 1971 performance.
Otherworldly themes return in the work of brothers John and James Whitney, among the first to use computers in animation, pioneering pre-digital techniques that would eventually find their way into Hollywood sci-fi. Their works marry ancient mysticism to the sublime visual effects of ultrasmooth mathematical motion. James’s strobing, pyrotechnic Yantra (1957) takes its title from a Sanskrit word for “machine,” or prayer wheel, and his hypercircular Lapis (1966) refers to the alchemical philosopher’s stone. In Catalog (1961), John sets a series of multicolored geometric effects to Ornette Coleman, animating them with modified WW II analog devices originally invented for aiming anti-aircraft guns.
Though Belson’s first works consisted of painting on scrolls, he too would embrace new technologies, collaborating with video artist Stephen Beck on Cycles (1975), created with his custom-built Beck Direct Video Synthesizer. (Like many of the earliest video artists, including Nam June Paik, Beck doubled as a hardware engineer.) The video-altered effects were printed back onto film, creating electro-style color clouds and static fuzz. An even more complex trans-media blend is achieved in Scott Bartlett’s OFFON (1968), which employed 25 hand-processed film loops, multiple video sources, and a live television setup to forge a hyper-layered McLuhanite journey. The title refers both to yin-yang duality and the binary logic of electronics.
The countercultural coherence of psychedelic filmmaking dissolved in the ’80s and ’90s, giving way to a multiplicity of individual artistic visions. But a trippy residue remains in much of the later work. In Larry Cuba’s Calculated Movements (1985), green-screen computer animation displays wormlike objects slipping around in a precise dance of algorithmic fluidity. Its retro-techno style presages today’s heady Net art and Tinseltown CGI, providing digital delivery of old-school transcendence.