Pubdate: Fri, 5 Nov 2010
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Page: 12 of the G2 section
Copyright: 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited
Contact:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardian/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/175
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Author: Johnny Davis
Photo: An opium den in San Francisco, early 1900s. [Wellcome Images] 
Note: High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in History and Culture is at 
the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE from 11 Nov 
to 27 Feb. wellcomecollection.org


Natural or Synthetic, Legal or Illegal, People Have Been Taking Drugs 
for Thousands of Years

High Society, a New Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, Explores 
the Culture of Getting Out of It

By the end of planning her new exhibition, Caroline Fisher had come 
to an interesting conclusion. "It's even harder to exhibit rats than 
drugs," she says. The Home Office eventually granted her the 
necessary licences to exhibit a bottle of heroin, a ball of opium, 
some morphine, a selection of magic mushrooms, a peyote cactus, some 
hallucinogenic snuff and a variety of Victorian high-street pharmacy 
favourites including cocaine mouth lozenges and tincture of Indian 
cannabis "as many drugs as we could get our hands on". But Health and 
Safety weren't having the rats. "We wanted to recreate a 7m-long Rat 
Park," Fisher sighs, referring to the classic 1970s Canadian 
experiment that showed opiate addiction in rodents was determined not 
by the drugs they took, but the living conditions they took them in.

Fisher is the co-curator of High Society: Mind-Altering Drugs in 
History and Culture at the Wellcome Collection in London, and offers 
a history of narcotics that feels fresh.

After all, we hardly need another account of the Romantic poets 
getting carried away with hashish, or more woolly recollections from 
acid house revellers who outwitted the police on the M25 while going 
to Sunrise.

"I don't think anything similar has been done before," says Mike Jay, 
the exhibition's co-curator and author of an accompanying book. 
"There's always been two different discourses, the 'drug culture 
underground' one and a rather more straight-lens way of looking at 
it, from a medical or political view. It's the middle ground that 
feels interesting."

High Society strives to cover as much of this middle ground as 
possible. It spans from pre-2000 BC chillum-style pipes fashioned 
from puma bones, to mephedrone and other internet-distributed 
synthetic stimulants of the 21st century.

Along the way it takes in kava drinking in the South Pacific, betel 
chewing in Papua New Guinea and cocaine snorting in Weimar Germany. 
Tea, coffee and sugar also feature (albeit in supporting roles) and 
there's plenty on the rise and fall of tobacco.

As such the exhibition is able to make its central premise: very few 
people live their lives without resorting to some sort of 
mind-altering substance.

Taking drugs, it suggests, is "a universal impulse". "Drug cultures 
are endlessly varied, but drugs in general are more or less 
ubiquitous among our species," writes Jay. Later he quotes American 
anthropologist Donald Brown's celebrated work Human Universals, which 
lists "mood-or consciousness-altering techniques and/or substances" 
as one of the essential components of human culture, along with 
"music, conflict resolution, language and play". "The public 
perception is that drugs are this terrible thing that appeared with 
hippies in the 60s; that they're a modern disease," Jay says. "The 
historicality has been lost."

The curators are at pains to underline the mutability of culture and 
society, and how a drug's definition is determined by non-chemical 
factors such as intent behind its use, its method of administration 
and the social class of the user. (Nitrous oxide is a medicine when 
used by doctors, a drug when used for pleasure.) Even so a pattern 
soon establishes itself: a new mind-altering substance arrives 
accompanied by extravagant medical claims and counter-claims, gets 
enthusiastically taken up by sections of the public (usually the idle 
rich); then addiction and side-effects make themselves apparent over time.

"It was hard to designate drugs themselves as the problem when they 
were also being promoted to the public at large as the solution," 
writes Jay of the nurses, doctors and military officers who were 
treating local infections with morphine injections in the 1880s, 
ushering in the first "morphinomaniacs" in the process.

Elsewhere the 18th-century botanist and pioneering drug cataloguer 
Carl Linnaeus frowned upon coffee he felt it sapped vitality and 
brought on early senility but endorsed tobacco as a means of fighting 

In a tract published in Leipzig in 1707, we see early adopters of tea 
being reprimanded for "drinking themselves to death" in the mindless 
pursuit of fashion.

Around the same time the British literary intelligentsia waxed 
lyrical on the benefits of rounding an evening off with a few pipes 
of opium, something they believed helped digestion, fortified against 
fever and improved performance in the bedroom. Only alcohol seems to 
have maintained a constant reputation, viewed as the boorish vice of 
the corrupt elite in Roman times, banned across much of the Islamic 
world and the subject of US prohibition in the 1920s.

Still, High Society remains morally neutral.

There won't be any disclaimers. "We're not doing, 'Hey kids, drugs 
are good', so ultimately we don't need to do, 'Hey kids, drugs are 
bad,'" reasons Jay. "Since that's basically the entire popular 
discourse about drugs, it seems nice to get rid of both of them and 
take the subject on its own merit."

High Society has commissioned some interactive artworks to help 
convey the quixotic effects of drugs on mind and body in the sober 
medium of an exhibition space.

Joshua White was the resident artist at New York's Fillmore East 
theatre during the late 60s. Using bottles of coloured liquids, 
hand-painted slides, lightbulbs on the end of sticks and clock faces, 
he projected his psychedelic "liquid light shows" on to live 
performances by Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, 
among others. "Was my work best experienced on drugs? I would say so, 
yes," says White, who'll travel to the UK to install his new show at 
the Wellcome Collection. "Everybody had a different relationship with 
drugs back then, just as everybody in my parents' generation had a 
different relationship with alcohol.

Some people had a nice buzz; some people threw up. We would hire 
speed freaks for our special projects get them to stay up all night 
gluing jewels on to a ball."

There will also be a recreation of the "dreamachine", the 
light-emitting cylinder built by artist Brion Gysin and William 
Burroughs's "systems adviser" Ian Sommerville. "You look at it with 
your eyes shut in a dark room, and it supposedly recreates the 
hallucinatory experience," explains Fisher.

Other contemporary artwork includes the video piece Cannabis In the 
UK, of artist Mark Harris reading Baudelaire's Les Paradis 
Artificiels and Walter Benjamin's Hashish in Marseilles to cannabis 
plants ("I hope it won't be taken too seriously," says Harris. "I 
just thought, 'If you're going to read to plants to make them grow, 
what better than to read to cannabis plants something about the 
effects of the drug?'"), and photographer Mark Leffingwell's 
"collective intoxication" picture depicting 10,000 people gathered at 
the University of Colorado for a "smoke-in" to commemorate "420", an 
event observed across America every 20 April to promote the 
legalisation of marijuana.

If none of those do the trick, there are plenty of accounts from the 
history of self-experimentation. There's the study on nitrous oxide 
performed by 18th-century chemist Humphry Davy, who got fed up with 
testing the gas on rabbits, kittens and fish and took heroic 
quantities himself, reaching the less than empirical conclusion that 
"nothing exists but thoughts". There's the story of the family who 
discovered the liberty cap mushroom by accident: cooking some up for 
a morning broth they developed vertigo, visions and the overwhelming 
sensation they were dying, only to leave the house for help and 
forget why they had done so a few hundred metres later. (When a 
doctor did eventually reach them, the situation was scarcely improved 
by the family's eight-year-old, whose symptoms proved unique: 
bursting into raucous laughter every time his terrified parents 
opened their mouths.) And there's French psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph 
Moreau, who suggested that the low prevalence of insanity in the Arab 
world was down to a preference for cannabis over alcohol: testing his 
theory he swallowed three grams before dinner and found himself 
preparing to fight a duel with a bowl of candied fruit.

 From more recent times there's a photograph of "father of MDMA" and 
sometime US Drug Enforcement Agency employee Alexander Shulgin. 
Shulgin's popularisation of ecstasy eventually gave rise to acid 
house, the last significant drug-led subculture. High Society largely 
steers clear of examining the hows and whys of such moments; in fact 
there's little on why we might be drawn towards illicit drugs in the 
first place. "I just think it's self-evident that people wouldn't 
take drugs if they didn't enjoy them," Jay shrugs.

The most recent UN figures put the illegal drug trade at $320bn 
(UKP200bn) a year the third biggest international market on the 
planet, after arms and oil. "2011 is the 50th anniversary of the 
United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs," Jay says. 
"That's the 50th anniversary of global prohibition; they've been 
trying for 50 years to achieve that. What's so ironic is that 1961 
was precisely the time when the drug counterculture formed; the point 
where policing started to fall apart with the surge in demand that was coming.

Today our culture has become even more experimental: we regard it as 
a good thing to try something exotic and different, in a way that it 
just wasn't 50 years ago. So it's very hard to say, 'That's the way 
we are in culture.

Oh except for drugs, which have to be hived off.'"

Given that more people take more drugs than at any other time in 
history, you might wonder if they'll ever be part of a counterculture 
again. At a time when Keith Richards is a bestselling author off the 
back of his national treasure status as a chemical dustbin, Governor 
Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken steps to decriminalise marijuana 
possession in California and Prince Harry is found inhaling "hippy 
crack", it's difficult to see how drugs could be more mainstream. "I 
wouldn't be surprised if in five years, marijuana wasn't fully 
legalised all over the US," says Leffingwell. "Most people don't see 
it as any more harmful than having a beer."

Others suggest that the seeds of a new, drug-led counterculture are 
all around us. "I think smart drugs, things that boost your IQ such 
as Modafinil, could lend themselves to certain music," says Jay. 
"Very techy electronica."

To return to High Society's premise, then: the drugs we consume may 
change from over-the-counter laudanum in Victorian times, to 
over-the-internet mephedrone today but the human relationship with 
them remains strangely constant. "Nothing's changed," says White. 
"The form changes, the fickleness changes but our cravings stay the same."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake