What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been
Somewhere between 1968 and 2007, the psychedelic aesthetic morphed from mind-blowing to money-making
Alastair Gordon -- Interior Design, 3/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
No one was quite sure what to make of Cerebrum when it opened in New York in the summer of 1968. Sensory-stimulation lab? Pleasure dome? Participatory nightclub? It certainly wasn't a nightclub in the normal sense, as there was no dance floor, no band, no alcohol.
Upon entering an unmarked storefront in SoHo, patrons encountered a black room where a disembodied voice welcomed them. Then a wall opened, and they were invited to remove their clothes, don translucent togas, and walk down a ramp into a cavernous space with flashing lights and distorted imagery splashed across the walls and ceiling: Throbbing strobes and protoplasmic blobs of color mixed with slide projections and film footage of blinking eyes, the Buddha, a waterfall.
The idea was to disorient, obliterate the body-to-ground relationship, and open a door to sensation. "One is suspended in space-time," explained John Storyk, who'd only recently graduated from Princeton University's architecture school when he designed Cerebrum.
Its most unusual feature, the floor, was actually 14 narrow white-carpeted platforms. After navigating them, patrons were invited to take a seat and participate in mind games and body-awareness exercises. Sexy young women passed out plastic pillows, stereo earphones, and various glowing orbs and prisms. Musical instruments played. Clouds of perfumed fog billowed.
Piercing the fog like electrons in a cloud chamber, needles of light reflected off mirrored globes, recalls critic Gene Youngblood. "At Cerebrum one is voyeur, exhibitionist, and participant. One is both male and female. One is a walking sensorium," he wrote in Expanded Cinema. Youngblood watched in fascination as participants pressed the soles of one another's feet together and intertwined fingers, over which guides squirted hand cream. Someone smeared menthol-flavored ice on his lips.
Other visitors recall sucking on minty ice balls while following instructions to share the oneness. A giant weather balloon was slowly filled—hissing, protruding—and then released to bounce around from group to group. A parachute dropped from the ceiling. People stood under the silky fabric and waved their arms up and down like birds.
It all seemed weighted with significance—the sound, lighting, and performances designed to induce trippy sensations without (or with) the LSD. The trend had started in 1964 at multimedia discos, such as Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles, and developed into totally mind-blowing happenings at the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and the Electric Circus back in New York. Charles Forberg Associates softened the latter's big boxy interior with white nylon, stretched from floor to ceiling in soft folds, while multimedia wizard Tony Martin choreographed the lighting effects, and Chermayeff & Geismar designed the graphics. (A number of these environments will be featured in my book Kiss the Sky, coming out next year.)
Cerebrum took it a bit further, offering otherworldly rituals verging on the religious. Jimi Hendrix liked the place so much that he hired Storyk to design Electric Lady Studios—thereby launching his career.
Journalists and academics flocked to the clubs and gawked at the miniskirted girls. Life called Cerebrum a "cabaret of the mind." One visitor noted the "glazed stares and numb, expressionless faces of youthful dancers." Sociologist Alvin Toffler devoted a section of his best-selling Future Shock to describing the encounters he had there one night: "Bubbles drift down. . . . Lights change color and random images wrap themselves around the walls." Toffler predicted that simulated environments would eventually take the place of actual experience.
But instead of being the precursor of some virtual utopia, Cerebrum signaled the end of a fleeting moment. The novelty wore thin, and the club closed after about nine months. Perhaps there were too many spaced-out characters lying around, staring into strobe lights. As Time magazine noted, "Cerebrum offers the sensation of being turned on to the point of being turned off." In 1970, a bomb exploded at the Electric Circus, injuring 17 patrons and effectively ending an era.
The spirit behind the 1960's environments didn't vanish for good, however. While there may be no scented fog or translucent togas, artificial effects spookily reminiscent of the '60's are back, thanks to technological advances in imagery and projection. Take the work of Obscura Digital, which specializes in "immersive environments" that use the latest surround-video technology to bombard the senses with an all-out spectacle.
In today's corporate climate, the fantastic visuals aren't used so much to imitate an acid trip as to create buzz and sell product at trade shows and brand launches. The past two years have seen Obscura's revenues triple, according to cofounders Travis Threlkel and Patrick Connolly. Last year, they organized events worldwide for General Motors Corporation, Lexus, Oracle, and 3M.
Obscura designed a 45-foot-long video tunnel that dazzled as the entry to software giant Symantec's annual conference—with computer-generated squiggles and cartoonish figures crawling across the tunnel's polyvinyl skin, enveloping participants in an orgy of product information. By combining proprietary software and high-definition playback servers, Obscura can attain 360-degree coverage without distortions or overlapping. The equipment does this by synchronizing video streams, up to 128 at a time, into a seamless web of imagery.
To launch GameTap, Turner Broadcasting System's online video-game service, Obscura placed a steel-framed dome, 60 feet across, in a parking lot in Mountain View, California. Inside, guests encountered a shag-adelic party setting with deep orange carpet, low white sofas, and foam-rubber "love sack" chairs covered in white fake fur. A circular DJ station stood at the center of the dome, surrounded by plasma-screen kiosks where kids could try out the games.
But the real attraction was above. High-powered digital light-processing projectors completely covered the dome's 3,200-square-foot interior surface in three-dimensional animation and motion graphics highlighting various games, logos, and characters. "We modeled out a massive 3-D world, then mapped Game Tap's video offerings to that world," Connolly explains. "Projection tiles" of agitated motion and pixelated graphics dipped, rotated wildly, and flew off axis in a trippy collage. "We gave people a ride without moving," he adds. "That's truly cool."
The dome that served as the backdrop for all the flashing colors and zooming imagery was purchased through Obscura partner Chris LeJeune, who actually lived in a geodesic dome as a child. That's because his mother, a woman with the flower-power name of Asha Deliverance, now runs Pacific Domes, a company that provides the portable structures—plus an assembly crew right out of Oregon's neo-hippie-gypsy scene.