Trust but Verify: Terence McKenna

By Chris Grottick, 10 January 1997

An interview with Terence McKenna after the presentation of his 'Time Wave Zero' (a computer model which predicts the end of time)

For Terence McKenna, the 'voice' which has informed much of his writings and predictions has been heard deep within intense hallucinogenic states, induced by both psilocybin mushrooms and DMT (dimethyltryptamine). Described by L.A. weekly as "the culture's foremost spokesman for the psychedelic experience" he initially experimented with these drugs whilst extensively studying shamanism in the Amazon basin. Consequently his visions have led to ideas which encompass subjects as diverse as the rebirth of the goddess and the existence of UFO's.

On a day to day basis, what effect do an individual's thoughts, feelings and actions have on the world in general?

Well, if you follow the Sheldrakian idea that there's a morphogenetic field, then it follows that each one of us is a microscopic contributor to the state of that field. Essentially politics begins with your own mind.

So does it follow then that at any point in time, a person is responsible for the state of the world?

Responsible.... I'm not sure that I buy responsibility. One is responsible for oneself, and then one has an obligation(that's how I'd put it) to contribute to the health of the psychological well being of the planet.

"Enframing" is a way of seeing, inherited from the Renaissance, that produced the notion of the spectator who steps back and observes, who is the surveyor of the scene but outside of it, separate from what he sees. It seems that the majority of art produced today still operates within this 'framework'.This stands in contrast to the focus of your writings where you use phrases such as "boundary dissolution" to describe an emerging time of connectedness. In what ways would you suggest that artists can respond to this new world view and start to re-evaluate the relationship between artist and audience?

You refer to the framing of the Renaissance, I would probably trace it more to the rise of print, to the creation of the concept of "the public", before print there was no "public". Now people define themselves both as part of the public and participators in the life of public dialogue. As media fragments it becomes quite styrical and this public census breaks down; this is what McLuhan meant by "electronic feudalism". The incredible diversity of modern life is a signal that hierarchical standards are breaking down. The role of the artist in all of this is to subvert the intent of the marketplace to trivialise community and communication in the service of making money, and to revivify it and define its task as one of building and defining a community. It has been a while since artists actually led the way. For about 50 years they have simply been whores to the interior decoration racquet but that must now change. We have to go back to the kind of "meet them in the streets" attitude that characterised early surrealism and dada. This society screams out for critique, but no critique can have any meaning if it's already sold itself to the marketplace.

Have you seen any art recently which was particularly effective and operates in the way you describe?People who might be recognised (part of the game is that if you're recognised you're probably irrelevant!) such as William Latham here in Britain, a brilliant computer artist, I love his work, but that's just a personal taste of mine. I'm very keen on rave culture, the union of music light and sound in communal gatherings. (So) I'm very keen on groups such as Space-Time Continuum, I've worked with The Shamen, I've worked with Station Rose in Frankfurt, I've done things with Spiral Tribe. But it's very important for people to be fulfilled by the love and inclusion in their community rather than by the idea of getting a big record contract and then telling everybody to fuck off then get a house in the country. If that's the approach that people take then we're just talking about "business as usual"; the height of rave culture has now been quite cohesive since '86, '87, over a decade of rock and roll didn't keep it together for that long (that is as a critical exterior force to completely sold out force) so I think that rave culture offers a completely new set of ideals and as artists define and refine these ideals, we can actually make a better spirited culture.

Installed here at the ICA for the duration of The Incident is James Turrell's 'Gasworks' piece, did you get a chance to have a go in that?

Yes I did

James Turrell is an artist who works largely with lights, light patterns and their effect on human perception. I wonder what you thought of the 'Gasworks' experience?

I wish I'd had a bonger first! (laughs). All these forms of experiential art work much better on drugs and the artistic community has been fairly gutless in publicly defending its reliance on drugs. It's made a great show of defending its gender difference but it's been remarkably closeted about its dependence on pharmacological enhancement. So I'd like to see that change, I'd like to see psychedelic people follow the gay model and just say to the world "Look, this is who we are. Like it or lump it, reality is complex and your little whitebread notion of how people should be has to give way to the actual diversity of reality."So would you say that art can be a part of any significant social change?

Yes. I am very struck by the ugliness of modern life, its cities, its technologies. What we need is a lot of design input. Art should not be something which is hung on the walls of the homes of rich people, art should be what civilisation is; these two words should be two sides of the same coin and I see this happening. But again, the dynamics of the marketplace , for instance in architecture let's say, architecture is slave to the twin gods of efficiency and low cost. In other words it must be effective; it isn't subservient to the ideal of beauty or endurance. Architecture is throwaway, minimal, functional and cheap. You can't build a civilisation on the values of functionality and price. If you do, then you get a civilisation like the United States, the bankruptcy of which is fully to be seen by a discerning observer. So the design process needs to flood the world with its intent which means more artists and more art than ever before to design ourselves away from the hideous legacy of market economies and the cult of efficiency and practicality.

From your personal experiences, mushrooms and DMT are an instant way to dissolve the "theatrical illusion" of reality, to reach a point where we can start discovering who we really are. Can you see a point in the future where advanced technology will be able to provide a similar function?

Yes. The reason I'm so keen on Virtual Reality is not because I want sex with Princess Di or to slaughter gladiators in game environments, but because perfected, that's the technology that will allow us to show each other the insides of our heads, and that will be the greatest revolution in human history. There will be more art, and more beauty as a consequence of that technology than anything since the invention of language. You know, we walk around in monkey bodies, we come in several shapes and shades of colour, it's all become humdrum. But if we could see each other's imaginations we would discover that we are as varied as chipmunks, amoebas, great whales and movie stars. So I think that these technologies have a potential that very few people have recognised. That in a sense, the unification of people and communities through technology that has been going on for at least 200 years since the invention of the telegraph is about to take an enormous quantum leap .

It seems to me, on a personal level, that the problem is that rather than having a personal transcendental experience, (that you might have on DMT or through meditation) one mediated by technology will ultimately be within someone else's construct. Ror example, that of the Virtual Reality architect

Well you know, I think that someone said "paintings are not art, paintings are the footprint of art" the art was in the experience of making it. People who have intense psychedelic experiences and have the technical and artistic know how to 'code' that into a virtual reality, of course the virtual reality that they make will not be as interesting to them as the source was, but for everybody else that will be as close to it as they can come.

A cultural institution like the ICA hosting The Incident is just one indicator of a current widespread interest in the paranormal. How do you account for this current cultural condition?I think the religion of science, the faith that all social and medical problems can be solved by science is breaking down. The myth that someone is in control is breaking down. The myth that anyone understands where we're going is breaking down. Into this vacuum pour all kinds of exotic intuitions, some of which will be found to be trivial, but some of which will be the seeds of revolutionary new social attitudes. But it's the bankruptcy of established and sanctioned images and agendas that allow the occult to surge forward in such a fascinating intensity.

So would you say that we are beginning to move away from cynicism, which has been described as the greatest disease of the late twentieth century?

Yes, but I'm not sure that I'd align to that premise. Gullibility is the greatest sin of this century. For every cynic you have a million true believers. Cynicism is a kind of ugly term, I like what Gorbachev said at one point, he said "trust but verify". That's the right attitude, trust but verify. Cynicism in principle is negative, scepticism is simply an intelligent questioning of premises with a willingness to go along if premises can be reasonably defended. So, I don't think that what we need is true believers, I think a dash of clear thinking is a good thing and if that comes off as cynicism then so be it.

Chris Grottick