TRY NOT TO BLINK. You might miss something important.
Psychedelic music plays as overlapping images begin to flicker across the screen, disorienting backdrops juxtaposed with snippets of clarity. Images of flowers, a clock, mushrooms, product labels from American companies, abstract patterns and colors all blur together. Time seems to compress and slow down at once.
Bruce Conner’s 1967 short film LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS formally probes fundamental notions of reality, time, and space. And yet the film does not register as a conceptual exploration, but purely an out-of-consciousness, experiential one. Filmed while Conner was living in Mexico in the early sixties, LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS documents details of everyday life alongside a search for psychedelic mushrooms, all while straying from the traditional narrative travelogue, producing a universe akin to Wonderland. The camera is always either hand-held or perfectly static, creating an erratic pattern of shaky movements mixed with still, photographic frames. The Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows” is timed perfectly to each cut. Almost all of the frames contain double exposures—used to intoxicating effect with images of fireworks, seemingly exploding from everyday objects. With its plethora of vibrant colors and flashing lights, at first glance LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS seems very “in your face,” glaring, unavoidable. But there is also a unique subtlety to each carefully crafted image. The care put into each frame denies the viewer the usual accoutrements of passive viewing, down to the very physicality of the experience: you shouldn’t blink (you might miss a nuance in a single image) or you can’t blink (you are enthralled in the action). Many of these editing techniques mimic the sensory effects, the highs and lows of a hallucinatory experience.
As previously mentioned, LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS details Conner’s travels through Mexico looking for psychoactive mushrooms. But even the basic meaning of LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS is multidimensional. Does it refer to Conner’s own search for drugs or the viewer’s reflexive visual search within the film itself for the few frames of mushrooms amongst other content? Maybe both. Or perhaps the artist isn’t literally referring to mushrooms. After all, Bruce Conner often explored the notion of apocalyptic nuclear fallout, including his 1963 drawing Mushroom Cloud, which depicts a nuclear bomb. In an odd turn of events, it could all simply serve as a metonym for Cold War fears and global political tensions. Regardless, it’s clear from Conner’s oeuvre, regardless of medium, that he appreciated creating a sense of ambiguity in meaning, either through wordplay as is the case here, or through the juxtaposition of unlikely images and concepts.
While Conner’s piece is technically film, distinct categorization is difficult and notions of medium are blurred. Frames are often physically altered, as Conner plays with the materiality of film to produce new patterned images or drawings—resembling the plastic arts more than film, strictly speaking. The use of double exposures in many cases produces a collage effect; the sequencing of still images to display a single action often resembles stop-motion animation. The film’s fast pace in conjunction with its iconic soundtrack has caused many to hail Bruce Conner’s works as precursors to the modern music video. LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS pulls its unique energy from a profusion of medium-based artistic techniques: both entertainment and experience, art and documentary, the film unseats the viewer in their assumptions all the while feeding in the inimitable pleasures of a truly active viewing experience.
LOOKING FOR MUSHROOMS screened as part of the series BRUCE CONNER: IT’S ALL TRUE at the Museum of Modern Art.