old hippie acid pixels: matrix of slang

by Art Chantry ( art@artchantry.com)

i’ve always been fascinated by the deep psychic connections between the early computer graphics era and the psychedelic underground. there was something about the way computers worked that allowed acid heads to gravitate DIRECTLY into the digital realm and dominate it’s visions for decades – in fact it still does today. this phenomenon was most evident in the graphic design language that emerged from that world in the early days. i’m not talking about the earliEST days of computers and associated visuals. that was the world of the geeks. you look up the history of computer graphics on wiki (yeah, i hate to admit i sometimes look there. i hate it, too.) and the list of names are all unknown to me. these are the science nerds and loser/geeks like bill gates who dominate this turf. number crunchers who don’t really use the right side of their brains.

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no, the world i’m talking about is the initial APPLICATIONS of computer graphics outside of the geek world itself. this is the world of the undergound weirdo, the finest evidence of which was the early rave card phenomena. in the ‘fine’ graphic design culture” of the 80′s/90′s, if these pieces of design were recognized at all, they were marveled at as primitive and crude and ‘awful’ and “BAD”. still, they were marveled at – but, considered as if it was found growing on a tree. but, it was everywhere – i have a good collection of them that i simply picked up off the sidewalks of seattle (not exactly a rave hotbed in the 1990′s.)

the style of these kinds of early computer graphics came from completely OUTSIDE of the world of ‘graphic design’ as practiced in the accepted academic circles of design thought and theory. rave cards were nuts – amateur, ignorant and inventive. this was exploration of a new realms, seeing how far you could push new the image-making technology. this was ingesting vast amounts of mind-altering drugs and just JAMMING. and this world is where the current state of “amateurism” in graphic design (the DOMINANCE, in fact) finds it’s style and origins. the big complaint about the new contemporary graphic design world and it’s imagery is it over-reliance on the technical wizardry and the complete ignorance of the all the accepted traditions and history of graphic design as an art/craft. as a graphic design fanboy myself, it’s everything that is fine wonderful and powerful and exciting about current computer graphic design, but it’s also everything i absolutley detest about it, too. this is a conundrum….

so, how did this happen? well, if you go back to the earliest ‘visionaries’ and promoters and “doers” of computer applications world (not technical origins, but CULTURAL origins), you’ll find it dominated by old hippie acid heads – timothy leary, stewart brand, even steve jobs and paul allen- all old hippie acid eaters deluxe. this is a remarkable coincidence that seems ot have gone unrecognized in historical academic cirlces. there is just something about being psychedelically ‘tinged’ that allows one’s mind to enter the cyber-ealm with great ease. perhaps it’s just a famliarity or even an UNDERSTANDING that comes with the LSD turf that makes it easy to think outside that damn plastic box.

this catalog cover i show you here is from 1996. it’s for a company called TIGER. if you look real real hard, you can see the name and the date MELTED into the artwork on this glowing psychedelic screaming cover. this is that early style i’m talking about. this is a great extreme example of early ‘computer’ graphics. this was the stuff i sniffed at and dismissed as crap back in the 80′s/90′s (like i wasn’t doing crap myself – grunge anyone?) but, this is SO psychedelic that it almost looks like it was designed for a fillmore poster.

in fact, when the new technology first became available on the open market, one of the first people i ran into that adopted it as his own to make his imagery and artwork was the legendary WES WILSON – the man who did a bazillion of those fillmore posters and is generally credited with being the guy who invented that classic “psychedelic typography”. he immediately started doing crazy pixilated psych posters. he is a fine example of the links i’m talking about.

the stuff that TIGER sold (are they still around?) was not technology like the geeks are after, but applications – children’s game toys (like ‘pets’), small hand-held equipment, durable brightly colored gaming stuff, product tie-ins (like ‘goosebumps’ product). basically this is pop culture application of computer tech way ahead of the current tidalwave of similar companies. nothing special or new or unique, but definitley thinking way ahead of the current curve.

the interior of this catalog looks almost exactly like the cover of old WIRED magazines – down to those bar/stokes running down the edge. there’s lots of screaming clashing dayglo colors, metallic silver ink, bright plastic overkill, really bad super-flexed colorful ultra-drop shadowed type, cluttered crammed layouts with lots and lots of little thing to ‘click’ on in other words, the stuff the design world thought was dreadful crap. but, the style is fully formed and defintely solid and THERE. we “pro designers” (us snobs) just refused to bother to learn to read the new slang. all this stuff was written in the language of the new computer thinking. it made perfect sense to anybody who was open to giving a try – totally populist and a new elite at work. most of all, it was so influential that it became the baseline of current graphic design thinking today. i still don’t think most design culture people even realize it yet, either.

basically, this cover sucks. like that rave card collation, i kept it because it sucked. it is appallingly “bad design”. so bad i actually kept it around as an example of extremely bad period design. but, like so often happens, when i tripped across it by accident the other day, and i suddenly realized i was looking at brilliant thinking – work so ahead of it’s time that it was important and needs to be recognized as the poweful cultural mindset it gre

to. back then, just like punk or psych (in the 60′s) this was lowbrow popular design manifestations of slang visual culture. but today, it’s the seed, the starting point, the first baby steps of what came ot dominate our visual lives.

today’s weirdo is always tomorrows visionary. we must never forget that. all new ideas are first viewed as a threat.

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