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WRDATF Blog

D is for Detroit and DMT

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson

The “Big three” American car manufacturers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, are all still headquartered in Detroit, Michigan. The city gave us Motown and techno, and many famous faces that range from Eminem to Stevie Wonder, from Tom Selleck to Diana Ross and from Charles Lindburgh to John de Lorean !

The city certainly had it’s good times with rapid growth of the car factories following the establishment of Henry Ford’s first factory in 1903. By the 1920’s it was America’s fourth largest city, welcoming hundreds of thousands of new workers, many of them from the former slave states of the deep south. By the Second World War it was the American “Arsenal of Democracy” with massive investment put into re-tooling the factories for the war effort. The good times could be said to have peaked in the 1950’s when the factories churned out millions of vehicles and the ‘American dream’ (in monetary terms at least) was seemingly accessible to all.

Then the rot set in. The 1970’s oil crisis. The flight of the middle-classes to the suburbs. The loss of the city’s tax-base. By 2010 the city was an economic ‘basket case’, the population had more than halved, houses could be bought for $100 and finally in 2013 the city declared itself bankrupt.

Just a few short years later the media is talking about Detroit as a ‘City of renaissance’. Investment and tourist numbers are sharply up, and this is due in no small part to the artistic community moving into the neighbourhoods that that had been virtually abandoned.

And this is where the second ‘D’ comes in. N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT for short) is a psychedelic drug that has led some of the local artists to report other-worldly encounters that often seemed to be compellingly real. DMT has been used in various forms for thousands of years as it occurs in a wide range of plants that can be found in Mexico, South America and some parts of Asia. Many of these plants have been associated with the shamanic practices of indigenous Amazonian tribes. From the 1930’s onwards day it is usually seen in the form of a white crystalline powder that has been derived from the appropriate DMT laden plants. It is usually smoked, vapourised, or made into a ‘brew’. As a brew the effect of the hallucinogen kicks in after about 30-45 minutes, peaking at around 2-3 hours before completing in about 4-6 hours. Others may snort or inject it. As one of the least used hallucinogenic drugs most new users are already quite experienced in the use of psychedelic drugs.

Users report a wide range of experience that range from the intensely exciting to the overwhelmingly frightening, and everything in-between. Users often report that they experience the drug in ‘spiritual/ terms, sometimes linked to a Near Death Experience (NDE). Whether users are actually perceiving another dimension of reality or not is open to question, but what can’t be denied is the influence it can have over the creative mind of the artist.

The debate as to the reality of experience has also played out on a more academic level. On the one hand psychiatrists such as Rick Strassman argues in his book ‘DMT : The Spirit Molecule’ that DMT allows a user into “parallel realities” inhabited by beings that are both independent and intelligent. On the other hand the researcher and author James Kent in his intriguingly titled article ‘The case against DMT elves’ argues that the effects are entirely due to the disruption to the visual processing system in the brain that are caused by hallucinatory drugs such as LSD or DMT. Kent argues that drugs such as DMT hyper-activate what he calls the ‘imaginal workspace’. It’s an area of the brain that we usually access during dreaming and can easily be mistaken for reality. Rather like the software in our computers, a small change in the programming code can produce a drastically altered output…even small disruptions can produce chaos.

Whilst the toxicity of the drug is relatively low and the chances of dependency developing are similarly low it remains a schedule 1 drug under UN conventions. The possibility of experiencing a ‘bad trip’ and thus the consequent effects on the psychological well-being of users remains as an area of debate.

Artists have used a large variety of drugs over the centuries to help get the ‘creative juices’ flowing. Artists such as Jackson Pollock had long and complex struggles with alcohol whilst Damien Hurst regularly used cocaine. Damien went on to note that : “I can drink and I can take drugs, and I can produce art. At first you go, ‘Great’, but you can only do that for a certain amount of time.”

It’s a rather neat link that perhaps the world’s most famous artist nearly had to be employed to bail out the city of Detroit from its’ financial quagmire, long after his demise. Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers are recognisable all the world over and sell for astronomical prices. Their rather distinctive yellow hue may be due in no small part to the effects on van Gogh’s vision caused by his reliance on digitalis that was administered to him to control his epilepsy. Vincent was also very fond of the ‘green fairy’ (Absinth), the strong French alcoholic spirit that many believe also has hallucinogenic properties. When the city of Detroit was deep in the throws of ‘Chapter 9’ bankruptcy proceedings moves were made to consider selling the works of the Detroit Institute for art. Among the so-called ‘priceless’ collection was van Gogh’s self-portrait from 1887. Some estimates put the value of the collection at over 4 billion dollars!

In the end a deal was struck and the art collection was saved. As Detroit continues its’ renaissance (an appropriately enough charged art term), a new generation of artists are producing new and exciting works that are now exhibited throughout the city.

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