“It all happened quite quickly,” says Peter Watts, the author of a stunning and truly mind-bending book, Altered States. “They rang me up saying ‘Are you interested in sex, drugs, and rock and roll’?”
Well, who isn’t. And there was certainly all three of these peccadilloes in abundance with the source material of said book: the vast library of Julio Mario Santo Domingo, Jr., a collector and visionary who over his lifetime amassed “the world’s greatest private collection related to the subjects of drugs, sex, magic, and rock and roll,” according to publisher Anthology Editions. His archive, which delighted in conflating low and high culture, sees plastic models of Dopey the dwarf nestle alongside an original edition of DeQuincy. In total, there’s around 100,000 books, and equal amounts of ephemera—from posters, photographs and paintings, to records, newspapers, medicine bottles, dolls, badges, opium pipes, bongs, pinball machines, syringes, beds, and a fossilized grapefruit. Eclecticism doesn’t really cover it; so how do you even start to put all this into book form, and in doing so, offer insights on art, society, and culture through a bamboozling amount of drugs-related print and ephemera?
Watts edited the tome alongside New York-based designer and art director Yolanda Cuomo. They spent years working together, visiting the archives at sites across the world, and selecting between them what would be featured. Much of the collection is in Geneva, where Watts suddenly realized the magnitude of the thing. “I didn’t know what to expect, maybe a couple of rooms, a library full of neatly stacked books,” he says. “I had no idea it would be this massive warehouse with three rooms, each as big as a house. To try and make sense of this stuff was bizarre.
“We settled on different subjects and that made it a bit easier to at least put things in their right places: we needed a mixture of rare and valuable items, and things had to be as visually interesting as possible. There had to be a story behind them. It became fairly self-explanatory: there was a black magic room, an LSD room, a cocaine section, an opium and heroin section, then there was the French literature and the art. That was a bit harder, as there were so many things that could work across different categories; for instance the Beats could go into a number of different drugs categories.”
For Cuomo, the archives were like a treasure trove. “Visually it was amazing,” she says. Cuomo knew Julio’s wife Vera through a friend, art collector Jean Pigozzi, for whom she’s designed a number of books. “Seeing the archives was unbelievable,” she says, “It was just a nondescript warehouse on the outside but you open these two double doors and it was like an Aladdin’s cave: these were the jewels of my generation. My heart was palpitating, I started hyperventilating and making photographs with my iPad—all these Grateful Dead posters, amazing Stones stuff. Vera trusted us to do whatever we wanted. It became my life for five or six years.”
For a designer, organizing such a vast and dizzying array of objects and printed material must be both a treat and a total nightmare. “I work intuitively,” Cuomo explains, “so I made three trips and worked with my team and my right hand person Bonnie Briant. We’d take a lot of photographs and then sit with the computer and go through all the material, but it was overwhelming. What’s important to me is not to keep it in the computer: we printed out thumbnails, 12 per page, then made categories from those and put sticky pads on them.
“The art history aspect is important and I had to know my stuff to be able to skim through. I had to be very decisive. It was about historical knowledge and intuition.”
Watts had been invited by Julio’s family, who he was connected with through rare book dealer Carl Williams, to chronicle the collection before much of it was dispersed, notably to Harvard and to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “There’s so much there that you couldn’t just catalog it,” says Watts, “so we agreed to try and do three things, at the same time telling the story of Julio and how he was a collector, and how his personality informed the collection. The book tells the story of the collection itself and some of the highlights, but it also tells the story of ‘altered states’ and how these things are connected—black magic, rock and roll, and sex—and also trace the evolution of how perceptions of those have changed over time.”
Such perceptions are a result of myriad issues, though much of the demonization of—and perhaps, resultant fetishization of—drugs are down to societal outcry over their use and those who use them. “With a lot of drugs it’s a similar story, they’re not used widely but by a small number of people who don’t cause too much harm,” Watts suggests. “Then a moral panic ensues, and there’s a sort of racism running through it all: it’s anti-black people for cocaine, anti-Mexican for marijuana, anti-Chinese for opium… then they’re made illegal and drug use explodes.” And while these historical precedents suggest the same destructive patterns emerging time and time again, the legislative powers that be appear to think otherwise–just look at the strange blanket rulings of the UK’s 2016 Psychoactive Substances Act, broadly banning “any substance which is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it,” following the global creation of drugs which, as Watts puts it, only came into being “because we banned other drugs.” He adds: “Maybe if ecstasy and LSD were legal and people were allowed to use them if they wanted to, like people use alcohol, it wouldn’t happen.
“It’s a counter history—we don’t know what would happen, but just banning it with such a badly written law is kicking it into the long grass again rather than confronting it.”
Discussing Julio’s wild collection and his indiscriminate eye for anything and everything relating to drugs, sex, and pretty much anything on the “counter” side of culture continually throws up these kind of tangents, and implicitly highlights the threads uniting drugs with every facet of the world we live in, from social to political and cultural. It’s impossible to discuss art history without touching on its relationship with mind-altering substances, and I’m interested to know the drugs Watts feels have had the most profound effect on visual culture. “Probably LSD for its incredibly powerful effects in a very short space of time,” he says, “but there’s different things like, the decorative arts and how they were applied to opium paraphernalia like pipes, trays, and tools. Sadly many of them were thrown on fires and burned.
“LSD is a creative drug in a way that something like cocaine isn’t.”
“But it’s got to be LSD for all the reasons we know, and how quickly it became part of popular culture: you didn’t even have to take it to be affected, everyone around got a contact high. LSD is a creative drug in a way in a way that something like cocaine isn’t.”
The most interesting cocaine-related piece for Watts was a 1970s McDonald’s coffee stirrer, an apparently innocuous fast food accoutrement that soon became “the most popular coke spoon in America.”
Cuomo created a box for the book and made the inside of the box the slipcase, using a pattern based on a shirt once owned by Mick Jagger, and now worn occasionally by the designer herself. The motif on the front is taken from Julio Mario Santo Domingo, Jr.’s own ex libris. “They designed this perfect thing, so why fuck it up,” says Cuomo. “Vera and Julio totally believed in us, and that’s a gift from heaven to have a client like that, and they don’t micromanage.”
“The work is so diverse and crazy and beautiful that I just wanted to go to the classics for the type.”
The original designs used black type along the side of the book, but it was a struggle to print on the Belgian linen that had been selected, so it was decided that white should be used “at the eleventh hour.” The tome is set in Onyx, with Franklin Gothic Bold for the header and Bodoni Book for the body copy: “that was a bitch to print, I said ‘I’ll never use Bodoni fucking book again!’ When it goes to press and the kerning is set at 0 it looks like it’s falling apart, so I said ‘we have to make it negative 10,’ but that’s just the kind of obsession I have there,” said Cuomo.
She adds: “I wanted it to look classic, and definitely avoid the cliches of bubble letters. The work is so diverse and crazy and beautiful that I just wanted to go to the classics for the type.”
So what surprised Watts in making the book? “I’d no idea about opium use in the 19th century and how prevalent it was. I knew about Coleridge and DeQuincy, but didn’t know how opium use was particularly widespread in parts of the country—it was like smoking. People lived with and managed their addictions, and because it had a use and was the only medicine available that seemed to really work, for most people it was like taking aspirin.
“Opium was an everyday medicine given to children for toothache, but it was an addictive substance so god knows what damage it was doing. Then later it became a hidden secret taken for nefarious purposes, but here it was being used for medicine. It was taking some of the pain and drudgery out of everyday life, and what ’s wrong with that?”
Despite Watts’ own views, it was important to him that the book wasn’t implicitly pushing an agenda. “We didn’t want to say ‘Everyone who does drugs is a bad boy or a fun boy,’ although maybe the book does do a little bit of that,” he says.
“It’s not just about drugs, it’s about social change, rebellion, music, and social history.”
Cuomo echoes his notion of this not being strictly about altering the states of the mind through narcotics, but through deeper, less tangible modifications of consciousness. “I feel like a lot of the things in the book, this is my generation,” she says. “I’m not a druggie, but I’m interested in getting to a higher ground, and I do that through my work. It’s not like senseless altered states, but getting to a higher ground and revolution and pushing the envelope and getting on the edge. You can get that through knowledge and art. That’s what’s really powerful.”