You know the counterculture is shifting when it becomes the subject of a museum show. That comes across in the Oakland Museum of California’s current cannabis exhibition, Altered State: Marijuana in California. To experience this participatory multimedia showcase, timed to California’s vote on adult-use legalization this November, is to come face to face with the fact that cannabis is quickly moving from the margins to the mainstream. For those of us who grew up with weed’s illicit thrill, there’s something both gratifying and a tad disappointing about seeing it get a slick, almost corporate gloss.
The show packs all that into a fairly compact space, and it fits the exhibition’s design as an immersive multimedia experience. There are some great touches, like graphs formed from test tubes, drawers filled with information on medical facts and fictions, and even a working vending machine selling munchies — eat away, the guards won’t stop you. As is the case with many museums these days, the exhibit offers numerous opportunities to weigh in with your own perspective. That is, the show is “rich with opportunities for public input and dialogue about the uses and evolving attitudes about marijuana.” In the section on legalities, you can record — on a sheet designed to look like a police report — your own run-ins with the law. Or you can write down a secret cannabis confession. My favorite: “Marijuana makes me desire my husband. Without it I would pursue my love of women.” Wow!
The museum’s press release describes the participatory approach as a means of opening up a dialogue about the impending legalization of recreational use. But I’m not entirely convinced that it does. Some of the commentaries do make for good reading — the story of a bust at Disneyland, in the exhibit’s legal section, is kind of hilarious — and I did find myself pretty absorbed by the material. While I appreciate this kind of kaleidoscope of voices, though, sometimes it seems like it places the burden on the viewers to create too much of the show’s content.
As someone steeped in visual art, I was especially interested in the Creative Grass section. It included two large sheets of paper on the wall, each with a directive. One said, “Draw here if you are high,” the other is for those who aren’t. (As with the munchie machine, the exhibit presumes some visitors to be under the influence, though the show is far more informational than trippy.) There were a few scribbles on each, but neither gave much of a clue as to the artists’ state of mind.
There’s a small installation by Bay Area-based artist Cybele Lyle that skews perspectives with angular architectural elements and video projections of clouds and crashing ocean waves. The wall label gives context: “Since marijuana changes the way people perceive the world, we also made a place for people to explore this connection to creativity for themselves.” While I appreciate the inclusion more than the off-kilter feeling it may generate, it raises the question: Was the artist stoned when making the artwork? And is that illuminating in any way?
This is a show with a clear bias in favor of legalization. And that leads to some interesting questions in itself. How is this civic institution able to display a still somewhat contraband substance? There’s a station where you can don gloves and touch some fragrant green leaves in a Plexiglas box, as though cannabis were some kind of biohazard. Somehow, feeling fresh leaves isn’t particularly revelatory. More fun are the boxes that allow viewers to sniff different strains (that Grandaddy Purple smells great!), a display that taps into the budding field of cannabis connoisseurship, and the wine-tasting practice of identifying ”notes” of different varietals. It’s a fairly certain future, and, if nothing else, Altered State offers a chance to anticipate this new mainstreamed terrain.
Altered State: Marijuana in California is showing at the Oakland Museum of California through Sept. 25.