This post was originally published on July 31, 2014.
Drugs and the arts have gone hand in hand since, well, since always. But nobody has literally captured drugs’ effects in art quite like Sarah Schoenfeld has in her series All You Can Feel. In a quest “to make the internal visual,” she has captured the unique chemical impressions of substances from Valium to mephedrone. MDMA looks like a cross section of an agate gemstone. Opium resembles planet Earth.
Making Chemistry Cool
To capture the essence of each drug, Schoenfeld mixed it with water and dropped the solution onto an exposed film negative, where it reacted with the silver halide particles to create what looks like a trippy desktop background. Each photograph is a snapshot of chemistry in action. The chemicals would continue reacting for weeks.
Some of the photos are so pretty it’s a shame they’re actually depicting life-ruining toxins. I can only imagine what would happen if I bought Schoenfeld’s book for my coffee table. “Oh, that’s beautiful!” my neighbor might comment while dropping off lemons from her tree.
“Thanks,” I’d reply. “It’s heroin.” Cue crickets. That would probably be the last batch of lemons I got from her.
Look But Don’t Touch
Schoenfeld suggests that there’s a subconscious connection between each drug’s visual appearance and the way it makes users feel. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far—sure, the sensation of being on both speed and caffeine could be described as sharp and prickly. But cocaine, which floats coolly on its negative like the blue bell of a fluorescent jellyfish, looks way, way too calm.
“I got a call from a drug rehabilitation center and they said that they had run their own little experiment.” Schoenfeld told Vice. “Without explaining the images, they had shown the book to their patients and asked them to pick a favorite. Every single one of them chose their drug of dependence, with 100 percent accuracy. Even the secretary who only ever drank coffee chose caffeine.”
Really though? Caffeine is the only substance I’m still dependent on, and I think it’s one of the least appealing photos in the set. Then again, I do keep coming back to the coke photo. It’s such a perfect blue.
Some drugs are conspicuously absent from the collection. THC was just plain old uncooperative and “didn’t make a good effect.” Shoenfeld also photographed several substances that are natural human hormones and neurotransmitters: estrogen, melatonin, adrenaline and dopamine. Of course, the latter plays a huge role in getting high.
Love of the Craft or Desire for Fame?
Despite the aesthetic value and ambitious ideas behind the project, as a recovering addict I can’t help bristling a bit at the whole thing. Doesn’t All You Can Feel glamorize drugs by making them look like colorful undersea space gems? And how much of Schoenfeld’s inspiration stemmed from genuine desire to explore “the interface between reality and representation” and how much from a desire to stir up attention (because, you know, drugs)?
“Most media people just ask where I got the drugs,” Schoenfeld said. “And it’s like come on. I live in Berlin, I just buy them. Do we need to talk about it?”
I guess we don’t. But in the meantime, we can marvel at the chemistry of our favorite poisons and ponder this: if they can do that to an exposed negative, imagine what they can do inside our brains.
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