Culture  /  Book Excerpt

The Institute for Illegal Images

Meditating on blotter not just as art, or as a historical artifact, but as a kind of media, even a “meta medium.”

A photographer, sculptor, and former art professor, as well as a deep and crusty bohemian with subcultural affiliations from freak to punk, McCloud began collecting acid blotter around 1980, and mounted the first gallery show of the stuff, at the San Francisco Art Institute, in 1987. The aim of that show, he says now, was to demonstrate “the beautiful lesson that comes with eating art that changes your mind.” McCloud’s fanaticism and informed curation later helped develop the market for signature and vanity blotter. But his collecting mania also gave him access to the secretive acid underground, where McCloud himself would eventually set up shop, designing, printing, and perforating new blotter sheets used for the illegal distribution of LSD.

By producing printed artifacts in the gray margins of a black market, McCloud opened himself up to two frightening arrests and one major jury trial, which resulted in an acquittal based in no small measure on the designation of his holdings as art. But his blotter making also gave him unparalleled access to other blotter makers, which enabled him to significantly expand his collection, and to understand it and those makers more thoroughly. Today the Institute for Illegal Images, which has no actual institutional support, and is in many ways indistinguishable from a hoard, stands as one of the most singular and extraordinary countercultural archives in existence—a ramshackle hall of paper mirrors that mediate and superimpose cosmos and commodity, consciousness and crime.

In the late seventies and early eighties, which were also the years when blotter rose to dominance as a distribution medium, McCloud made his cultural home in San Francisco’s hippie-mocking punk milieu. In other words, blotter became big at a time when psychedelia was no longer a visible part of popular culture. But here’s the secret: Acid never disappeared. Though no longer a countercultural icon, LSD became a subcultural fuel by the end of the seventies, melting into a variety of often highly regional scenes of weirdness and exuberant transgression, including disco, funk, and the freakier edges of punk and post punk. LSD deeply scrambled the DNA of groups like Devo, Black Flag, and the Butthole Surfers, whose first 45 cover was printed on Nick West’s machine in San Francisco. In other words, even as psychedelia faded, acid just went further underground, and many blotters from the golden age of the eighties carried the new weirdo iconography: demented clowns, J. R. “Bob” Dobbs, Zippy the Pinhead.