Bicycle Day and The Spirit of Basel
Over the last few years, there has been an outpouring of public interest in psychedelics, yielding a new crop of seminars, courses, trade shows, talking circles, and even comedy shows designed to harvest this new enthusiasm. As we rapidly reconfigure these programs and other parts of our lives to take place virtually, I thought I would share a reflection about the value of collective experiences.
Sunday was Bicycle Day, a commemoration of the day in 1943 when Dr. Albert Hofmann discovered the spectacular effects of LSD, featuring a now-mythical bicycle ride from his laboratory at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals to his home in Basel, Switzerland.
Many years later, I had my own experience in Basel that altered the course of my life and led to the creation of Horizons, an annual conference in New York City devoted to the study of psychedelics that I founded in 2007.
Over the 13 years, Horizons has grown from being a “what if…” one-day experiment to the largest and longest-running annual gathering about psychedelics in the world, drawing speakers and attendees from across the globe.
It has been a great honor to give scholars, researchers, activists, and critics a platform to share their work and insights, and to offer an entry point and nexus for the growing community drawn to this unique topic. But I don’t think it ever would have happened without a trip to Basel to see Dr. Hofmann.
On January 13 – 15, 2006, thousands of psychedelic enthusiasts descended on the picturesque Swiss city along the Rhine for a three-day international symposium in honor of Albert Hofmann’s 100th birthday. It was the largest gathering devoted to psychedelics in decades.
The conference, entitled “The Spirit of Basel: Problem Child and Wonder Drug” (video archive) was organized by Gaia Media Foundation, a Swiss charity led by the dearly departed Dieter A. Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmuller, who continues to lead it today.
At the sleek Swissotel downtown, no doubt the set and setting of more sedate pharmaceutical conferences during other weeks, a parade of elbow-patched academics, pony-tailed utopians, elegantly dressed Suisses, and festival travelers seemingly lost on the way to Glastonbury bustled among auditorium halls and classrooms, toying with simultaneous translation headsets and browsing galleries of blotter artwork.
The expansiveness of the program and the professionalism of the production stood in stark contrast to events I had experienced in the US around that time– small meetings in the back rooms of cafes or anodyne university classrooms, new age pronouncements delivered in dusty lofts, or tiny stages on the outskirts of festival fairways.
Seeing the questions posed by psychedelics addressed seriously by an international intelligentsia and feeling the strength of the global community was a revelatory experience for those who thought their interest was obscure or unshared.
Honestly, the social interactions often proved more memorable than the words delivered on stage– a new outer world of people and culture to explore, all fascinated by these miraculous plants and molecules that could summon rich inner experiences.
The Spirit of Basel proved to be an inflection point in the reemergence of psychedelics from the shadows. Situated in the present moment of multimillion dollar research programs, momentum towards decriminalization, burgeoning investment funds, and glowing prime time press, it can be hard to remember the cloud of disrepute that hung over psychedelics for decades.
And in spite of the ongoing shadow of criminality and ignorance, here they were: Young and old, from near and far, some with Etonian credentials and others living out of biodiesel school buses, standing up in the broad daylight for something they believed had been neglected and misunderstood for far too long.
Among those who experienced “persistent effects” of optimism and inspiration following this gathering, a younger version of myself returned to New York determined to join the destigmatization efforts and intellectual explorations I had experienced in Basel.
At that time, I was embarking upon a career producing live events. It seemed obvious that creating gatherings was a way that I could contribute to changing public perceptions, catalyzing the community, and of course, having fun while doing it.
The form of the first Horizons took shape over the next year and a half. The keystone fell into place when Judson Memorial Church, famous for its political activism and support of avant garde performing arts, agreed to host us at its historic sanctuary on Washington Square Park.
On a Saturday in October 2007, the first ever cohort of Horizons speakers took the stage to set the record straight about psychedelics and share their dreams of a future where they could be explored without prejudice. (Meanwhile, downstairs in the old church gym, a group of artists had created a carnival of glowing, blinking, buzzing, and moving installation works.)
A few hundred people attended the first year, and among them were those who needed assurance that they could register without fear of an FBI investigation. We continued to hear these concerns through the early years, but they had melted away long before we had outgrown Judson and moved to The Cooper Union for our tenth year.
I saw Dieter Hagenbach of Gaia Media Foundation for the last time in Basel in the summer of 2014, the year after his biography of Albert Hofmann (co-authored with Lucius Werthmuller) was published. I was in the middle of a bicycle trip of my own. Having travelled along the Rhine through Alsace, I was stopping in Basel to see him before turning back into France. I met him at a cafe along the river, drenched in sweat and with a bicycle loaded with muddy camping gear. Dieter was dressed immaculately in white linen from head to toe.
I had forgotten to get Suisse Francs when I crossed the border, and the bar wouldn’t accept Euros, so Dieter graciously paid for our drinks. I assured him that the next time we met the next round would be on me. I am grateful that I got to share with him the impact that The Spirit of Basel had on my life, but I never did get to buy him those drinks. Dieter Hagenbach died on August 17, 2016 at the age of 73.
As I thumb through my old copy of Albert Hofmann’s memoir, LSD: My Problem Child, I admire the wise and elegant example that Dr. Hofmann set as he grappled with the complex consequences of his discovery, including his courage to stand up for his beliefs through the years in which they were unpopular. Albert Hofmann died on April 29, 2008 at the age of 102.
Of course, in the midst of a pandemic, it is bittersweet to look back now at these joyful moments of abundant human presence. While we are fortunate to live in an era where digital communications allow us to easily stay in touch, some of us who have devoted ourselves to creating live, immediate experiences feel that attending a videoconference “event” is like reading about psychedelics… an enjoyable and educational pastime, but hardly a substitute for the live experience.
At Horizons, we are building this year’s conference to support virtual attendance alongside or instead of a live event (as circumstances dictate), but we hope that the warmth and inspiration that true collective experiences provide will return to our lives soon.
Being present in both space and time and falling under the spell of The Spirit of Basel was a singular experience that led to the creation of Horizons. Thank you for the memories, Dieter and Albert.