The 14th annual Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics, which is presenting its kickoff events this week, has evolved from one of the largest and longest running annual conferences on psychedelics to a series of digital films, forums, and classes throughout the year.
The risk of exposure to Covid-19 has led to the postponement of large in-person gatherings throughout the world, including New York City where Horizons takes place. But the organizers of Horizons decided that instead of simply creating a “virtual conference,” they would instead produce and screen a series of films about psychedelic drugs and plant medicines.
Horizons is also expanding into offering in-depth virtual continuing education classes which will open its autumn season. The classes focus on psychedelic therapies and are led by prominent researchers and practitioners. Designed for medical and mental health professionals, the classes offer continuing education credits and are open to the public.
“Our plan for the year of Covid is not a virtual version of what we used to do, it’s a shift to a year-round format that we think works better in this moment– a series of shorter, focused programs throughout the year instead of one larger multi-day experience,” says Kevin Balktick, founder and director of Horizons.
Each month, Horizons’ parent nonprofit, Horizons Media, Inc., is releasing a short 30-40 minute documentary film exploring psychedelics in contemporary society. For the nonprofit’s first round of film projects, Balktick is serving as producer and director, along with a team of production managers, videographers, and editors.
Instead of registering for the annual conference, Horizons is asking supporters to become an annual member or a monthly subscriber which makes them eligible for a first look at the films as well as participation in the virtual premiere events. Viewers can also register to see each film for $10.
The Horizons film premieres, which will begin this month and continue through 2021, gives members an opportunity to interact virtually through a live Q&A with the subjects and also experts in the field. After their premiere, the films will be available to Horizons members for on-demand viewing and will eventually be released to the public.
“I think for general audiences, watching one of our films every few weeks will be more enjoyable than staying inside for an entire autumn weekend to stare into a screen,” says Balktick who notes that he has not seen many psychedelic community groups or media companies working in this format. He expects that to change soon which he thinks will be a positive development.
“This year we are all spending too much time staring into screens and the conference format of sequential virtual presentations and panels is not the best fit. The short film medium is ideal because it supports quality and respects peoples’ need to limit screen time.”
Horizons screened two films this summer and will release five new pictures this autumn and winter covering a wide range of topics. During its season kickoff on Saturday, October 10, Horizons will present a film entitled, “Covid-19, Black Lives, & Psychedelics” at 7pm EST. The screening, which will be followed by a Q&A at 8pm, includes perspectives from leaders in the psychedelic community reflecting on their personal stories and activism surrounding race and identity.
“While watching the final edit, I was uplifted at hearing our stories knot together like a rope. I heard the same themes, sometimes the same imagery and it made me realize that I’m not alone in these experiences,” says Nicholas Powers, who appears in the film.
“Psychedelics invoke emotional vulnerability, a letting down of the guard that many of us keep up, and seeing our inner lives unfolded for the world and their being valued, well it still surprises me even now. And then I remember that that surprise is itself part of the cost of living with racism. One has to fight, constantly fight to have the importance of our lives just be a normal, taken for granted thing.”
Balktick believes that the short documentary format fits the current mood as the desire for information and dialogue about psychedelics and social justice continues to grow.
“I am honored that the subjects of the film trusted Horizons with their stories, as these are complex topics and deeply personal experiences,” says Balktick of “Covid-19, Black Lives, & Psychedelics.” “My goal was to support their voices and leadership first and foremost, and to be an ally in service of a deeper dialogue around race and justice in this community.”
In addition to “Covid-19, Black Lives, & Psychedelics,” the newly launched Horizons film studio also produced another picture this summer entitled, “Nature, Summer, & Psychedelics,” which features ecologists, therapists and activists searching outdoors for global and personal transformation.
In November, Horizons expects to hold premieres for the films “Focus on Clinical Research,” and “Focus on Indigenous Communities.” The films “The Psychedelic Economy,” and “Death, Dying, & Psychedelics” will be released in December. Another film “Ways of Seeing,” which offers perspectives on psychedelics from “doctors, revelers, mystics, scholars, utopians and shamans,” is forthcoming. The Horizons film series will continue through 2021.
During the Horizons season kickoff Saturday, October 10, Horizons will also present the first Horizons Community Forum from 4-6 pm EST. The forum will be presented as a series of discussions where experts in psychedelic fields talk about their perspectives, followed by breakout groups which will discuss among themselves.
“This is our first virtual forum, and if the format works and people enjoy them, we will produce more of them. It’s designed to be an interactive and social experience, not a keynote series,” says Balktick.
Horizons began as an afternoon event in 2007 featuring a small number of researchers and activists at Judson Memorial Church in New York City. It quickly grew into a full weekend and moved in 2015 to The Great Hall at The Cooper Union drawing attendees and speakers from around the world. The gathering expanded to include talks on a broad range of topics including issues impacting indigenous cultures, arts, public policy, cultural criticism and philosophical questions surrounding psychedelics, in addition to its science and medicine program.
Balktick says that while the new films are labor intensive and expensive, he believes that the medium supports the present need for increasingly nuanced and varied discussions about psychedelics. He notes that when the Horizons conference was founded, organizers felt there was a fundamental need to convince the public that the risks of psychedelics could be managed, and that they could benefit treatments for mental health disorders. As these substances become more accepted by mainstream culture, the focus has shifted.
Where once it was enough for a conference presenter to offer a single argument based on a book or paper, provide evidence to support their view, and take questions, Balktick says a film can offer a series of perspectives that are both compatible and divergent.
“In the previous decades, the community needed to project focus and fewer messages in order to simply get the public to take this subject seriously,” says Balktick. “Now it is more important to discuss the topic in greater complexity.”
Balktick notes that in the last seven months since the start of Covid-19 lockdowns, there has been a glut of virtual conferences and events in all fields. This is also true for gatherings focused on psychedelics, which have seen increasing interest due to largely positive media coverage of medical research.
“Everyone who has been following psychedelics has been deluged by invitations to events with similar formats and lineups,” says Balktick. “There are many good things about increased public interest in psychedelics, but at the moment it also feels there are a lot of organizations dumping very similar virtual offerings onto the same audience simultaneously. A little creativity would go a long way in keeping the field interesting and engaging.”
Balktick says he started the Horizons conference because he believes that live events can be transformative and a backbone for community. He thinks it’s possible to learn from virtual events, but he does not find them inspiring in the same way.
“I don’t think people are looking for a virtual psychedelic experience,” says Balktick. “And in the same way, I am personally not looking to replace live conferences with virtual ones. They have a place in the world and many people benefit from them, but the magic that I feel at live gatherings is absent from their virtual analogues.”
While watching films or taking virtual classes at home is also not the same thing as attending a live event, Balktick believes that the film format is the best match for the present moment and that virtual classes still fulfill their educational mission.
Horizons’ 14th season begins on Thursday, October 8 with a day-long virtual CE/CME continuing education class entitled “Introduction to MDMA Therapy for Clinicians” presented by Michael Mithoefer, MD and Annie Mithoefer, BSN. The class offers an “in-depth exploration of the history, present, and future of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for clinical applications such as the treatment of PTSD and depression.”
On Friday, October 9, Horizons will present another day-long virtual CE/CME continuing education class entitled “Introduction to the Art & Science of Psilocybin Therapy” presented by Bill Richards, Ph.D. and Brian D. Richards, Psy.D.
Future classes include a presentation scheduled for November 6, entitled “Psychedelic Therapy for Addiction Medicine,” presented by Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D. and friends. An in-depth briefing about opportunities for legal psychedelic practice in North America entitled “Getting the Doors Open,” will be presented on December 5. On Friday, December 11, Horizons will present “Psychedelics for End-of-Life Anxiety and Palliative Care” with Anthony Bossis, Ph.D. and Charles S. Grob, MD.
While the timing for the re-emergence of in-person events is uncertain, Balktick notes that it has been particularly challenging navigating the Covid lockdown protocols in New York City. He says Horizons is still holding dates for venues in 2021, but will not begin active planning until the public health situation is more clear. When events return, Balktick says Horizons will continue to hold its annual conference in New York City, as well as presenting its films and classes.
“Signals from the regional and national public authorities have been very short-sighted over the last seven months, and event organizers have had a challenging time planning for the future,” says Balktick. “I miss live events dearly and I wish I could say that digital community events were as impactful as live ones, but I have not found that to be the case. I’m still very glad to be making film projects, which I believe will reach a wider audience and continue to deepen the public dialogue around psychedelics.”