Monday, July 23, 2012

Globalized occult publishers of the world, unite!

Being a publisher has a lot of considerable drawbacks, mainly that it seems impossible to avoid carrying big boxes of books. No matter how hard you try, there are always new boxes. Or old ones. They will always find you in the end, it seems. But the advantages surely make up for these stressful and sweaty bouts of involuntary exercise.

I recently hauled several boxes of Edda’s latest book, The Fenris Wolf 5, to London and an Edda evening at Atlantis. Me and my fellow Edda publisher Fredrik Söderberg wished hard that we wouldn’t have to carry any boxes out of the store. And our wishes came true, just like in the best of all classic fairytales. It didn’t take long before the books were all out of our care and embraced by our beloved customers. The evening was also the UK launch for our edition of VRIL – The Power of the Coming Race by Edward Bulwer Lytton, superbly illustrated by Christine Ödlund. Books galore! Empty boxes!

Me and Fredrik: the temporary happiness of knowing that there are no more books to carry.

The Atlantis Bookshop is a classic haven and oasis for a weird breed of people – including ourselves – that enjoys qualitative editions of occultism, mythology, art, psychology etc. Established in 1922, Atlantis is on many levels one of the world’s finest occult bookstores, historically on par with Weiser and Magickal Childe in New York (both defunct) and Fields in San Francisco. To have a launch on hallowed groud like this was of course a joy in itself. To then have a lot of sales and see a lot of friendly faces during this enchanted evening was an extra benefit.

The best window display ever: The Fenris Wolf 1-3 and 5 and VRIL – The Power of the Coming Race.

Old and new friends dropped by and we all enjoyed the environment, the extravagant buffet and each others’ company in very pleasant ways. It just proved yet again that Edda is on the right track and that the material we publish is very well received in a trans-generational crowd of intelligent illuminates.

After a well needed day of repose we traveled onwards to Brighton and our friends Scarlet Imprint’s Pleasure Dome celebration on July 21st. This was a one day festival with talks, film screenings and performances touching upon ecstatic and visionary aspects of occulture.

In a talk called Go Forth and Let Your Brain Halves Procreate, I ranted on about the Mega Golem project (a magical being created out of art) and the need to integrate both brain halves, both rational and irrational creativity, and transcend/transgress comfort zones (yes, even our own!) as a new approach in both art and magic. The talk was well received and I even felt funny (in a good way). That is, people laughed approximately when I wanted them to – a great triumph for me, who often feel so boring on stage that I secretly desire to spontaneously astral project and then kick myself off the stage...

Lovely Alkistis Dimech elaborated on the Babalonic concept and earlier manifestations like Inanna and Ishtar. Levannah Morgan talked about Kenneth Anger’s films and Stuart Inman did the same about surrealism and the occult. Peter Grey continued with a talk about apocalyptic witchcraft, and energetic Al Cummins rounded off the first half with an inspired pouring forth of cut ups in theory and practice.

As we had to drift back to London that very same evening,we missed out on a lot of the more performance-oriented material. But I’m sure the evening became more and more tangibly a ”pleasure dome” as things progressed.

I’d like to extend my thanks to The Atlantis Bookshop and Scarlet Imprint for structuring several reasons for me to leave my desk. I now fully realise that it doesn’t hurt to partake of consensus reality once in a while. Books are great in so many magnificent ways. Getting out there to present and sell the little beasts is one of them.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nadine Byrne's Inward World

Swedish artist Nadine Byrne recently had a great exhibition in Stockholm. Coinciding with the show was the release of a small book with the same title: Inward World. It's released by Moon Space Books and is definitely a little treasure that should be ordered a.s.a.p. Here's the little text I wrote for it...

Nadine Byrne: Inward World
The intuitive search for existential meaning constitutes one very primal part of the artist’s work. Where to find it? And what is it? We can sink into ourselves, reflecting fragmented shards of life as we sink deeper into the soul. Or we can open our minds and eyes and look at the explosive, energetic outside world, to ultimately find that there’s essentially no big difference between these two perspectives. We still are. We still exist. We still have the ability to express and share.
Nadine Byrne’s work initially strikes me as innocent and pure in its display of seemingly random objects and creations. A set of stones tied together with rope, a walking staff straight out of the forest, elaborate costumes designed to reflect colours from Il Carso rocks in Italy, hand sewn patterns originally designed by her mother, film sequences and photographs of sundazed elements. Byrne’s art appears so silent, sensitive and private. We are allowed inside for a brief moment or two, to take part of an almost childlike joy of poetic exploration.
But when we rest a while and look again, we see patterns clearly. In these patterns, there is movement, development, research, curiosity. Rock, stones and earth become pigments that colour textiles designed for inclusion on photographic negatives and super 8 film. Clay becomes sculptures that appear to bear organic traits, again textile-like with creases and openings. The costumes become full of life when assembled by Byrne’s hands but even more so when worn. We go from elemental, primal, silent over intuitive and creative to distinctly magical and sensually stating. We grow out of nature and reflect its glory and mystery back, seemingly in all directions.
If we accept this intuitive development/direction as Byrne’s creative foundation, we are easily impressed (literally) by the elegance she uses to weave her spells. We can always choose to stay on a formal level and partake of the beauty that she has molded entirely by herself (with a little help from Mother Nature). Or we can delve deeper into the existential sphere and regard her work as some kind of organic proto-art: totemistic, magical, spiritual… When natural items are restructured, there is always an underlying meaning, whether consciously known or not. Again, we are welcome to look and wonder/wander but there will never be any easy answers. We become spellbound and curious victims, not of arrogance or reference but rather of sheer poetry.
Nadine Byrne and her inward world is as nature itself/herself: faint, sometimes evanescent, mysterious, dreaming, beautiful but always challenging, always defying logic and preconceived notions, always enchanting and always leaving you wanting more.

More information:

Monday, July 2, 2012

Silver Apples: I hear Fats Domino in everything I do

Simeon Coxe III, Stockholm 2011. © Carl A

Want legend? Want demi-god? Want a juicy Silver Apple to chew on? Meet Simeon Coxe III, who qualifies for all of that and then some. Silver Apples’ (originally Coxe and drummer Danny Taylor, who died in 2005) mind-boggling mix of rock, poetry and electronics in the late 60s transcended everything, and I mean everything. Eerie singing, strange melodies and ultramodern rhythms lovingly hugging  electronic oscillations galore from their own gadget called, aptly, “The Simeon”. Thus was a foundation chiseled for German Kraut-explorations, Suicide’s suavely brutal synth evergreens, Throbbing Gristle’s homemade and existential electronics, Stephen Morris’ drumming, Martin Hannett’s production values and a million more ripples on the water into which Silver Apples threw the very first gemstone of creation.
Mr Coxe is seemingly as young as then, energized by success and by the respect of both young and old fans alike. What a guy! Not only a sonic pioneer in so many ways, but also a great human being. Yes, he builds his own synths! Yes, he’s an accomplished painter! Yes, he broke his neck in a car crash and was paralyzed! Yes, he survived and worked his way back! When Coxe enters the stage and revs up his sonic gadgets and audio-emotional vessels, he moves from nice, well mannered, hard working artist to a vibrating poetic and equally peyotic space person. Still beyond and still ahead after almost 45 years of music- and art making. Who can beat that?
Could you ever imagine that you'd be here in Stockholm in 2011 in some club with loads of multi-generations of fans?
The multi-generational thing never occurred to me. I was never looking that far into the future but I always wanted to play in Europe back in the day. I imagine this is what you're talking about. Back in the 60s and 70s, when Danny (Taylor) and I were the original Silver Apples, we envisioned playing in Europe a lot, and I think that it was on the books to do it. But when the record label found itself in financial trouble and they started pulling back on the touring and the sponsorship, we just never made it across. But I always envisioned playing Stockholm and the whole Scandinavian area, because we knew there were record sales here. So I always wanted to come. 
If one could sum up the early phase, I would say there was a lot of spontaneity, in the concept and the live stuff and the recordings. It was just really spontaneous stuff. Has that spirit stuck with you?
Absolutely. Always. I don't have the patience to be a meticulous recording person/musician. I work pretty much from the gut, from the heart, and I kind of just let the mind follow along. I try not to think too much. I find that if I think too much I get in my own way, so I want to record spontaneously, one cut. That’s how I do it because it's more like performing, which I really love to do. That's my main love in life, performing, so that's the way I do it. 
Do you think that there is the possibility of creativity within a perfect structure, a perfect order, or do you think there needs to be some chance element to make things exciting? 
I think it has to be according to your own individuality. I know that there are certain artists out there who do beautiful stuff that work on this meticulous, almost engineering kind of level. One that quickly comes to mind is Damon Albarn. I just think he's a marvelous musician, but he is meticulous and precise. Another one I would mention is Geoff Barrow, who can be that way when he records with Portishead, but he can also be spontaneous, as with BEAK>. So there is a guy who works both ways and I'm envious of that. I can only work the one way. I just play and what happens happens.
Do you believe that frequency affects emotion?  
Probably. I don't understand the science of it. I just know that there are certain levels and also certain pitches that make me feel good, so I tend to gravitate towards them. 
Is that something that you consciously use to make people feel good in a live setting?
Yeah, I think that if it makes me happy, then it must be making somebody else happy, if they are being sensitive to it. 
You've been performing for a long time and in different phases. Do you ever feel that you get high on performing, almost like a psychedelic high?
Every night. I never get bored. Every time I do a song is a new thing. It could be anyone from the ones that have sort of a loose structure where I can do what I want to pretty much on it, to others that are fairly rigid. I wouldn't say rigid but fairly formally structured, where I know I have to change chords at a certain time and all that kind of stuff, in order to stay true to the melody. I don't even get tired of those because every night, there's just some different little thing that happens that makes it a new song for me. And I feel excited about it as though I'm doing it for the first time. 
I can't really see that happening in a rock context. Your music is loose enough to make it happen.
I deliberately structure my set so that I can have a formal kind of piece and then a loose one. And then a formal one, and then a loose one, and it's kind of like a discipline thing for me to do the formal thing. I don't want to let it get just out of control-loose you know, one after another, so I kind of alternate them like that to keep myself in control.
In terms of a general high or a buzz, have you ever experienced something like an extra sensory stuff or lost yourself on stage?
No. The only time I ever lost myself on stage was fairly recently, actually in May, in China, when they had like seven strobe lights that went on all at once at different rhythms and that threw me into such a feet-off-the-floor strange place that I didn't know if I was passed out or if I was going be sick. I just had to close my eyes and almost stopped playing, and just had some of the oscillators continue to cook until I could feel the strobes were calming down a little bit. And then when I did my encore I got hold of the light guy and said, “turn off the damn strobes, please! Or I'm not going to go back out there”, so he shut it off. 
Yeah, that sounds potentially epileptic. 
It had that effect. The strobes discombobulated my electrical impulses inside the brain that make me able to think. 
When I’ve read what you've said about the early phase, you mentioned not being aware of that sort of more scholastic art music, and that that was something that you got caught up with afterwards. Can you see yourself as having integrated any notions or concepts or teachings from that more scholastic vein?
No. You know, I've been interested ever since I learned about the theory of atonal, the theory of dissonance, the theory of arhythmic structures and things like that. I've been interested but only from an amusement or entertainment point of view. I don't like to do it myself. I mean, I love dissonance. Dissonance to me is an amazing tension-relieving kind of tool, and I think that music that doesn't have dissonance gets boring after a while. But that's not because I learned it from some concept that somebody wrote in a book that I studied in school – it’s because of the way I feel. I just play music the way I feel it and I don't have any musicology background at all.
At that time, was there someone around that you could say was an inspiration in this very free-spirited sense, this experimental sense?
In a way, Sun Ra. I used to go to a little club in New York called “Slugs” which was way down on the lower East side, in what you would call a bad drug neighborhood, and I remember he played every Thursday night. My girlfriend and I and sometimes some friends used to go down and we'd sometimes be the only people in the whole club, and Sun Ra would just play all night long and I remember just being totally enthralled by what I heard and by the freedom that he allowed the music to have. He would have musicians standing out on the street corner or in the men’s room, standing on a toilet. He'd have a sax player there. You’d go in there to take a leak and there would be a guy playing the sax. His band was just all over the place. He'd go upstairs into the apartments and play out the window, during the set. And I just thought that was marvelous and I'm sure some of that has to have rubbed off. Music doesn't have to be a formal and serious matter. It's from the soul. 
Even given that sort the proto-experimental attitude that you've always had, can you find some other strains or something, for instance in the music that you've grown up with? 
I hear Fats Domino in everything I do…
Wow… Sun Ra and Fats Domino...
Yes, they are my two heroes. When I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, I used to go down to Rampart Street in New Orleans where all of the old artists were all playing in these bars – what they called at the time race music, which is now called R'n'B or soul. They weren't like the venues we think of today. They just played in bars. And I'd go there and there'd be Big Joe Turner or Big Mama Thornton or Little Richard or Fats Domino. I mean, you just never knew when you walked in the door who was going be there, and many times I'd be the only white person in the place and nobody cared. Everybody was there for the music. I was fifteen years old, underage, but they didn't care. New Orleans is very loose and so I'd stay in the back of the room and just listen to the music in a trance. I grew up with Fats Domino in my veins and I still hear him and the triplet pianos and the way he sings, the way he structures his songs, the simplicity of it all, all through my music, and I shout his name from the hilltop.
You've always been associated with the East Coast and a sort of harsher sound, but at the same time I can associate your style of singing on the two first albums with an almost West Coast-ish sort of psychedelic rock...
I don't know where that comes from. I'm definitely an East Coast person. I have a country background, and I was born and raised in the South, so there's maybe some bluegrass or some country music in my vocals, but it's not meant to be psychedelic. I have no idea what the word psychedelic means.
I think that the musicians on the West Coast just probably had the same sources of inspiration –  blues and early American music. Anyway, early on, you collaborated with a poet on the lyrics?
There were several poets that I worked with. Stanley Warren was one. We worked a lot with the first record. We worked with, I guess, about five or six poets. We put a notice up on the bulletin board at in the bar at Max’s Kansas City that said, “Rock band would be interested in lyrics. Submit poetry”, and gave our phone number. We got dozens of poets who wanted to be involved. Stanley Warren had some nice stuff and there were several other people who had nice things, and we thought “OK, rather than write our own stuff for the first record, we'll involve these poets. Let's get them in here. Lets make this a group effort.” And so that's what we had there on the first record. The second record we still had a few poems left over from one or two of the other guys but I basically wrote the stuff on the second record. And the third I wrote totally. 
And you continued in that vein, writing your own stuff? 
Yeah. I thought it was an interesting idea to have poets submit lyrics, but that was just an idea for the first record and I really liked writing my own stuff.
Can you see a recurring theme, lyrically? Can you see a pattern?
No. What comes out is always a surprise. 
This will to experiment that you have, what would you ascribe it to? Where do you think it comes from?
I'm impatiently intolerant of boredom. I need to have something to tickle my fancy and make me feel challenged. And so I guess that's the root of it. I just can't stand to be bored. 
I assume that when you were a kid, it was the same?
The same, it's always been that way. 
Itchy pants… Were you encouraged  into art and creative endeavors as a kid?
Yes, by my grandmother. My parents had no interest whatsoever. There wasn't even a record player in the house. There was no music whatsoever. But my grandmother had an art background. She  had studied in Paris when she was a young lady and so forth. So she taught me how to paint when I was quite a young kid and that kind of interest in art stuck with me. 
And you're still painting, right? 
Oh yeah, I'm very active as a visual artist. Inbetween tours. 
I assume it's a great thing to mix these two. 
Oh, I love it, yeah. I can't do them both together, but I love to jump in head first into one or the other. 
Well, except for the itchy pants, the boredom aspect, is there something you can see as a general inspiration for you, a creative source? 
Just to be very broad, the human experience, the inter-relationship among all human beings whether it's a love thing, or a companionship thing or a group thing... I think human beings are fascinating creatures. I'm not one of those people that feels horribly guilty that we're here, that we're destroying the landscape. I don't think we are anymore than an elephant is... So I don't feel any guilt at all. I love being human and I love human beings, I love all things that we do. I'm very happy to be here. Maybe next time I'll come back as a worm? That's still okay. I have been a human and that was cool.  
How would you yourself describe Silver Apples’ music to someone who's never ever heard of it?
Electronic pop. If you want to get just simple words. That tells you that it's electronic and that tells you that it's not one of these serious, studied laboratory experiments. These academic approaches to music that I have no interest in whatsoever... So “pop” is a big word for me. I'm proud of it, and “electronic” of course, because that's what I do.
I assume that bands or young people send you records all the time. Apart from that, do you also try to actively keep up with what's going on in this vein? 
I'm not a real student. I don't go to record stores and seek out new stuff. I love it when the musicians come backstage and say, “give it a chance on the road, listen to this”. I love that, and I contact them back. So I have an awareness of the new music just because of that, because I'm close to the musicians, having been on the same stage with them. Playing festivals is a real rich thing for me because I get to meet with all these other guys and girls and exchange musical ideas and just move on. So in that sense I'm up on it, but I'm not a student of it. 
I would say that it's not an understatement to say that your work in Silver Apples has been hugely influential on the electronica scene and on so many scenes, from Kraut, Suicide and onwards... What does it feel like, to have played such an instrumental part?
It's a huge honour for me. I feel completely overwhelmed that some of the most beautiful music that I've heard out there has its roots in my little ideas. It's a huge experience. It's humbling. I'm not sure I understand why. But it's there, so I accept it. I'm not going to say “no, no, no, that's not true”. I know it's true, because I've talked to enough guys about the way they feel, the way they compose, to know that I have had an influence. But to tell you the truth, I never started off thinking that it would be that way. I was always in awe of other people and wanting to be like them, and wanted to be as good as them and never thought I would ever be, you know. And now I have people telling me that they wish they could be as good as me. 
So apart from that – the joy of being a human being and the joy of having these things projected on you – what else makes you really, really happy?
My little kittycat, that's one thing. My girlfriend. My boat, a sailing boat. Very simple and direct. I'm not a complicated person. Maybe that is why I'm bored unless I'm being creative, because I'm otherwise a simple person?
Just one final thing in terms of the recording stuff… Do you actually work with sequencing, computers and MIDI-stuff or is it just the same there: “Hands on”?
No, I do work with the new stuff when I'm recording. When I'm performing, the rhythm tracks, the drum tracks are sequenced and sampled, because Danny died. Rather than get a new drummer and teach the new drummer all of this stuff and then have him being unfairly compared to Danny, I just figured that Danny would be happy that I sampled him. I went through banks of tapes of him practicing in the studio, found all of his sounds, sampled them, categorized them, libraried them and now, when I go to make a new song, I can pull Danny's sounds out and figure out what I think he might have done, and so it's me working with Danny, the same as I've always done. We used to always work together like that. He would say: “what do you think of this?”, and I'd say, “try that”, and he would go (drum sounds)… I've always been a little bit involved in his rhythmic structures, so it's all the same. I think that he'd be very happy that I'm sampling him, and that he's out there on the stage with me still.

John Duncan: The properties of sound

John Duncan, Stockholm 2002. © Carl A

John Duncan (born 1953) is an American artist based in Italy. His long career has often been marked by controversy, not seldom because of his willingness to place himself (and others) in positions of extreme vulnerability, in order to see what lies behind the corners of the expected. Although a part of the international art milieu since the 1970s, certain people still find it relevant to keep discussing Duncan's motives or justifications for extreme works like "Blind date" (1980). When in Sweden on a residence-grant 2002, the same old hulabaloo ensued, which actually led to a termination of his grant – but also to a spontaneous and successful counter-movement by several Swedish artists, which made it possible for Duncan to finish the projects he was working on.
John Duncan is interesting, not only because of his art and the varying phases its dynamic expressions have gone through, but also as a "victim" of an ever growing media complacency, where fast demands and fast reactions demand fast information. Once an artist is stuck with one particular and conveniently recognizable facet (in this case, a then 22 year old performance/action and sound recording), it's become harder than ever to integrate a more nuanced picture/overview. All of these aspects interested me, and it was a pleasure to finally sit down with the highly influential Mr Duncan and hear his version of the then current debacle in Stockholm – a perfect example of a prejudiced and negative re-hashing of the past. Plus, and this is important, to let him tell his own story in regard to his art and career in general.
You've been working in many disciplines. Why do you think you've specifically worked so much with audio?
It's a perceptive sense that I wasn't really trained to develop. I don't have a musical background. I don't have a formal training. At a certain point I started imagining what it would be like to be blind, to be more aware of what sound was doing, the properties of sound. That's when I started getting interested in it. The other thing that spurred me on was that I wasn't interested in painting anymore. The basis as my training as a painter was the relationship between the frequencies of light, i.e. colour, and our emotional response to those frequencies. I figured the same thing would work with sound and that there'd be a correlation. I got interested in developing it in that direction, developing audio in the same way I had with images.
How did you get started with the actual experimentation? What did you want to use first? What did you use first?
Voice. This was in the early to mid-70's. I used sounds of breathing. The first thing that I remember recording was the sound of a group of people breathing, and treating that as a chorus. I took that to a guy called Charles Amarkanian and he got me on the air on his radio show. That was the very first time I really made what I consider music now. It was also the first time it was put out in public.
Was your own response to the finished result approximately the same as you had expected?
I didn't know what to expect.
Were there any other people experimenting with the same kinds of things at the time, using voices and organic sounds?
Now I know there were. At the time, I thought that I worked in a vacuum. I was going along according to whims and didn't know anything about the history of music, or what other people were doing at the time. The closest people I knew who were experimenting with sound were people like Tom Recchion, Fredrik Nilsen, Joe Potts and his brothers, Chip Chapman. I realized later on that they were actually a very loose organisation called LAFMS. All of these people were introduced through a man named Harold Schroeder. Harold and I were driving schoolbuses; one afternoon after work he started talking about this weird music he was listening to. He introduced me to a record by someone named Lady June, called 'Linguistic Leprosy'...
So you found some people who were doing similar things?
Through him, yes. Whether it's by circumstance or fate or the movings of the world, I don't know, but this sort of offbeat guy at this job had heard that I was listening to 'strange things'. We talked and found out that we had interests in common. He started introducing me to LAFMS people and that's where I went.
What did your paintings actually look like?
They looked like blocks of colour, the size of a wall. It would look like one colour. As you sat in front of it and looked at it, you'd start seeing other layers underneath. These layers were other colours, decided by the psychological response they evoked, some of which some were compatible and some were not. They were washes, thin layers of colour on top of one another. The more you looked at the entire surface, the more and deeper you were drawn into it.
That corresponds very well to the pieces of music you make.
It's the same source.
Do you regard all of your work as cathartic?
I'm not quite sure how you mean that. What I do is basically to let a sound source work on me, and see where that goes. And then find something complementary to that or find a way to treat that sound. To build an atmosphere that has a psychological effect. I don't know what it's going to be. I'm just trying things. At a certain point, the audio, the composition, starts to indicate directions. It almost makes demands as to what should be added, what will work and what will not. What kind of effect it will have. That it won't contradict itself. And then I just go on. I'm more an operator than anything else. I'm an equal partner with the project itself. I'm not a maker per se.
Would you call "Blind Date" a cathartic project?
It's now so many different things... The original motive for doing it was cathartic. The motive for making it public was more about giving a personal gesture a universal reference or relevance. At least hopefully. To do something that many people could understand as something fundamentally human. But of course it turned into something more complex than that. It turned all my work into something much more complex than I'd initially intended.
Was that because you had learnt so much or because you felt elevated to a new level of understanding?
Absolutely. It expanded my head so far beyond what I'd imagined was actually there. I understood my existence as being a very linear process. After that, it was very, very different. It's been very different ever since then.
Have you consciously tried with other experiences to try and reach a similar kind of breakthrough or elevation?
Yes, absolutely. But they're all private. One of the things that I learned from the original response to 'Blind Date' and something that was reinforced by the recent experiences here in Stockholm, was that it's not good enough to do something in front of an audience if they're simply sitting there. They have to meet me half way. They have to demand. The work has to have some kind of structure that demands something from each member of the audience, to pull out of themselves. Otherwise I'm just like a carnival act - basically an entertainer. I'm not interested in that. I don't have enough of a sense of humour to succeed with that. It's essential now that each member of the audience is included. It's difficult for me to see a mass. I see individuals. I always see individual responses. I know that the crowd mentality exists and that crowds have their own psychological structures. It's very difficult for me to see that, but I do understand individual people. That's why the work I've been doing, especially recently, involves getting people to confront a decision within themselves. To participate further or not. That decision is the art. The art begins with that decision. If they decide to go on and continue and go along with the process, then the art continues. If they decide to stop there and refuse this experience, then the art basically stops there for them. Then that's the only thing they walk away with and live with.
My reaction to that is that it's a very magical view of art, in the sense that it's not in any way made to please or to externalise just for the sake of it. It's there to change. It's all done with a specific purpose to change something in you or in the participating audience.
That's my hope, at least. If it works or not depends on the participants.
One could throw oneself into the sea of challenges and one could learn from very positive and pleasurable as well as negative and painful things. A quote: "You learn most from what you want least"... To what extent do you push yourself to experience negative emotions or negative experiences?
I've learned that it's not necessary to push myself into bad experiences... they come anyway! For me, the issue is to be prepared to ride them, to be responsive to them. To accept the experience, to accept how I feel about it and, at the extreme, to avoid continuing or spreading it further. I'll give an example... If you do something to me that hurts me, I have a choice to retaliate or to absorb it. Most of the time I choose to absorb it because if I retaliate, then that's my responsibility. It's something I create; however justified I may feel. If I hit you back or get revenge, the revenge is an illusion. On a global scale, I think the things that are happening in Afghanistan are a very, very big mistake. That's not the solution to this. It's not the way to solve the problem. It's just a way to make it much worse. What's going on right now in the West Bank in Israel is another good example. What I mean by absorption is not just holding on to it, but also seeing to it that it goes no further. Just riding the wave, if you will. And understand that it is a wave. It's not something you own, unless you attack or do something deliberately, to act as an instrument of fate.
On an instinctual level, one naturally reacts to threats. Usually though, most reactions lie on the emotional level...
I saw this in a situation that's the closest I've been to a war situation, in South Central Los Angeles. I was a driving a city bus. All the other drivers who were driving that line or driving in that general area at the same time, which was midnight to six in the morning, had weapons of some kind. They carried guns, they carried knives, they carried meter-long chains that they could use as a whip. I didn't carry anything at all. They were always getting into trouble. The most extreme example was a driver on a line that was parallel to mine. He got cut in half by barbed wire. Someone came on the bus and sort of came up behind him, looped the barbed wire around him and used it like a saw. People were threatening me all the time, every 15-20 minutes, all night, every night, all through the year. I learned that if I ever carried something, I would attract someone who was more desperate than I was and wanted me to test him. By not having anything, by not carrying a weapon, I managed... I carried psychology. I would listen to people, show them respect, and be ready to move out of the way as best I could if they lunged at me. It turned out that in just about every case, that was what they really needed most. This was the most effective tool for dealing with these situations.
If you don't have any fear, you don't show any fear. And then you don't get attacked.
I always had the idea that it's possible that this would be my last night on the planet. This may be the last thing I do. I had in mind that I felt pretty good about what I'd done. If that should be the case, then I can accept that. I still feel that way. It worked out that way.
You transcended the primal fear...
We'll see. It seems that way now. You never know...
What originally made you interested in art? What made you want to become a painter?
That takes me back to Kansas as a teenager. What I remember is feeling a kind of resonance with certain images and with a way of life. Reading van Gogh's letters... I read his letters more than I looked at the paintings. I became interested in his paintings after reading those letters. You heard all these myths about this crazy guy who lobbed his ear off... It was like a cliché of what an artist is: someone who is crazy and completely out of control emotionally, and beyond reason. Beyond any kind of sense of social balance. Reading his letters, it was absolutely clear that that was not the case. He was extremely clear, extremely articulate in describing what he was trying to do. What he was trying to do was actually to be precise and empirical and at the same time open to his spiritual self. I was really, really impressed with this. This kind of dedication, this kind of focus he had was something that I really identified with a lot. I wanted that in my life. I must have started to paint and draw before that, because I remember a teacher told me about these books - a three volume set of his letters. By that time, I must have already gotten into painting. The only thing I can remember before that is that people in my family helped me start doing that, when they saw that I wasn't responding to school. I found school very boring. The teachers were tedious, they were cut off from the students, they were honing their lessons to the slowest of the students. I didn't know what to do. I didn't even know if I would finish school at all. My family pushed me into doing this instead as a way of at least giving me something to do. I wasn't interested in sports and I hated the people involved. No one knew what to do with me...
You've lived in LA, Japan, Holland and Italy. Four distinct periods... What differences can you see between these different periods? Did the moving create the differences or did the new directions demand your moving?
The atmospheres of these different places shaped the work I did at the time, and also shaped who I became in these places. In the case of Italy, the process is still going on. But it's not just Italy. Being in Stockholm has had an influence and, I have to say, a really positive influence. Especially after the event of March 9th. That night was such a rewarding experience, I don't know how to put that in words. It was very inspiring.
How would you define the different periods?
LA was concentrated on a sense of myself as a member of society. One in a social order, trying to understand myself as a member of this larger society. Japan was a deliberate move to be completely cut off from society. For me, Japan represents an atmosphere where you can develop yourself inwardly and not show what you feel to anyone. Very often when you meet Japanese people, they don't seem to be like you expected. This essence that they were showing me in letters and in communications, the stuff that's cut off from physical contact, they didn't show that in the way they acted, the way they dressed, in the daily life choices they made. Everyone looked very homogenous... I'm thinking of the people who look like they could work in an office, and very often do. They can interact with other people in an office who who would never, ever have an idea that this person has this other life. That's true for nearly everyone there. They keep this other life entirely separate. There was a guy that I met named N. Nakayama, who had run an amusement park construction company. He built Ferris wheels and things like that. When the company went bankrupt, he went to prison for several years. When he got out of prison, he lived on the streets for about seven years. He told me that the Japanese are very much like lizards or crocodiles. That made a lot of sense to me, especially in regard to the experiences on the subway trains. They sit there checking on each other but you never see the other's eyes. The eyes are always narrowed, slit, moving back and forth, watching people around them, but unless it's deliberate no one ever really makes eye contact. He saw them as a nation of lizards. This encouragement to develop myself inwardly and not show it to other people turned out to be invaluable. It's been very, very worthwhile to me. In Holland, I started getting into that in my art. Looking for ways to encourage other people to do that. But they usually involved some kind of confrontation with an audience. Usually a confrontation that took the form of me in front of an audience. Usually me doing something nude in front of the audience. Or getting the audience to volunteer to go nude into a situation. I'm thinking of 'Maze'. People didn't know what to expect. Now, in Italy, it's changing. The music is changing, the events, the installations change. Now, they're more like a seduction. The music is more like a seduction. The events are more like promises that something will happen but you don't know what. If you agree to do X, if you do X, you will find out more. If you do not, you will have the fact that you refused to go further as something you take home with you.
What has X been so far?
A variety of things. Here in Stockholm, it was taking your clothes off and going into a completely dark room with strangers, something that disrupted your sense of space. You couldn't really get an idea of how big or small the room was.
Would you say that the first three phases make up a kind of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, in the sense that you were involuntarily exposed to the reaction of 'Blind Date' in the US? You went inside instead in Japan and in Holland went both ways, demanding an interaction?
Yes, very much so. Following that line of thought, one could say that the experiences in Italy and Stockholm are those of transcendence. It's in the past. The shock that anyone might feel is not my problem anymore. I'm not interested in all these things anymore. People always come up to me and want to discuss things like 'the value of a body', 'the value of a human being before and after death', the way that society treats women and so on... already full of judging that, judging me as a representative of that. It doesn't work. I'm not interested in these issues. I didn't care about all this then and I don't now. If I were watching a television documentary about it, then I might continue to watch it. But discussion of these 'issues' is really important to others, not me. Why should I care?
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I found the same kinds of quality in Yukio Mishima. He ended up distorting his own values and they were further distorted by the right wing and they're still using him as an inspiration for all the wrong things. My experience has convinced me that discipline is essential to going into this kind of research. But military discipline is a mistake. Discipline is a way of creating a defense against chaos. It's about finding your own balance instead of being knocked around by whatever feels like smacking you at the time.
You mentioned that you're meditating...
That's part of my discipline. I started doing that in LA. Then I stopped doing it in Japan and started again in Holland. In fact, I went to Thailand to a buddhist monastery outside of Cheng Mae; stayed there about a month and went through a meditation training program they had. The training has nothing to do with religion. It's a way of teaching the discipline of sitting down and practising and accepting what will happen. The practice I'm doing now is developed from that. It was a very useful base to start from. In LA, it was basically Zen that I practiced. In the end it wasn't enough, although I took that as far as I thought I could. I was not in any way interested in any religion; that's never worked for me. The discipline of practice I translated to the one of the Reichian breath exercise, especially in Japan.
What's the next step in the experiments with sensual impressions or deprivations? You did this at Lydmar and in Tokyo and in Canada. But that was basically a visual thing.
Visual in the sense that there was a complete absence of anything to see. Audio in the sense that the sound was overwhelming. I was in the room, also nude, responding to each person according to what I felt from them without being able to see them.
Have you thought of taking it any steps further? There are other senses and things that could be deprived. Movement, agility, having people have earplugs...
There are a couple of projects that I may or may not realize in my lifetime. One of them is an amusement park based on laboratory experiments, based on the experiments on rats. Right now it's important to offer people the chance to leave at any time. So binding people, tying them up or down, limiting their freedom is something that I'm not really interested in now.
The video work in Japan had nothing to do with similar ideas of deprivation?
The idea was simply to make commercial pornography and to see if it could be subverted. The ideas about deprivation came much later, in Amsterdam.
So, did you manage to subvert commercial pornography?
Certainly not then. If I've subverted anything, I've subverted my own ideas on what it was. In making commercial pornography, there's an interesting labyrinth you get into. Similar to making Hollywood films, I imagine. The producers want to make money on their investment. In order to do that, they pay close attention to what distributors are willing to distribute, who in turn pay close attention to what their customers want to buy. It's a very strict, rigid formula that's very hard to break. Audiences expect to have a storyline. In Japan, the censors demand a storyline with redeeming social value. There's got to be a narrative, there's got to be a reason for all these people doing these strange things in the films. It's not just action and then 60 minutes later, the tape ends. There has to be a beginning, a narrative development and an end in Japan. It's a very rigid structure. You can't really do anything abstract with that. Even if you're interested in doing something outside of this full-on 90 minutes of sex, you still have to conform to these demands. It's much more limiting that I'd expected. The situation in Japan made it more interesting than I'd expected. People who get into it are very often people who are not professional sex workers. They're students, they're people at film school or people who have just graduated from film school. They have ideas and techniques and special effects and camera techniques and script ideas... All of these techniques that are taught in film school, but that they can't use in the commercial industry because it's so hard to get in there in the first place. They have to 'pay their dues to the union' for several years before they can even get into the building. They were so frustrated with that, and at the same time the adult video industry was so open, always looking for people who can do new things. The people I met and worked with could apply what they'd learned in film school and make money out of having fun. And making a sex film was part of it. It was a different situation from what I'd seen in Europe. The films show this. They show that there's a very different way of thinking about them among the staff.
The pseudonym you used, John See, was that meant as an anthropological imperative? John... See!
Yeah. It was a message to myself to wake up. By using that name, I don't feel I was hiding; it was a way to try and get out of myself but at the same time give myself a push all the time.
Do you think that breaking taboos has a value in itself?
That depends on the taboos. It can.
Do you think it's a prerequisite of the concept "artist": that they need to push the limits? Could someone be an artist and just be fine in the middle?
There are plenty of artists who've done incredible work, really inspiring work, where they don't push the limits. But please don't ask me to think of who they are... The idea of deliberately breaking a taboo is not something I've really thought about. It's just ended up that way. It's something I've needed to do; I've never considered it in terms of breaking rules and taboos. This is an issue that I actually think alot about, because it's important to me to avoid inspiring people to cause trouble, just for the sake of doing it. But at the same time... If you're really going to explore who you are and what your life is and really look into your existence, that in itself is very often seen as threatening by people who are not prepared to do that. You have to be ready to deal with the fact that you're going to threaten these people. The research is going to threaten some people. And those people are going to react, out of fear of themselves, out of fear of their own lack of information.
Wouldn't you agree to the suggestion that the same act can be looked upon differently, depending on if it's done in a pursuit of soul searching or creating shock value? The soul searching is always more threatening...
Yes, that's true.
I was thinking of Damien Hirst in the beginning, when he visited morgues. I really think he profited more from the shock value of it.
There's another guy named Alex Gray. After 'Blind Date' was first publicised, he wrote a letter to someone saying that he and his wife had been doing this for years. He had a job at a mortuary and they'd go in. She would film him or take photographs of him having sex with cadavres in the mortuary. He'd done it a number of times and had pictures of it. He argued that he could have saved me a lot of anguish. His rationale was that since he'd been doing it, it wasn't really necessary for me to do it. He doesn't really talk about it these days. He may be a little bit more intelligent than I am...
Maybe it has to do with the kind of actual work that comes out of it. He makes bright and psychedelic paintings of the human body. Perhaps your work and your documentation of it was simply too painful for people to handle?
Yes. A lot of people avoid looking into themselves. Someone who's compelled to do that is threatening. If you are compelled to do that, you have to be ready to accept this kind of kick back and this sort of hostile reaction. When this happens, when this resistance comes, it's very, very tempting to look at the people who give this to you as weak, as shallow, as pretentious and spiritually lazy... Any kind of number of negative judgments. All of these things may be true. But none of them really matter. The way I see it now is that, as hard and discouraging as it can be sometimes, ultimately it's a kind of test. If you see this resistance as a test, you come out of it stronger. The alternative is to accept that they are right and to shut up, and to just get back in line. Whether that's good or bad I don't know, but it's not for me. I couldn't do that even if I wanted to.
What are your thoughts about all of this after the support evening?
The night at Fylkingen on March 9th (2002) was a kind of culmination of what I can only describe as a wave of support that I got after IASPIS got into the scandal of kicking me out and their arrogance and cowardice behind their actions. I thought I was completely alone. The day it happened, it just seemed like something that would never end. I thought that no one cared, that my role on this planet was to suffer for other people's stupidity. Starting the next day, Annika von Hausswolff called and asked if it was really true and that she couldn't believe it. Her call was the first time I felt someone had cared about what had happened. After that, the phone didn't stop ringing for two weeks... I felt everything but alone. On March 9th, all of these people... Cotton Ferox, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, the Sons of God, all of these people... All of the things that were done on that night, from the machine that generated sound from fire, to Ingrid Engarås' performance using the space of Fylkingen itself... Very subtle, incredibly beautiful. Everything was of an incredibly high calibre, such as I'd suspected Swedish art would be but hadn't seen. Fetish 23's videos... It was an honour to be included in the night. It was an honour to be there, an inspiration. Amazing work, all on one night, and at short notice. It was a real inspiration to be there. To have this done as a gesture of support, to make it possible for me to stay here longer, I will never, ever forget... I do not feel alone anymore.
When you're performing a piece, are you in the moment all focussed or do you allow yourself to drift away with the sounds?
I'm listening to what's going on and I'm playing the mixing table as a participant. In the beginning, I can say that it's deliberate. I impose what I want to happen onto the instrument and the sound it's making. But after a while I just feel like I'm a part of it.
Have you ever experienced any kinds of communication in these states of mind?
If I'm simply listening to it, Yes. If I'm part of it, I feel that I have to keep a certain distance, an objectivity. I have to stay conscious enough to work the controls. It's a different thing to be responsible for what happens than being a participant as a listener. I used to get out of control when doing the Reichian exercises. The idea of these breath exercises is to lose physical control and when I did that I didn't really remember what was happening. I couldn't feel what was happening. I felt like a conduit. The performances would change considerably, depending on the kind of energy I felt coming through me from the audience and out, or from wherever... There were times when it was incredibly benificent and positive. There were other times when it was openly hostile, especially when it was coming from outside through me and into the audience. The last performance was on the altar of the Parochiale Kirche in Berlin. There is something in that building - I don't know what it is - that's very strange. It was very strange at the time at least. Definitely hostile. I don't think it's used as a church any longer. From what I heard, there was a crypt underneath the altar. I don't know how to explain it. That was an experience when I needed some kind of defense. There was something happening there, and I didn't know if the audience was aware of it. And it wasn't necessarily a positive thing to open this. It's one of the few times I can remember that I've been really frightened. I was in touch with something and was being used by something that I didn't and don't want to be a part of. It wasn't worth it.
"When your dreams become flesh, can there be anything but trouble?" I'd say that's a distinct dystopic view... Some would argue that when dreams flesh, it's a moment of joy and power and pleasure... Do you still ascribe to this view?
If you're dreaming about pleasure, joy and particularly power, you're going to get them. And they're going to use you. Power is something I try very hard to avoid. If somebody tries to give me power, I try hard to give it back. It can be a distraction. If you get pleasure, you want to hang on to it. If you achieve joy, you want to hang on to it. If you're seeking power, you do everything you can to hang on to it, maintain it, increase it.
So you see it as a matter of detachment versus attachment?
I see it as a trap. If you try and hang on to these things, you're going to get stuck in a series of illusions, and in trying to maintain the illusions. If you want to understand them as parts of a process and appreciate them for what they are but don't try to hang on to them, then there are things that are beyond that. If you're ready to let go of these pleasurable things, you can go further. If you're not, the growth process stops and the illusions become a kind of hell. Dreams become real. You get what you imagine -- and how. So you'd better aim high, impossibly high, because it's going to happen...
Speaking of dreams... I think that's actually where that quote comes from "The Error"... One thing that seems to be clear is that it's based on dreams. These textual and image fragments make a whole, just like dreams. Would it be correct to define your work as an externalization of inner experiences through a specifically philosophical grid or matrix?
Frankly, I hadn't considered that, and I don't usually try to 'define'. Basically I write these things down -- when they come to me, I write them down. THE ERROR is simply a collection of these phrases, and of images that in some way complement them. The two usually don't have any connection at all. They're supposed to add up to, or suggest, something beyond either of them. As for the philosophical structures, I don't have anything fixed in my mind to follow. Perhaps something emerges, but it's not something I consciously use as an architecture.
In Thomas' film ("Think of me as you will", Thomas Nordanstad, 2002), you mention an abusive father and a desire to interrupt what seems to be a lineage. Spirals become spirals and the victim becomes the victimizer. What do you think would have happened if you hadn't had art as a valve or a focusing point?
I don't know. I can't really imagine. It's difficult for me to deal with the issue of 'what if...?' I have no idea.
What new projects are you working on now?
The piece I did with Graham Lewis at Fylkingen on March 9 is from a CD project called "PRESENCE". There are new CD's with Jim O'Rourke -- we've been working on that material for quite awhile -- and with Elliott Sharp, called 'Vox', based on his voice. I'll be working on a new project together with Asmus Tiechens soon, with his voice as well. There's a children's choir that I want to record here in Stockholm. To put it simply, I'm really interested in working with human voice at the moment.