Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Best Album Ever?

The recent re-release on vinyl of Psychic TV’s 1983 album Dreams Less Sweet has made me ponder one of those very important questions in life… Could it be that this is actually the best album ever made? The more I listen to it, the more convinced I get.

In general, I’m conservative in terms of taste and it’s been very hard for me to realise that The Stooges’ Funhouse or Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street perhaps no longer fill the emotional voids of yesteryear. I can still enjoy them, and occasionally do, but not in the same compensatory way like when I was 15. But that is merely a personal perspective of course. Life changes. Musical tastes change with it.

Which albums are still flawless on every level 30 years after their release? Well, those two rock’n’roll classics certainly are, I’d say (and then we’re talking more than 40 years!). Probably a few others. But if we zoom back to 1983, what was going on that still remains fresh and interesting today? Not much, right?

Throbbing Gristle had already re-created or corrupted the concept of an album and made the experience as much an intellectual merry-go-round as a sensual one. Although existentially dark and steeped in harsh, late 70s UK life, TG brought revelation upon revelation to the generation that wasn’t satisfied with merely the three chord simplicity of punk. Not only was an element of intellectual adventure brought in. The very idea or concept of what an album could actually be was dropped like a smart bomb in the cesspool of clever and self-indulgent nihilism of the era.

This openmindedness in structure and magical planting was developed further on Psychic TV’s debut album Force the Hand of Chance (1982), but only to a degree. The focus here seemed to be to corrupt expectations post-TG more than anything else. Soft-sung pop ballads and quite conventional music surely made some die-hard TG fans twitch, but in general it was a pleasant new direction.

If Force the Hand of Chance was the smooth antithesis to TG in general, then the synthesis that followed turned out in every way perfect. Dreams Less Sweet is so well balanced in its content and form, so imbued with overt messages and esoteric secrets, so intricate in its concoctions and so simple in its totality that I fail to find a similarly perfect album.

If we stick to the non-postmodern approach first, ie rub off all the programmatic raisons d’être and just leave it to the ears (preferably snugly stuck in good headphones), we are sucked in by a church organ and into a serene… The Orchids… What a masterpiece! Genesis P-Orridge’s frail voice and exquisite lyrics are matched by a simple orchestral arrangement, with oboe and marimbas. How unlikely was that arrangement at the time?

On to Botanica, with violent drumming and musique concrète elements, sliding into Iron Glove, an almost Morriconesque backing track to a recorded telephone poem (read by TG- and PTV-collaborator Monte Cazazza)… Always is Always Forever, a choral ”arrangement” for solo voice, followed by a 60s-inspired pop ballad, White Nights, again centered around P-Orridge’s voice in a mi(d)st of Beach Boys vibes. Followed by another high contrast twist, Finale, with machine guns, fire, snarling dogs and martial trumpets.

Eleusis is another vocal piece, with added percussive glass-like elements, perhaps to accentuate frailty in power or vice versa. Medmenham brings in forceful Tibetan Thighbone trumpets, seductively swirling in stereo. Ancient Lights: a collage of vocals, telephones, traffic sounds, karate instructions and more. Proof on Survival…”Do not be deterred by little results… Persevere…” (with sounds of someone being buried, in this case the microphonic head called ”Ringo”)

Eden 1: A frenzied telephone collage turns into experimental minimalist ”rock”… And tattooing sounds… Eden 2: More chorals… Eden 3: TG-sounding aggression, soon to be pleasantly contrasted by Clouds without Water… The soundtrack to a 1920s stroll on the English counryside…? Black Moon sounds like Lou Reedish basic pop…”The little boy, a living ghost…”

Silver and Gold: Ethereal Tibetan singing bowls… Followed by the ”smash hit” (in the literal sense) In the Nursery… Inner spiritual visions recounted to violent music…”Without is without in the nursery…”

Circle ends the album… A single flute in emotional farewells, actually bordering on the sentimental… Not so much "El Condor Pasa" but perhaps "El Condom Plaza"…? Because when the music’s over and the album’s over your mind has truly and genuinely been boinked, severely and pleasantly so.

If we jump back on the postmodern bandwagon and take a look at what’s there on the programmatic level, we find a multitude of references that further thickens and makes potent the already beautiful structure. Always is Always Forever is the classic Manson Family song, here revamped into high seriousness. Clouds without Water is the title of an Aleister Crowley book from 1909. The emotional tone of Crowley’s poems surely resonates well with Dreams Less Sweet:

”All hope of life even from the rare sad seeds
It blows from sunnier vales and happier hills,
Though at best they be but worthless weeds.
I stand – I scan the infinite horizon
Of hopeless hope – yet I must travel on.”

(Clouds without Water, ”The Hermit”)

Medmenham was the place where Sir Francis Dashwood gathered his acolytes in the caves of his infamous Hell Fire Club. Incidentally the same caves where the Tibetan singing bowls of Silver and Gold were recorded.

The sounds of ”Mr Sebastian” (a pioneer of genital and other kinds of piercing in the UK) tattooing a young Geoff Rushton/Jhon Balance. Eleusis, the initiatory environment/temple in ancient Greece that allowed its chosen few to see beyond the veil of ordinary life, very likely through hallucinogenics. The ”Nursery” was the term for the ritual space/temple of the PTV related order/group Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth. Burroughs-references are here too (and Burroughs’ ”second mind” Brion Gysin is thanked in the sleeve notes). And everything was recorded with ”holophonic” sound, an Ersatz kind of stereo that does indeed create quite an eerie presence (as mentioned before, listen in headphones). Et cetera.

In all, the form and the content add up to a shockingly wealthy impression of sub- and occultural magnificence. It’s not an ”experimental” album. It’s not a haphazard attempt at being clever either. It’s truly a sui generis piece of art that just happened to manifest in sounds and words. A journal of inner experimentation, an invaluable example of artistic courage.

Yes, now I can see (and hear) it clearly: Dreams Less Sweet is indeed my favourite album. Whether it's the best one ever, I leave to you to decide.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ernst Jünger: A Master in the Making

Ernst Jünger: a great writer with an adventurous heart

With the publishing in 1938 of Ernst Jünger’s then re-edited Das Abenteuerliche Herz, the German author was peaking in a mountain range filled with danger and troubles. Like an anthology of journal entries stemming from different moods rather than outer experiences, the book at first seems all over the place. But once one settles in to Jünger’s highly specific style and reasoning, it all makes sense. The book is the first to truly assemble all of Jünger’s varied skills as a writer, and as such it’s a pure joy to read.

After the initial success of his WWI blitz-novel In Stahlgewittern (The Storm of Steel) in 1920, Jünger became quite a versatile writer, swinging between personal reflections of nature’s beauty, over allegorical mysteries, to more concrete political and philosophical treatises (and then back again). In 1938, at age 43, he could look back at a successful career but still in a threatening and volatile environment. Shunning both Communists and Nazis and their attempts at creating a demagogic intellectual environment in post WWI Germany, Jünger had been – and remained – a lone wolf with sophisticated insights and outlooks.

It’s noticeable in the book, now wonderfully translated into English by Thomas Friese and published by Telos Press, that this intellectual aristocrat was also on his way somewhere else at this time. I’m not referring to the second world war that was just around the corner, but rather to his unique style of literary magical realism, ”stereoscopic” analysis and his distanced but crystal clear conclusions. In The Adventurous Heart, many of the sections are like sketches of his roman à clef to come, Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs, 1939). He was trying things out, both thematically and stylistically.

The new style was uniquely his own. Referencing nature (always), paraphrasing a fairy tale esthetic, presenting psychological faits accomplis and just being an allround brilliant stylist, Jünger concocted a narrative that confounds because it’s neither ”bourgeois” (as in the French heavyweights of the late 19th century) nor experimental/”stream of consciousness” like Joyce et al.

The Adventurous Heart is a perfect title for the book. Once inside, each page is like an adventure and it does indeed belong more in the sphere of the heart than in the rational mind. Strolling through nature – both the chlorophyllic and the human – Jünger ponders phenomena as well as his own conclusions in an intuitive way. Aloof, yes, but always intriguing enough to keep you hooked. It’s an unpredictable mystery, very subtly designed, and which works over and over and over (try re-reading On the Marble Cliffs or this one and see how much new stuff actually appears. A literary tricking of memory or simply a living, sentient text?). The first edition of the book (1929) was inspired in structure by Louis Aragon’s palimpsestic Le Paysan de Paris (1926). The influx of elegant surrealism is clearly visible also in this, the re-edited 1938 edition.

The most interesting bits are, for me, the fictional sections that are interspersed among these other more distinctly Jüngerian reflections. This atmosphere deals with the horror of everyday German life, exemplified by changing surroundings, acceptance of violence, a silent majority… It’s a narrative always imbued with a dream-taint (a clever disguise) and chilling horror. That the Nazis allowed this book to be published – to say nothing of the critical On the Marble Cliffs the following year – is an utter mystery. Because Hitler admired Jünger as a war hero and as the author of The Storm of Steel, Jünger’s life was spared many times in the shadows of violent despotism. Goebbels, in particular, envied Jünger, courted him and then, after several rejections (for instance to the invitation to be a part of a new Nazi author’s academy) found him arrogant and deserving of a brutal fate. Jünger was indeed a lucky man. Or just plain intelligent and insightful. His aloof neutrality (or ”désinvolture”, as he himself called it) became a trait for which he was respected in many different environments – and criticized in others.

Quite often, clear reproach leaks through sections of his magical realism: ”Do you have any idea what goes on in this space that we will perhaps someday plunge through, the space that extends between the recognition of the downfall and the downfall itself?” The economy and balance of that sentence is just brilliant. A little bit more, and it would be heads off for sure, and a little bit less would be just a piece of gothic horror.

”I myself was the adept he wanted to destroy, I was the game that had been lured in by the blue viper!” Allegory and metaphors abound, and I’m certain that’s why Jünger is appreciated in so many quarters. You sense there’s something there, something substantial and revealing. And yes, there always is, but never in any expected fashion.

When Jünger writes, ”The dominion of the vulgar is most oppressive when it exploits the forms of the just and equitable. When it resorts to crime, the bitterness is mitigated”, is that really a review of Dostojevski (Crime and Punishment in this case) or a ”désinvoltured” regard at his contemporary German chaos?

”Thus it is said that a perfect calm prevails in the eye of the cyclone. Things are supposedly seen more dispassionately, more lucidly and distinctly than otherwise. At points like this, the eye is given access to unauthorized insights, since the exaggerated reality resembles a mirror in which the illusionary is also revealed.”

Hope lies for the dispassionate and lucid Jünger not in the archetypes of the great men, because they simply come and go like the seasons, but rather in the deeper miracles of nature herself. It’s not hard to see the eco-metaphorical messages he’s planting. ”When we behold a new flower, we understand the sentiment of the despot who offered a prize for the invention of new pleasures. We also gain a conception of the inexhaustible fertility of the world when we consider that all this glory originated from a pinch of seeds contained in a simple envelope. But soon its fresh colors are scattered over the earth, flung out like a shower of sparks.”

This edition contains a great foreword by scholars Eliah Bures and Elliott Neaman (whose Jünger biography A Dubious Past is worth reading), which puts both Jünger and the book itself in contexts of chronology and biography. In all, as with Telos’ 2008 edition of Jünger’s essay On Pain, everything is top notch. I hope they carry on in the same fine tradition and bring out more of this valuable writer in English.

I can here be a bit shameless in announcing that they’re not alone in this noble pursuit. Edda Publishing will release an edition of Jünger’s strange and superb Besuch auf Godenholm (1952), translated into English by Annabel Moynihan-Lee and illustrated by Fredrik Söderberg, in the spring/summer of 2013. That, my friends, will be an edition to savour!

Ernst Jünger: The Adventurous Heart – Figures and Capriccios
Translated by Thomas Friese. Edited by Russell Berman. With an Introduction by Eliah Bures and Elliott Neaman.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Michael Bowen: Life is very groovy

Michael Bowen in Stockholm. © Carl A 2006

Michael Bowen (1937-2009) was one of those cosmic protagonists who seem to always be at the right place at the right time. Someone constantly charming the gods to bestow blessings upon blessings, and installing foundations for a good life wherever he may end up. Out of his affluent Beverly Hills’ life in the 1940s, Bowen drifted into the vibrant 1950s art scene around Wallace Berman and the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Among other things, Bowen worked as Ed Kienholz’ assistant. While helping Kienholz assemble his great pieces, Bowen was also developing his own style of painting.

Immersed in esoteric philosophy and in his own naivistic but forceful paintings, Bowen hung out with beatniks in San Francisco and, a decade later, was a proto-hippie who helped manifest the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in 1967 (and many other historical events). Together with Allen Cohen, he published the legendary underground paper the San Francisco Oracle, which was instrumental in spreading the radical hippie gospel. Remember the famous press photos of hippies stuffing soldiers’ guns with flowers at a peace rally by the Pentagon in Washington? The thousands of flowers were bought by Bowen, to spin the ”flower power” concept he had helped coin in San Francisco onwards.

From there and on, Bowen lived a nomadic life in America, Asia and Europe. Strangely enough (or not), towards the end of his life he wound up in a suburb of Stockholm with his family and a small entourage. He painted away and gladly talked about his art and his life experience. At the time I dropped by to see him, he was suffering from severe back pains. Morphine seemed to help out a bit, but this also affected his focus a great deal. He would often drift away into another ”zone” and then come back and carry on where he left off. Or perhaps this was just the self-styled magician checking out some parallel universe while at the same chatting away about art and life?

No matter what, Michael Bowen died in Stockholm in 2009. I’m very happy to have met a man who was instrumental in many great counter-cultural events and happenings in those explosive decades of contemporary American history. What follows here is a transcript of our talk on November 17th, 2006.

What attracted you to painting specifically in the beginning?

I was interested in drawing and painting since the age of six. I was never interested in anything else at all. My father was both a doctor and a dentist. He kept his office in Beverly Hills and the house there as well. He was also known as what they called in those days a “Sportsman”. Meaning he owned a few great old prizefighters, had a pleasure boat he and his Hollywood friends would go on to fish, drink, and party with each other. He also loved airplanes and had two of them that held about eight people each. I guess I was an original “Beverly Hills kid”. Your question “What attracted you to painting specifically in the beginning?” is a complicated yet simple question for me. Everything attracted me. Now as then I want to know everything I can about everything I see. As for painting or assembling things from my experiences, I have never done anything else.

Your question really is a funny question for me. The idea makes me want to laugh. In fact, I am laughing as you can see because such a funny question is so often put to me. The truth is that I have never done anything else in my life except create art. But I don’t mind this funny question, because it reminds me that I am talking to you now rather than working on the big painting on the easel behind me. And I like to talk with you. It is like a little vacation. Usually I become so absorbed in my work that I don’t really care much about anything else. I could spend 24 hours out of the day just painting in the studio or anywhere. And this kind of studio action is not like work at all yet I suppose it seems like very hard work to the few people who see me paint. Only when my body tells me it is tired do I understand that making art is actually definitely hard work. I make these images because I have to. If I did not I would go nuts. All these images crammed in my brain with nowhere to go would be torture. Very exquisite torture, which I would not care for. The very few times I could not work for a day were awful.

If I painted only for money, I would be one of the thousands of commercial artists.  There is a huge difference between a fine artist and a commercial artist. My interest has always been in the fine arts. van Gogh and Gauguin believed that somewhere in the world there was purity in people untouched by civilization. I do not believe that. I think that there is purity in everyone, everywhere. And that this purity can be found by the people themselves. I paint pictures because I am driven to paint. I like to record what is around me. Sometimes I become interested in my own work long after I made the picture. My observation at the time I made the work has become deeper than my awareness of it at the time I made it. When I see the picture later, it might even turn out to be prophetic.

There is a poster over there in the corner of the studio from a show in Italy in 1998. It’s a painting called Eurabia. It was created because when I came to Florence from our villa above the city I liked very much to have Cappuccinos and sit and watch the people in the Piazza de la Republica in Florence. While I was having coffee, drawing and thinking, I would watch the people in the Piazza. I felt like an art spy while I recorded what I was watching. It didn’t really dawn on me what it was that I was actually seeing until later in the studio. Then one night I picked up a magazine from America with a piece by the journalist Oriana Fallaci. She had moved to America because she claimed Europe was being cleverly re-invaded by Muslims. I looked at the painting and there it all was. In the picture are the black people from Africa running from the cops because they were selling cheap sunglasses on the street. They looked like beautiful gazelles running in herds from the cops on horseback trying to catch them in the crowd. The handsome Carabinieri could never catch them. The Africans disappeared like genies into their hidden bottles. There were many people in Western clothing but you could tell clearly that it was a Muslim family. There were many of these people in the crowds I was watching. When I saw Oriana Fallaci’s statement, I realized what I had painted. In this way the painting was titled. After the fact, not before it. That seems to be the way I work. I usually do not think before I make a picture.

You started out early with your vocation.

Yes. I always went to private male only schools. Almost all Military Academies. If I was caught drawing I was punished, usually beaten. I kept right on drawing anyway. So much for the paper tiger of authority. They have no power unless they have your mind and/or your body under their control. Even then, they can always be conquered. I feel I am a living example of that great lie they spread about themselves.

Were you eager to show your stuff to others early on or was it more like a cathartic process for you personally?

I wanted to show my art if it was an easy and simple process. I have never been interested in scrambling after a career. For me, that is a low thing.  If it comes to you and you help it out, that is OK. We have to make a living somehow. At the same time, I am not a studio painter. I like to travel around the world. If I would like to get enough to get a ticket to go somewhere to live there long enough to paint something then I project for it. I put it in my mind as a thing already done. Then I do not wonder about it – I just let it cook. Eventually the law of probability produces the ticket and anything else you need. All great yogis know this and they pass it on. I am a lucky person from that point of view. But then I have had great teachers.

If I may say so, I am not someone who sits in a studio trying to find out what the next fashion’s going to be. I have never done such a thing. However I don’t want to make an attack on the art world. It is attackable enough. Besides it is boring and not worth it. The bottom line of commercial galleries is money of course.

I have had people who have shown my work and have discovered that some types of my work will sell faster. They would come to me and say ”Look, why don’t you paint this some more?” The first time I ever heard that, I was so shocked I got drunk. And drinking is something I really don’t personally care for. I had a show in San Francisco and there were many people there. This was after the Beat period. The Beat galleries did not care at all about this bottom line money horror and that is why they are famous today and the others forgotten. I could not believe anyone would ask me to do such a thing. To paint another painting like the one that had sold. I might do that if I wanted to, but not for money reasons. I told the dealer that I just could not do it. He asked me if I was unable to copy my own work. That shocked me even more. In addition, it really pissed me off. He asked me the same question again. I just got up and walked out. I picked up all my work at his gallery that day and never spoke to him again.

Bowen at work, Saltsjö-Boo. © Carl A 2006

Do you think you were affected then by the attitude or integrity of Kienholz?

No. Those people were very interested in making money. Not Wally Berman or people like that. Ed Kienholz and others, yes. I don’t want to give a lot of names. But it was great that Ed did that. There would be no powerful form of assemblage art if it had not been for him. There is no question about it. He may have been an automobile salesman who stumbled into a bunch of Bohemians in LA... At least that’s the way it all began for him, but what matters is that he discovered a way to express what he saw. And what he saw America needed to hear and see. I lived with Ed when I was 16  and 17. We paid $7 a month for our place. An old ceramic studio behind Dutch Darrin’s Auto Studio on Santa Monica Boulevard, a block from Barney’s Beanery where we all hung out. The mental hospital piece in Stockholm’s Modern Museum… I helped him make that, in the sense of screwing and glueing things together.

As far as money, me and LA is concerned, I had just run away forever from Beverly Hills, the place half the world wants to live in or at least smell or hear about. So Ed’s friends, great artists that they were, mostly came from backwater America. I couldn’t really blame them for wanting a piece of the pie. American pie. But I already had my fill of it. What these guys did between themselves was perfectly understandable. The fact that they sat down and figured out among themselves that ”We’re artists, we’re broke, we’re going to make it financially and we’re not going to depend on some lying art dealers for our future. We are going to work out a process by which we help each other quietly. And we’re going to advance that way, very quickly like a Blitzkrieg through the art world.” And that was exactly what they did. And that is exactly why I left Los Angeles!

I was just a kid and I was watching this bunch of people doing the most fantastic things I had ever seen in my entire life. And they were sitting there plotting how to take these incredible things into a whole other world. The world of money and crooks I had just escaped from. There is nothing wrong with that. It is a business thing that they had to do or they would just die on the vine like grapes in a blistering sun. However, to me, there was no romance in it. 500 miles north, there was a city of romance. I knew about it because I had gone there with my mother and her lover when we weren’t visiting Las Vegas, where he was building The Flamingo Hotel and Casino (the mother’s lover was noone less than the iconic underworld entrepreneur Benjamin ”Bugsy” Siegel/ed.). We used to drive to San Francisco and that is when I first discovered that the projection of a kind of fairyland was real. I was only eight years old then and I was drawing then in San Francisco. I did some of my first drawings in the bar of the Drake Hotel. The Drake was the “in” place to stay with the Sportsmen crowd when they came to San Francisco. The Drake Hotel is still there, still shiny and fabulous. Those were the days when an eight year old boy could wait all day if he needed to, drawing pictures on the table in the plush leather seats of the Drake Tavern.

What about the interest in esoteric matters? Where did that come from?

My grandmother was an early member of the Theosophical Society. The Society set up their headquarters organization in Madras, India, and then in other places over time. One was a very beautiful property in Ojai, California, just south of Santa Barbara. They put together beautiful properties and their whole interest was in the esoteric meaning behind metaphysical thought and modern art. I was fully involved with that. There was no religion in any part of my family. We are not genetically or racially religious. My family was not even atheist. However, my grandmother was extraordinarily interested in the question of how this miracle happened.

How did we get into this situation? The situation is very simple. We are alive in bodies. If that is not a miracle, I do not know what is. It was difficult to attain, because I was not with my grandmother every day. It was hard to get to be with her. I was with her as much as I possibly could from the time I was a baby. I saw things from the point of view of the Gita, the Mahabharata and other literature as a child. Later on in life, I discovered the same things I had discovered already as a baby. It all started to make sense. Sometimes when people write about my work, they call me a ”mystic artist”. I am not really a mystic anything. I have come to believe that there is something called magic. That is when things happen and everything just is. You can take it apart, have all kinds of ideas about it, and even mystify it. Maybe they should describe me as a mystified artist?

To be a mystic artist would be almost a paradox. For a mystic everything should be contained.

Yes, I think that is valid.

When were your esoteric interests consciously included in your art?

Usually in times of crisis. Always in times of crisis. There is always crisis. You think everything is going along just smoothly and then some weird crisis comes along. It comes from the left field. During times of crisis, you become more metaphysically oriented or aware. It is like people walking in a daze. They are hit over the head but cannot remember it. It is like amnesia. We do not remember what happened before we took our first gulp of air. Someone took us out of the inside of the body of somebody else. We were mixed together in that alchemical container, the womb. So then, you can get out safely with a little help. You get some air, air that exists around this tiny planet. The planet is like dust. If you look in a telescope, you really see spots of dust called planets and galaxies. On this particular spot of dust that we are living on there is this tiny layer of stuff that we have to gulp right away. The miracle has given me a voice box that has the right bones so I can push my face around so that it pushes the air out again and so that I can make a word. It travels across the space-time across to where your ear is, which another piece of machinery is ready to receive information. It really is very slow.

But it works.

Art works faster but yes, it works. It works for now. However, it does not work in outer space. When we get off this planet and believe me, brother, we are leaving... As the Tibetan lamas have been telling us for a long time, everything is impermanent. Now we have built machines that go around the earth and have great eyes. It can send us back images and we know that stars are born and stars collapse. We now know that everything is as impermanent as those Tibetan lamas have been telling us for 2500 years and other people too before that. However, no one believed it. The scientific accuracy of it all is that we are living in an impermanent reality. In death, there is oblivion, nothing else. All over. That means that this situation right now cannot be happening. Because what formed it? One can just go on forever like that... Our consciousness is permanent. It is unborn. It has always been there. That thought process ends up in my paintings. You can start that thought process from the simple fact that you have to breathe air outside of a womb, which is created for you to be mixed and grow in. Every single one of us goes through this. So... Here we are. And that’s it.

I agree! While we’re on the subject of impermanence... For you as an artist, what has been your major development? Is it mainly stylistic or having to do with content?

That is a big question for an artist. It’s basically saying ”Can you draw better now than when you were nine years old?” It’s also saying ”Do you have anything to tell anybody that’s more intelligent than when you were 12 years old?” The answer to both questions is no.

Nevertheless, there is also a yes, because what happens is that I have become able to get across what I knew was true when I was 14 much better now. As far as being able to draw something or build something, the same is true. The more you practice it, the more proficient you become, the more subtle you become and more aware of other people’s consciousness. You get better at getting a point across. In my life there are points that stand out. Some are so strange that I hesitate to talk about them. Others are so simple that they sound strange in their simplicity. Here is an example. My life as a child in Beverly Hills was miserable from the point of view of being a child. However, from the point of view of having things like Cadillacs crowd your driveway and have people make your clothes by hand and black people who are there to clean your shoes and your house, weed the flower beds… That was the world to me in those days before the new worlds were discovered with their infinite possibilities. The memory, at least when it doesn’t wake me screaming as a nightmare, I sometimes call “Long ago in Beverly Hills.”

Anyway. One warm, hot day I was feeling very alone. More alone than usual. I walked up in the Hollywood Hills and I decided to give myself to the universe. It sounds very childish and simple.

I think it sounds very mature!

I almost feel embarrassed when I try to relate it now. I went up there. I took off all my clothes. If someone found you naked in those days, you would end up in the madhouse. I lay in the sun and spread my legs and arms out like the da Vinci-drawing. And I gave up. There is not much you can say about that. That was all there was to it. After a while, I got up, got my clothes on and wandered back down to Sunset Boulevard. Then I went back to the house with the black people who were just waiting to do nice things for me. I did not know anything else back then. But it was not long before I discovered jazz and I discovered real black people. I discovered that they lived actually lived somewhere except on a bus. All I knew was that they got on a bus in the morning and came into Beverly Hills and my house then later they all walked back to the bus stop and went somewhere. This went on day after day. I escaped with the black people one day on the bus. I had never been on a bus. Somehow, I got to Laurel Canyon and the artists. I was happy about that. I’m still happy about it.

Things have changed. However, in an impermanent world, this is to be expected. People are still causing suffering for each other. Unfortunately, they have not realized yet that this is not a good thing to do. Again, we have the Tibetan lamas or the Christian saints or whoever... Saying there is suffering and we all experience that. Why? Let us try to not keep that up. Then you think about peace and what is peaceful and then you read about people hurting each other and causing horrible suffering. This is foolish and unnecessary and I hope my paintings reflect that. One cannot expect truth to be understood by very many people. Nevertheless, you can project for this to happen. Some of the people who caused suffering for other people are called heroes. This is insane and I try to show this in my art I hope. Other monsters are called saints. It is unfortunate. The least suffering possible is the best thing.

"Maybe they should describe me as a mystified artist?" Photo © Carl A 2006

Is it possible for you to define your art?

That’s very difficult. It’s hard for me to define it. The paintings are very different. 

How much of your work would you say is talismanic?

Every bit of it. But I’m not sitting here making talismans. People keep telling me that they see something new all the time. The most common thing I hear from people that have my work is that it changes all the time. People see things and they ask me about things that are talismanic. Many people have for some reason found something in my work that they happen to have experienced. They feel they have a bond with the picture. They feel that something is living in the picture. Moreover, these people are not crazy. They ask me what it means.

If it is of any help in understanding my work you can know that I am very familiar with Tarot cards. My mentor John Starr Cooke taught me about the real esoteric aspects of Tarot, beginning in 1960. I can see that in my work. When one uses a tarot deck, one is trying to get some kind of answer from the cards. That is not why I paint pictures. Nevertheless, it is the same thing in a way. When people come to me with questions that are really for the tarot that puts me in a kind of spot. I definitely do not want to be anybody’s guru. The only thing I want to be against is suffering. 

The Tarot is a very systematised and esthetic tool. Art and paintings affect through estehtics. Do you think the human mind needs to be opened up by, for instance, art in order to be able to perceive something higher and deeper?

Definitely. When there’s a war usually the first thing that happens is that the art is protected so that it doesn’t get blown up or broken or stolen. Why does anyone protect the art that’s on cave walls? Because it’s valuable to us. It’s the key to the unconscious and, beyond that, to the connective unconscious. Jung was a very smart dude with his collective unconscious and he was close to coming up with the connective unconscious. As a race and through machinery we’re developing a connective unconscious. Computers and the Internet are parts of that. It’s a precursor to the connective consciousness, where you have accurate communication. It’s much faster to go from brain to brain. Ingo Swann is an interesting guy in that respect. Uri Geller is another guy I know from correspondence. To a degree, we communicate. He does not fully know yet what is happening to him.

It is all coming about and it has to do with evolution. We are evolving because the life-force wants to survive. Lamas and other people have known the truth for a long time. In fact, in the 60s a bunch of hippies knew the truth. They told the truth but they were weird so nobody wanted to believe them. 30 years later, it is a different story. I illustrated a magazine 30 years ago telling exactly what is going to happen to the planet if we don’t stop screwing it up. Now we are at the point where they’re all hysterical about climate change. They should have listened to the freaks back then! The people didn’t act or look like the average people so they just didn’t believe them. The life-force definitely wants to continue on, so it’s building escape pods. That’s what the space process is all about. The Internet is another thing. Remember Benjamin Franklin and his experiments with conducting electricity.

My friend John Lilly experimented with implants in the brain. The scientists back then did not care about how the monkeys suffered during the experiments they conducted. Lilly developed a painless way of inserting implants in their brains. It is all part of a gigantic life-force attempt to maintain itself and to live. Life is a very wonderful thing. It is very groovy. Suffering or no suffering, it is just very groovy. The way it is moving right now is that there is a lot of fear among people deep in their psyche. People have fear because they did not believe the freaks. They did not listen to the people they should have listened to. Now, they have to catch up. My paintings are about that too. People should carefully pay attention to my paintings. They should examine the stimulation they experience and they should activate their own creative power.

Speaking of catching up... All of the things you’ve been involved in – the Beat thing, the flower power thing – these are all mementoes, leaving things and traces for people to catch later... One couldn’t demand at the time that everyone should get it. Everyone wasn’t on acid, for example, although many were.

You did not have to use the drug. It was a question of sympathetic feelings. Of feeling for other sufferers. Flowers are among the most beautiful things that this planet produces. Yes, I did call press conferences and we were facing the dilemma of how to tell these hardened reporters about this next thing that is going to be really impossible for them to understand. We were not going to demonstrate against things we hated. We were going to celebrate life. But they were never going to understand that. The only way to do it was by using a different strategy. I had a press conference set in San Francisco, about the Human Be-In. What to do?

One beautiful morning after a fun, playful night I woke up. The sun came through the window and it hit a little flower that someone had put in a little glass. It was absolutely the most exquisite thing I’d ever seen. Then I knew immediately what to do. We got as much money together as we could. We all went out and got as many flowers as we could. The people from my house came back with bushels of flowers. When the press conference came, all these cynical, hardened reporters came up to Haight Street. There were so many beautiful girls there, their arms full of flowers. They were placing them everywhere. Every reporter was handed some flowers. What are you going to do? You see these hippies and you do not know where their heads are at. So you suddenly have these flowers in one hand and your notebook in the other... The whole room smelled so magnificently. It was just an incredible weapon of love. That did it. The reporters wrote about”flower power” and about how dumb these fools (us) were. However, what they did not realize was that they were doing what we wanted them to do.

Then there was that other photo with flowers going down the rifle barrels. I had gotten $500 worth of daisies in Washington, DC. There was a terrible war, millions were killed. That was the point of the demonstrations in general, to protest. Soldiers were treated really badly. I observed all that during the war. I hated to see it. Due to a complete accident, I found myself in a position of responsibility in Washington at the demonstration. We had done it in San Francisco with the flowers, so I thought we should do it here too. I thought those rows of soldiers with their guns half-ready would make an awfully nice place to put some flowers in the rifle barrels. It reminded me of that morning in San Francisco when I was sitting in my room and watching that flower. I was living in Mexico after the Human Be-In and didn’t expect to come back up to the States. But I did. I managed to get Peggy Hitchcock give me the money to buy the flowers. She sympathized with it and understood it. I dragged them up there. It was just me trying to figure out what to do. We dragged the flowers up through the huge crowd in front of the Pentagon. I was able to hand them out and that was how it happened.

Hitchcock was quite a benefactor for the early psychedelicists. Very much so for Timothy Leary. Did you also hang out at Hitchcock’s Millbrook estate?

Leary was a tricky guy. He was a scientist and at the time, everything was legal. LSD and other synthetic substances were legal all over the world then. I was not up at Millbrook because of that though. I had my studio in New York and I visited some other friends up there. One of them was Peter Fonda, the actor. Leary asked if we would like to try this substance. Both Peter and I said sure. He gave us small shot glasses of whisky and evidently, he had put some LSD in there. Peter and I are sitting there in this beautiful big room, comfortable. It’s around lunch time and I’m hungry. Tim came by and watched us laugh and talk about Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. I mentioned that I was hungry and Leary said he’d be right back. He comes back with a tray with bowls of alphabet soup. By that time, I was not seeing or hearing things as I normally do. There were sounds within sounds within sounds and colours and people were echoing when they were talking. The murals had beautiful hunt scenes because Millbrook was an old mansion and the horses came alive. I was suddenly in 16th century Europe. In addition, we’d just been talking about Beverly Hills. Leary had served us both alphabet soup. You can imagine... The soup was spelling out all kinds of different things... It was quite interesting. To say the least!

You’ve moved around a great deal. Is that necessary for you, inspiration-wise? What kind of inspiration are you finding here in Sweden?

Do I need to move around to be able to work? The answer is yes, I do. As the years go by in this body I find I need to move more and more. I also love children. I’m much older than my wife, almost 38 years older than her. We wanted a baby. She saved my life. I had a heart attack from smoking too many stupid cigarettes. She saved my life a year or so after we first met. They fixed me up in the hospital in San Francisco. I was happy that I wasn’t living in the jungle then. She told me that she wanted to have a baby. I didn’t give it a second thought, I just said OK, sure. We had our baby in San Francisco. My wife comes from Florence and we wanted to go back to Europe. We gave up our place in San Francisco which was very hard for me to do. But off to Florence we went. Florence is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Moving is very important for me, even if it’s within the same city. Moving around the world is my way of life. After you’ve done it for so long, I guess it becomes your way of life.
"People have fear because they did not believe the freaks." Photo © Carl A 2006

Buy FANZINERA (Sweden)!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Mara: Unconscious unconsciousness?

Angelica Jansson in Mara, 2012 

When I was 16 or so, I made a black and white super 8 horror movie called White Light or something like that (no reference to the Velvet Underground there, sadly). A beautiful blonde (played by a class mate of mine and incidentally the daughter of one of the members of the Swedish Academy) woke up in cold sweat after having dreamt that she was chased by a vampire, only to realise – of course! – that it was no dream at all. Et cetera. Heard it all before? I’m sure you have, as it’s the most puerile horror movie concept or gimmick ever. And it never ends, does it?

Recently I saw a Swedish ”made for DVD” movie called Mara (Kondrup, Hedberg, Gustafsson, 2012), where the very same plot thickens (sans vampires) until it’s impossible to see anything beyond it. Jenny (Angelica Jansson), a blonde 20-something, recalls the trauma of watching her mother kill her father as she returns to the very same house to party with some friends. Strange things happen, the music grows scarier, and young eyes stare in fright this-a-way and that-a-way. And yes, there’s splatter carnage and some tits too.

We can see some fairly decent performances by these amateur actors (the leading lady’s claim to fame is that she’s been in Playboy Magazine) and overall the film looks good. Actually very good. Someone has worked on it. The sets (basically an old farm and inside the house in question) are well lit, there’s (slow paced) continuity and the sound design and music does actually set an atmosphere of horror quite well.

But there’s also something undefined in the film that makes me wonder if it’s conscious or not: a slow-paced, drawn out anti-dramaturgy, in which I find myself looking for something to fill in the voids. It’s not slow enough to turn you (or the film) off, but it’s still so lethargic it makes me wonder if it’s there to create some kind of extra ultra-tension. For instance, the scenes in which Jenny is interrogated by some police officer are bizarrely theatrical and drawn out. If we had some Angelo Badalamenti on top, the atmosphere would be called ”Lynchesque”. Now it’s just a mystery. I’d say the filmmakers have managed to achieve an unconscious emotional film state unconsciously.

Actually, when I think about the film, it’s weird enough to pass as an art film. There’s such a defiance when it comes to the narrative logic, and the slick cinematography and contemporary video effects add on to an impression of not as much ”suspension of disbelief” as ”suspension of belief”. In that sense, it’s worth seeing. You can add your own flavour because in itself the film is floating on a clinically reflective surface.

Take a large portion of the Electra Complex, add a presumably great love of horror movies (there’s even a slyly hidden hint at the theme of the Halloween score in the closing sequence), mix it with absolutely decent production values for such a low-budget film and you have Mara.

It’s not good but it could have been worse. I hope the people involved integrate two things the next time that are absolutely essential to moviemaking: interesting actors and a good script with twists and unexpected turns. Mara unfortunately has neither and will therefore, I suspect, be remembered as a sketch of something to come. But in all fairness I have to say that I’d gladly sit down to watch their next film.

You can buy your own copy of this film at SUB DVD. The film is in Swedish but has English subtitles.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hermann Nitsch: Prinzendorf is my Bayreuth!

Hermann Nitsch in the chapel at Prinzendorf. © Carl A 2004

Although the Wiener Aktionisten did not constitute an entirely homogenous group, there were certainly enough similarities between them to be regarded as one entity or movement by art history. But after the first seminal decade of provocative work, circa 1965-1975, the main protagonists – Hermann Nitsch, Otto Muhl, Günther Brus and Rudolph Schwarzkogler (who died already in 1969) – drifted apart in more ways than one.

Hermann Nitsch kept on working and working with his Aktionen, slowed down temporarily only by depression after his first wife had died in a car crash. When he eventually returned from passivity, there was no holding back whatsoever. The Aktionen, as well as the resulting documentations (videos, paintings, CDs etc), became more elaborate, more intricate and more and more mythically charged.

Not only were the specific themes dealt with increasingly uncomfortable (for some). The fact that ample amounts of blood have always been an integral part of Nitsch’s work has perhaps been the most controversial aspect of his Aktionen. Politicians to the far right and far left, animal activists and religious fanatics have all had their negative say in the matter. In no way has that stopped Herr Nitsch from manifesting his vision.

The greatest Spiel this far has been the Sechs Tage Spiel in 1998, held at the artist’s Schloss Prinzendorf just North of Vienna. Since then, only site specific smaller performances and Aktionen have been held, not at all comparable in any way to the 1998 epic. This year (2004), however, there was a resurgence in high level ambition at Prinzendorf. In early August, Nitsch orchestrated his own version of Parsifal.

Originally, Nitsch had been invited to stage Wagner’s Parsifal at the Vienna Opera, but nothing ever came out of that. Instead, he decided to concoct his own Gesamtkunstwerk based on the Holy Grail Quest, claiming that ”Prinzendorf is my Bayreuth!”

When you’re in the midst of an ”Aktion”, there is no way to escape the plethora of psychedelic impressions – unless you leave the premises of course. But there and then it’s an overwhelming experience. The two day Parsifal Aktion 2004 in many ways constituted not only another ambitious Nitsch Aktion, the 120th, but also a return to a proto-European mystery tradition. What could be felt at Prinzendorf was not so much the psycho-sexual angst that Wagner relied on in his version, but rather a daring manifestation of the earth- and alchemical mysteries that constitute Parsifal’s cleansing from the very moment he denies Kundry her much wanted casual sex.

There was of course plenty of music on the castle premises, played diligently by strings, brass, percussion, electronics and the surroundings in themselves. Nitsch’s music is elaborate and cosmic, striving to provoke even the harmony of the spheres – monotonous at times, but always multifaceted. And always revealing new structures within structures. The conductor looked like an athlete, lovingly fighting with the different brought-in orchestras in the 30° C heat. The impressions were, as mentioned before, overwhelming.

Some 30-40 whiteclad assistants helped out as Nitsch dictated silently and with an occasional blowing in his whistle. Everything was perfectly disciplined, and it was easy to see that this was needed. The control of all the goings-on requires a skilled mind and a drilled crew. As one phase ends, say a blessing of Parsifal on the Schloss courtyard, another one begins in, for example, the small Chapel inside the castle. It’s simply impossible to grasp everything. One can drift between developments but never really see or take in everything.

Carcasses of pigs and one great bull were brought to the Castle by local butchers. The splitting open of the bull is a Nitsch classic. Although it’s not totally obvious what this has to do with Parsifal per se, that perspective becomes totally redundant when you’re in the midst of it all. Nitsch uses the same gimmicks and his own modus operandi throughout all of his art because that’s his language. Simple as that. Different stories or myths are recounted, but always very distinctly in Nitsch’s own brutal language.

The display of death is in Nitsch’s case always an affirmation and appreciation of life, no matter what his detractors try to convey. The more than generous use of blood in performance and painting is indeed part of an orgy, but in no way an escapistic one. The life force flows on from beginning to end. And, even then, onwards.

After a full day’s worth of huge spears in procession, deafening music, the pigs’ and a bull’s bodies on display, their entrails and blood meshed into various crucified Amfortas and Parsifals, things wound down late at night. The intricate web of blessings, sacrifices, rituals and atonements was now suddenly filled with miasmic memories and imposant impressions.

The final alchemical union between Parsifal and his consort took place in the Schloss’ wine cellar. After the ejaculatory fireworks of Magnesium had been lit, an assistant displayed an Athanor-kind of destillation glass piece, and the Summum Bonum of the Grail descended upon everyone present, including, of course, Herr Nitsch himself.

The evening ended in merry modes and moods, as a naked Parsifal was carried, together with a four meter spear pointing to the sky, on a platform over the affluent fields of Prinzendorf and down to the local Festplatz. A traditional Austrian Marsch band provided the musical entertainment and the night got darker and darker and drunker and drunker...

Day two was the fine-tuned balancing of the previous day’s onslaught of ferocious action. Peace and (almost) quiet! Great food and drink were enjoyed, beautiful and more serene music played and even the weather gods played along by providing slightly chillier temperatures. There was a genuine sentiment of joy present.

(This text was originally written in 2004 for a Swedish cultural magazine who turned it down. Nitsch, it seems, is not for everyone!)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Antibothis 4: The occultural stew is hot!

Antibothis Occultural Anthology Volume 4 is now available, with contributions from myself, Chad Hensley, Polly Superstar, Crimethinc, Z’ev, Trevor Brown, Raymond Salvatore Harmon, Ewen Chardronnet, Joe Coleman, Karl Buechner (Earth Crisis’ lead singer), Júlio Mendes Rodrigo, V. Vale (RE/Search Pubs), Robin Rimbaud (Scanner), Francisco Lopez, Mason Jones (Charnel Music), André Coelho (Sektor 304), Joe Ambrose, DJ Balli and Adolf Marx.

As usual with this excellent Portuguese anthology, we find ourselves positioned in a gap between the old and the new on many levels. The occultural, post-industrial (as in the music/subculture, not as in general history), avant garde environment swings easily between play and philosophy, between genuine transformation and abstracted discourse, between pure experimentation and thorough thinking. Most of it is still fairly fresh, I have to say. If there’s some kind of code that unites these disparate voices, it’s an antithetical stance against the passive collective, expressed in eloquent experiments. Single voices spewing out disdain or frustration in honest, poetical and sometimes scary bursts.

What’s the point? Well, perhaps to reflect that even stern individualists need to be in touch with similars. As fodder for continued thinking and as an example of this kind of outsider networking, Antibothis does a great job. In a fragmented world like ours, that’s not a bad thing at all.
My contribution to the stew is A Mega Golem Official, written for Vicki Bennett’s Radio Boredcast project in 2012. It’s another limb (actually a very special kind of gristle) in the magical being that is evolving entirely out of art. By reading the text, you also contribute to its birth. I cannot guarantee the result but I applaud your courage in partycipating.
”Now, what exactly is it that I do? Am I in the right position? Well, I look and see and then I recount in my own way. This has happened, take it or leave it. I used to think this was escapism or a psychological-emotional fulfilment, but it’s not. It’s about making a contribution to the unlimited collage, the Quantum Quilt, that is the overall human existence on this planet and in this omniverse. History writing in four or even more dimensions. Yes, I write, I read, I cast an occasional spell, I aspire, I inspire, I take pictures, I make pictures like reflection surfaces, I’m the Mega Golem’s cock and balls – a really privileged position to be in, I should add – and I enjoy it more than I dare to even admit (probably for superstitious reasons).”
You can listen to my friend Thomas Tibert’s aural magic treatment of this text c/o the wonderful entity WFMU. Our collaboration here actually makes this the latest/last Cotton Ferox transmission… Ever? We shall see, you shall hear.
The CD compilation that comes with the anthology is curated by Philipe-Petit from the innovative French record label Bip-hop and includes: Scanner & Sci-cut.db, Murcof, Bela Emerson reworked by Same Actor, Israel Martinez, PAS & If, Bwana, The Stargazer's Assistant, Michel Banabila & Philippe Petit, Cindytalk, Xambuca, Kk Null, Mark Beazley, and Machinefabriek.
Scanner’s trip-hoppy, slowmotion-paintballing anthem ”My Lip Cam” is my current favourite. Very simple in structure, yet very atmospheric and intense. Xambuca is also truly great. A very edgy and electric track, increasing in energy as it progresses onwards. On the whole, this CD is pretty predictable and symptomatic of this environment: a mix of (dark) ambient, musique concrète and experimental electronics. But it’s all enjoyable stuff and definitely a good soundtrack to the textual material, which is basically (dark) ambient, musique concrète and experimental electronics in word form. Dive right in!