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The Other Side

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Joachim Koester, The Magical Mirror of John Dee, 2006, silver gelatin print, 25.5 x 33.5 cm, courtesy of the artist

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Occult art has come a long way since the manipulation of photographic plates and painters responding to supposed dictates from the spirit world. Many contemporary artists are turning to the unseen to evoke a sense of historical space.

In the 16th century, the English scientist John Dee, keen to explore the possibilities of communicating with the dead, but not being himself blessed with the gift of second sight, hired a necromancer, Edward Kelley, to pick up images from the otherworld. Kelley started to discourse in a trance with demons and angels who spoke of a lost language called Enochian. Initiated into this supernatural realm, Dee then started to map out, as Joachim Koester writes in relation to his photograph The Magical Mirror of John Dee (2006), ‘a mental landscape with numerous celestial cities inhabited by angels, and, further out, beyond four watchtowers, swarms of demons’ (1). The black mirror and the crystal ball used by Dee and Kelley during the seven years of séances it took them to transcribe Enochian, now sit in a glass case in the British Museum. Koester’s close-up photograph of the depthless mirror shows minute scratches worming across its surface that a myriad white spots have turned into an infinite starry night. ‘Here’, Koester writes, ‘the imperial architecture of the museum is reflected in miniature by the crystal ball, while the visitor’s gaze is greeted by a dark absence when it encounters the mirror. A blank surface that, although mute, seems to emanate a narrative persistence not unlike a photograph.’ Mute and obscure, yet persistently driving us to look for new and hidden meaning.

The paranormal – with its associated, quasi-erotic heightening of the senses – has always tapped into our emotions, hopes and fears. In terms of media, however, we have progressed from the black mirror: one need only observe the numerous television shows offering clairvoyance, soothsaying and celebrity ghost stories. The popularity of such programs in recent years suggests the occult has a wide-ranging appeal, attracting more than just goths and pulp aficionados. As Guy Debord predicted in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), we now hover in a kind of limbo where no real development or change can take place because society represses the past and fears the future; no wonder there is a big market for the unseen. With the current war in Iraq and the impending threat of ecological disaster, the period since 9/11 is perhaps the first moment in history since the Vietnam War that harbours a global sense of tragedy. In such circumstances, the power structure of the western cultural canon – in its current incarnation a peculiar hybrid between religious delirium and the rationalist basis prescribed by the Enlightenment – is open to critical attack. This might also explain why many artists have recently been turning to the unseen as a means of short-circuiting the spectacle, searching out occult gaps in modernity to evoke an acute sense of historical space.

For the 1986 exhibition ‘The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985’ at the Los Angeles County Museum, curator Maurice Tuchman offered the term ‘spiritual’ to cover the various practices that had inspired early modernist greats such as Kasimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky. However, the word ‘spiritual’ is so mired with connotation that I have opted instead for the term ‘occult’ to denote a variety of practices that don’t hang on obsolete contemplative values. The initiated may not agree to my lumping together belief systems as diverse as Satanism and paganism under the singular heading of the occult. However, it is my intention simply to point to the common features these systems share as paranormal agencies and phenomena in today’s art.

The genre of occult art has indeed come a long way since the halation of photographic plates and painters working by dictate from the spirit world. Its new forms renegotiate the visible world through what is felt and intuited, rather than through what is seen and interpreted, and even if their position on the veracity of paranormal phenomena is often elusive, most contemporary artists are not ironic or nostalgic in their use of the occult in art: rather, they see it as a means by which to opt for new ways to communicate and make things happen. Take, for example, the extravagant art activism of the Berkeley-based Center for Tactical Magic (CTM), founded by Aaron Gach in 2000. The Center is committed to the activation of latent energies toward positive social transformation. Addressing power on ‘individual, communal and transnational fronts’, CTM offers workshops in extra-sensory perception and know-your-rights awareness, and puts its Tactical Ice Cream Unit – an ice cream van painted in the anarchist colours, equipped with communications technologies and, of course, ice cream – at the disposal of grassroots activists to allow them to provide independent news services. Less pragmatic, but testing the limits of so-called neutral technologies in a similar vein, are CTM’s sessions in Marxist past-life regression. In these you are guided to your most recent working-class incarnation (which could be a long way back, of course!) or shown how to use your astral body to visit off-limit areas such as the Pentagon. In an exploration of one of the last unregulated public spaces – the astral plane – participants transcend time and space in order to uncover the unrealized socio-political potential of their former selves. CTM continues a tradition of tough frivolity developed by 1960s US protest groups such as the Yippies, now used as a critical tool against the sticky ideological ectoplasm of post-9/11 social control. And don’t think that in eternity there is no conflict between society and the individual! Moral high grounds stand to fall in anti-authoritarian projects like CTM, and the art world’s declamatory projects are also implicitly deflated. We have heard of ‘the linguistic turn’ and even of ‘the social turn’, but which theorist would announce a ‘telepathic turn’ in contemporary art? Similarly, confronted with Spiritualistic Séance Sermon (2005), a performance by medium Birgitta Tholander photographed by the Swedish artist Stig Sjölund, Postmodern staples of art criticism like ‘debunking the white cube’ and ‘deconstructing spectatorship’ don’t even begin to address what is at stake. In Spiritualistic Séance Sermon Sjölund and Tholander offered people the chance to make contact with deceased friends and family. Sitting on a stage in an auditorium, Sjölund channelled incoming energy towards Tholander, who passed on messages from the dead; animals as well as people. The apparent eagerness of those on the other side to get in touch with the living was met with enthusiasm by the emotionally raw members of the audience, who were given small quotidian warnings (‘Emma, you really need to change those tyres on the car!’) or sent greetings and comfort; typically to be told that things don’t end with death. In the strange ecstasy of this performance, Tholander’s voice bound the living to the vast absent community of the dead. Sjölund gave his reasons for working with the paranormal as being because he was simply curious about it, and that he would be able to address a different audience – among the living that is – with this kind of performance. Through the occult, it seems that art can take a position at the fringes of society, and yet at the same time communicate broadly in ways that go beyond the scope of artistic codes.

Many recent occult-based art projects displace the notion of the ‘spectral’, which has been a metaphor for all that is pseudo and non-substantial in capitalist society since it was first adopted in 19th-century literature. In such political analyses, usually of a Marxist nature, it is understood that the negativity and fraudulence of the spectral in a socially changed world can be displaced to reveal an authentic reality. However, the question is: how much is gained by denouncing capitalism as unreal? Not because capitalism is not a fake, but because it is clearly highly operative as such. Rather, then, we should examine how immaterial economies become part of material everyday experience. Occult art continues to be about hidden powers but – replacing the visual metaphor of the spectral and steering towards the embodied notion of affect – the power critique of these new takes on occult art also has a very direct relationship with (human) energy. Affect (or what Michel Foucault and other thinkers have called ‘bio-politics’) is a key term to describe how an advanced capitalism administrates society by using life itself as its resource. This is obvious in a technologically sophisticated world where money is made by the ways in which we are hooked up to one another through electronic and digital spheres of exchange. Indeed, affect cannot be seen, but can most definitely be felt – since it is the sensory perception, the expressive and emotional activities, that comprise our subjectivity. As immediate modes of sensual response, characterised by an accompanying imaginative dimension, affect describes our ability to produce and consume in ways in which we invest our desire and creativity. This is what is called immaterial production, yet the effects are far from ethereal when disincarnate intelligences claw into our bodies in a force field where reality and representation are violently separated. The affective turn taken by the new occult art also subverts existing notions of alienation: think of what Fredric Jameson called the waning of affect, by which he argued that the late capitalist world had converted everything into surface (2). Instead, we are more likely witnessing an increase of affect and inhabiting somatic states of heightened preparedness. Not everybody would like to have their self-understanding as reasonable beings tested by an occult artwork, perhaps. Yet art on the edge of the real and the rational is nothing compared to the way an advanced capitalism resonates in our nervous systems.

Like other art forms that might be considered excessive – psychedelic art or science fiction, for instance, which connect to what is outside of what can be known and are sensed through explorative forms of speculation and behaviour – this new occult art urges us to raise the stakes and find out how we can create new transmissions of affect. This is something we can share because it is in the air and we are in the mood for it. This desire to bring back some body and soul in a world of logistics is filtered through its deep-rooted libertarianism – in the spirit of the Devil’s helper in Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel The Master and Margarita (c. 1937), who, faced with a bureaucratic social order, scoffs ‘I don’t belong to any “organisation”’.

Following in the spirit of Sigmar Polke’s painting Höhere Wesen befahlen: rechte obere Ecke schwarz malen! (Higher Powers command: paint the upper right corner black!, 1969), recent occult art procedures do not only make for subject matter but can also become methodology. For example, the German/Polish artist Maria M. Loboda followed a 14th-century recipe for a Satanist anti-love spell in her work The Grand Conjuration of Lucifuge Rofocale (2006). According to the spell, in order to get a loving couple to separate, you need fine steel, white wood, green ribbons, camphor, brandy, half gold-plated walnuts, verbena and goat’s skin. Presenting the spell as an installation, Loboda articulated its ingredients in the established formats of modern art, arriving at a suite of scruffy objects that ranged from an inscrutable triangle of goat’s skin, to a large wooden floor sculpture reminiscent of an Arts and Crafts version of a Tony Smith, to the innocent-looking pair of walnuts on which the spell was cast. The Grand Conjuration… develops a kind of paranoid hermeneutics that inverts formalism: contrary to appearances, these objects are not autonomous and self-referential but are instead over-determined with meaning – to a degree that is sure to raise the viewer’s pulse in expectation of devilish influences. Happily for the world’s lovers, it remained a post-conceptual artwork, as Loboda never activated the spell.

When artists promote radical alterity, the potential of the unknown is acknowledged as a productive force. This also concerns what we cannot experience individually. For his 2006 exhibition ‘Kraft der Erde’ (Energy of Earth) at the Frankfurt Kunstverein, Arturas Raila continued his work with groups who are not usually represented in art spaces – in this case a community of Lithuanian esoterics, worshippers of pre-Christian mythologies. The project pivoted around Raila’s identifying and mapping the earth’s energy fields in the centre of Frankfurt, with the help of two geo-energy experts, Vaclovas Mikailionis and Vilius Gibavicius. The mapping – done the hard way by walking around with a vibrating metal hoop – produced a whole new space in the city, defined by positive and negative energy nuclei. Raila used the patterns of energy to create parameters within the exhibition, hanging his photographs of the pagan community’s ceremonies in the Lithuanian countryside according to the distribution of power lines in the gallery space. ‘Kraft der Erde’ is a community-specific art project that doesn’t take the form of activist empowerment but instead stages the co-existence of different paradigms: geo-energy versus conceptual art; planetary balance versus the white cube’s isolation; pastoral views versus the technological city. As Raila acknowledges, the notion of the occult is not ideologically innocuous. Nazism’s anti-human policies, for instance, were based in part on a mystification of energy (the ‘Aryan force’, for example). An artistic use of the occult must therefore counteract immunisation, be open to non-control and make space for what is marginalised. Indeed, some things must be believed to be seen. But when art meets the occult we can sometimes see them anyway, simply by sharing the imaginations of others.

Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, 2015, curated by Lars Bang Larsen & Marco Pasi, installation view, Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Sydney, Australia, photography by Zan Wimberley
Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, 2015, curated by Lars Bang Larsen & Marco Pasi, installation view, Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA), Sydney, Australia, photography by Zan Wimberley