Authors on Artists: Janice Lee on Christian Cummings and Michael Decker
by Janice Lee
I first had the opportunity to see Los Angeles artists Christian Cummings and Michael Decker perform Spectral Psychography at Machine Project in September 2012. I had heard of them years before through writer/friend Harold Abramowitz and had been intrigued by these Ouija board performances.
Spectral Psychography is defined as:
…a method for psychic mark making. A Psychographer will use an adapted Ouija device (planchette) to collaborate artistically with unseen forces. Blindfolded, the hand forms an image while the mind remains unaware.
During a performance at Machine Project, I was struck by the context of this as a “performance.” Was this really a performance? Or something else? Was this for real? Was this an elaborately planned artists’ staging? Or were they really communicating with ghosts? As the evening progressed, I became convinced that it didn’t really matter whether this was a sham, but that at least for me, something was happening.
I then invited Christian and Michael to perform at Novum, an interdisciplinary series I co-curate with Laura Vena. The word novum is important because it’s related to how I envision narrative and aesthetic possibility. When I think of experimental narrative, I view it through the lens of Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity, relating processes of writing and reading to paranormal processes.
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. writes, “As the sentences build up, we build up a world in specific dialogue, in specific tension with our present concept of the real.” Through the labored interaction of reading language and the world around us, one can interact with his/her own ideological embeddedness on a profound level. Ernst Bloch uses the term novum to describe “a moment of newness in lived history that refreshes human collective consciousness, awakening it from the trancelike sense of history as fated and empty, into awareness that it can be changed... the unexpectedly new, which pushes humanity out of its present toward the not yet realized,”... towards a “blankness of horizon of consciousness... formed not by the past but by the future... a not yet conscious ontological pull of the future, of a tidal influence exerted upon by that which lies out of sight below the horizon, an unconscious of what is yet to come.” Parallel to Badiou’s “event,” the novum derives its significance from its effect on human consciousness. “Each instance of the Novum is a hypostatized moment of apocalyptic cognition; and each such moment of cognition is a recognition.”
To me, these performances become about our own constant negotiation with the unknown and the uncertain, with our own troubled relationships with belief.
In his new book 2500 Random Things About Me Too, Matias Viegener remarks, “It has already bothered me that we have such a prejudice for things that exist over things that don’t exist. It’s a failure of ambition. It means we can’t imagine anything that isn’t already there.”
Jeffrey Kripal dedicates his book Authors of the Impossible to an investigation of the paranormal as meaning. The project “is based on the wager that new theory lies hidden in the anomalous, that the paranormal appears in order to mock and shock us out of our present normal thinking. Seen in this way, psychical and paranormal phenomena become the still unacknowledged, unassimilated Other of modern thought, the still unrealized future of theory, the fleeting signs of a consciousness not yet become a culture.” He continues: “Such [paranormal] events are thus not just casually, occasionally, or anecdotally anomalous. They are structurally and cognitively anomalous.”
Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack too illustrates how “psychical phenomena of abduction reports violate our present epistemology and worldview.” He remarks, “[W]e have a kind of either/or mentality. It’s either literally physical, or it’s in the spiritual other realm, the unseen realm. What we seem to have no place for—or we have lost the place for—are phenomena that can begin in the unseen realm, and cross over and manifest and show up in our literal physical world.”
In today’s world, belief has become a strange aesthetic category. This “either/or” mentality isn’t just about physical vs. spiritual, but also real vs. not real.Is this real? Is this possible? Does science support it?
Before Christian and Michael’s performance, Margaret Wertheim gave a fabulous introduction on this very idea of belief. Focusing on Dante’s writings and ideas about Purgatory, she outlined the evolution of scientific “truth” and belief. She elaborates in her book The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace:
Stories about journeys to and from the realm of the dead tend to evoke deep skepticism in we “scientifically-minded” moderns. The question thus arises: Whatever the exploits of the virtual Dante, did the actual historical Dante really believe in this vision of the afterlife? Did he and his contemporaries really believe there was a vast chasm inside the earth? Did they really believe in a terraced mountain opposite Jerusalem? Did they really believe in a set of heavenly crystal spheres? … A major problem, I suggest, is that the very questions raised here are quintessentially modern. They are framed within the context of our purely physicalist paradigm, which was quite alien to medieval mind-set.
Margaret Wertheim went so far as to state that to ask the question of whether this is true or not is already an aberration, already an indication of our brainwashed state that prevents us from accepting anything as real unless it has a mathematically precise location in physical space.
Our inclination to categorize and ask questions often confines us into tighter and tighter boxes, until there is less and less space for possibility and discovery. Ufologist Jacques Vallee writes, “Mathematical theory often has to confront the fact that two contradictory theories can explain the same data. A solution is inevitably found not by choosing one of the contradictory theories, but by going to the next, third level.” Ghosts don’t necessarily have to equal the pop culture definition of ghosts. They don’t necessarily have to fit into one of these previously created paradigms. Perhaps, they are something else entirely.
What follows are selections from an interview with Christian Cummings and Michael Decker on Spectral Psychography (SP), as well as photos from the evening’s performance at Novum:
Janice Lee: How did Spectral Psychography start? I've read that it may have started as a way to combat artist's block but why specifically a Ouija board and this process? What was the inspiration and impetus for this project?
Christian Cummings: In the past "Artist Block" was used as a terse catch-all to highlight aspects of its authorship. Specifically, that you don’t actually need ideas to express them.
Michael Decker: And by creating a situation where the only thing at stake is understanding. The ghosts don’t require that we understand them. What we call artist’s block is used as inspiration.
J: I've read that you (at least you, Christian) are somewhat skeptical of paranormal phenomena and aren't sure yourselves of what to make of these channeled drawings. How did this interest then come about? Do you believe that something paranormal is happening here? Do you see yourselves as "mediums" of some sort? And how does the outcome differ with different collaborators?
C: Something para-average is definitely happening in spite of my beliefs. For me belief is an aesthetic category. Tuesday’s beliefs differ from Friday’s. And on Sunday I’m agnostic. My current theory is something like a hive mind. Not a Borg-centric uni-ego but something more like a cosmic blogosphere. A nexus of connected intelligences publishing their thoughts on the spectral-net simply because they can. But again, who knows. It's Sunday.
M: We have had experiences that strongly suggest we are talking to dead people. Specifically when given information that we can check in the public record. At one event the deceased co-worker of an audience member visited. They had an at-length conversation about workplace politics.
J: How would you categorize this project? It seems to get categorized more of an art project, perhaps because you are artists, but do you see these as artistic performances? Or something else?
M: SP is not an easy pill to swallow. Neither is it an easy artwork to sell. What started as an afternoon experiment has become art because it changed the way we think about art. And ghosts have become our mentors.
C: Art doesn't have to be art. It can be the something else.
J: How might you respond to skeptics who may believe that these drawings are just a sham and these drawings have been planned by you co-conspirators in advance?
C: A Ouija board and a magic marker. These are our dirty secrets.
M: We’ve been accused of requiring complicit viewers. I prefer the euphemism “playing along” to complicit. I like to think we ask no more than the next artist with respect to playing along.
J: I think the term "playing along" is important. It's especially important to keep an open mind when witnessing your performance, whether or not the audience member is a skeptic or believer. I found myself going back and forth during the performance (and the duration allows for this inner dialogue I think), between trying to "figure it all out" and just being open and observing.
M: Play I think is implied by our use of a Ouija board. Ouija is a game marketed to children and sold in toy stores. Maybe we have taken Ouija beyond its intended function but we do so playfully. Complicity is a very different kind of contract than play. We're not really interested in dictating our terms or obligating our viewers to them. Art can be a game. Mortality and spirituality can be a game. We like to playfully involve everyone in the room, including the ghosts.
C: Wagging between skepticism and belief is a game, like ping-pong played on a teeter-totter. For instance, we wear blindfolds to make SP palatable to our skeptics. We realize that taunting a skeptic’s credulity sometimes invokes it. Using the blindfold as a carrot-on-stick, we invite them to play with us. Similarly, BBQ places that offer boca-burgers will attract some vegetarians (carrots!). A number of them will order ribs and then return to their veggies the following day. I suspect here's a link between play and overcoming dogmas. Could it be our dogmas are more flexible, temporary, and open ended than we give them credit for?
C: Even doubting artists have ideas that appear from “nowhere”. The Ouija is our ghost-phone. We pick it up and ideas materialize from nowhere. Part of me believes we’re connecting to actual human ghost-somethings. This is why I say “para-average” instead of paranormal. Paranormal kind of sounds derogatory. I don’t want to offend any ghosts.
J: Christian, you refer to the idea of authorship. Is this related then to agency? Perhaps to the lack of agency on the part of the spirits? And Michael, I wonder if the ghosts don't require that we understand them, what do you think they require or want from us?
C: Are Michael & I artists? Are we mediums, trans-channels, diviners, extra-dimensional gatekeepers, shaman, prophets, psychics, pranksters with a ghost-phone? Are we possessed or even remote-controlled? Are the tools themselves haunted? Have we accessed an akashic database of personalities stored in the ether? Do our hands move by ideomotor action and the collective unconscious? Are we channeling ghosts, aliens, or Google’s servers? Are they channeling us? Difficult to say who or what is expressing?
In terms of authorship, “self-expression” is at least as para as channeling. This when self becomes an other. Like a possession (a thing you have and a thing that has you).
M: Maybe ghosts come through the board hoping people understand them. It’s true, more often than not the drawings are representational. This suggests some attempt at communication on their end. As far as what they expect from us, I'm not really sure. They seem to enjoy leaving us with more questions than the few of ours they answer.
J: You refer to the "unremarkable" nature of SP, and this is interesting to me because it's one of the things I picked up at your performance at Machine Project. I couldn't quite articulate it at the time, but things like the attitude you maintained towards the spirits, the sort of terse and blunt dialogue with the spirits, the sort of distance from the content of the drawings – you didn't seem to show any emotional investment. It was one struck that stuck me, the tone in which you addressed the spirits, sort of like the same tone you might use to speak to a cab driver. And so now I wonder if all this is intentional, or if you're aware of it?
C: We’ve met more tweenagers from Orange County than tormented 19th century English maidens with unfinished business. Ghosts are people like you and I. I like it when ghosts are referred to as “Familiars.”
M: We have been communicating with ghosts for a long time. We sometimes forget how taboo this is for some people. But ghosts to us are no different than the people you meet at the grocery store.
C: People at the grocery store are usually more scary.
J: Though one thing I did notice additionally was Michael during the performance. Christian, you say that you think if there is a psychic element here, you think Michael may possess the gift. In my watching on the screen that was set up at Machine, it seemed often that it was Michael's hands that were doing much of the guiding – whether as a medium or as an impulse. And Michael, you also seemed significantly more "worn" after the performance (though perhaps just from performance anxiety?). I wonder C or M, if you have additional thoughts on the "work" you're doing, ie. the actual labor and concentration that goes into the process, what the process demands from you physically and psychologically.
M: Yes, it's an exhausting practice. I can't explain why. Drains in a way that feels like running a psychic marathon. People often see me as guiding the planchette. I often feel Christian guiding it. I don't know what more to say. Sometimes I do feel I have an idea of what’s being rendered only to remove my blindfold and see something completely different. Other times I think it's me because I can see the marks before they're made or a finished drawing before it is started. These are the uncanny moments that really excite me. Uncanny because the hand still seems to move itself.
C: Michael is a serious antennae. Over the years we’ve cultivated a symbiosis for reading each other's energy. This makes the process very fluid between us.
J: I'm definitely interested in your art practices outside of SP. What are you guys working on now? Other things you've worked on in the past of relevance? How does SP influence your art practice as a whole? And how do other aspects of your art practice influence SP?
C: I’ve spent the recent few years transforming my yard into a metal foundry for crafting objects made to out-survive our species. I’ve also been making preachy Grungy/Garagey/R&Bish songs about overtly political themes (reviewed in this month’s Artillery Art Magazine), and I'm in post production on a movie recounting the Adam and Eve story. And I have one rather-involved larger project in the works.
In terms of relating SP to my greater practice – what I said about experiencing I as an other is important. I call this the zero-person perspective. I now have a reflex for recalibrating back to zero.
M: I'm currently working on a number of projects. Some of which are collaborations with other artists and some are independently studio-based practices. I approach art making as a continuous exercise for the unabashed exploration of new things. There is immense freedom in deciding that you are not an authority of what you already think you know and doing something different. Unfortunately, this isn't how the art market likes artists to behave, unless being multidisciplinary and all over the place is justified in some rhetorical fashion. For me its just a means for production and learning new things.
J: At the first performance at Machine Project, Christine Wertheim mentioned two things in her introduction. She talked a bit about the evolution of SP and the various directions you've been able to go. Can you talk a bit more about this evolution and history? She also used pataphysics as a reference in talking about your work and mentioned that she met you for the first time in the pataphysics class she was teaching at CalArts. Can you elaborate on this relationship? I guess I'm thinking about things like the exhaustive potential of pataphysics, the ideology of metaphor, or a fear of the irrational that pataphysics refers to.
C: Many people don’t realize to what extent there’s a history of artists complicating the problem of authorship. Christine’s class followed a vein of “pataphysics” that led us through Oulipo, Surrealism & Proto-Surrealist thinkers, and a larger world of constraint-driven practices (with a pinch of aleatoricism thrown in for good measure). I remember being struck by the level of acumen required to slouch ones creative burdens. Now my favorite libraries are the ones full of books written by people who have nothing to say.
Interviewed by Erik Davis and Maja D'Aoust
Unofficial Release and Slavebation
Artillery Art Magazine Nov/ Dec 2012
Of all the unlikely currents in contemporary hepcat culture, perhaps the most weird-ass is the revival of the audio cassette as the medium-of-choice for experimental musicians – particularly Industrial revivalists, attempting to ape the glory days of DIY manufacture and dissemination that characterized the first outburst of post-punk noise music in the late 70s/early 80s.
While artifacts like Throbbing Gristle’s “24 Hours” box set and Merzbow’s first hundred or so releases were certainly milestones in underground cassette networking, the Industrial movement was only one facet of an enormous underground community that – due to its almost negligible economic footprint – has been almost entirely neglected in histories of late 20th century popular and experimental music.
“Unofficial Release: Self-released and Handmade Audio in Post-Industrial Society” by Thomas Bey William Bailey is a giant leap in the right direction. Only the second book I’ve come across devoted to the examination of the so-called Cassette Culture (the first being Robin James’ patchwork “Cassette Mythos”, published over 20 years ago), “Unofficial Release” takes pains to establish the historical significance of this underdocumented creative flurry, glazing its grass-roots heterogeneity with a patina of academic legitimacy.
Bailey convincingly cites Mail Art pioneer Ray Johnson as the progenitor of the global cassette-trading community that emerged from the fringes of the art world in the mid 70s, as home recording technology reached a critical mass of cheapness and portability. What follows is neither a straightforward history of the explosion of DIY audio (if such a thing is even possible) nor an encyclopedic guide to cassette artists and their releases, but a bit of each with a healthy dose of political speculation for good measure.
Along the way, Bailey addresses outsider music, death metal, low bitrate music, and dozens of other niche genres that have sustained themselves largely through DIY avenues, plus conducts interviews with many of the major players in the Cassette Culture arena, including G.X. Jupitter-Larsen of The Haters, Rod Summers of VEC Audio Exchange, and “cassette godfather” Al Margolis of still-extant cassette label Sound of Pig.
Given the author’s involvement in the current cassette revival, it’s unsurprising that the point at which his enthusiasm seems to flag is when the digital revolution puts an end to the cassette as the default medium for DIY audio artists in favor of CDRs and mp3s. To my ears, the amount of compelling DIY material now available online trumps any nostalgia for the auratic potency of actual objects.
*A case in point is LA artist Christian Cummings’ free net label Pleonasm, which features a wide range of idiosyncratic talents including Jeffrey Vallance, Marnie Weber, bill bissett, and myself (full disclosure: Cummings and I also collaborated on the infamous Chain Letter exhibitions). But many of the most interesting projects are Cummings’ own, either as a singer/songwriter or compiler/archivist of found online musical anomalies.
His latest album of original songs, entitled “Slavebation,” is something of a watershed. Fusing Cummings’ long-standing avant-gardist embrace of primitive casio keyboard sounds with a previously tempered lyrical desperation, the 13 tracks that make up this extraordinary long-player somehow manage to gel in spite of the extreme dislocation at their heart.
Cummings has a gift for melody, but here it is fractured and off-register: repeated preset arpeggios vie with microtonal trumpet solos to conjure a nightmarish easy listening aesthetic, while the vocals generally only manage to clamber on board the tune at the choruses, resulting in what could be plausibly categorized as rap music. I could also see it being entered into evidence at a committal hearing.
Cummings’ song lyrics are classic voice-in-the-wilderness, treading a fine line between channeled revelation and paranoid rant, albeit leavened by considerable doses of humor and literary invention. Consider this passage from the lurchingly swinging “Tickle My Tushy”:
O wikileaks, wikileaks, loose lips sink ships,
Even ships designed to navigate oceans of shit?
Shits that can only flow backward from oceans to sewers, up toilets, through your intestine, out your mouth and onto skewers.
And then from there into the fridge, then the grocery bag, onto the shelf, the butchers knife, and then back to pasture.
Then back into the womb of its mother, to a time before the chain of life was broken.
Using advanced technologies we can trace the evidence backward through time forever, and still never shake the hand of an creator.
Alternating between elegiac despondency, apocalyptic vision, didactic discourse, and guided deprogramming exercises (often in the space of a single lyric), Cummings convincingly positions himself as a nerdish prophet of doom. The revival of cassette networking has a distinct subtext of retreat to a position where subcultural activity still seemed to promise an escape, or at least shelter. Christian Cummings is facing our crazy life head on, in all its bewildering entropy and Gordian knottiness, and in doing so has produced the first great protest album of the 21st century.
The Medium is the Message
Some of the artworks made in collaboration with the ghostly artists.
In recent years, I have made my living as an artist. Experiencing some success in my vocation, I have come to trust, without quest ion, the phenomenon known as inspiration. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary describes inspiration as “a divine influence or action upon a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation”. In Greek literature, inspiration is said to come from the Muses. These were goddess spirit-messengers of artistic influence from which we get words like amuse, music
. A few years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Muses (Heroon of Mousaios
) on the Hill of the Muses in Athens, Greece, to ponder the influential roles that the Muses have played in the arts. The word inspiration
comes from the Latin inspirare
, which means, “to breathe into”, a version of the verb spirare, from which we get the term “spirit”. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7)
What is this mysterious force? Is inspir ation the breath of the divine in man? Is the artist merely a conduit of the muses? (See 'Poetry and the Paranormal
' for some possible answers.)
These questions were re-awakened when I witnessed the channelled spirit drawings of Christian Cummings and Michael Decker during one of their art/séance performances.
The room is quiet. Just dim enough to reveal a glow-in-the-dark finish on the Ouija board. The two artists begin with a question: “Is there anyone here who would like to help us make a drawing?” Moving itself, the planchette spells out T-I-M G-O-N-D-E-M-A-N.
Living artists will use such visual media as paint or clay to express their ideas. Ghosts will use psychic mediums such as clairvoyants or trans-channels to express theirs. Simply put, a medium is a means for conveying ideas and information. The medium is a negotiator between the messenger and his audience.
The word medium is also used as a designation given to partially cooked meat. Brown and dead on the outside while pink and bloody within, this use of the term evokes a sense of traversing both worlds simultan eously, in one bite. The ‘séance’ is being held in a dingy room at the Culver Hotel – one of the oldest hotels in the Los Angeles area, and said to be haunted by the munchkins from
The Wizard of Oz, who lived there during the 1938 filming. Cummings tapes a piece of paper to the table while Decker attaches his Magic Marker to a planchette that has been reconfigured as an art tool. The markers and paintbrushes are bolted in place onto the planchette. Similarly, when making paintings, the artists use large syringes to inject ink and paint into the moving brush. Once ready, the two artists don blackout sleeping-masks. The purpose of this is to quell any suspicion of shenanigans, quackery and the like. Decker softly instructs their conjured spirit: “Tim, please begin your drawing.” Once again, the planchette begins to move, only this time a green line traces its course.
The markings on the Ouija board bring to mind the time I lived in Lapland, where I researched the Lapp shaman magic drum. To perform divinations, the shaman (noid
) places a piece of bone on the drum skin and beats the drum, which causes the bone to dance across the skin from symbol to symbol – similar to the movement of a planch ette on a Ouija board (see FT249:30–37, 254:74). I am one of five audience members. Two others quietly rise and walk around the table. A curious young woman investigates the tools and clothing of the artists. She then crouches down to peek under the table. Cummings and Decker seem unaware, while the planchette deliberately traces what appears to be the portrait of a man in his 30s, with a cartoon voice-bubble that reads Welcome, as if we were visitors in his home.
In collaboration with ghosts, the artists have made drawings, paintings and sculpt ures. The 3D works are designed by the ghosts, who issue them as drawings, with the appropriate sculpture materials described in detail; Cummings and Decker then build the sculpt ures. Also, they have worked with the spirits of such well-known deceased artists as Barnett Newman, Walt Disney, Paul Klee, Norman Rockwell, Gertrude Stein, Tony Smith, David Smith, Anthony Caro and Keith Haring. Often the resulting artworks look like a cross between thrift-store paintings and overlapping bathroom graffiti. Once the presumed self-portrait is finished, the two channellers return to the board and ask for a title and description of the post mortem artwork, followed by personal questions to the ghost, meant to be verified in the public record – birth and death date, city of residence and occupation at the time of death. We discover that Tim worked at a local Togo’s restaurant on Venice Boulevard, no more than a mile from where the séance took place. We pack up our things and head for Togo’s to catch a late lunch.
Cummings asks to speak to the manager. “Hi. Do you know Tim Gondeman?” Taken aback by his request, the manager responds, “Were you friends with Tim?” Michael replies, “We are both friends of his.” The manager delicately explains he used to work there two years prior but reveals nothing of his post-mortal status.
Hungry, I order a steak sandwich, medium rare.
From: ISEPCAH Occasional Paper XVII (Spring 2009):
Report on the So-called “Ouija Board Assisted Ghost Art” of Cummings and Decker
In the summer of 2007 at a retreat on San Diego’s Fiesta Island sponsored by The Burns Institute, I was approached by Prof. Buck Burns with the proposal that I undertake an investigation and report for the Institute for Skeptical Examination of Paranormal Claims in the Arts and Humanities (ISEPCAH – of which Prof. Burns was at the time and at time of writing remains Director) regarding the activities of some young artists of my acquaintance, Christian Cummings and Michael Decker, whose idiosyncratic practice had veered into the realms of supernatural communication with the dead. The following is excerpted and adapted from that report, privately circulated at the Spring 2009 ISEPCAH Symposium, also on Fiesta Island.
My research revealed that Cummings and his allegedly mediumistic artist collaborator Michael Decker had made several public displays of their “Automatic Drawing Brought Forth through the Ouija Board” over the previous year, mostly in art world venues in the Los Angeles area, but ranging as far as New York City. Cummings/Decker typically operate the purpose-modified oracular gameboard wearing cheap black sleeping eyemasks in some sort of cartoonish and contemptuous gesture of simulated scientific control. With a felt-tip marker embedded in the planchette, the team invariably claim to make almost immediate and continuous contact with a series of deceased personalities eager to create extraordinarily unconvincing line drawings as their communication to we, the living.
The artifacts generated by these farcical proceedings at best try the credulity of even the most gullible of art naifs, displaying the barest minimum of craftsmanship in their execution and displaying a level of fatuous “creativity” more reminiscent of a subnormal Kindergarten student than a supposedly transcended soul that has moved on from a completed earthly existence – let alone that of some of the world famous professionals – Walt Disney, Paul Klee, Barnet Newman, Keith Haring, David Smith, etc. – Cummings/Decker claim to have channeled. None of the drawings make any attempt to reproduce the slightest stylistic similarity to the works of their supposed spirit creators – a failing Cummings excuses as the possible result of “prankster spirits falsely claiming famous identities”.
Some of the “strategies” deployed in the fabrication of these aesthetic abominations align themselves – Oh so coincidentally! – with current fads and fashions of the contemporary art market, an arena defined by the foisting of deliberately slapdash and conceptually anemic artworks – “deskilled” they call it – onto an audience of complicit shills bullied or bribed into refraining from pointing out that the emperor wears no clothes!
The blatant admixture of attention-seeking sensationalism and ideomotor action was a fundamental aspect of the “automatist” works of the media-savvy Surrealists, while much of the early history of 20th century abstract painting is tainted by its entanglement with efforts to propogate the flaky Theosophical art theories of Wassily Kandinsky et al -- as well as lesser known crackpots like Emma Kunz, Hilma Af Klint, and Agnes Martin, whose three-person retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum of Art hosted one of Cummings/Decker’s egregious charades.
The so-called “Post-modern” era has been defined largely by efforts to blur or disrupt conventions of authorship, and in this sense the Cumming/Decker Ouija project may be understood as an extension of that impulse, though there is no record of any claims to that effect by the participants. They have, in fact, derailed the possibility of being taken seriously as part of this tradition – while simultaneously displaying a cavalier disregard for the supposed autonomous identities being “channeled” -- by freely modifying the artworks (particularly in their recent realizations of Ouija-generated sculptural sketches) to be more in keeping with their own aesthetic preferences – not that they look much different in any case.
Most recently, the art world trend has been to give preference to groups of artists “exploring collaboration” as if the lowest common denominator of a gaggle of pretentious slackers was some kind of synergistic revelation of mankind’s highest potential. Cummings/Decker have recently completed a suite of “paintings” -- each purported to be the cumulative effort of 100 channeled spirits, each of which bears considerable resemblance to the torturous doodlings produced by the drug-addled gangs of twenty-something sophomores currently passing themselves off as creative think tanks.
Quite inadvertently, this “coincidental” art world currency aspect of Cummings/Decker’s hoax constitutes a sidelong critique of the social mechanism by which both the promulgation of preposterous put-ons as great artworks and the persuasion of substantial portions of the population of the objective reality of occult and paranormal phenomena come to pass. In both cases, the deadpan assertion of a palpable falsehood is campaigned into a state of consensual illusion through a series of subtle and continual social punishments and rewards, which – upon said falsehood achieving the status of group identity – become an internalized, self-policing, self-replicating credo. Multiple layers of plausible ironic deniability ensure that spectators who “play along” out of titillation, satirical sociological superiority, or political expediency do not in any way disrupt or undermine the fundamental – and fundamentally duplicitous – claim of objective empirical authenticity.
No hard evidence has come to my attention that Cummings/Decker are insincere in their claims of paranormal contact, although the above qualitative analysis of the resultant artifacts suggests a contemptuous disregard for a certain minimal degree of persuasive illusion needed to sustain the suspension of disbelief. Yet a considerable number of apparently not subnormal audience members interviewed by my team claimed to be convinced by the artist/mediums’ preposterous sham.
It may also be important to note that Cummings/Decker do not seem to be pursuing typical paths to financial gain associated with mediumistic fraud – there has been no attempts to channel the spirits of departed loved ones of wealthy art patrons, nor have there been any publications of channeled New Age wisdom (or any consistently discernible coherent agenda whatsoever, for that matter.) Whether Cummings/Decker are engaged in some carefully guarded form of a “kind of pat art world joke” as one commentator suggests is unverifiable, though Cummings’ long-running interest and involvement with paranormal culture would seem to belie this interpretation.
Not that the sincere dissemination of morbid superstitions is in any sense better. But it is apparent that Cummings and Decker are not incapable of making a social impact, however inadequate and ill-conceived their efforts might seem to the rational mind. Should they come to realize the folly and error of this line of pursuit, and decide to seek out ways to apply their talents to more socially pressing and consequential issues than pajama-party spook pantomimes or art world posturing, an unpaid internship on Fiesta Island with ISEPCAH and/or The Burns Institute awaits them.
*Doug Harvey is a Los Angeles based artist, writer, curator, and educator whose art criticism has appeared regularly in LA Weekly and elsewhere since the mid-90s. He is a Fellow of The Burns Institute and Board Member of ISEPCAH.
George Pendle, Strange Powers, Frieze Magazine Issue 103 November-December 2006
‘AUTOMATIC DRAWING BROUGHT FORTH THROUGH THE OUIJA BOARD’, 64 EAST 4TH STREET, NEW YORK, USA
‘May I ask’, the soft-spoken artist Christian Cummings paused, as if searching for a tactful way to broach a delicate subject, ‘how you died?’ Admittedly, in polite society the question is sort of a conversation-stopper. When posed to an unfamiliar, disembodied interlocutor via the less than subtle communication tool of the Ouija board it has the potential to lead to a little trans-dimensional pique. Promptly the tear-shaped Ouija planchette pointer jerked across the board to the failsafe word ‘Goodbye’, and the channelled ‘spirit’ in question, an entity using the streetwise netherworld tag of Bartman, had evidently logged off from the realm of the living. So it goes in the easy-come, easy-go world of conversing with the dead.
As part of Creative Time’s ‘Strange Powers’ exhibition, devoted to art that keeps an open mind when it comes to paranormal phenomena and the occult, Cummings’ four days of séance drawing sessions were a highlight, billed as a sort of open call to creative aspirants on other planes of existence to commune with the living. Setting himself up on the top floor of a creaky old (reportedly haunted) tenement building in the East Village, Cummings and his assistant sat solemnly at a table with a Ouija board between them, an overhead projector magnifying on a nearby wall the action taking place on the table’s surface. Donning black-out eye-masks, the two were attended by a young woman who took notes and read aloud the letters and words as they were spelt. Starting each session with the query, ‘Is there any spirit here who would like to talk to us?’ and a few perfunctory warm-up questions, Cummings quickly got to the matter at hand, and each wayward soul was invited to make a drawing (an invitation rarely turned down) using a magic marker affixed to the planchette on a fresh sheet of paper.
From the results two less than empirical conclusions could be drawn. First, the art world of the hereafter appears even more crowded than the one we currently enjoy – open to anyone, with the famously departed jockeying with complete unknowns for equal airtime. Second, when people shrug off their mortal coils, they appear to start drawing in a pretty consistent style. Perhaps determined by the limitations of the Ouija technique (the pen nib never alighting from the paper’s surface), that style has a doodly, Etch-a-Sketch, tattoo-parlour quality.
One of the first to sign in was, a little surprisingly, Barnett Newman, who, spurning the cabbalistic mystical abstraction of his earthbound years, here seemed content to simply scribble ‘art history is fundamental but not essential’ in a shaky hand alongside a crude sketch (self-portrait?) of a bald man in a bow-tie. During another session someone with the sideshow moniker Carny Billy sketched Keanu Reeves in full Matrix kung fu mode with a carton of orange juice. When questioned about the juice, the pointer spelled out ‘v-i-t-a-m-i-n C’, suggesting that even the deceased can still be health-conscious. While a minority of sceptics could be found in the audience (one Doubting Thomas circled the table mid-session looking for signs of peeking, wires, mirrors or other evidence of a spiritualist con), the majority of those present were clearly happy to remain in the camp of the credulous. Looks of wide-eyed astonishment and evidence of hushed goosebump-ish wonder were everywhere, and on a deliriously hot and sticky afternoon in an un-air-conditioned walk-up a little delirious suspension of disbelief can go a long way.
"Strange Powers": Creative Time
ArtForum, Oct, 2006 by Jeffrey Kastner
In spite of its current predisposition to secularism, art has always been something of a faith-based enterprise. Its cultural and commercial value relies on the willingness of viewers to believe in things that can't always be immediately perceived or fully understood--to allow for the possibility that the objects and images they encounter in the gallery might have access to meaning and even power. This outlook--as embodied in a variety of artistic practices, especially ones whose content itself involves the uncanny or the supernatural--formed the basis of Creative Time's memorable summer group show, "Strange Powers," a survey of adjacencies between the operations of art and the activities of the occult.
Cocurated by Laura Hoptman and Peter Eleey and installed in a decrepit East Village tenement, "Strange Powers" enjoyed a nicely unheimlich bit of site-specific serendipity in its efforts to conjure the paranormal--the building is reputedly "haunted." Works by the show's twenty-one artists and collaborative teams, spread across the walk-up's second floor, predictably included a number of talismanic objects designed to convey and receive supernatural energy--Psychedelic Soul Stick, 2001, a shamanistic staff wrapped in beads, bangles, and buttons, by Jim Lambie, and Pink and Gold Masks, 2006, Jennifer Cohen's array of gilded and painted talismans, both proposed an unspecified supernatural immanence for themselves, while the twinned crystal balls (one portentously dark, the other healingly clear) of Eva Rothschild's Actualisation, 1998, concretized the modern dialectic between old-school mysticism and New Age spirituality.
Yet such decontextualized approaches seem to suffer from a certain lack of charisma, suggesting perhaps that inanimate objets d'art are insufficient to evoke the mysteries of the Other Side. More successful were time-based projects--notably Euan Macdonald's mesmerizing video Healer, 2002, in which an elderly faith healer emerges from behind a curtain and gazes impassively at the viewer, and Ou et Quand, 2005, a fascinating video about faith, skepticism, and kismet by Sophie Calle and Fabio Balducci, in which the former undertakes an oddball journey of enlightenment based on an itinerary divined by a Parisian psychic.
The ne plus ultra of paranormality involves contact across the membrane between the dead and the living--a connection pursued by the most affecting works here. For Automatic Drawing Brought Forth through the Ouija Board, 2006, Christian Cummings spent the first few days of the show on the building's sweltering third floor attempting to channel, via extemporaneous drawings, spirits contacted during live seances--the decidedly mixed results included, fortuitously enough, a drawing "by" Barnett Newman taken from an earlier session; the late master's outlook on art and spirituality was one of the touchstones of the show. And Carl Michael von Hausswolf presented a wonderfully head-scratching selection of audio recordings by the late Swedish artist Friedrich Jurgenson, a proponent of so-called Electric Voice Phenomena (sounds that inexplicably appeared on random tape recordings he made that suggest voices from beyond). As they listened to the looping garble, visitors faced an image of Jurgenson that is said to have miraculously appeared, per his prediction, on his family's television set the day he was buried.
Meanwhile, the show's one truly haunting moment came from The Ghost of James Lee Byars, 1969--nothing more than a dark room, entered through layers of heavy black drapery. The small space was empty, but the pitch-blackness was sufficiently pervasive to destabilize its dimensions and contours, creating a vacuum into which all manner of anxieties could creep. Your eyes never quite adjusted to Byars's void, and the best you could do was yield to its phenomenology, one familiar to both gallerygoers and mystics: that of finding yourself in a dark place, full of anticipation and perhaps a little dread, waiting for something to happen.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Artforum Magazine, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
THE FUNCTION OF THE PLEONASM
By: Doug Harvey
It may be unseemly, since I'm involved in a couple of projects there, but I feel compelled to direct my public's attention to Pleonasm, a free online record label located at www.pleonasmmusic.org
. The label focuses on idiosyncratic DIY music, juvenalia, found sounds, and other quirky marginal genres. Although the imprint has existed for a year or so, label svengali Christian Cummings has recently engaged in a flurry of activity, offering new full length recordings by luminaries like Canadian text-sound poet bill bissett, multimedia artist Jeffrey Vallance, and pagan Life Metal band Flugeldar!, as well as a full schedule of forthcoming releases including work from Half Japanese mastermind Jad Fair and post-pop Wunderkind Nic Waterman.
If this wasn't remarkable enough, Cummings - inspired by Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music - has issued the first three volumes in the Human Music Anthology, culled from internet sources and organized into thematic clusters. Volume one is Tongues, focusing on glossolalia in a number of surprising manifetations; Vol 2 is a grab bag of unclassifiable amateur enthusiasms ("Song About Drinking Robitussin"; "Aspergers Girl") entitled Left Fieldists. But it isVolume 3: Extra Credit Songs that most spectacularly fulfills the potential of this Post-McLuhan anthropological foray.
Ranging from heartfelt piano & traps dissertations on theElectromagnetic Spectrum
to polished electropop explications of the mechanics of Photosynthesis
, these WTF gems were allegedly all created and launched into cyberspace by high school students trying to make up for their academic slack at the end of the term. Colonial History, Hyperbolic Geometry, To Kill a Mockingbird
, Pi: no topic is too scholastic to be transformed into a death metal dirge or off-kilter rap. High School Musical 5
But wait a moment: right now - here in LA -- you can see a bizarre art exhibition with a similarly all-inclusive, nonjudgmental, pseudo-democratic approach. At Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Bergamot Station, visitors are asked to make sense of the heaping piles of art left there by 1600 artists, each one invited by another artist who likes their work. Each artist was asked to send invitations to ten more artists, and so on…and so on…and that is the reason for the exhibition's title -- Chain Letter.
I think a more appropriate title for this artistic endeavor would be 'Mutual Admiration Society.' Of course there are a few really good works, but they are obscured by a multitude of middle-of-the-road art pieces, and in the end, all good intentions are buried under a pile of things which, in my humble opinion, should never be seen under any circumstances.
On that kind note, let's switch gears and check out MOCA's new exhibition of one of the better-known multi-talented American artists, Lynda Benglis. Since the early 70's, she's been defying expectations of what a good female artist should produce. She consistently mocked the macho attitudes and artistic practices of her male counterparts and not only held her own against them, but often left these big boys in the dust.
Even Jackson Pollock needed a canvas to drip his paint all over; Lynda Benglis dispensed altogether with the idea of canvas and instead, poured and dripped paint directly onto the floor. Richard Serra, in the late 60's, famously splashed molten lead at the corner of the gallery. A few years later, Lynda Benglis mimicked this practice by pouring metal or color-saturated polyurethane into gallery corners, on the floor, or against the wall, creating purposefully lumpy, gooey shapes which nevertheless command attention and exude a sense of authority. It's been more than twenty-five years since I encountered her works for the first time, marveling at the large wall-mounted metal sculptures reminiscent of pleated pieces of fabric tied in shimmering bows. I still think that these sculptures are the most compelling of her extensive body of work. But nothing can compete with the deliciously scandalous image of the young Lynda photographed in the nude holding...hmmmmm...there is no other way to say it -- a large dildo. There are plenty of rebels without a cause but then, there are always a few who do have a real cause, and in the art world, Lynda Benglis is definitely one of them.
The name of Sergei Parajanov, a Soviet Armenian director, may not ring a bell, but he was one of the true rebels who paid for his art with five years of imprisonment. This Friday, August 5 at 7:30 pm, LACMA will have an extremely rare screening of The Color of Pomegranates, his famous 1968 movie for which he received numerous international awards. The cinematography, inspired by medieval manuscripts, is absolutely breathtaking. Accompanied by American friends I've seen this movie several times, and each time, for all of us, it was a revelation. Never mind your busy schedule; you simply must taste with your eyes these delicious Pomegranates.
On view at Shoshana Wayne Gallery through August 25
On view at MOCA Grand Avenue through October 10
The Color of Pomegranates
Screening at LACMA's Bing Theater, Friday August 5th at 7:30pm