BURNAWAY Magazine's Rachel Reese visits Steven L. Anderson's studio to discuss the Deleuzian escape nature offers, and the ethical guidelines to channeling power through art.
Steven L. Anderson wants to both fight against and harness power. He recently relocated to Atlanta from LA, and brings his West Coast “woo-woo” and ideologies into a new Southern context. Anderson’s first institutional solo exhibition, Energy Strategies, opens at the Atlanta Contemporary Center next month. We met in his studio to talk about leftist leanings, the line between art and activism, starting new religions, working with or against the establishment, and Anderson’s spirit plant, the Agave americana.
Rachel Reese You recently moved here to Atlanta from LA, and before that you were in Chicago?
Steven L. Anderson We were in LA for 11 years and Chicago before that. . .
RR So what brought you to LA from Chicago?
SLA In Chicago, I was a part of a magazine called Cakewalk with my wife Liz Anderson and our friends from that whole scene. That’s the thing about Chicago, people just get up and move and they go to the coasts. Two of the founders moved to LA—Mari Eastman, and then Karl Erickson went go to Cal Arts, and Gretchen Larsen came with him. So we eventually followed.
We did three Cakewalk issues in Chicago and three issues in LA.
RR And it is an arts publication, with reviews, interviews and the like?
SLA Yeah. Drawings and writings by artists were probably our specialty.
RR I see you wrote a manifesto in one issue. (Issue 6, 2004).
SLA Yeah, I did. (laughter)
Well, that was for a specific project—I had a friend who worked in a sign shop, and he sent me a CD of like 2,000 different logos—corporate logos—so I just kind of rearranged them in a portfolio viewer so that people could browse, and take liberties [with them]. So that’s kind of what that manifesto was about.
RR But I see elements of that mentality still apparent in your work. . .
SLA I’m interested in politics, leftism, and activism, so yeah, now that I think about it, that was just another strategy for working against power, which I think is something that still flows through a lot of my work.
RR Something you wrote stands out to me: “The power of nature and [the] nature of power.” How do you see those acting with or against each other, or playing out in your work?
SLA I’ve always been trying to find different ways to move against ‘power,’ you know? I think that nature offers a line of escape in a sort of Deleuzian way. There are flows within nature that capitalism cannot trap yet. Yet.
RR Yeah, yet; I’m sure we are working on it (laughter)
SLA I think energy flows in nature lead me to use this [practice] also as a line of escape—is it magic, is it New Age stuff? Not that commerce and capitalism don’t delve into these things, too. The sense of individualism on one hand and solidarity on the other hand, I think nature kind of points a way to get out of those [formalized] systems. I’m interested in how to use energy in ways that are different. I grew up as a Methodist, mid-westerner, white. There are a lot of them who believe this kind of thinking and practicing to be too “woo-woo.” I know a dear, close person who won’t try Reiki because she believes it goes against the church, but it could really help her.
RR Because you are new to Atlanta, am I reading it incorrectly to think that some of this aesthetic is coming from the SoCal free love, psychedelic history? Have you been here long enough to see new response to your work in a new geographic context? Or is it going to take this show at The Contemporary to gauge where the community aligns in Atlanta? I’m interested to see if the context of the response is drastically different from that in LA.
SLA Cali has this long history of people going there and starting their own religions. Not that that doesn’t happen in other places in the US, but in California it happens a lot, especially in LA. So I’m not quite exactly sure how [my exhibition] is going to play out here.
Part of this project is not just the objects; it’s the bridging of different groups. I’ve been going to find out as much as I can about working communities, shamans, pagans, and the like in and around Atlanta.
RR Is it easy to find them here?
SLA Well, the Internet helps a lot. There are a lot of Meetup groups here. I’ve been trying to travel in those circles a little bit as well with artists, and I’m trying to bring all those people together in a [thoughtful] way. Hopefully we can create a community. I can’t say that I’m an authentic member of a lot of these communities—I’m not—I’m new, but on the other hand, I am just new so who knows where the future lies.
RR Have you witnessed any mistrust or hesitation, any “Why do you want to work with us?” mentalities?
SLA Not from anyone in Atlanta at all, in any realm. Atlanta has been very cool; everyone has been really open to me and to my ideas. Maybe they have a common understanding of energy, and how to raise the energy; that’s what I’m trying to do.
RR Let’s talk about your recent Power Plant exhibition at Monte Vista Projects in LA (February 22-March 24, 2013). This prayer rug here [points to the studio wall] was included in that exhibition? How was the rug being activated or performed with?
SLA In a way it’s a stage, but it has [also] has my energy focused into it—
RR Through your labor or that of others?
SLA Both through my labor and others’, through my attention, through my intention. A big part of this work is that it is maybe a little bit invisible—attention and intention are really important in energy work. The power of the mind. . . part of it is setting your expectations, but part of it is putting energy out in the universe that bounces back to you. And I think the more you work with energy and the more you work with intention the more likely that will energy will find you. It will come back to you in some way. It is a big part of magic.
So I have been trying to set a lot of intention, and I guess sometimes it is more visible, like these spirals. [Gestures to studio wall with series of Energy Spiral drawings] Keep Breathing was a message to a friend that had a motorcycle accident. It can be read like sort of a general statement, or specifically for my friend. I literally wanted to make sure she kept breathing, because I thought she was going to die, you know?
RR So you were making this with the intention that the energy put into the work is being transferred to her?
SLA That’s the idea. That is the intent. This one here gestures, Thank You For Everything, I just wanted to put that [positive energy] out there to my loved ones—all the people that have given me opportunities and everything that adds up to this moment where I start making this work. I just wanted to say a little thank you, because then I felt that I could move forward.
RR How does the legibility change in these drawings over time and process? Is it just determined by your mindset when you are making them? Do you begin at the center and work outwards—so the drawings are determined by the parameters of the paper?
SLA It depends if I am slowing down or speeding up. When I reach the edge of the paper, that’s it. And usually when I get closer to end, I really try to whip out the energy and the writing gets a little awful to read, but it builds up a tremendous amount of energy.
RR This one says “power power come give me some?”
SLA Yes, this one is kind of interesting because I was thinking, “Okay, power, give me some power,” and I decided that if I am going to take this seriously then I really have to think of some ethics for it. So at one point I started writing ethical guidelines for how to use [the power] if it does happen: for confidence for myself, for my work, to make this drawing, to be more emotional, to stand up to my lazy self, to get through my to-do lists, for the earth, to be free. Some of them are small things that I am very personally concerned with and some are larger universal things.
I think you have to be responsible—to yourself and to everyone else—so it was important for me to put it out there. And I think we should put our ethics in everything we do; we just don’t write it down so much to remind ourselves.
RR How do these function after you’ve made them, because I feel like so much of the work is wrapped up in this act of making and injecting energy into the drawing as you are making it. So are they documents, remnants now, or are they still alive?
SLA Well I think they are performance remnants in a way, but on the other hand I think they still stand up as drawings because the aesthetics pull you in. And there is a lot to explore in each.
RR And are you doing this all in one sitting?
SLA I try to; it’s a difficult process. I mean, they take 3–5 hours. I try to stay contained within that thought, but it’s not like I don’t go to the bathroom or eat lunch. I do need to recharge.
RR It is interesting that you brought up this idea of “recharging” because I feel that these works imply a continuous giving. . . so what gives back to you? How are you recharging?
SLA I don’t know. . . I was talking to an artist here the other day about love. Love is one of those things where the more you give, the more there is. So that is part of it, there’s a lot of it [to give and receive]. I try to alter my consciousness or eat some high-powered chocolate, those are more physical things but you know, I don’t know.
In the Energy Strategies show, there is going to be the main room where you exchange energy and then another room full of plants where you can lay down and listen to peaceful sounds and recharge from nature.
RR What kind of sounds? Are you composing?
SLA I did make a sound collage a while ago. It’s got wind chimes and snippets of a recording of a woman talking to her plants, giving the plants encouragement.
RR I know you have talked about the Agave americana—is that your spirit plant?
SLA I suppose it is!
RR What is it about that plant that you are responding to?
SLA Well in Chicago everything is really grey. Then we moved to LA and everything is like fearsome, vivid, and there were these really tough plants in my new landscape. I started looking to plants as a sort of way to talk about things that—
RR Using them as a metaphor?
SLA Yes, and this was during the period when the Iraq war was going on—well it still is kind of. So I was like, “Well, here are some strategies that we can use as artists, or activists or anyone who is opposed to the war, the powers that be, the ecological destruction.” The Agave americana will put out clones and shoots—it’s rhizomatic—and so they can reproduce that way. But it is a flowering plant as well, they bloom a really tall flower after 30 years—as tall as a telephone pole—and then the plant dies. By the time the stalk crashes down, the new little plants have started growing on the top. So they are ready to grow when they hit the ground. It’s really amazing.
I am really excited to start exploring the plants in Georgia and figure out what they are all about; I am thinking that the fern is very interesting because it’s fractal—every time you look closer and closer, it [maintains] the same shape you know. . . I am trying to figure out more about that.
RR Can you talk about your residency at Joshua Tree National Park in 2011?
SLA It was off the grid—all solar energy—and was three weeks by myself; Joshua Tree is a magical place. I would make art during the day, and in the evening I would go out and just climb up rocks, hike around, listen to bats. I hiked in the middle of the night with no flashlight; it was really intense.
I made a flag—which is in their collection now at the national park—and I flew it on the flagpole. It’s an image of a Joshua tree in silver with sort of a rainbow, with rays of rainbows coming out of it, all done with different fabric. And it got kind of shredded because there was a windstorm, so I had to rebuild it later on. Joshua Tree is this federal land and base, and I was able to fly this flag that symbolizes not only my own personal freedoms, but also those for society, and it was there for anybody who wants to be autonomous. It felt like I declared an autonomous zone even though I was working on this [federal] land. The rangers were there and I had to sort of coordinate a lot of stuff with them.
The flag celebrated what I think of American ideals, my version of them anyway. And it talked about transcendentalist ideas, ’60s radicalism, and beyond.
RR Do they still fly it now?
SLA I don’t know. It’s in their collection; I am not sure what they are doing with it right now.
RR A point to your comment about making more during the day and then going out at night: here we are in a pretty traditional studio and it appears that nature’s a very important part of your work. So where’s the connection between a “traditional” art practice, going into a space and making something, while also trying to bring in a very large universe into this studio space right now. How do you balance those two?
SLA My studio in LA was underneath a tent—it was outside—where I was exploring and falcons were buzzing past my ear, the craziness. There are those stray cats that mess up your shit and sort of decay everything. So on one hand it’s really nice to be inside, but I don’t know. . .
RR Does it change the status of the works now?
SLA It doesn’t change the status because this work is a little bit different than the bodies of work I was making in LA. This work [now] is a little less about nature, and a little more about how we keep coming back to energy. I should probably find a good synonym for that but I haven’t found it yet. . .
RR Let’s quickly talk about the collaborative psychedelic light shows you were involved in.
SLA Oh, yeah. That was me, artists Robby Herbst and Karl Erickson. They started these up, doing super old-time ’60s light shows, with school projectors, clock faces, using oil and food dyes. And they asked me to join, and I tried to bring some more conceptual things, like some transparencies and overlapping patterns. It was really fun, we did a couple performances of that and some were with spoken word, I recited this speech by Berkley activist Mario Savio, talking about the machine and how we have to stand up to the machine. And then we did one to just instrumental music with Chris Colthart’s band. Those were so much fun, there was no pressure.
RR Thinking about symbols—there are some inherent to a New Age aesthetic you work within such as crystals or antlers—do you feel like there’s a fine line between using these materials, or the image of a symbol rather than allowing the full weight of some unassociated image to symbolize the weight of the energy you are harnessing?
SLA Well, maybe in some instances there might be a danger to [working with] these symbols; for instance in the Native American community I think that there are some people that might get pissed off, but, on the other hand, symbols are just lying around, you know? Everybody uses everybody else’s symbols.
RR Is this something you are consciously playing with?
SLA A little bit. . . I want to comment on the New Age aesthetic, and try to invent something new in a way. But there are only so many symbols out there in the world. I mean there is nothing endemic to the circle other than what people have put into it.
RR So it’s freeing in that way?
SLA Yeah, I think so. You know, in the prayer rug here gestures alone there is a circle, a triangle—lots of triangles—a square, there’s a five-pointed shape—a star or pentagrams—so it kind of covers all the basic shapes right there. I like being in the space between recognition. That is a gap that is endless, that you can explore. So yeah there is some trickiness to that, but it’s the kind of trickiness that I like.
For more on Steven L. Anderson, visit his website.
Rachel Reese is the editor of BURNAWAY Magazine and is a curator.
This interview is presented in partnership with BURNAWAY Magazine, a 501©(3) non-profit online magazine and destination for engaged dialogue about the arts in Atlanta and beyond.