A Connecting Force or Form: Rami George Interviewed by Laura Brown

Reconstructing a family history in video and collage.

Untitled With My Father Rami George1

Installation view of Rami George, Untitled (with my father), 2020, digital video, color, sound, twenty minutes and thirty-one seconds. Photo by Peter Harris Studio. Image courtesy of the artist. © 2020 Rami George.

In 1993, very early in Rami George’s life, their mother traveled from Somerville, Massachusetts, to Guthrie, Oklahoma, to join a New Age spiritual cult called the Samaritan Foundation. She took her two children with her, leaving their father and the family home behind. While the story of the Samaritan Foundation came to be told through sensational media coverage, it continually emerges within George’s work through all manner of subtle coincidence and connectedness wrought by personal experience. 

Entering the physical space of their project at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, one is confronted with a blank wall and a disembodied voice that delivers the artist’s father’s retelling of events. Moving into a room within a room, two videos are surrounded by a series of collages, each holding together (and apart) strange diagrams and family photos.

Today as much as ever, the search for spirituality makes a lot of sense—a deep need for an infinite, internal structure of belief to counter the psychic debasement of our material world. At the same time, the two often meet in the crosshairs of control. What is the difference between a religion, an intentional community, and a cult, especially in the beginning? My conversation with George felt as generous as their work, and both continue to linger in my thoughts.

—Laura Brown 

 

Laura Brown It strikes me that there is an arc within the work that is also happening in life. Can we talk about where this all started?

Rami George Basically, the history of it is that these events happened, and our family kind of got through it. My mother was absent for a few years after my father filed for custody and took us away from the community, back to our home in Somerville, Massachusetts. Then we moved to our home in Portland, Oregon, following an ashram that my father is still a part of. These things have always been kind of in and around my life. Eventually my mother left the group and returned to Portland. We reconciled. We had dinner every night. She would come to my father’s house. They didn’t live together. They didn’t get back together. It was essentially this new, different family unit. We just never talked about this intense rupture. Which is all to say, it was always sitting in the back of my brain. I’ve been seeing where the incidents and coincidences lead me, looking through connections that aren’t necessarily immediate and wondering, What happens if we look at this next to this? I think about these projects as pieces in a larger puzzle or a whole.

LB When did you begin making work related to the Samaritan Foundation?

RG It was in 2013 that I happened to be doing some computer cleanup and found a Facebook “other” inbox where an amateur Oklahoman historian named Kelly Raines had written me. Raines knew my name and family from public media. Since then I’ve stepped away and returned, each time picking away at another part of the very convoluted, intertwined narrative. My earliest memories are in the jail (or the monastery, as they called it) in Guthrie, Oklahoma. I remember pieces of our trial, but it’s very hazy. I don’t remember being removed by the police and being put in a safe house. I only remember our Somerville home from after our return with my father. Returning to work on the exhibition at the List was my first time back in Somerville since leaving with him in 1995. It was an opportunity to tell my father’s side of the story, to let that narrative speak for the time being. The other video in the exhibition is the public media version of the story as told in a newspaper article. 

Untitled Body Soul Connections Rami George2

Rami George, Untitled (body-soul connections), 2020, paper, black paint, pigment prints. 30 × 22 inches. Photo by Peter Harris Studio. Image courtesy of the artist. © 2020 Rami George.

LB Listening to your father speak about the events, he is very withholding of judgment. He tries to give context to your mother’s actions. There is a similar sense of distance within your work as well. 

RG This withholding of judgment is of course never complete, because we all hold judgment. I was really trying not to point a finger and say, Look at this, look how fucked up this is, look at this damage. I wanted to sit in that space of the search for belonging, the search for community, for spirituality, the search for our lives and meaning. I wanted to keep some of my father’s openness, generosity, and forgiveness embedded within the making as well. I first recorded the conversation with him just to have this document, without the intention of ever using it. I think the distance is there for different reasons. In re-performing our conversation, I really liked asking someone to be a reader, to sit alongside me. Part of it is emotional protection.

LB Some of the Samaritan Foundation materials appear in the collages. Do you take anything from reading these materials?

RG I wanted to dig deeper into the teachings of the group, so I finally sat down and read different publications that they had produced. There are things that I don’t agree with in a lot of the language. There’s a lot of fear and animosity toward gender difference and homosexuality. But I also wanted to allow some of their other beliefs to be present in the space. Their main publication is called Virtues, Laws and Powers. In it there are thirty-one line-drawing visualizations of different virtues in the world—sort of visual responses to esoteric ideas. I think they’re really beautiful and strange. There were moments when I could better understand my mother. She said that Linda Greene, who was the leader of this community, visualized those things; but then the more artistic people in the group, like Allen Ross and my mother, were the people who helped illustrate it.

List Projects Rami George3

Installation view of List Projects 21: Rami George at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA, 2020. Photo by Peter Harris Studio. Image courtesy of the artist. © 2020 Rami George.

LB Who is Allen Ross?

RGRoss was an experimental filmmaker from Chicago who attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I later attended. He was a spiritual seeker. He became deeply invested in the Samaritan Foundation, eventually marrying Linda Greene. Julia Williams was her righthand woman. There were two reasons for the media attention around the community. Our custody battle was the first time that the public learned about the Samaritan Foundation, which I believe was the start of the end. After that, the group fizzled down in size and most members were sent away. Remaining along with Greene were Williams, my mother, Ross, and Linda’s ex-husband, Denis Greene. They were continuing their work and their teachings, and then Ross went missing. 

After that the community basically dissolved. Linda Greene passed away from liver failure. Years later, Ross was discovered buried in the basement of their Cheyenne, Wyoming, home, and this again brought a lot of media attention. Williams briefly went to jail for her role in covering up Ross’s murder. She is now very active in trying to re-present Linda’s teachings under a different name. She still believes in this stuff and wants to keep the teachings alive. All the content is free online. This is still where I go back and forth in terms of my own judgment. I think belief is such a powerful thing.

LB With the show’s borrowed layout of the foundation’s seminar room, your mother’s presence in that space is also transferred. Despite her absence, she is present throughout.

RG I can feel the absence of my mother’s voice in this show, although I can feel that her presence is everywhere in the space. Her story is the catalyst for all of these other stories. I was navigating the ethics of what it means to tell just one side at this time. I know that for both of my parents it’s very painful to relive the experience. I’ve had conversations with my mother as to whether she now sees this group as a cult, and she says, Yes, because there was too much power in the hands of one person.

I do think that my mother’s search for spirituality is the way that I want to tell her story. Prior to this work, I finished a project around legacies of the Lebanese Civil War. My mother is a Beirut native and was a social worker during the war. She lived and worked through it, and fled it. I came to understand my mother’s complicated relationship to religion and the loss of religion. This led her to the search for new spiritualities, which led her to the ashram, where she met my father. They married for political reasons, to keep her in the United States. Then they fell in love. Then they had kids. And her spiritual journey continued. 

List Projects Rami George4

Installation view of List Projects 21: Rami George at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA, 2020. Photo by Peter Harris Studio. Image courtesy of the artist. © 2020 Rami George.

LB There is a recurrence or haunting throughout these experiences, which enters the works as well. 

RG Yes, an unexplained activity. The site of the jail had so much history already. Raines, the historian who reached out to me in 2013, had sent me the floorplan of the jail in Guthrie. I realized I could borrow this language and this layout as a connecting force or form. In an earlier work using Google Street View I also dealt with the ghost stories around the site. I’ve thought about what it means for this community to have become part of that charged history. There are all these lingering stories and ghosts, effects, intergenerational traumas. And I would like to keep the story going and to keep those traces present. Ross becomes this ghost or spirit whom I also want to bring forward and allow people to sit with. There is a twinship or mirroring in the unexplained connections within our stories. Weirdly enough, when my mother drove down for my MFA graduation, that night we had conversations about my work and about the Samaritan Foundation. It was right when I had been in Chicago viewing Ross’s films for the first time. And she said: Just the other day I was driving, and I swore I saw Allen.

List Projects 21: Rami George MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA, until October 11.

Laura Brown is a writer, editor, and curator living in New York.

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