As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
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Eliza Swann Darkness represents “the absolute unmanifest.” In mythology, this is often represented by primordial waters and the formlessness that precedes form. How does the concept of the unmanifest figure into your art practice? What catalyzes your urge to make forms? How do you reconcile form and formlessness in your practice?
Frank Haines BLACK! Darkness, before the big bang, all that was before. All potential. A contemporary metal band, Watain, named their recent album Lawless Darkness. The way they explained it, light is an impulse of restriction and definition, and darkness represents an absence of such restrictions. The dark is the primordial wellspring. While I definitely do not feel aligned with the path the Watain brain is on (Satanism), I appreciate and relate with the sophistication of this articulation of the black, of the absence of light, of the unmanifest.
It is the color of all potential. But what of the black that preceded it? Is the brain even able of thinking on such things?
ES Restriction and definition are necessary for the act of creation to occur out of primordial ooze. Your work with grids hints at a Platonic geometric conceptualization of matter—a way to use limitation and restriction to understand the living world.
FH Much of the sculptural work I have done has referenced the main Egyptian creation myth. In the beginning all was only the swirling watery chaos that was called Nu, out of this rose the primordial mound, of Atum. This mound of earth rising out of the primordial waters. Something rising out of a bigger something. Such fertility and expansion is a major reason why I have used the color teal for so long.
A grid is a modern invention, a symbol in which to map out and contemplate the manifest. I can’t get away from the grid. It is a short step from a grid to the spider’s web, and then to consider what sits in the middle of that web. Like the super massive black hole, Sagittarius, which sits at the center of our swirling Milky Way galaxy. From manifest back to unmanifest.
ES Looking around your studio there is an abundance of demonic imagery which immediately makes me think of the Greek origin of the word demon: daimon. Originally this word referred to a guide which was somewhere between human and god, and carried neither negative or positive connotations. Socrates credits much of his work to his daimon or guide. Christianity gave an unsavory character to demons to ensure that no one would find guidance outside of the church. How do demons figure into your work and your inspiration?
FH 2010 was a really intense year for me. Year of the Tiger. I did find it to be ferocious and at times devastating; elements that were joined together were suddenly and painfully ripped apart. I bring this up because it goes to the root of the idea of demons or the devil: the word devil comes from the Greek word diabolos, which literally means to tear apart. This diabolic is the antonym of symbolic which comes from the root sym-bollein which means to throw together, or to unite.
Such bringing together and tearing apart seem like the polar energies of this universe as we know it. Matter is eternal, the compounds of matter fleeting. I can resist it and hate it as much as I want, or I can ride this universe wave and see where it takes me. Such a response is best articulated for me in the Tarot card of the Hanging Man. The paradox of an individual enlightened through powerlessness.
ES I wouldn’t say powerlessness as much as surrender in the case of the Hanged Man. There is a great deal of power in surrender—the trust in the “bringing together” even when you are in the “tearing apart” space. Jesus, one of our more famous Hanged Men, at the end of the crucifixion scene said: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit,” words of surrender.
FH I agree with you, but sometimes your hand gets forced. And you find yourself in this place of having to be the yielding branch. While the Jesus man did say those words, prior to saying them he asked his dad why he had forsaken him.
I was bullied into Christianity as a youth. I say bullied because I had no choice and there weren’t any other options. I also say bullied because it is a belief system largely guided by the unsustainable and unproductive tenets of fear, suppression and guilt.
In such a system was planted seeds of fear about those things outside the church that were labeled demonic. Life forces such as sexual desires are labeled as evil and shameful as opposed to being sublimated. While I definitely like to ponder that which is the demonic (as one of many books on the shelf), I don’t fuck with it. Whether that energy is something that a high magician can conjure into a triangle from the protection of his magic circle, or whether it is something deep rooted in one’s subconscious, I’d rather leave that potential energy alone. I state this out of respect, not fear.
ES Exorcism! Absolutely! I had always approached that subject in a Jungian, metaphorical, psychological (disbelieving) way until I began working with intense energy healers who did a lot of very literal exorcisms. I just watched a beautiful documentary by Margaret Mead from the 1930s called Trance and Dance in Bali. The dancers enact the struggle between “fear of death” and “the living” and become possessed by spirits during their frenzy—they begin to plunge daggers into their chests without leaving a scratch.
In Jung’s opinion the first step toward individuation, or self-realization, is confronting the shadow aspect of the self. In his opinion the key to surviving the descent into darkness, repressed areas of the psyche, and unconsciousness is to remain aware of the shadow without identifying with it. He also saw the shadow self as the seat of creativity. In what way does your shadow self figure into your practice at this moment?
FH I feel like most, if not all, occult or metaphysical practices are best done in tandem with some kind of psychological therapy. They really compliment one another.
In this way I think one can best maintain sanity and see that which is above as that which is below. The abyss is something to be looked into, but not the only thing. Some of the most bitter people do yoga every day, as do some of the happiest.
I go to therapy. I had to deal with this. The only way out is through. The multitude of stories in all mythologies are guiding lights, roadmaps to such experiences. They also serve as reminders to how universal that life template is. Facing that dark night of the soul. Thinking you will find an abomination, only to find a god.
ES I completely agree with you about the occult/psychology nexus. People often ask me how to learn the Tarot. I usually direct them to M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled and Annie Besant’s Man and His Bodies, basically two psychology textbooks. In any “occult” study the “key” or “philosopher’s stone” appears from within—not from an external study of symbology. Meditation is also a phenomenal tool for understanding—in every aspect.
ES In some recent performances and photographs there is an abundance of liquid, pouring, and paint ooze baptisms happening. Water is often associated with darkness and unconsciousness and floods figure heavily in mythologies surrounding cleansing and purging—as in the great flood, which destroys the face of the earth and then recedes, leaving one pure human being. What is being transformed during these pigment baptisms?
FH Those color baptisms are a direct homage to the Vienna actionists and most specifically to Otto Meuhl, my favorite of that pack. I wish more eruptions like those of the actionists would happen today. Those actions have existed for a very short period of time, becoming these grotesque action painting sculptures that sometimes live on in photographs.
While I think a lot about water, those works seems more like some fucked up mess. They feel closer to blood sacrifice than a baptism. Baptism is a water grave that one is rebirthed from. It must have looked amazing on those Mayan pyramids when they were cutting all those hearts out of people and the blood ran down the steps. Tragic, of course, but then we get led into territory of the terror of the sublime.
In a recent Wire interview William Bennett of Whitehouse mentioned that his intent was “taking people to places that are completely unfamiliar to them. Basically dragging people into the woods.” He put it so succinctly, as being dragged into the woods sounds at once so sinister yet also transcendent. While the performance work has a long list of identifiable influences, I’ve always wanted it to have a ritualistic framework yet at the same time be short and entertaining! The word entertaining has always been a important criteria, because so much, dare I say most, work that defines itself as performance work in murderously boring and usually embarrassing.
ES I am curious about the addition of “gray” in your performance duo Blanko and Noiry. The dynamic seemed to shift from Father and Son to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
FH There needed to be three. If you have two things there is always the relationship between them, in essence the third. That needed to exist on the stage, the visual triangle, the Osiris. It is such an instinctive template. It really felt that simple.
ES Since we are largely talking about darkness, tell me how you came to work with Chris Kachulis, “Noiry,” and how you arrive at your musical selections.
FH Chris was good friends with Bruce Haack and did a majority of the vocals for the Haack’s album Electric Lucifer. Electric Lucifer became an instant favorite of mine. It has all these forward thinking ideas about light immersed in warm electronic tones, and I loved that they were claiming Lucifer in a tone that wasn’t entirely dark or sinister.
I saw Philip Anagnos’s documentary on Haacke. On it Chris sang a few numbers from a still unreleased record he and Haack did together (Electric Lucifer 3). Chris seemed like such a weird old tripper, I wanted to know more about him.
I contacted the website and they put me in touch with him so I went to meet him at his old job of 40 years, ABC TV near Lincoln Square. I had just started performing by myself a few times. It just sort of evolved from reworkings of midi files I had been messing around with in GarageBand. From those templates, we started doing really damaged versions of numbers from the American Songbook. Chris’s brain is an immense database of popular music. Chris has a grasp on most music that was produced in the 20th-century and often an anecdote to go with it.
[Our performances] were always super ceremonial, and based on an equinox or solstice. People were asking me to perform, but I felt like what I was doing was too sensitive to timing and place. It felt like Blanko and Noiry could be the secular outlet for performing. But slowly, the ritualistic elements creeped in and now it exists as a merger of the two. This was further accelerated by the addition of the transitional third entity, the gray one, Reuben Lorch Miller.
Chris is a really special man and we plan to record really soon. I also have some videos planned with him as the star. I really want to commit his performed database to media and not just memory.
ES How does your performance art relate to ritual magic, and what other popular modes of performance do you draw from?
FH All the pictures and descriptions of operations of the original Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn are huge inspirations. I feel like their aesthetics and ideas still have yet to be tapped by anyone in a public way.
There is such a huge amount of influence, from Jodorowsky to Al Jolson to Roxy Music pictures of Brian Eno to old pictures of Victoria de Los Angeles to Robert Blake in Lost Highway to Process Church to the long shadow cast by the genius of Genesis P. Orridge to Linda Montano to all those Actionist trippers in Vienna to Whitehouse to Kevin Drumm to Camus and Absurdism to Beckett trips to Bruce Haack to Sissel Kardel to Flipper to Manson music to Church times to Father Yod to Neil Hamburger to the white man married to the black woman who was a neighbor to the Jeffersons to Waylon Jennings to all the different incarnations of Faust to Kardinal to fucked up energies in Vienna to the Banana Splits to The Theosophy Library on 53rd and 3rd to mineral worship to GG Allin to Marlene Dietrich to Chris Johansen to that weird millisecond after you burn yourself to warm and cold showers to Biff Rose to Israel Regardie to Tarot times to B.O.T.A. times to Mason aesthetics to being stoned and alone with the sun out to night walks to Christopher Garrett to lessons from and in love.
The main point is to make it yours. To quote Linda Montano, “Now it’s your turn.”
ES St. John of the Cross wrote The Dark Night of the Soul describing the despair that occurs at many stages along the spiritual path—does this figure in to your investigations right now?
FH Most definitely. When does that part end?
ES That’s a good unanswerable question! It seems to end in an ego death into mystical love for St. John:
I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
(The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross)
Death is shrouded in darkness because it is a step in to the unknown. There is that amazing scene in the 7th Seal when Antonius asks Death what he knows and he says: “I AM UNKNOWING.” What aspects of death both physical and metaphorical figure in to your work right now?
FH It just keeps happening. I feel that work that starts and ends with the intention of being didactic usually ends up being terribly boring and failing in its intent. I believe in what can happen through relational expansion.
There is so much to be gained in a misread. Reading meaning into a work that the artist did not consciously intend, that action creates new roads to new destinations. This is one reason why I hardly ever title pieces. I wouldn’t want to guide people in that fashion.
ES One of the primary functions of a shaman is the passage through underworlds and shadow realms to obtain knowledge and healing for people. One could argue that heavy metal bands perform this same function. Can the artist also heal in this way?
FH I don’t know if I believe an artist can heal, at least through artwork itself. I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying, and I think art can work as one of the best therapeutic and meditative exercises. But whether that exercise needs to be shared with a public is another thing. I am really willing to learn more and more from life and experience about this very thing.
ES The philosopher Gurdijieff breaks art into subjective and objective. Subjective art is compared to vomiting—the artist feels better after relieving himself of nausea, and the audience is left to look at the vomit. Objective art illuminates “the peak and the valley both,” and encompasses the breadth of human experience objectively. I think artists can certainly be curative for the collective psyche. The ideas of Yves Klein, Linda Mary Montano, Jack Smith, and on and on and on have certainly changed my approach to living for the better. Genesis Breyer P. Orridge’s Pandrogyny work is moving culture to a broader place of understanding.
As for objects themselves having healing power—I guess that depends on how you view physical matter and the space in between. Having seen a great Sphinx rising out of the sand in Giza, I am led to believe that they can.
FH That’s one reason why I am glad we are friends, Eliza.
To learn more about Frank Haines’s exhibition “Under the Shadow of the Wing of the Thing,” visit the Lisa Cooley Gallery website.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.