Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Authors on Artists: Janice Lee on Christian Cummings and Michael Decker

On Spectral Psychography
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: Thankfully 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 our ideas appear from nowhere. There is a portion of me believes we’re connecting to real 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.

Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Publishing, 2010) and Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011). She also has several chapbooks Red Trees, Fried Chicken Dinner (Parrot/Insert Press, September 2012), and The Other Worlds (Eohippus Labs, June 2012). Her newest project, Damnation, is forthcoming from Penny-Ante Editions in 2013. She currently lives in Los Angeles where she is Co-Editor of the online journal [out of nothing], Co-Founder of the interdisciplinary arts organization Strophe (which houses the curated series Novum), Feature Reviews Editor at HTMLGIANT, and Founder/CEO of POTG Design. She currently teaches Interface Culture at CalArts. She can be found at