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Art historian, curator and researcher, Lars Bang Larsen is the person responsible for the last edition of the Bienal de Sao Paulo having been somewhat “supraterrenal”. His interest in cosmology was decisive in the event including works of art and artists interested in the extra-sensorial, the occult and the spiritual. Larsen has studied in depth the relation between art and psychedelia, renewed the myth of the zombie in the current socio-economic framework, analysed the work of an artist “guided by the spirits” and reflected on the current role of art, in the face of its absorption by the part of a system that has been commodified, institutionalised and professionalised to supernatural extremes. His interest in spiritualism and psychedelia is orientated towards the future, more than the past and he is fascinated by what he calls the “more-than-human” as an element with which to be able to combat the normativity of late capitalism from a critical perspective. The “more-than-human” as a metaphor, to put into question what dehumanises us.
Your PhD dealt with psychedelic concepts in the art of the neo-avantgarde. How does your interest in this area so little studied arise??
From a personal point of view because I am passionate about the kind of artistic thinking that comes out of art’s relation with psychedelia. I find that I am always in a conversation with psychedelia. With psychedelia, you can create a large array of connections between artistic practice and culture at large. It is a great topic to write about, not least because there was, and is, a desire on the part of artists to come up with a new syntax for the art work, in the process of translating between the psychedelic experience and the work itself. In general, I try to talk about art’s psychedelic relation rather than ‘psychedelic art’. The psychedelic culture from the mid-20th century is in general connected to our post-disciplinary, info-controlled, pharmaco-pornographic contemporaneity. Many artists who worked psychedelically back then prefigured art’s post-media condition and gave pilot definitions of artistic research, also through explorations of cybernetic tropes and media.
In the big picture, what happened was not that emotions became banned in favour of logic; that was a popular dystopic fantasy in the 1960s, in the countercultural construction of the struggle between Eros and civilisation. Today it is instead some pernicious and powerful hybrid of affect and instrumentalized reason that has allowed the rise of an unbridled capitalism, chauvinism and xenophobia, and the disintegration of liberal democracy. Certain artists travelled in this nauseous reality before it became the contemporary condition. The fearless experimentation and rich contradictions of art’s psychedelic connection today also offer concepts and strategies to map and intervene in this reality. Art’s psychedelic relation is a playful and erotic mode of thinking that can be both subtle and defiant. Its strangeness lies in its proximity to the non-human: from the way it engages with the nervous system as a site of production, to its preoccupation with more-than-human perceptions, spaces and temporalities.
You have also analysed the work of Georgiana Houghton. A medium who painted, “guided” by spirits whom she contacted.
Like psychedelia, the relation between art and spiritualism is understudied. It is only towards the end of the twentieth century that historians have recovered counter-hegemonic histories of the occult. Since the nineteenth century, spiritualist groups have been involved in confronting religious authorities by demanding freedom from dogmatism and an ecclesiastical monopoly on spirituality. Furthermore, spiritualist meetings were often platforms where political radicals such as suffragettes, abolitionists, anti-imperialists and socialists could speak their mind. For an artist such as Georgiana Houghton (Las Palmas 1814 – London, 1884) spiritualism favoured the development of a highly original style.
My work with Houghton’s spirit drawings is the result of a collaboration with Marco Pasi, with whom I co-curated a presentation of her work. Houghton claimed that the spirits, who were calling her the “Holy Symbolist” and had announced a great spiritual mission for her, were guiding her hand when drawing. The result was a stunning series of pencil drawings and watercolours that were very different from both the mainstream and the spirit art produced at the time. She developed a visual language where all figurative elements gradually disappeared, leaving complex patterns of lines, shapes, and colours. All her works had a specific meaning, which the spirits also communicated to her. In fact, she used to write long texts describing and interpreting the drawings on the verso. However, no visible objects could be recognised in most of the pictures. They were, in a word, “abstract” avant la lettre.
We can believe or not in supernatural experiences, but there are various myths that help us, through metaphor, to reconsider problems that affect us day by day. Your essay Zombies of Immaterial Labor: the Modern Monster and the Death of Death is a sociological analysis of the zombie and bringing its allegorical character up to date.
This essay was an attempt at tracing the power of the undead through mainstream representations of the zombie figure, in the powerful and well-rooted Haitian tradition, as an imaginary produced by colonial slavery. You could say it was a way of exacerbating Derrida’s hauntology through Necropolitics – the creation of contemporary ‘death-worlds’, according to Achile Mbmebe. At the same time, I wanted to reintroduce alienation as a critical concept through what the anthropologists Jean and John L. Comaroff have called the zombie figure’s dramatisation of “the strangeness of what has become real.”
Your field of research addresses what is “beyond the norm” in art. Your future work “Arte y norma” will talk about the absorption of the outsider artist by the current system.
“Arte y norma. La sociedad sin atributos y otros textos” is a collection of my essays that will be published in Spanish by Cruce Casa Editora in Buenos Aires at the beginning of 2017. It is not about the outsider artist, though. It is true that several of ‘my’ artists worked at the margins of the art institution of their time and remained illegible to the gaze of the art historians (this goes for Sture as well as for Houghton, in their respective times and places), but the category of outsider art doesn’t satisfy me conceptually. It involves stereotypes of fascinating freaks or uncorrupted souls who and suggests that there is something such as ‘insider art’. Besides, there is a thriving market for outsider art, so it is not very “outside” at all. To paraphrase something Okwui Enwezor said recently: “I’m not interested in inclusions, instead the idea is to de-territorialize the landscape of art history”.
The book is called art and norm due to a desire to frame the essays in it within a sociological perspective on contemporary art’s tensions with the present political economy. It is a systematic as much as a dialectic view. It also concerns the increasingly mediated role that art has had since the 1990s when it was socialised in new ways through governmental and managerial discourses on experience economy and creative industries. Around this time, the professionalisation within the art system took on a new significance and became a precondition, or a limitation, for how people might engage and work with art, whether as artists, curators, or mediators. In my essays, I ask what are the consequences of this change? How can we deal with this predicament, how can we work within it? Does it have any blind spots? What relevant concepts can be proposed?
I’m interested in going into one of the ideas you raised in the exhibition “La insurrección invisible de un millón de mentes” in more depth. It is the following equation: “Art is not real. Nor is reality. What is reality?”
To me art is interesting in the space between the real and the imagined. Pier Paolo Pasolini, in character as Giotto, remarks at the end of Decameron (1971): “Why create a work of art when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?” Shot through with distance to itself, such sweetness is inimical to the origin, representation and construction of the real. Not only for the artist who may or may not want to realise the work she dreams of, but also for the curator who sets out to exhibit its unstable and often unrecognisable manifestations.
Along the lines of the relation between art and strange phenomena, how do you evaluate your contribution to the São Paulo Biennale last year?
The making of Incerteza Viva was a very collaborative effort between my co-curators Gabi Ngcobo, Sofia Olascoaga, Júlia Rebouças, Jochen Volz and myself. We worked with various leitmotifs– ecologies, education, historical narratives, and cosmologies. Cosmologies are strange, they’re queer, because through them it’s possible to cross over and create hybrid ontologies. The artist Matt Mullican said that cosmology is not what is in life, but around life. As accounts of ways in which worlds begin and end, cosmologies are shared by science and religions, and other sabidurias that seek to comprehend or dramatize the totality of what we know to be. The concept is notable for what it does not exclude, namely non-monotheistic religions and indigenous cosmovisions. By opening up perspectives across world views, historical subjects, and realms of being, cosmologies enable a critical view of how human and more-than-human life has been divided and compartmentalised by divisions in the Western mind, set up between cultures and religions, science, art, ethnography, and between nature and culture. Some critics responded to this proposal with clichés about crystals and hippiedom. However, a point of view that takes cosmology to represent something underdeveloped, un-progressed, or even occult, disregards not only its scientific aspects and critical potentials but is also oblivious to the fact that such judgment has led to the colonisation and, not unsurprisingly the extermination of indigenous belief systems. For me, a cosmopolitical perspective can be as punk as it can be hippie, if it departs from dissent and lays bare the violent modalities of late capitalist culture. On this note, with hindsight, maybe we could have been a more punk in our curatorial approach in order to make this point.
At a time when the aura of the artist is waning, your focus of interest is directed at creators who connect with “other worlds”. Contradictory?
Any attempt at recouping the aura is awful. I don’t disagree that my research focus has been artists who connect to other worlds, but activists also connect with ‘other parts’, to other social or utopian worlds. I am only interested in visionary art to the extent that it is involved in imminent struggles from which its visions grow, from the ground up. From the point of view of everyday life, the truism proposed by thinkers such as Derrida and Negri, that there is ‘no outside’, is a truth that needs modifications. In an interconnected world, there are many places that configure our existence from afar. The margins of social repression and cultural exclusion are outsides. But also in a more positive sense, other worlds are all around us. One could be this other world of art that Houghton saw. Or the world generated by artists of the sixties in their articulation of psychedelia as a bio-political arena; or it can be the world of abject death, life threatening, the world of political disempowerment and social humiliation that we can access with the zombie.
The terrain of psychedelia, spiritualism and monsters is a world of contradictions. They are highly volatile as cultural signs. Without their contradictions, they immediately flip into commodities. But if you keep their contradictions in play you can retain their radically experimental nature. The artist Susan Hiller wrote in an email to me: “I’m interested in the legacy of Spiritualism and the occult in terms of the future rather than the past; in other words, I think our world view is very limited and needs a paradigm shift if we are to survive. I’m not a believer. I always like to quote Freud’s remark that an uncritical belief in psychic powers is an attempt at compensation for what he poignantly called “the lost appeal of life on this earth.” In this way, Hiller doesn’t set out to establish new Truths, but instead employs the occult to point to what Freud called “the undeniable problems in our current definitions of reality.” This is a great way of putting it: to be interested in spiritualism and psychedelia in terms of the future rather than the past. I am always a little surprised that I have these research interests. To me, they are great enigmas and have little to do with what I do in my day to day – but then again, hopefully, everyone can change.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)