Los Angeles

MOCAtv: Brian Butler and the Art of Darkness

In Partnership with MOCAtv
MOCAtv is a new, contemporary art video channel, developed as a digital extension of the education and exhibition programming of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

By Drew Tewksbury

The mystique of the occult and magic is undeniable. It's the dark side, that mysterious negative space of everyday life that casts an invisible shadow that can be felt but not seen. Southern California has had a special relationship with belief systems outside the cadre of major religions. From the rise of Scientology to the proliferation of cults like the Manson family and Heaven's Gate, California has been fertile ground for those who delve into unconventional thinking. Artist and filmmaker Brian Butler is interested in the dark arts. He explores the symbols and rituals of the occult in performance art pieces, music videos, and hallucinatory short films. In particular, Butler delves into the practices of Jack Parsons, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory rocket scientist and member of Ordo Templi Orientis, the bastion of black magic founded by Aleister Crowley, who was infamous for performing rituals and associating with science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Butler's latest video work, "Babalon Working" (which is presented above), displays occult symbolism and ritualistic ceremonies as an engine of maximum affect that creates a veritable fever-dream that shores sexuality with spirituality. The film was shot in Prague at the place where sixteenth-century alchemist Edward Kelly created Enochian Magick, the practice that Parsons said was the inspiration for his own ritual called "Babalon Working." Starring Paz de La Huerta and featuring an abstract synth soundtrack by Blondie musician, Chris Stein, the manic production showcases touchstones from horror films and late 1960s art-house cinema. Butler has worked with Kenneth Anger, a filmmaker with a similar penchant for phantasmagoria, and "Babalon Working" echoes the highly metaphorical cavalcade of imagery. "Transmigration," Butler's recent performance at MOCA unleashed waves of noise warbling from an analog synth and a string of effects pedals that provided a backdrop to a scene: a woman wearing an evening dress perched in a chair as a strobe light flashed behind her. The obscured figure almost became a mirror for the audience, reflected what happens to the body when the senses are overly stimulated. She shook her head, writhed and eventually slid to the floor from the chair.

Since the so-called Age of Enlightenment, reason has risen to become a central philosophy, slowly eclipsing spirituality and mysticism as science became a pillar for understanding the world. Technology today allows us to experience advances that would seem like magic to people living in the recent past, as our consciousnesses are inextricably linked to the digital world, an ephemeral, intangible place where thoughts and desires become interwoven. Instead of prayer, we connect with the infinite through geo-located check-ins, status updates, and photos documenting the minutia of an ever-receding present. As we bow before the glowing screen, our daily rituals aren't much removed from kneeling at an altar, and the motivation remains the same: to interface with something greater and vanquish the feeling of being alone in the universe. Yet, Butler's work embodies that sense of ancient wonder harkening back to a time when religion was science and science was mystical. For some, Butler's work may be polarizing, but it is undeniably fascinating as it eschews taboos and plunges into life on the dark side.

Artbound recently caught up with Butler to discuss his recent film "Babalon Working," collaborating with Kenneth Anger, and the state mysticism today.

Brian Butler at the 'Transmigration' performance at MOCA | Photo: Theonepointeight

When did you first become interested in rituals and magic?

Since I was a child I had an awareness that certain forces seemed to be operating behind what was commonly perceived as reality. Later on, I came across the writings of Aleister Crowley and this had a huge impact on me. Here was someone that had not only confirmed that these forces existed but had also created a guide to controlling them.

Your re-enactment of Aleister Crowley's "Bartzabel Working" recreates the 1910 ceremony, as performed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory Jack Parsons in 1946. What was it about the performative aspects of this ritual that made you want perform this now?

I performed that ritual publicly in December of last year at L&M gallery. It came about in a very organic way. My work was included in a group show called "For the Martian Chronicles" and the curator asked me if I would like to do a related performance. Earlier that year, I began performing various rituals publicly, so I proposed a ritual performance. They asked what I could do that was related to Mars and "The Barztzabel Working" immediately came to mind. Crowley and Parsons each performed the ritual in a different context. In 1910, Crowley performed this as a public group ritual. The interesting part was that he placed a human being in the triangle as the material basis. This hadn't been tried before. After the evocation Crowley interrogated the spirit via the material basis and received information about the war. Jack Parsons performed this ritual alone in a hotel room in Florida as a curse on L. Ron Hubbard who had absconded with his boat -- legend has it that there was a sudden storm and the boat was washed ashore.

Why do you think these occult and rituals were centered in Southern California?

There seems to be some kind of votex in the area.

Brian Butler performance at MOCA | Photo: Theonepointeight

What kind of research have you done into the life of Jack Parsons and what did you learn about him?

I have researched his life extensively for 20 years along with the life of [Marjorie] Cameron who I wrote about in my essay "Wormwood Star" which was published in Disinformations "Book of Lies". I worked with Showtime development as expert consultant on the life of Jack Parsons for a proposed biopic. I have a clear understanding of where he was on an occult level -- he had only been practicing magick for seven years prior to the "Babalon Working." From my research, I learned that Jack Parsons was a highly intelligent person who lived his life according to his artistic vision or, in Crowleyan terminology, his true will. He was a romantic and lived his life in a poetic way. He was also fearless and a bit reckless -- which is really the only way to travel the path he was on.

Brian Butler peformance

What first interested you in the works of Kenneth Anger and what is it like to work with him? Is he a good collaborator and what is his own creative process like?

I was attracted to Anger's work initially by the combination of powerful soundtracks, strange occult overtones, and his use of color and irony. I was already involved with the occult at the time and heard stories about Jack Parsons so the fact that he cast Cameron in his film indicated to me that the occult imagery wasn't superficial.

Working with Kenneth Anger has been a great experience for me. He's very much an individual and this is comes through in his work. We don't have to talk things over much its all very intuitive.

'Transmigration' performance created by Brian Butler | Photo: Theonepointeight

How do you think mysticism and ritual is evolving or disappearing in this age of science and technology?

As long as we have a physical body and mind certain aspects are eternal. Sometimes they reappear in different forms. Mysticism and ritual are ways of practicing magick. Magick has been defined as the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will. So this implies taking action and knowing who you are. Science and technology can only help as long as your techniques evolve with it. You have to pay attention to the result and notice what works. The only way to find this out is to keep experimenting.

Video still from Brian Butler


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About the Author

Drew Tewksbury is Managing Editor and Producer of Artbound. He has come from a diverse media background, having worked as a producer for NPR show News and Notes, a regular music columnist for L.A. Weekly’s West Coast Sound, and Se...
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