It's a breezy fall afternoon in Monterey Park at the Vincent Price Art Museum on the campus of East Los Angeles College, where Astri Swendsrud and Quinn Gomez-Heitzeberg stand shoulder to shoulder in black blazers and pants — she's fair, her hair drawn up in a grey kerchief; he's bearded, burly, and bespectacled. On the lapels of both their blazers hang the same insignia — a rectangular strip of red ribbon. Both clutch a pamphlet. This is the text that will lead their performance, a spiritual séance of sorts. The symbols are all in place: the divination tool — a skeletal, rectangular box set on its end, open to the wind with a swaying pendulum inside; a pyramid; and a fire.
Swendsrud and Gomez-Heitzeberg lead the crowd in a call-and-response chant of high-moral recitations: “Let us then be up and doing, with a heart for any fate. Still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait.” The words are from a text by Andrew Jackson Davis, one of the primary founders of the Spiritualist movement that emerged in the middle of the 19th century. Swendsrud and Gomez-Heitzeberg are more than five years immersed in the study of the Spiritualists' work and writings. They are in an ongoing personal artistic project that is about uncovering and resituating a local past activated by communities like the Spiritualists, where faith and its failed utopias are intertwined. Their performance-based experiments offer a place of opportunity to think about the mechanics of spiritual life anew — in terms of community, metaphysical truths, devotional and moral practice.
Just west of Elysian Park, at the corner of Riverside Drive and Allesandro Street, up a grassy incline and back amongst the sycamores are the ruins of the original Semi-Tropic Spiritualist encampment of Los Angeles. Long ago, at the bucolic “edge” of L.A. where the red line stopped (which is now the neighborhood of Silver Lake), residents would take weekend excursions for recreation, camping and — for a time in the early 20th century — participate in a wildly popular type of spiritual retreat replete with seances, workshops, and lectures by mystics and moral guides (other spiritual groups and their pilgrims gathered at the Riverside Drive site as well during that time). The Spiritualist movement started in 1849 in New York and made its way west through the 1880s. But as it moved towards California, it was dying back east, weighted down by charlatanism and controversies. Business was good for the Spiritualists in Los Angeles from about 1903 to 1915, but the movement left behind very little trace or legacy locally, leaving an obscured understanding of cultural consequences or after effects from the Southern Californian arm of the movement. Preachers the likes of Jackson Davis, however, wrote quite extensively about Spiritualism as a whole, and remnants of the Semi-Tropic Spiritualists do exist today. For the most part, though, the movement was over by 1930.
Swendsrud discovered the Spiritualist movement while researching female mediums of the early 1900s, from a feminist perspective. “These women could go into places of privilege and speak with authority because they were transmitting someone else's voice,” she says. Gomez-Heitzeberg, Swendsrud's co-collaborator and husband, was also fascinated by the concepts of the movement. They were both astonished at the dearth of evidence left by L.A.'s Spiritualists despite finding a significant amount of detail about the larger national movement. And when they found that they lived near the original Spiritualist settlement in Silver Lake, says Gomez-Heitzeberg, “We were both so excited about a project based on it. We said, 'We're going to fight about this if we don't do it together.'”
Swendsrud and Gomez-Heitzeberg met at the California Institute of the Arts where they received their master's degrees in fine art. They had collaborated together briefly before 2013 — but since then, their Semi-Tropic Spiritualists project has consumed them both. They continue to research the local metaphysical and spiritual past as they travel to visit the vestiges of other somewhat related mystical groups and sites (Harmony Grove, a Spiritualist community in Escondido, and Lomaland, a Theosophist center in San Diego, are a few) whose combined mission towards spiritual enlightenment and attempts at self-sufficiency are at the core of Swendsrud and Gomez-Heitzeberg's interests.
“We were both exploring ideas of mysticism and our own faith and belief and we needed a structure, the STS story and its history, in a very specific place, gave us a historical background but one that we couldn't really find that much out about, so we borrowed their name, and established ourselves continuing their investigations.” But he and Swendsrud aren't just re-activating the old group's ideas, he adds, “We're making our own symbolism and making our own connections to history, spirituality, and place.”
“One of our favorite moments so far was at the Vincent Price Museum,” Swendsrud says. That particular performance, "Semi-Tropic Spiritualist Test Site No.2," featured the pair reading Spiritualist texts and asking the audience to participate by chanting a response after each. “It was about building our own fire and our own camp — a space for a shared search for knowledge,” Swendsrud says. As the texts were read, they pieced together a nested set of wooden pyramids. With each new level, candles were lit and placed into holders within the structure. As the pyramid grew, so did the rows of candles, upwards with each successive chant. But the day was windy, and the performance was outside. “We were trying to light the candles,” says Swendsrud, “and everyone gathered in closer and huddled around so the wind wouldn't blow them out.” It was an unplanned but symbolic act of interaction and group participation that Swendsrud says is indicative of the types of communal spiritual cultures that fascinate them.
Swendsrud and Gomez-Heitzeberg are operating within a long history of site-related spirituality in Southern California. Their work fits comfortably into a spiritual regional riff with a varied and storied past: amidst L.A.'s many cults of the deserts and canyons and new religions are spiritual leaders turned criminals, vagabond preachers, exotic faith-healers, and psychics who historically appealed to a diaspora class, those lonely and lost newcomers made vulnerable by the endless sunshine, languor, and vice of Southern California. The two approach the project with a deadpan seriousness that Swendsrud says is passionate and genuine, but admits that the formality of their demeanor — the spiritual chants and matching outfits — puzzle some performance attendees. “At first, people were like, 'Are you guys for real?,'” says Swendsrud. Gomez-Heitzeberg adds, “We really have fun with it, but we believe all the things we say and do.” He explains, “When we have our ribbons on and our matching clothes on, it's easy to be earnest with it, and it's also really who we are.”
Their first performance acting as the Semi-Tropic Spiritualists, "Test Site No. 1," was part of the 2012 Los Angeles Road Concerts group show, "Mulholland Dérive," which had artists exhibiting interactive pieces at various overlooks on Mullholland Drive. Their divination structure, built like an old-fashioned school room chalk board, offered participants a “view-finder” window into the sprawling landscape below. Through the view-finder, participants could draw out (as if guided mystically with a planchet across a Ouija board) a conscious or unconscious memory of place along the ridges and building outlines of Downtown L.A.
Like the divination board, the objects Swendsrud and Gomez-Heitzeberg design to assist them in their performances are impeccably well-crafted, unsettling, and beautifully simple, utilizing a language of visceral symbology: tarot and ESP cards, obelisks, ringing bells, pyramids, and fires. The motifs take art-going audiences out of their presupposed experience and into a place of arcane meanings that hints at the occult.
“His strengths are in structure and mine are in embellishment,” says Swendsrud looking over felt banners with silhouetted palm trees, a hammer, and a burning candle. These will be draped as backdrops in a forthcoming exhibit and performance. “They are modeled after the DIY seasonal felt banners in the Minnesota churches of my youth” she says with a smile. ”They are obviously super handmade.” Swendsrud provides the graphic design and tactile qualities of the symbol/objects as well as the manuscripts and pamphlets used in performances. Gomez-Heitzeberg, who works as a finish carpenter in addition to his art practice, delivers the architecture of the objects. Together their work expresses a handmade communalism with an un-corporatized authenticity. “We're looking at how objects can function as more than props, but as guides,” she adds.
In an exhibit earlier this year, Swendsrud and Gomez-Heitzeberg placed their most-often used symbols — the palm, the pyramid, a piece of fabric from a tent — under glass, treating them more like an archive of the objects intentionally separated from their spiritual uses. They also set up an information kiosk with pamphlets about the movement and a mail-in comment card for those wanting more information. The two say they're planning a more interactive installation for their next foray, one that offers audiences a more participatory role in reading and interpreting their own spiritual state. "We're seeing what happens when we don't heed the warnings of other utopian groups who came before," Gomez-Heitzeberg ruminates, “These are honest questions getting back to the values that we have, and we think a lot of other people have them too.”
Top image: "Semi-Tropic Spiritualists Test Site No. 3: The Search For Open Ground" was first staged as part of "Shangrila 2013: Burrito Deluxe" in Joshua Tree.