Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Interview with Raymond Salvatore Harmon
We are very pleased to present an interview with Raymond Salvatore Harmon. Raymond is an artist and filmmaker whose work uses the occult as a point of inspiration and practice. He has also lectured extensively, most recently at Goldsmiths University, London; New Nothing Cinema, San Francisco; and the University of Lodz Film School, Poland among others. Here he discusses with Hannah his recent performance of 'Rites of Eleusis' and his process as an artist.
Celluloid Bough: Hello Raymond, and thanks for taking the time to conduct this interview with us. I wonder if we could begin by discussing the relationship between your work and occultism as a living practice.
Raymond Salvatore Harmon: I have been fascinated by both film and the occult from a very early age. I devoured my middle school library for books of mythologies and witchcraft. Soon exhausting this I discovered that the local library had an "interloan" system that let me get books from any library in the system. I soon found myself in possession of books like Transcendental Magic by Eliphas Levi and Francis Barrett's the Magus. Good food for the growing mind of a 13 year old boy.
My personal practice has grow out of a wide range of interests in cultural traditions toward mystical ideologies. How we approach this sense of the beyond, what it means to be perceptually aware of this beyond state, and how the form of existence relates to our perception of reality. I have sought the state of being that is beyond self, fully externalized and yet experientially aware, and this quest has lead me to incorporate these questions into all of my work, be it film, sound, painting, writing, or performing.
As a filmmaker one possesses a role that incorporates that of painter, composer and writer. You are scripting the frames of reality that the viewer experiences. Whether these frames depict realistic narrative stories or abstract evolving forms the director of a film decides what goes where. At a certain point in my work these two sets of ideas and practices, the mystical and the cinematic, converged. That point was YHVH.
CB: Your work as an artist and experimental filmmaker is informed by occultism in varying forms. Can you tell us a little about how you came to this synthesis in your artistic work?
RSH: The use of occult and mystical iconography dates back to my earliest paintings. Throughout my life my artistic work has continually delved into the forms associated with the occult traditions. Yet the use of art, particularly cinema, for practical ritual exploration is something that came to me during the creation of my first occult piece YHVH. I realized during this particular piece that the video content was capable of accessing parts of the subconscious mind and that it would make a perfect carrier signal for subliminal content. I started experimenting that very minute with incorporating various levels of subliminal content, each layer that could actually be seen really just a distraction from the intended path of the initiate.
After several attempts to incorporate more complex subliminal content I stumbled onto my current frame of working and have been developing it since. I have been recently looking into further systems to deliver various kinds of subliminal content to the viewer. I think in the future I could see working with complex flash based video since the web seems to be taking over as the content source. But for now the only films that have actual sub content are the dvds.
CB: Would you describe for us something of the artistic process that you go through in approaching the construction of a new piece of work?
RSH: Much of my work in general, and all of the occult films to date, have developed out of an extended process of experimentation with different forms. These forms are constructed from various pieces of video equipment, mostly hand modified and circuit bent, all made to create a signal path in relation to the content. I push the video signal in various ways, attempting to discover new forms within the static and noise. Once I have captured a particular form to tape I then edit this down to various sizes. YHVH, for instance, started out as 6 hours of content but was cut to only 22 minutes of film.
During the editing process I correct the color to be in tune to certain frequencies and to resonate with other color frequencies that are known to affect the conscious mind in specific ways. Boosting certain reds, shifting blues to greens. All of this changes what the individuals experience with the piece is going to be. I notice that the major changes that occur in the creation process between each of my pieces is dependent on what music I am listening to while experimenting with the video signal path. I am an omnivorous music listener, not a fan of super pop but there is not a genre of music I do not listen to if I know about it.
The other side to all of this is when I start with video that documents my environment. About half of the pieces use a prerecorded source set for their original content. Most of this is now something I have shot on my phone camera. Low-res abstract movements. The way a cloud moves in the sky, or water on some surface. The Rites of Eleusis uses source documentation shot in Brighton and London on my phone. Mostly super closeups of tiny events happening around us everyday.
So I take footage of my life and the world around me and push it through various math patterns to see what it comes out like on the other side. Then I edit this down to an abstract film meant to carry a layer of subliminal content. I am subliminally feeding the world I experience to my viewers as abstraction while exposing them to various tracts of numerous mystical traditions.
CB: Your recent work, 'Rites of Eleusis', recontextualises the ritual performance piece designed by Aleister Crowley and Leila Waddell. Could you tell us a little about this particular work and its relationship to Crowley's envisioning of it?
RSH: Crowley originally scripted a set of seven individual rites, each of these rites a ceremonial recreation of a Greek mystery based on one of the seven planets of classic cosmology. His intent as far as is known, was to introduce this kind of theatrical form of occult practice to a wider public. Similar to the public acceptance to the original Eleusisian Mysteries in ancient Greece; making the mysteries known, etc.
In approaching the creation of my piece the Rites of Eleusis I intended from the start to remove the theatrical form of Crowley's original work. By stripping away a stage of people and replacing those variables with a set of evolving abstract shapes I am capable of tuning sensitive viewers into a form that is happening within the film. During this "tuned in" state the viewer becomes much more prone to subliminal suggestion. Within the context of the film I edit the entire text of Crowley's original Rites into the visual field at a subliminal level (roughly 1/30 of a second). Try as you may you can not see this content, but your retina is sensitive to it and your brain does capture the data. By reducing the 7 Rites to 7 seven minute long films the shape of the subliminal content is more intense. Requiring repetitive editing and shifts of scale within the visual field.
Using the score as a cement to meld the two layers of visual content together creates an almost immersive environment for the viewer. The goal is to achieve a perceptual submersion into the abstract form itself. Once "within" the visual field the viewer is then able to explore their own subconscious landscape without the confines of the perception of 3 dimensional existence. Though viewing this kind of work in a static form (say from a dvd) is practical for individual ritual working the best chance at a totally immersive experience is to see it performed live. It has been often pointed out to me that there is something more immediate and physical at the live performances. It probably stems from my reaction to the crowd.
CB: Obviously you are inspired by Crowley's work - but are there other occultists and filmmakers that inform your film making?
RSH: Probably the single biggest occult influence on my filmmaking has been the 17th century English alchemist Thomas Vaughan. His writings are astounding and his understanding of the complex nature of the universe is often overlooked in the history of the occult. His work "Lumen de lumine" is an astounding discourse on the nature of the universal light. Absolutely beautifully written.
Beyond Vaughn the ethno-musicologist and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith is a huge influence on my life. His films are amazing and his archivist tendencies at music preservation are unparalleled. Harry led an amazing life and left a great biography in his wake, some of it fictional but all of it inspiring. I am currently working on a documentary about Lionel Ziprin, whom Harry lived with and whose grandfather (renowned Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Nuftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia) was recorded by Harry singing and incanting in Hebrew and Yiddish in the early 1950s. It may turn out that I am working on a Harry Smith documentary as well, in time.
My work is influenced by so many things, music, literature, culture, art. I am particularly drawn to minds that think outside of the norm, that approach life and existence from a new prespective. People like Joseph Gikatilla, Jerzy Grotowski, Stan Brakhage, Antonin Artaud, Alfred Jarry, Aleister Crowley, Georges Bataille, Julio Cortázar, John Cage, Moshe ben Shem-Tov, Alvin Lucier, Eddie Prevost - in general people who push at the boundaries of life.
CB: Your work has been described as filmmaking that goes beyond the purely visual, but instead is designed to be incorporated into ritual. Can you detail for us some of the ways you imagine this, of how film can be a ritual tool, if you will?
RSH: The use of light in the shape of ritual in any cultural context is already known. Candles, lamps, fire, all play an important part in detailing the form of the ritual practice of religion and magic in any culture. This controlled lighting is something that goes back to the earliest rituals of humankind. The advent of cinema in the 20th century lead to eventual study on its affects on the human mind and the shape of human conscious while experiencing the illusion of life that is film. From detailed accounts of such research man is now able to utilize color, form, and sound together to achieve certain desired affects on the human mind. (look at marketing research for television as an extreme example).
Once we are capable of knowing how specific colors and sounds affect us we can then approach using these controls as a means for creating specific psychological states. By utilizing transcendental cinema to expand the perception of reality beyond the sense of self we can achieve a state of mental contemplation in tune with a particular working.
From a passive meditation standpoint occult/transcendental film can be used to simply bring us perceptually out of ourselves, giving us the freedom to move around outside the confines of 3 dimensional existence. From an active magick ritual point of view these films can be used to focus the mind on a particular occult working, say a conjuration or invocation. All in tune with the purpose of the individual occult film.
What transcendental cinema offers the occult practitioner is the first new tool in the occult since the birth of audio recording/playback. It is the symbolic fifth tool, the Lamp, that accesses the mind through our most powerful sense - sight. Through it the viewer can begin their journey toward the light.
Obviam Lux Lucis!
CB: Thank you so much, Raymond, for taking the time tp speak with us. We look forward to seeing and experiencing more of your inspiring and provocative work.
The artist's website
Raymond's MYSpace Page
A press release on Rites of Eleusis