Risa Puleo Interviews Ivan LOZANO

Risa Puleo: Let’s start from the start. What are you doing for Pastelegram?

Ivan LOZANO: I am making a series of seven videos that correspond to the chapters in the self-help audiobook Disarming the Narcissist by Wendy T. Behary. Each video is composed of a still shot of a collage animated by a colored light and a flicker effect, which corresponds to a looping, repetitive drum beat. The drum beat creates a delivery mechanism, or a sort of key that induces a trance state, which allows the viewer to absorb the other portion of the audio: a digitally manipulated version of Behary’s audiobook. The collages are variations on a theme. Each one includes a portrait of the deceased gay porn performer Adam Faust, who died from a heart attack at 38, and photo transfers of palm fronds created with acrylic medium. The palm fronds are a symbol of the triumph of the spirit over the body, of the immaterial over the corporeal. The videos operate as hypersigils that are charged by the viewer. While the videos, being on a loop, ­have no real duration, there is something to be gained from the willingness to stare and meditate on these images.

Why Disarming the Narcissist?

This project grew out of my research on the ways online communities form and the "echo-chambers" that manifest themselves in message boards. Specifically, I was researching how bareback culture validates itself, normalizes the practices and attitudes it presents, and how it grows based on language and group identity. I realized in doing this research that there are narcissistic tendencies in these subcultures, and I don't mean that as a value judgment at all. Other examples of these groups are maybe pro-anorexia message boards, or multiple personality disorder support groups.

I want to make sure that it's clear that I am looking not at the content of these groups or the things that tie them together, but at the process of creation and maintenance of these identities that are strengthened and have become more stable categories because of the Internet.

For me, the idea of narcissism in the creation of these categories comes from how these message boards require a participant to accept the rules or community standards of each subculture, and to lavish praise on oneself and others based on those standards. You share your experiences that relate to this identity in order to receive positive feedback and, in the case of barebacking culture, enhance an erotic charge to the activities you're engaging in. You become a sort of reification of this hive mind that reports back to the hive the ways you're committed to its cause. This is, in my mind, the same mental process that happened previously with cults, or with religion in general. While the process isn't new, the Internet and message boards have made it possible to create these cultures that are laser-focused on a very small aspect of a member's life, and which create an entire identity based on that aspect. The negation of other facets of a lived experience is where I see the narcissism coming in as well.

It seems to me that by embedding the audio into the video you are creating a subliminal message that destabilizes or, to use Behary’s term, disarms these narcissistic tendencies.

Yes, absolutely. That’s the idea.

Your previous work has also sought out practices like Magick as means of transformation and transcendence using sigils and other devices of the occult as generators of form, content and meaning. Sigils in particular function in your work as delivery systems for imparting spiritual lessons. Can you talk about how this project relates to your practice at large?

For this project I’m directly engaging with the sigil as a form, whereas in other projects it was more subtle or secondary. Sigils are a category of spells that are of particular interest to me as a visual artist, as they require the distilling of elements into a visual whole that can work independently of the understanding of the original content. It's code.

What do you mean when you say your videos operate as hypersigils?

A hypersigil is a sigil that unfolds over time, or different dimensions. Grant Morrison discusses this idea in his essay “Pop Magic!” While the sigil was originally a glyph deployed to call forth an entity to assist with a specific task, a computer file is a set of instructions in a language––a glyph––fed to a computer––an entity––to perform that task. For example, a file called flower.jpg is not an image of a flower, but a set of instructions that are performed by a processor and experienced by us as a picture of a flower. My videos/gifs/photographs are ALWAYS a performance of code by a machine. While my work is not generally understood as new media or net art, to me it absolutely falls into that realm, in that I am working specifically with digital information, with software, with the Internet. I am using the computer, the Internet, and software to perform code, to construct my hypersigils. So my work is of the digital realm, it is computer art.

For this project, you've been working with the Austin Osman Spare art collection at the Harry Ransom Center. Can you tell me what you've found and how the archive has helped shape the project?

The sigil was originally conceived, in medieval sorcery, to be a sort of coat of arms, or the name of a specific angel, demon or entity. By knowing a specific sigil, one was able to call forth the presence it represented. In the first half of the 20th century, the occult thinker and artist Austin Osman Spare changed the way that sigils are used, making them more accessible as a form. What I mean is that his conception of sigils didn't call forth demons necessarily, but focused energy, intent and will. He, in many ways, democratized Magick, by switching the focus from the outside world to the human element. He was a humanist sorcerer.

I had no idea the Ransom Center had any materials related to Spare. When Chelsea Weathers alerted me to them I was really interested to see how I could include them in this project. The Ransom Center has a couple of automatic drawings, pages from sketchbooks and a few artifacts of A.O. Spare's. For this project we're publishing a pamphlet on Spare's work by Kenneth Grant, who was another important occultist of the 20th century, most notably because he wrote about much more powerful magicians than himself.

Also, I am creating a sort of divination spell using Spare's sketches and Google Images. Clicking on a sketch will call forth the algorithms Google Images uses for generating comparisons and similarity results, and will create a zip file of images that will be secret until a participant opens the file. There's an intelligence behind the chance mechanisms that yield these images, but it is beyond us. Because new images are being added to search results constantly, and the code is occult and unavailable to us, this collection of images can be used as a scrying tool.

Let's talk for a moment about self-help books. It seems to me that you are using self-help books as modern-day grimoires (spell books).

Yes, self-help books in many ways are modern, pop-cultural grimoires. They are coded instructions for achieving a specific result that is based on knowing the self. To quote Aleister Crowley, another important occult figure, "Magick is the Science of understanding oneself and one's conditions. It is the Art of applying that understanding in action."

Perhaps medieval society would have seen what we now define by psychology as magical or alchemic energetic exchange. If we follow a logic that beliefs we hold about ourselves have been programmed (to use Internet language) or cast upon us by our parents, social mores or popular culture, then a self-help book is a DIY manual for removing that spell.

Yes, in some ways. To expand that, our understanding of the world is mediated by language, codes (computer or otherwise), symbols and images. We have a specific interface with the world.

A self-help book, a spell or a sigil can be thought of as a widget, an app or a system update to that interface. Another quote that I think is relevant and has been very important to my practice comes from British author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Magic and technology are two ways in which humans use language to create change. They are two different ways of explaining the same thing. The difference has to do with how much of that hidden (occult) information you're privy to. The implication is that the rules of the game can be understood if you have access to the source code, whatever that might be. It puts the supernatural and the technological on the same plane. What I mean by occult information is that the codes of magic and technology are not visible to everybody. You have an iPad but have no idea how it operates, just that it does. In the same way, a magician might not know exactly how a spell works, only that it does. However, if you have the correct sigils or access to the computer code, you can understand why a spell or, say, Instagram works the way it does.

That information is, for most people, occult––hidden. It privileges the belief that there is a structure and a language, even if that language, like binary or machine code, cannot be read or understood by human participants. To put this in cuddly terms, it's a utopic belief system, because it relegates chance or entropy to a not fully understood set of rules.

And also utopic in that its goal is transcendence and it posits a better future through labor, in this case working on oneself until full awareness is achieved.

Exactly. Transcendence/innovation/progress. It conjures a teleology out of chaos; the end point is full knowledge. It forces a narrative arc and therefore is a way for the human mind to make sense of the world.

In previous bodies of work, you’ve used pornography as a means of corresponding with a generation of queer artists (artists in an expanded sense, including visual artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians, and porn actors) lost to the AIDS crisis. How does Adam Faust figure in this context?

I grew up Catholic, so I think about the fallen porn star as a saint or a martyr. They are placeholders for narrative, their image an allegorical device. More and more I’ve been using the Internet as an active participant in my process. I ask it what to do. It's a form of scrying, where I stare at the screen, click on things and slowly unravel information based on a database logic and an archive architecture that is beyond me. When I reach something that resonates I use it. While researching barebacking culture, I began to surf the web, to associatively reach content. Adam Faust arrived as a sort of guide, like Virgil in Dante's Inferno. Even the name this person chose as a porn name was interesting because of its connotations. Adam (first man) and Faust (a Faustian bargain, the sacrifice of a future for an earthly reward) resonated with me and with the project. The man that became the image/performer Adam Faust gave up his physical body for our entertainment, and for our education in some ways too, by illustrating the perils of a life lived as he lived his.


Ivan LOZANO (b. Guadalajara, Mexico) is an artist living in Chicago, IL. He graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA in Film, Video, New Media and Animation. In another life, he was the programming director for the Cinematexas International Short Film Festival in Austin, Texas. He is the founder and editor of the PDF artist press IMAGE FILE PRESS. His website is ivanlozano.net.

Risa Puleo is a curator and writer living in Brooklyn.