Eric Valosin: Jesse, in one way your work serves as an analysis/metamorphosis of spiritual-cultural material, but do you view the process of making it a spiritual process at all?
Jesse Bransford: Yes. I think anything that identifies itself as spiritual is about transformation. Analysis is about looking and if we don’t recognize and allow our experience in time to change us (it always does) we are not really looking (or living for that matter). I think the biggest crisis of consciousness is the ‘/’ that we can make between analysis and metamorphosis. The separation is useful to a point, but it has also caused a certain disjoint in our experience of the universe. That said, I have made a point of trying to have the work participate in transformations on every level, personal, practical, material. Analysis should produce transformation and should be, I think, by extension a spiritual process.
EV: Speaking of process, you’ve spoken of your fascination with tantric drawings. Can you talk about this influence and about the translation from the process of making to the process of viewing?
JB: I have a short list of objects I’ve seen that embody what I call a presence of transcendence. I have tried to elucidate that presence in other places and the failure has been so complete I hesitate to try again. It transcends language, but in a non-trivial way. Walter Benjamin’s notion of the ‘aura of the original’ has some purchase on what I’m seeing in these works, but there seems to be something more. I should note that what we are talking about are very specific tantric drawings, so specific the yantra tradition doesn’t really contain them. They are made by a practitioner with the intention that the making and the meditation upon the object are intimately connected. The objects we see are actually the cast off remains of a singular relationship between a consciousness and an object that is made. This sounds like any artwork in the western conception, yet somehow the intensity of that past interaction transmits off of the drawings. I had the pleasure of including some of these amazing works in a group show I curated recently, and I’m not the only one who feels this trans-material sensation: people who had no idea what they were looking at commented on the feeling.
EV: I know you hold a degree in the history of technology (among others). Do you see a difference in the role technology plays in mediating the mystic experience today as opposed to, say, the middle ages?
JB: Technology is a slippery term. In the classic definition it is actually quite inert. The intention behind a technology is what drives the meaning of the technology. So much so that you can find examples of the same technology getting deployed in completely different ways in different contexts. It gets quite interesting to consider when you look at an extended historical record as you suggest. I think the images technology has presented us with have allowed expansions of almost every imagined ‘mystical’ perspective on one hand, but on another the images have stayed strikingly similar. We can wonder at statements of people like Giordano Bruno, who suggested stars as suns in a time when that was almost inconceivable. Historians of technology have stated that the telescope was what enabled Bruno’s supposition, but the more I learn the more I recognize technology and technological innovation is only a very good example of the kinds of things our imagination is capable of proposing.
EV: It sounds like you’re saying that our understanding is not unlocked by technology, so much as it unlocks technology. Therefore technology is not a mediator per se, but is in itself an expression of our mystic states. Am I understanding that correctly?
JB: Absolutely. Here I'm borrowing from Heidegger and adding in the metaphysics that might be found in Giles Deleuze's Pure Immanence, or in François Laruelle - although none of them would EVER call it metaphysics. But it amounts to a similar thing. The same could even be said ofThe Exegesis of Philip K Dick.
EV: So you see a resurgence in the relevance of metaphysics?
JB: I guess I'm seeing a retooling of terms to avoid the metaphysical in such a way that it seems mostly semantic to me. Radical alterity IS a metaphysic in my formulation. But I am proving I am not a philosopher by saying that. However, by saying it and proposing that collapse, the window opens up to re-consider a ton of material from the more interesting fringes of the religions of the book (Pseudo-Dionysius, for instance) in a way that is much more interesting than insisting that meta-physics, strictly speaking, has been dialectically/historically/whatever superseded.
EV: Do you think an unmediated spiritual experience is possible or has postmodernity proven that everything is mediated?
JB: I think more and more that this is a false distinction, that even in the places where the distinction would have purchase it quickly becomes a non-issue. It’s as good a starting point as anywhere, but I’m surprised the distinction persists as a talking point. Everything is mediated and nothing is mediated (how’s that for a mystical position). I think I find the contemporary language more amenable to the idea that everything is mediated, but critical theory is toying with the idea of metaphysics again (as much as they will tell you otherwise!). I remember seeing Baudrillard speak at the New School a year or so before he died. A young student asked him about mediation in a way that made it clear she had just read Simulacra and Simulation, and he looked at her and made that weird squirt sound that the French do as a dismissal and said something to the effect of ‘it’s not mediated experience that ruins the potential for human freedom my dear, it’s POWER.’
EV: How do you define postmodern?
JB: Picking up the pieces of a preliminary (failed) experiment in globalism. We’re in the midst of another global experiment. I think in another 20-30 years we will talk about a post-global moment. I hope it fares better than modernism, but the outlook is not so good.
EV: What do you think are some earmarks of the “sublime” in postmodernity?
JB: The sublime gets really interesting when you try to remove the spiritual, which is what modernity and a large part of post-modernity did. The body exposes itself in this vacuum, and in a very intense way. One of the biggest critiques of the postmodern is its fascination with ‘ugliness.’ You can’t have beauty without an ideal, and once you remove an ideal or standard, you are left with material. Bataille’s term, base-material, is the logical extension of the absence I’m talking about. Bataille pushed the concept of this absence to it’s extreme and cultivated a kind of beauty, but a beauty no one wants to look at, a beauty that forces the horror/recoil rather than suspends it as traditional formulations of the sublime experience suggest. Another approach would be to say that the sublime is ordered on the visual. When you de-prioritize the visual, as modernism and a large part of post-modernism did, other senses arise to fill the vacuum. I’d make the case that smell and metaphors of smell reasserted themselves in the new space. Smell is primordial and associated with our memory. I think of Proust and Joyce in particular; their metaphors revolve in a singular way around smell and to a lesser degree taste in a way that art (specifically literature in my example) had not in the past. You could also make a case for sound as a replacement (think Kandinsky and Cage), but I think you get the picture.
The sublime’s absence becomes a presence that creates a new space. I think that new space has only begun to be articulated.
EV: This absent presence of the postmodern sublime sounds fittingly apophatic - perhaps a re-inscription of the spiritual in the sublime with a new post-modern understanding of the spiritual that comes after Heideggers elimination of Platonic ideal standards?
JB: From what I understand of Heidegger yes, but the key I would think is something like Nietzsche, whose 'God is Dead' proclamation is the ULTIMATE apophatic statement (right?). It gets, I think, back to a more positional, relational standpoint of some of the pre-socratics and pyrrhonic stuff (that both Heidegger and Nietzsche were way into). It also has a lot in common with Eckhart and the other mystic Christians. I'm getting this not from Being and Time as much as 'What is Called Thinking' which I highly recommend if you haven't read it. Lectures from the 60s.
EV: Donald Kuspit, in his essay for The Spiritual in Art: Abstract painting from 1890-1985, describes the two approaches to the spiritual in art as “silence” (non-referentiality through purposeful negation of logic) and “alchemy” (complete referentiality advanced by the transformation and spiritualization of the mundane). Can you talk about the relationship of your work to either of those?
JB: I think I started with alchemy and am now trying to learn silence. Two examples of work that (I think) flesh out my answer to that question:
Gestalt No. 15 (Exploded Forms)
(Jove) = 27 (Variant)
Like any dichotomy, the use is in the passing between the two. It’s a nice idea that there might be a real substantive passage happening in the work. It is certainly something I hope for!
EV: Has a postmodern rereading of semiotics (Derrida’s post-structural “différance” for instance) affected the way you approach and utilize occult symbolism?
JB: I’d like to think so. Terms like immanence and différance really speak to an attempt to get around a colonialism implicit in the logic/dialectics of the west. I think the occult tradition has a huge purchase on cultural transmission since writing. The voices that have asserted that fact in the last 100 years tend to fall into the traps and failings of a colonial mindset. It’s of course inevitable, even the most noble-minded folks come off as colonizers when they start talking about the unity of all things. I’m not just talking about the west, either. It is in all of the wholeness bids, across all the cultural spectrum. I like terms like ‘heterogenous’ and ‘syncretic.’ They are often used to describe the moments in history that I love the most. They’re also getting to the heart of something more complicated than oneness, a notion of completion through the other.
EV: Early you mentioned Pseudo-Dionysius; I think he gets at this syncretic, heterogenous "completion through the other" - a beautiful notion - even in his celestial hierarchies, saying that the goal is not to climb from one rung up the ladder to a more "pure" union with God but that each member should fulfill its own unique role through its own fully unique, fully developed relationship with God. I think this is more the unity that Eckhart hoped for that could bridge the gaps between religious traditions, and sounds much more palatable (and less dangerous) amid a pluralistic era still recoiling from the genocidal "purification" tendencies Heidegger warned against.
JB: Right on. I'm a Plotinus person by nature, but having to fight the whole-ism that has a fascist under/overtone is really important. And real. Nature doesn't seem to work toward homogenous unity, it actually seems to collapse when headed in that direction. I acknowledge that a lot of what we're talking about sounds like thought experiment,' but I also think it's trying to get at some way of formulating a 'real' relationship to reality...
EV: I know space/scale is integral to experiencing your wall drawings. How do you react to the impact of virtual space on viewing artwork (i.e. an overwhelming wall drawing of yours can suddenly be taken in in one gulp, yet there can be so many simultaneous gulps that it becomes once again undigestible)
JB: I don’t think the virtual space we have been talking about since Neuromancer has in any way happened. I think back to a great interview with Brian Eno in Wired in the mid 90s. Eno was (and perhaps still is) extremely disappointed with the way we interface the information space of the internet. I tend to agree. We’re really just still looking at pictures, and crappy ones at that. The fact that the internet of the present is so novel in the academy I find myself in just shows how visually stunted we are. 50 years of the televisual didn’t even scratch the surface; that whole enterprise just got couched in narrativity.
I can get overwhelmed looking at a glass of water. The notion that the internet somehow inundates our senses is sort of hilarious from my perspective. The space in front of us is just as expansive and infinite as 100GB of tumblr.
When I first saw what the internet suggested it was much more like my experience of psychedelic consciousness; it made me realize in no uncertain terms that we only see a fraction of what is actually out there. In much the same way a telescope amplifies a tiny fragment of space, exploding it and all of space with it, I saw the internet as having that potential. It still does of course, and the types of social and political upheaval these expansions cause is not to be underestimated. I just want it to mean something and to change things in a substantive, meaningful way.
EV: How do you think the advent of virtual space impacts the mystical experience?
JB: I think I was starting to answer the question by bringing up psychedelic consciousness. The 60s were another moment and place where a new consciousness was promised. I'm starting to think it may have delivered on it's promise more than we imagined. I think it is one of the few meeting places of rational scientific thinking and the spiritual/mystical. Not without problems, especially with regards to colonialism, pop cultural interference, essentially everything we've been talking about. It is another set of metaphors through which the actuality of our being can participate meaningfully with itself and the being of others. At any rate, I see a lot of play between the metaphors of mystical and virtual experience in discourse on psychedelic consciousness (which, to be clear, is not just about taking drugs).
EV: So do you see this expanded "psychedelic" consciousness - back to Gibson’s “consensual hallucination” of cyberspace - as the beginnings of a truer realization of the potential of our currently “stunted” interaction with cyberspace?
JB: Maybe, I hate predicting stuff. More than anything I just see similar aims and metaphors between the two. They seem to be on some sort of convergence trajectory. Multi sensory and/or trans-sensory. Imagine being able to interface someone else's sensory input. That as a real possibility has implications much more like some of the metaphysic thinking than Hobbsean particulate hardball... Its scientific reality is coming a lot faster than anyone expected and things like that, as sci-fi as they sound, have HUGE implications on how we think about self, part whole, the whole shebang. But I feel that way about a lot of other things we take for granted...
EV: Given the great deal of investment into this subject matter you’ve clearly displayed, I think it's fitting that we conclude with the simple question of why. Why is the mystical/occult important to you - what has made your work in this field worthwhile?
JB: I just kept coming back to it. Again and again I would encounter it, have a brief flirtation with some aspect of it, and then turn away. I think I realized that I should stop turning away and try to look at this material in a real way. It is not easy, and very quickly you realize the metaphors and symbols and scare tactics are just the surface. I think that's why mediation seems like such a trivial question - none of it is real anyway. It's all trapped in metaphor and semblances. I almost want to say Plato's cave is real, but that would be too easy, another metaphor. At the end of my thinking on your questions I realize that this material is important to me because of it's faltering relation to what we call reality. There's never a moment where the explanation makes a case for being right. If it works in that moment for that consciousness, that is enough. It puts more emphasis on the process of being, which is really what being is anyway...
Jesse Bransford is a Brooklyn based artist and professor. He has held teaching positions at Columbia University and NYU, where he has served as the Director of Undergraduate Study since 2005. His artwork is represented by Feature Inc. in New York, Galerie Schmidt Maczollek in Köln, Germany, and Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art in Cleveland, Ohio. Our conversation digs into a postmodern revisiting of mysticism-occultism and it’s impact on Jesse's work and thought.
To visit Jesse's website, click here