Marta Kepka: Religion has had a way throughout history to provide hope, comfort and belief. Often these were possible by the oppositional binaries; between here and there, us and Him. There was a totality or concreteness to hold on to. It seems that in this new religion, the lines are blurred, nothing is oppositional. In a world with so much uncertainty, how do you imagine this new religion appealing to a new or re-newed audience?
Eric Valosin: I find certainty disenchanting. The binaries you mention are most effective as persuasive devices when they’re clearly set up as oppositional, but I don’t think they are really that clear-cut and easily separated in the first place. If they were, we could simply choose the better of the binary options, slough off the rest, and have no real need for the hope, comfort, or belief provided by religion because it would all just be plain knowledge. The solution to this problematic duality is often relativism: it’s just a matter of perspective, and all perspectives are relatively acceptible. But that only waters down the binaries. Rather than relativism, this “re-newed” religion aims at relationalism: it is still sensitive to the gray areas and to the blurred lines, but more importantly to the complex intersection of those blurring lines and the way the gray affects all the other colors, so to speak. The theological hope, comfort, and belief come not from certainty, but from the knowledge that there is a divine presence along for the ride with you as you endure the trials of the blurry gray areas.
The question of audience becomes a beautifully gray one when this sort of renewed religion is loosed beyond the doors of conventional worship spaces. When it shows up in a gallery, for instance, it takes on a dual potency. First, it augments the already reverent, contemplative atmosphere of the gallery, unlocking it as a worship space in its own right. Secondly, the “secular” gallery frees the work to transcend its niche religiosity and begin to function in reference to the world at large (as if the two could ever really be separated in the first place). It begins to get at what religion has at its heart - a complex, communal navigation of the gray areas - but rejects the ugliness of what institutionalized religion can sometimes turn into. That, I think, should be profoundly comforting to a renewed audience.
MK: So it is a comfort and certainty found in a communal journey. A journey you also find yourself on. A journey of rediscovering a religion that it seems at times you find has exhausted itself in its current state. You mention a postmodern relationalism. The term Postmodern Mystic has appeared in your recent writing. Can you explain a little about what this term means and how it applies to your practice?
EV: Sure. The trouble with postmodernism is that it means so many things that it means pretty much nothing. For my purposes, I embrace two main facets of poststructuralist postmodernism (set in motion by Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze, Barthes and others): the relational model of truth, and the necessary mediation of experience through technology.
The relational model of truth partners with mysticism in freeing God to be God. Generally western culture is still brutally Platonic in its basic language and understanding. The problem with this in religion is its tendency to chop God off at the knees and stuff God in a box. With that, you get a specific “understanding” of God, and, in an act of tremendous violence, give yourself the right to declare your understanding complete and correct, and invalidate those of others. This does a terrible disservice to God and religion, and seems unviable in a pluralistic society. Mysticism tends to be nearly heretical - though actually radically orthodox - in its ability to shake God loose from those pesky boxes. A postmodern mysticism attempts to do so in a contemporarily relevant and ethically sensitive way. Artistically this leads me to the use of paradox and negation, indebted to apophatic mysticism, as a way to confound logical presuppositions. I try to create a sublime experience that gets beyond any boxable, linear understanding of the God of religion.
Technology determines how we come into contact with this unbounded divinity. Be it through written text, sensory stimulus, bodily postures, or even cyberspace, every experience passes through a mediator of some kind. In my work I explore new technologies as viable mediators for the sublime; the “techno-sublime,” as Hal Foster puts it.
But there’s still more to the story. Postmodernism comes with its own set of baggage, in some ways limiting God on the other end of the spectrum. I’ve heard a lot of postmodern theologians start with the renewed God of the gray areas I mentioned earlier, and end up with a weak, pantheistic God who passively suffers and rejoices alongside of you and nothing more. I worry that this is yet another limitation imposed on God. God is big enough to be both strong and weak, to be an active, intervening force in which we hope, but also a participant who commiserates with us in the gray. I’m ultimately searching for something beyond simple postmodern mysticism. Postmodern theology seeks the God after metaphysics, and to that I add a search for a relational metaphysics after postmodernism. A meta-postmodern mysticism, as I’ve taken to calling it, unlocked by the techno-sublime.
MK: Your work calls upon a meditative process from the viewer but perhaps more importantly from you as the maker. You refer to your mandala drawings as having an analogue presence. It seems the creating of them, particularly by hand, is a meditative process. Do you consider your drawing analog as opposed to automatic, conscious vs. subconscious process? And if so, then how much of yourself do you allow to control the experience as opposed to it being a completely automatic, void of self-control experience?
EV: The meditative process is absolutely present for both viewer and maker. This is what I explored in Circle, setting up a meditative ritual of balancing the analogue and the digital selves in a counter-idealistic embrace of processual imperfection. Zen meditation has a lot to do with that: finding yourself in order to lose yourself, and overcoming dualities. It has an uncanny preoccupation with process rather than endpoints. It’s this constant state of awareness of being, of seeking without expectation of finding, of utter acceptance of and unity with all the rest of reality that helps prepare us for something that’s beyond our capacities for understanding.
The issue of control is then an interesting one. When I first started making the QR code mandalas in the Meditations series, I set up meditative conditions for myself. I wouldn’t work on them unless I first dimmed the lighting, put on some sort of contemplative music, and prayed. Only then would I work. Though it indeed became a meditative process of making, it slowly dawned on me that I was committing the same error that I was critiquing in my mandala, namely that there is an ideal, privileged state in which God is found and the rest of the world is to be cut off. Rather than continue to meditate on my own hypocrisy, I decided to let go of these conditions. Meister Eckhart warns that if you think you can find God more by meditation than by the fireside or the stable, it’s nothing but wrapping God in a cloak and shoving God under a bench. Seeking God in some special way yields only the way and not God. You think you’re finding God but you’re only finding the bench. So I’ve decided that it’s ok to assert control, to not pretend I have to dismiss my own nature and relegate myself to the whim of my subconscious. To do so would be yet another bench. Having said that, the thought that we even have complete control is a pretty sizeable illusion. So I’m not terribly worried.
MK: I see a potential conflict of interests here as you talk about meditatively overcoming dualities, because there does seem to be some duality present in your work. Particularly in the reward or result for the viewer. The QR pieces either enlighten or dispel. There is dualism in the pairing of the analogue and the digital. The projections, particularly Hyalo, seem to be either static or dynamic depending on the viewer’s engagement, but not both. How do you relate this to traditional religious experience or define it within a new religious experience?
EV: This is something I’m always wrestling with. And in part, it’s precisely why I feel like there’s more to the story than postmodernism has to offer. How much dualism is too much dualism? Could there be not enough? The very fact of a God being beyond all would mean that God is both imbedded in history and yet outside of history, creating history. But to be outside of history is to be Platonic. There’s a sort of inherently dualism that’s necessary to some degree, but maybe the kind of dualism that is increasingly paradoxical rather than toxic. This is couched somewhere in the metaphysics beyond postmodernism I’m searching for.
Hyalo gets at that paradoxical dualism in that the digital and the analogue do not amount to a mere juxtaposition, but a transformation into something entirely other. After Hyalo I created UnKnowledge to address the problem of the dynamic/static viewing state. The optics of UnKnowlege amount to a neutral gray, virtually invisible state of nothingness. The viewer’s shadow blocking the projection is the only thing that makes the work show up at all, in any substantial way. It was first exhibited in a gallery with an entire wall of exterior windows, resulting in very volatile lighting conditions. So, I allowed the optical balance between the projection and the paint to fluctuate freely throughout the day as dictated by the ambient light until it reached a certain privileged moment in which the balance was just right. But to confound that privileging, that very moment was the moment when it grayed out and you couldn’t really see it. Until you obstructed it. Only by concealing it would it be revealed, and then only half-so. Yet there’s still some duality between being there and not there. My goal, when I can’t erase the dualities entirely, is to allow them to add up to something other, a sum that’s both greater than and entirely other than its parts.
MK: This gallery’s constraints seemed to present you with a challenge that perhaps forced a beautiful resolution to some of the questions you are addressing; the concealed reveal and a continuous negation. UnKnowledge, much like your other projection work also addresses the accessibility limitations of your QR series work which I would like to talk about a bit.
Your digitally accessible work demands participation. Much like most spiritual experiences it elicits participation from the actor or body engaging. Although the digital social media you are choosing to utilize is considered a newer form of accessible communication, it is somewhat exclusive (specifically the QR series) much like traditional religions. Individuals without the tools or skills to operate such equipment are left not experiencing what could be considered the climax or essence of the experience. Is this something you have considered in reflecting on your work and if so, have you thought of ways in resolving it?
EV: I have considered this quite a bit. I’m torn in my answer, so I’ll explain both sides of the case. On one hand, the QR code destinations are purposefully anticlimactic in the first place. Meditation 1.1 sends you to a random website, different every time you scan it. Meditation 1.2 sends you an image of itself, digitally erased. They’re already pushing against the notion of climax, so in that way the viewer who has to stare at the code and merely wonder (without scanning it) is walking away with the same reaction as the person who scans it. Additionally, to some degree I’m making the case that these technologies are indeed becoming necessary for divine participation. Religious participation has always been technological. Just ask Gutenberg. Marcel Mauss argues that even the very bodily techniques that underlie our mystical states (like the postures of za zen) are a sort of technology. In some way you just have to buy into technological convention in order to participate. With that said, I understand that issues of accessibility are of primary concern to contemporary religion, and because of the atrocities of exclusivity that often get committed, they are not to be taken lightly. The QR code is not at all the perfect solution to my problems, but at the moment it is the only truly analogue portal into cyberspace we have. I’m not happy or settled, but I feel like it needs to be used for what it is. In a way it’s a matter of accessibility towards those with the tools and technology, who have been told to put away their phones and hike into the woods to meet God (under a bench). A matter of validating cyberspace as an acceptable, or even necessary mediator for spiritual content.
MK: One more question which I think may seem slightly cliché, but bears asking and may lighten things up a bit (pun intended) on the topic of material and accessibility. Light is the source of all that appears. Perhaps there is nothing more accessible. It has a deep history within both the arts and religion. It has been used to reveal and conceal illusion. What aspects of it drew you to using it as a main source in your work, through color and projection? Is there message/meaning in the material choice itself?
EV: Light is one of those things that surpasses its own clichés when used correctly, because those clichés are simply testament to an underlying profundity. I’m attracted to it for the reasons you mentioned. It is also the perfect mystical paradox: both particle and wave, material and immaterial, the (arguable) speed limit of the universe but subject to universal laws, a constant that is somehow still malleable; impossible opposites working together as one. You see its effects, but you never see light itself. It shows up by making other things show up. Heidegger would have a field day. Heraclitus wasn’t taking a stab in the dark (pun also intended) when he used light and lightning in so much of his imagery. It’s also historically tied to the divine, like you said. The first thing God did, Biblically, was separate light and dark (essentially make it possible for creation to show up). Truth (aletheia), like creation, starts with that. Interestingly, the first projectors were called Hyalotypes, after the Greek word hyalo which referred to glass mosaics, or stained glass. Thus, the first projectors could be likened to the light shining through stained glass, warming viewers in a sort of imago-dei type transferral. All this gets wrapped up into the reasons that make light so inherently sublime.
MK: It seems like all of these examples - God’s creation, stained glass, and the like - achieve the sublime through use of natural light. So far your installations depend instead on a very meticulously arranged and calibrated digital light source. Do you see a place for the use of natural light in your future work?
EV: Absolutely, but then again, I always have. Hidden in your very question is an assumption that the digital is in fact separate from the natural (betraying how insidious our tendency towards dualisms really is). Only by surmounting these delimitations will we really see the light as light - or rather, not see the light at all but ourselves be revealed by the light. It may seem brutally disorienting, but it’s losing ourselves in this reorientation that might be the most sublime thing of all.
This interview, published in the artist's monograph Unknowing the Unknowable: Visual Apophasis and the Techno-Sublime, discusses the nuances of the “renewed religion” emerging out of my body of work.