The Operating System

AWESOME CREATOR(S): Sometimes a Doubled Mind (Makes An Astral Temple For A Donkey Goddess): Eliza Swann in conversation with Laura Zuspan

Editor’s Note: I am excited to reenter the next phase of our wonderful Awesome Creators series, began on Exit Strata in 2012, with this expansive, exploratory conversation between Eliza Swann and Laura Zuspan, penned for us by Swann – who I began working with several years ago on in her role as curator for Heliopolis Project Space in Greenpoint Brooklyn. Our collaboration continued – through Eliza’s contribution of images and text from DO IT AWAKE on Mysterious Mountain to PRINT: Vol. 2 and Exhibit A, as well as a piece on Bernadette Mayer for our annual Poetry Month series.

This piece is perfect for AWESOME CREATORS not only in that it better introduces our audience to the work of both of these inspiring women but perhaps even more so in its depiction of their process as both solo and collaborative creators, and for the overhead view of what long-term, often long-distance, but no less intense mutual inspiration/interpolation looks like. Looking forward to keeping you abreast of the projects – including a “nomadic school” focused on ecology and art – this team is eying for the not-so distant future, too. ONWARD!

-Lynne DeSilva-Johnson

Laura Zuspan and I first became art sisters at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2002, where she immediately stood out as an incredibly talented watercolorist with an insane laugh – our kinship has since evolved into over a decade of collaboration and mutual reinforcement for which I am continually grateful. Shortly after graduating from SFAI in 2004, Laura moved to New York City and into my ramshackle apartment that was dubbed “The Donkey Oracle” and finally “The Auric Temple”. We formed the performance troupe Our Lady of the Golden Dawn Pyramid – a shrill band of tone-deaf witches that eventually branched off into the Auric Temple Band. We collaborated on watercolors and books, held art shows at The Auric Temple, hung prisms from every window, painted gold suns above our beds to keep us warm, read our friend’s tarot cards, and relentlessly experimented with what it means to be an artist.

Eventually Laura moved back to the Bay Area to pursue her performance based practices, which at that time involved living in a solar powered RV with a giant rag doll husband for a project called Eco Sexy. She continues to make work that demonstrates an expanding sense of inclusivity and a beautiful determination to understand and change our virulent impact on ecology. I went to England to pursue a Master’s degree and to be closer to ancient sites of worship for video works that could call into question the degradation of nature as it relates to the subjugation of women and earth-based spiritual systems.

A few weeks ago Laura and I came back together geographically and sat down to discuss our upcoming residency at Pilot Balloon, some ideas for forthcoming collaborative shows, and the nomadic school we are in the process of founding. To my great delight we also uncovered a mutual desire to aim our artistic pursuits toward planetary balance and health by linking our artistic concerns to the rest of nature.

I threw a hexagram from the I Ching to help me think of how to proceed with our dialogues:

49. Ko / Revolution (Molting)

REVOLUTION. On your own day
You are believed.
Supreme success,
Furthering through perseverance.
Remorse disappears.
Yes, of course.

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The ancient ruins of “The Auric Temple”, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 2013


ES: I’m interested in artists as people who live experimentally… who use themselves as a test subject. To what degree do you see yourself doing that?

LZ: Experimentation and play are at the forefront to how I’ve chosen to live. My life experiences and my art are synonymous now…. in changing my relationship to how I produce work I’ve found this extreme liberation in the boundlessness of art. I have started to create work that offers viewers more participation and accessibility. What makes people laugh and feel alive? “The Ecstatic Feeding“, this performance installation I did at Krowswork, ended up being a healing ceremony. It was this insane and raucous installation about GMOs, kale, granola culture, the food industry, and mind control. It had these giant puppet people and real people gathered around a table cooking, dancing, and eating a mountain of kale. After the opening, Jasmine Moorhead came up to me and said that one of the nicest things about the show was seeing this man cradled in the arms of one of the giant dolls completely at peace for the duration of the performance. The success of that installation was that it allowed people to completely release. That’s healing, that’s art, that’s life. I keep realizing how much more I have to give when I perform.

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“The Ecstatic Feeding” or “With the Fever: A Sort of Kindly Oxygen”, Laura Zuspan, Krowswork, Oakland, CA, 2012

ES: Probably my favorite thing in your work is an overwhelming sense of the absurd present in it. I especially enjoy your play on the relationship between mysticism and high comedy. Your work is sincere and yet heavy with humor about the material trappings of a New Age lifestyle. Talk to me about Burning Man, Ecstatic Dance, Zen Buddhism, and video art…and maybe how that relates to wanting to grasp, own, or brand a spiritual experience.

LZ: Immersing myself in a radically accepting experimental zone is integral to my life and art. I’m attracted to Bay Area inclusive tribal communities because they often embrace one or more of the following: costuming, ritual, play, performance and acceptance – things that are in rapid decline in our technological mixed media boom. For example, I recently attended Burning Man – a total art world faux pas. Or – is it so dorky that I’m actually cutting edge? I have poked fun at these tiny subcultures that I identify with, for sure. But what I really want to address are bigger, scarier problems – like the destruction of Eco systems and how men still seem to rule the world.

ES: A lot of your past work seems to be about this tense relationship with men. Erotica By Laura, Dear Phil, and Frankencarrot seem to tackle this elusive need to be loved, to nurture, but being stuck obsessing from afar, unable to really connect. When I first heard about Eco Sexy I had trouble seeing it as an ecological project at all. It seemed more like playing dolls to learn about your relationships, or lack thereof, with men. Of course this relates to ecology entirely. Living in an unbalanced consumer driven patriarchal society is largely responsible for ecological disaster as far as I can tell. And there is this hideous overemphasis on the individual! Let’s all learn to love properly and widely! Can you tell me something about your relationship to men in your art practice at this point?

LZ: Human conditioning and psychological manipulation are at the backbone of my art practice. American culture is built on having very specific gender roles. Some of my earlier projects dealt very heavily with my relationship to men as a way to look at society and my place as a member of a species that is slowly killing off all life forms. Talking about my relationship to men is not personal or unique! Patriarchy is not working for us globally. This again is where I’ve often used the help of humor and comedy to be honest and abrasive.

ES: What’s the story behind all of the dolls? Why not use real people?

LZ: It’s fun. I’m also interested in how we’re trained to act in relationships with dolls. I was raised in the Midwest with 50 Barbies, Madame Alexander Dolls, American Girl dolls, porcelain dolls – I hung out with dolls. My family really wants me to settle down and get married and procreate. But the way that American culture is structured made me really scared around 2007 and I just couldn’t imagine living the American Dream. And I would lie in bed and I would see this man-doll that I was living with and he was really ugly. And that became “Dolly” and I made him and I lived with a giant man doll and I created this tragic existence with this person that didn’t actually exist, that I totally controlled and manipulated. That was Eco Sexy. It was an experiment with what I was supposed to be doing with my life – and coming to terms with the fact that men rule the world – which is a huge disappointment! I had to re-enact this male relationship disaster to heal myself.

“Eco Sexy”, Laura Zuspan, 2010

“Eco Sexy”, Laura Zuspan, 2010

ES: I think for me it’s looking for security that’s a disaster…relationships provide something much more interesting and dynamic than security. I am turning more toward making work about an evolving compassionate world and away from pre-prescribed career or security expectations. It’s all about the vision quest. 2014 is the year of the Shaman, I’ve decided. What is your relationship to “doing good” in art? Do you think we can?

LZ: I think if anyone is tapping into authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty in their work they are offering ‘good’ things to the people and the cosmos at large. I don’t believe in Utopia; I believe in change and creating new modalities to see. Art can offer this. Do you think that 21st century art can help lead a revolution? Do you believe your art should be a free offering…how does performance and digital media change your audience?

ES: Art is most certainly heavily involved in revolutionary cultural shifts! Art can act as a psychic hygiene implement for humans. My art has remained a free offering and it’s gone digital because I’ve been transient for many years. I couldn’t afford a studio or wouldn’t sit still long enough in one…I just sent little .mov files around the planet. I could perform for people and keep moving. I could be free and offer freely. My life became a performance. I went to the Oracle at Delphi with a tent and some watercolors and I talked to myself and danced for some old rocks that used to hold up the High Pythia’s feet. These days I have a studio in New York City again and I’m painting and meditating. Not so free and freely. So – someone should pay me! No, really.

What is the next most likely evolutionary step for human beings?

LZ: I’m amazed that people still live in New York! …Telepathy.

ES: Telepathy! Are you kidding? I wish! We already have it and it’s dwindling, I think. The Corporates want to turn us into Google-glass cyborgs so that we’re easily controlled. All of these surveillance algorithms are used by companies to interpret our desires and turn them against us – once we are able to alter our brains according to these corporate desires we will! I refuse to go cyborg! I’m still traumatized by seeing “Total Recall” as a little kid. You know when you sit on the bus and everyone has a little teeny screen held up to their face? How can we start a revolution – and how on Earth can we maintain our telepathy – if we lose eye contact?

LZ: Easy! You think of someone and BOOM! Text message! And they liked my Instagram too! Telepathy! I think technology is part of our evolution – I’m into it. Anyway humans aren’t going to last forever. There are plenty of other worlds to incarnate into in future times so I’m not worried. Oh my gosh, you’re all red in the face!

ES: I have to work through my technophobia, you’re right. I just find the idea of being controlled excruciating. What is your angle on brainwashing?

LZ: The human psyche is so vulnerable…. everyone’s brainwashed to some degree. I’m interested in that place where people get hooked…where they start to crumble or zone out and succumb. That’s so human – this vulnerability and this need for approval. That’s so beautiful, actually. On the other hand I feel absolutely controlled by the media and Capitalistic propaganda. I’m interested in that edge. Tell me about “Morning, Earth”. I want to know about hypnosis.

ES: I trained as an Ericksonian hypnotist in England. Hypnosis is so fantastic! It’s just like falling in love! You breathe deeply with someone, calm your bodies together, and gently push them toward freeing themselves from whatever bind they came to you in! I wrote my thesis on mesmerism and the moving image, and for me videos and dancing and love can all be wonderfully positive hypnosis. As is television mind control! They’re called television programs for a reason. Two edges of a sword. It’s always more radical to push toward the loving side of things. Just turn your TVs off and whisper positive affirmations to your neighbors through the wall.

For “Morning, Earth” I hypnotized and recorded about 20 subjects and asked them to essentially mine their consciousness for solutions for sustaining and optimizing life on Earth. Our culture has shifted toward this lazy apocalyptic dystopianism; with everyone looking at the near future in terms of ultimate catastrophe. I wanted to shift the emphasis away from fear concerning the future of our planet and explore ideas for change. With the help of Soundfjord I started compiling the recordings to make a kind of Delia Derbyshire “Dreams: Inventions for Radio” type of album weaving all of the narratives together… but the project drove me insane. I was hypnotized for hours at a stretch listening to the recordings; I started to move too deeply inward. It may take me another year to pull “Morning, Earth” into shape. Meanwhile I am developing “Sleep Temple” performances that are based on ancient forms of hypnosis and healing. I want to have slumber parties where we astrally travel to find solutions for tending to our planet.

LZ: You often draw on religious and spiritual ideas to talk about human psychic relationships and power in your work – to what extent do history and religion affect your art? Talk to me about the tarot, your study in India, and learning hypnosis and how they have informed your ideas.

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“The Struggle of the Magicians”, Eliza Swann, Live performance at The Living Theater (R.I.P.), 2012

ES: I would use looser words than “religion” or “history” because both of those things have been re-written according to the agendas of some unkind men. Ultimately I am interested in awakening as a constant moving state. I am interested in the limitless potential of being! The over-arching theme that weaves these things together is an investigation into the vastness of consciousness. In using hypnosis, trance, and dance I am tapping into ancient systems for problem solving through these feminized and marginalized channels of the symbolic, the poetic, the psychic, the ineffable, the irrational, and the ecstatic. The sky worshipping patriarchal spiritual systems that insist that paradise is elsewhere have made us terribly irresponsible toward our planet. Before scripture and history were re-written in HIS image there existed ancient cosmologies that embraced the magical synergy of nature’s fundamental principles and in this way leaned toward a balanced and co-creative worldview. I have been learning about these philosophies in Greece, India, Guatemala…wherever. Let’s balance! Let’s thrive! Mysterium Coniunctionis…I just butchered that word. You know what I’m saying…

“Baba Yaga”, Eliza Swann, HD Video, 2013

“Baba Yaga”, Eliza Swann, HD Video, 2013

LZ: How does your tarot practice relate to your art making?

ES: I am obsessed with the idea of art being used as a healing tool…I came to that through the tarot. I was drawn to poetry very early in life and understood that one could create deep shifts in understanding with associative, non-linear thinking. During a tarot reading I pull from my meditation training, Ericksonian hypnosis training, Hindu training, listening training, energy work training, art training, life training. Besides examining the cards my clients and I can look in the dictionary together, stand on our heads together, do chakra visualizations together, do a lot of talking about family and childhood together. This multiplicity of practice and a desire to connect with people drives my art and my approach to the tarot. I am very lucky to get to make so much beautiful art with so many people.

LZ: As soon as I do a tarot spread with someone it’s this visceral response, I immediately draw on intuitive ‘hits’ through heightened observation, physical nuances, and the spiritual insight that the cards offer. I do readings for others because I love it and it uses the same creative energy as when I tackle an art project…it’s the same intimate experience as looking at a great piece of art…. I have it in mind to do tarot meditation performances with you. Do you see making art as synonymous with a spiritual journey? Who are artists that have embodied this idea and inspired you?

ES: My art practice and my dance with Spirit are united – if I get too uptight in either arena then things begin to quake and to fight against each other! There are so many people that inspire me to continue the dance. I’m a huge fan of Emma Kunz…. as much for her paintings as for her work with the healing properties of Aeon A and the Aeon A meditation grotto. I am in the process of planning an artist residency slash temple for people to walk into and just accelerate. There’s Linda Montano, in particular the tarot healing sessions that she did at the New Museum back in the 1980s. I’m really enjoying reading Ron Rege’s “Cartoon Utopia”. Mary Wigman. Anna Halprin. Maya Deren. Robert Ashley’s “Perfect Lives” is a dream come true. I’ve been looking at a big book of Francis Picabia’s paintings a lot recently. Rene Daumal. You know….everybody! YOU! Tell me what you’re working on these days.

LZ: Well, I went to China on a residency program. I had all these agendas for my time there but in the end I just did spiritual work the entire time. I got way into a daily ritual of water coloring and meditating. I meditated in front of my camera every day and I’m making a video about my stuffed monkey brain and how I can’t be present…. my inner psychosis is superimposed on my forehead in the video. There are spirals interposed all over the place. Weirdly, it is SO calming to watch! The whole experience of being in China was a calming ritual, and brought me back to the practice of painting. We should show paintings together again. What do you want to work on collaboratively this Spring?

ES: I want to offer meditation workshops with you to connect people with the planet, the Goddess, and to liberate food from a cyborg chemical future – let’s build out a meditation zone. We should show paintings together! You are the only person who I’ve ever made a collaborative painting with that was any good. There is also the founding of the school dedicated to the radical gathering of artists and friends. The curriculum will of course revolve around healing and intentionality in art making. Ultimately I want to experiment with the connection between performance and environment – how can art contribute to cultural and psychic hygiene for the benefit of our planet? I want to explore those things with you. In Kansas we’ll definitely have to do some curative work around GMOs.

LZ: GMOs and UFOs.

ES: Exactly.

“The Lovers”, Eliza Swann and Laura Zuspan in Collaboration, Watercolor on paper, 2007

“The Lovers”, Eliza Swann and Laura Zuspan in Collaboration, Watercolor on paper, 2007

Laura Zuspan  is an interdisciplinary artist based in Oakland, CA. For the past several years she has been working on site-specific installation, performance, healing arts, and supported video documentation to playfully dissect the psychological realms of human conditioning and behaviors. She has exhibited nationally and internationally and is currently pursuing several bodies of work dealing with themes around ritual, eco degradation, and techno brainwashing.

Eliza Swann is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York. She is a director of The Bride of Fire Dance Troupe, and a tarot counselor www.elizaswann.com/tarot.html. She is currently at work on a book concerning the relationship between mysticism and art entitled “Through Rose Colored Glasses”.

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