Interviews


Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

 

Interview with Raymond Salvatore Harmon
Part One

by Jim Lopez


Jim Lopez: I had to sit down and get baked to watch all your films (your movies tend to demand attention) and I didn’t make it through all of them.  I did watch all your mtv’s, doc‚’s and 1/3 of your, with breaks to fill my glass and roll another spliff, of your films posted on www.raymondharmon.com/motion_main.html.  

Your films are difficult to watch but then your name may be difficult to pronounce.  They’re not fluid to the English speaking.  They force a person to listen, annunciate correctly and pay attention; otherwise, people just don’t bother.   There seems to be no middle ground, you’re either in for a definite five-to-twenty minutes+ moment (moments are usually understood to be shorter in duration) or you go fuck off to the bar;. Actually, your films ignite insightful, but belligerent, discussions.  What does ‚’duration’ mean to you?  Are you a meditative person or medicated person, both or neither?

RSH: My filmwork tends to fall into a couple of categories. Some are made from the point of view of creating a cinematic experience, especially my early film based work. These can take the form of music videos like "Risperdal" the Magik Markers video, or abstract short films like "Les Fantomes de Lumiere." The other part of my filmography has a more specific intent in mind than entertainment. The longer works like YHVH or Tree of Life/Tree of Knowledge are much more contemplative and often challenging films that are meant for a meditative kind of practice. They are made using subliminal content and specifically chosen strobing color frequencies to trigger psychological reactions in the viewer. This part of my work is exploring something beyond the cinematic format, often referencing ritual transcendentalism. Within the context of this kind of work longer durations are required for the effect to really begin to manifest.

Jim: Your videos tend to have intense shots of light in them.  Why?  What metaphor, if any, does light play in your mind, your thinking, experiencing, interpreting your environment?  The tone of your films are like meditative chants occurring in technological ancient gompas.

RSH: All cinema is essentially just light, its illusory framework of motion an architecture of form and color. When I started making films with 16mm projectors I was first dealing with the film as a physical object. But as I began to expand the process into something performative its expressiveness revealed a complexity in controlling the manifestation of light, especially in a live setting. As I gravitated away from celluloid in favor of video signal paths and feedback I became aware of the algorithm dictating the shape of the light itself. The path through the electronics that was shaping the unfolding imagery.

This evolution of light revealed something akin to a transcendental experience. Almost accidentally I had discovered a kind of conduit through which to access certain meditative concepts. Within this conduit I experimented with subliminals and found the effect to be exactly what I had been searching for; Something like an alchemy of light.

Jim:  Are saying that if someone gives the proper attention to YHVH or Tree of Life/Tree of Knowledge that that person may indeed go through a sort of alchemical distillation, that is, something in their consciousness will undergo a profound revolution?  Not that your intentions were presumptuous, rather how much of your use of light was directed by your interest in alchemy as a philosophical way of life, i.e., using raw materials to divine structures and then discovering that the same disciplines apply to designing the soul.  You seem to be saying, if I understand correctly, is that what you discovered was that light is evolving, maybe even communicating with the device (camera) that you are using to capture it?  

RSH: YHVH was my first transcendental film. Up to that point I had approached filmmaking from a much more traditional, though experimental, perspective. I had been inspired early on by Harry Smith's work and later by Norman McLaren and Stan Brakhage. When I was working with film I was dealing with the surface of the celluloid. It was about the process of physical transformation and then with modified film projectors I was creating overlaps and other visual effects while I was showing the film. This slowly became a performative process.

When I started moving toward video one of the things that interested me was the feedback loop. It was very instantaneous and 'live' as a creative tool. I put together a chain of devices (tv, early digital still camera, sVHS tape deck, etc) and began experimenting with the feedback. My work has always been about experimentation. Everything I do comes out of utilizing the process to create raw content and then editing that content to give it form. (this is true whether I am working in film, video, sound, paint, whatever). I created about 6 hours worth of material that would be eventually edited down to the 22 minutes of the film.

During the initial experimental process I realized that this kind of medium could be the trigger for a spiritual experience. What stuck clearly in my mind was that what people call 'god' was somehow 'inside' the video loop. That it is in everything but somehow the video loop could reveal that truth more clearly to someone looking at it in the right way, from a specific perspective. Like a mantra made of light instead of sound.

Once I started researching this field (video as a trigger of thought/mental state) I came across tons of info on photic driving and subliminal images. Through some friends in Poland I got Soviet era research papers that had documented color and strobing frequency rates, (there is an astounding book on the research the Soviets did in the 50s for using cinema as a tool for propaganda.) Those plus some of the papers published by John Lilly in his early years on subliminals and visual periphery all sort of gave me a framework for how the functioning part of the video could be developed. After that it was about serious editing.

Jim: YHVH is a genius addition to the genre of Apocalyptic films.  It goes beyond destruction through a series of movements that transcend earth, but cyclically returns to earth until the duration of the journey resolves tranquilly.

RSH: That’s exactly the difference between a film like Tactic and a film like YHVH; the journey. In a 'traditional' experimental abstract film the filmmaker is presenting a series of frames for you to look at. They may or may not tell a story, they may have sound or be silent. But it is still ultimately a cinematic experience. Variable 'A' appeals to senses ‘B’ in a manner decided by the director. In a transcendental film the viewer has another kind of experience. They 'travel' and move beyond the "sitting in a theater watching a movie" mode to something like dreaming while awake. They go on a journey, but inside themselves, guided by the presentation of light.

The version of YHVH on the web is just one of 10 versions, each representing a Sephirot (or Sphere) on the Tree of Life in Kabbalah. Each version has the same video and different soundtracks made by a different composer. The version on the web is Rob Mazurek's score.

As much as YHVH works as a tool for mind expansion it always felt limited to me. Each viewing was the same visually. This lead me back to the performative aspect of my work. Instead of incorporating the primary (video footage) and secondary (subliminal) content into the film in the editing process I starting working toward doing the whole thing live. It works out in various ways depending on the piece being performed.

Jim: In many of your films you tend to overlap frames that are in motion and are shot from various distances and angles, i.e., two different scenes/frames merging into one and then resolving into a new scene while being shot separately, yet you maintain the same speed or motion, i.e., the motion in each scene stays consistent, whereas the images that are overlapping reflect on the immediate senses as being inconsistent, yet there always is a setting for your scenes but the eye is always seeing two incongruous images; nevertheless the eye in such a state is capable of sending a clear message to the brain.  There seems to be a dialectic occurring between motion and imagery.  

RSH: Eisenstein wrote extensively on the use on montage in cinema and that came to me when I was still working in 16mm. Some years back I did a run of performances on the west coast called "The Three Stigmata of Marshall McLuhan" These shows required 2 16mm and 5 8mm projectors and hundreds of pounds of film. I was giving a lecture after a performance at University of Oregon in Eugene when a student asked about the 'narrative' within the piece. Now, up until then I used found footage and lots of chemical and physical processes to erode the image on the film. Then I would project 4 or so of these film loops onto the same screen to create what I saw as relatively random abstractions of color. You could make out the imagery but it was so densely layered it was to me without narrative content. But this student asked several questions and it turned out that they and others were trying to force the pictures they could make out into some logical story that was being told. I remember standing there on the stage and thinking "how could you get a story out of all of that superimposed color?" This stuck with me and I realized that the human mind wants a story, desires some narrative to unfold, logical conclusions, etc.

To me my early work developed out of using camera movements to reinforce patterns and to build layers of color and form. I didn't see a story; I saw a painting made of light. The way in which two frames overlapped and dissolved created visual shapes, not narrative events. But I realized in Eugene that most people are looking for a story, even if they have to totally force a story into a place it isn't occurring. This kind of mental fabrication reminded me of the sensory deprivation experiments in the 50s. In a totally silent box with no light the human mind begins to fabricate complex hallucinations. It creates some kind of visual screen saver. I realized then that most people do the same thing when they are in the everyday world. They project the story onto the events regardless of the facts. The student even seemed incredulous that there was no intended narrative to my performance. She acted almost as if she thought I was lying when I said there wasn't as if I was hiding something.

Jim: How do you tactically create these scenes; what are the working procedures that go into them?  What sort of inner dialogue is occurring within you as you are preparing to construct a film?  Are you communicating with some other, i.e., how do you understand the phenomenon of your inner dialog?

RSH: Every film I have made has just comes out of the variables at hand. One film might have a budget, tons of great equipment; another may have my mobile phone and the place I am in. When I perform that’s another matter. I tend to go into live shows the way I did when I was playing improvised music. I know what I can do, and what I haven’t yet tried and tend to create a balance between those knows and unknowns.

Jim:  Why did Mephistopheles manifest as a little girl in your film The Philosopher’s Stone? Jacob is given, what may be, a psychedelic drug and then he is off on his bike: colors becoming more vibrant, (again, two frames overlapping), he meets the bards, peers into many faces, falls asleep and does not discover the knowledge he seeks.  Is knowledge illusive?

RSH: The Philosopher's Stone is a difficult film to talk about. It has a basic shape but I don't really discuss the symbolism in the film. It’s my only 'narrative' and first fictional feature film. The story it tells up until the conjuration of Mephisto is basically Faust, but after the conjuration the story changes to that of Albert Hofmann's discovery of LSD.

Actually the conjuration scene was intended to be something entirely different than what is shown. I shot scenes with an adult actress and then, having not liked the results, had to reshoot the conjuration scene months later.

I think at some point we all wake up and realize that this "seeking out of truth" is just an illusion we create that tells us we 'lack' something that we 'need'. It’s just a carrot to lead the donkey a little further.

Some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Alejandro Jodorowsky at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. I was involved with the festival and had never seen his films on the big screen. (At this point they could not be shown in the US legally) After watching the Holy Mountain he spoke to the audience a little and then later he and I were talking and I asked him about his occult reading and why he read certain books as they related to the iconography/symbolism in his films. He replied that he had been "a young man seeking the truth." and I said "Well, what did you find?" and he replied, "That there is no truth."

Jim: In many of your films when you are forced to shoot inside (like in a music video and you’re restricted to the stationary aspects of the musicians and the stage) you still have a tendency to bring the sky, the outdoors into the scenes.  Why this juxtaposed scenery?  It almost feels as if you can’t leave the outdoors/nature. 

Then in the Sun Ra Mural your camera is set up in one place, in the dark, like a voyeur.  You mentioned that you will use anything to record.  I assume you’re recording with your phone.  You never actually get in the scene in the Sun Ra Mural but the aberrant portrait of the man off to the right is right there, on top of it, right in it, like an omniscient being.  What is the importance of the Sun Ra mythology to you? 

RSH: Actually I filmed the Sun Ra bit on a HD Sony camera; it just looks like a mobile phone film because there was totally no light in the alley so I had to push the video contrast and brightness to get an image out of the footage. I honestly could barely see when I was working. Plus it was freezing cold outside.

I have a peculiar relationship with Sun Ra. I work for a record label that has released his first two albums (Delmark Records) and living and working on the Chicago music scene has put me in touch with many of the people who are directly involved with Sun Ra and his legacy. In fact, this piece was painted on the rear alley side of a building that houses the Sun Ra Archive. It is essentially a shrine to Ra himself, something to mark the greatness of the place and its contents. I think, long before Warhol, Sun Ra had an awareness of the self-created mythology. He understood how perception of the individual artist affects the perception of the work itself. Sun Ra was more than a musician/composer. He was a performance artist who lived in character every day of his life.

As for nature and its relationship to my work, I like the natural world. I feel that in this overly modern and increasingly urban world of the early 21st century we need to find reference to nature as much as we can. Natural imagery tends to evoke certain emotions in people, both dark and light. In some way I think we all carry a bit of the outdoors inside of us. It goes back to a time in our evolution before civilization. It is indelibly impressed upon our genetic code. Jung said each of us contained a hidden ocean, a sea that we could explore through our own self-observations. I think that just as we have this ocean inside of us we also have a vast and unending forest. An unexplored place full of dark ideas and almost forgotten internal mythologies.

JIM: When you are painting in the Dweller on the Threshold footage it seems like free form painting, stream of conscious yet a pattern emerges.  What are you thinking during these times of painting, is there a clearing of the mind, do invasive thoughts creep in or are you free and open during these moments?  Is there any mental struggle?

RSH: When I begin a new piece I usually have no preconceived idea of what I will make, I just look at the surface and start making marks. Pieces tend to emerge from the patterns I am building while I move around the piece. Much of the eventual imagery is dictated by the surface I am painting on. My painting style has been described as "automatic writing".

My mindset can be described as more of a trance like state. Though not fully disconnected from my surroundings I am often in a mental "zone" where all I am aware of is my movement and the colors. The imagery comes out of more traditional trance state exploration. I tend toward visions of organic landscapes of color, limitless spaces full of spheres of light all structured within some kind of liquid energy field. Coral reefs submerged in Jung's vast sea of the subconscious.

My painting work takes on two specific forms, outdoors and indoors. Indoors I am painting at a more leisurely pace. I am listening to music, which greatly inspires my work as I feel painting is an act of dancing. I move around the piece, which is almost always flat on the floor/ground.

Outdoors my work is generally not being done legally, so the situation is more constrained. I work faster, again painting directly onto the ground, but the pace is more hurried. I don't listen to music as I need to listen for other things (approaching people mostly). The outdoor work tends to cover larger physical areas but not to have the kind of visual depth that the indoor pieces have. Typically an indoor piece will take me 3-4 hours for a 4 ft by 4 ft painting. Outdoor pieces are generally done in 30 minutes to an hour for a 20 ft by 30 ft size. Though recently I have done a couple of much bigger pieces outside that took 3-4 hours for a 40 ft by 60 ft piece. When you are covering this amount of space you have to be focused. No time for anything but putting down paint.

 

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Raymond Salvatore Harmon's Official Website:
www.raymondharmon.com

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