Polymath of the creative arts, lucid surfer of the mists of mysticism, all round politically illuminated mischief maker and creator of a bizarrely psychedelic, sinuous menagerie of monstrous glee, Raymond Salvatore Harmon dances through the barricades of medium with an irrepressible energy. Laced with a subliminal whisper, his film, music and abstraction alike glow with the rich hue of the esoteric, the internal, the eternal and the subconscious while his visual activism cuts straight through the layers of buried meaning to deliver a straight up punch to the solar. A lecturer and a formidable knowledge bank, a painter and a stencil artist, he also delves deep into the geometry and texture of electronic music, the nature of light and its channels and the fiery symbolism of conceptual film. unifying the often lonesome strands of sensory expression into a barrage of seductively arresting output. We spoke to him
How did growing up in industrial Detroit shape your perceptions of society?
Although I did spend a ton of time in downtown Detroit proper in my teens I actually grew up in a town about 45 minutes outside of Detroit. It was a desolate postindustrial scar on an otherwise green farmland. It plays host to what was once the world’s largest walled prison and claims to be the place where the Republican Party was founded. In my teens we would break into the former Goodyear Tire plant complex (1.2 square kilometer factory) and skateboard on the steel floors. The plant closed in the early 80s due to a huge explosion that ruined one of the buildings. When it closed 30,000 people lost their jobs and the town was gutted financially. Still, the town has one of the best comic book stores in Michigan.
Michigan in general is weird. I hated it as a kid and when I would go back in my early 20’s I felt like I was suffocating, even if I was just visiting. But something about that place breeds intensely interesting, massively creative people. Motown, the Stooges, Juan Atkins, MC5, Wolf Eyes, Andrew WK. I came up seeing amazing shows in Detroit and was around during the birth of the noise scene there in the early 90’s. I remember being at a rave in about 1991 with Graham Massey of 808 State and a friend of mine who was performing. This back when raves had bands like the Shamen or Meat Beat Manifesto, before the rise of DJ’s. Orion pictures was there to film some movie about dance music that never came out.
In hindsight I was in an amazing place and time seeing incredible things and doing ridiculous stuff. But it never seemed enough when I was young. Everyone I knew wanted to escape, to go out and see the world and get away from what we thought of as a boring existence.
What were your first forays into expressed creativity?
I come from a family that promotes creativity. I have aunts and uncles who are artists in one way or another. So I started drawing young (like all kids) and just never stopped. I first started doing graff work in my teens, mostly as tags on buses and terminals in the 80s and early 90s. Then when I moved to NYC in 95 I started working with a crew of kids from the School for Visual Arts. I was the odd man out as I was older and didn’t go to art school. All we did was paint the pieces designed by one guy, which got boring fast, so I moved on. It wasn’t until 2003 or so that I started painting the sea / space monster things I do now. They grew out of drawings I had been doing for years. Kind of automatic drawing style psyche stuff.
When did you first begin to take an interest in the esoteric?
When I was young, like 11 or so, I was fascinated with mythology and fantasy stories. I started reading up on the witch trials and slowly gravitated to more mystical work. By 13 I had figured out how to get books from other libraries sent to mine and was reading books on 14th century demonology and kabbalah. Crowley came along by my mid-teens, as did yoga, meditation and other mind expansion techniques; although I was totally straight edge (though not vegetarian) all through high school.
In the final analysis, what is your take on Crowley?
Crowley is funny, especially in the UK where he still gets press. On the one hand he was an amazingly intelligent guy who spoke a half dozen languages and wrote an enormous amount of brilliantly insightful material into mystical traditions, esoteric thinking, and the nature of religion. On the other hand he was a man raised with money, used to being given what he wanted and overly indulgent of his desires/passions.
The thing I find funny is how they still call Crowley a “Satanist!” in the UK press. It’s been 100 years and as many books have been written about him and yet no research gets done or basic fact checking when an article about him comes out in the mainstream media. Yet when he does get mentioned its always “DRUG USER! “SATANIST!” etc. In today’s world someone like George Michael it doing more in the way of “bad things” than Crowley ever did. How controversial is a guy who is bisexual, practices yoga and does drugs today?
What do attitudes to public space say about us as a society?
The whole idea of “public space” isn’t that old really. Besides open markets, whose space was tightly controlled for hundreds of years, places like parks for the general public were a Victorian idea. The use of parks was seen as a privilege bestowed upon general society by the rich and powerful; a charity, not a right. That is something that has drastically changed, especially in Europe. People see public space more and more as a right.
The thing is that what we are seeing in parallel to this growing sense of entitlement to public space is the encroachment of advertising. More and more often our visual environment is being used to market some product or service. We have become inundated with advertising in both our actual and virtual environments. The amount of money put into advertising in our visual environment is staggering, multiple times what society puts into education.
So it says that as a society we care about having space in which we exist as a public. But the value of that attachment to public space makes it frequently susceptible to those who would use it for gain, namely corporations.
Does street art genuinely help penetrate a numb consciousness or is it only relevant as a subculture?
In the States, most people see graffiti as a nuisance. In Chicago they banned the sale of spray paint within the city limits in the mid 90’s, which really put a foot down on graffiti. Unfortunately graffiti is seen as gang related in most urban contexts. While this facet of graff certainly exists what someone might define as “street art” is usually obviously not gang related. When regular people come onto a piece of random street art they may engage with it, but most of those who would be called fans of street art exist within a subculture.
In the UK though, and in other parts of the EU, graffiti is seen as way more relevant as a form of art. Regular people engage with it, talk about it and photograph pieces. That may be because the base of artists who do graff in the UK is broadly more “working class” than in the US (where most “street art” is done by art students). It may also have to do with the media’s attention to it, which is much more pronounced here.
But regardless of where it is being done I think graffiti has an incredible ability to talk to those who see it. What that conversation says is up to the artist, but being able to put your work out into the world and bypass the gallery/media circus is massively important to the future of art.
To what degree have psychedelics shaped your understanding of the universe and your art?
I was interested in mystical ideas and “the nature of the universe” long before I discovered entheogenic drugs. I was taught transcendental meditation by my high school art teacher at a point where I had begun to study kabbalah and Sufi. Once I got to university I realized that if I was going to study these things (my major was in anthropology with a focus on so called “primitive” culture’s mystical traditions) I needed to engage with the mindsets of these “shaman”. I started with mushrooms.
Certainly using these kinds of tools has altered my work as a visual artist. On that first trip I instantly understood the entire iconography of psychedelic culture. As if I suddenly spoke a new language. A lot of ideas that had eluded me in Gnosticism and Kabbalah came into focus and a framework that would influence my understanding of ‘death’ began to grow in my mind.
As an artist this meant I was able to think about things in a new way, to look at colour as an “emotional object” rather than a “perceptual adjective”. To stop thinking in terms of dimensions, in terms of our perceptions of space-time, and to step outside of ideas like “scale.”
Does analysis accentuate art or subvert it?
Analysis is a natural thing for people and being able to look deeper into what a piece of art might “mean” or what it’s objective might be is a very constructive experience. But what has happened in “art education” is that analysis has become the centre, the language, of art. Art schools teach, and are upheld by institutions like museums, that art is something that requires a complex understanding of its formalities in order for it to be “understood.” That any appreciation of art can only begin with an education into the analysis of that art.
That, in my opinion, is total shit. Art is experience. How well it immediately speaks to someone who is experiencing it is a much better indicator of its value than any individual interpretation of it.
What dimension does a cinematic medium open up to you that painting cannot?
In the beginning of my experimentation with film-making I worked in 16mm found footage. I saw the film as an object that was physically manipulated with chemicals to achieve certain visual effects. As I moved more and more into the process of this kind of film making it became performative. In a live setting using multiple film projectors I could ‘paint’ the colours onto the screen live. Eventually it moved from film to video and into circuit bending and video feedback.
Performing video live has the capacity to do with cinema what jazz did with music. It can become a totally improvised language, something that lets the performer interact with the crowd, feeding off of their reaction to the visuals as well as interacting with the sound, especially if its live music. This level of improvisation is something that interested me greatly. I was looking for the ability to work with light in the same way that Pollack worked with paint. As a dance, so to speak, being able to turn my own physical movements into shifting patterns of colour and light.
How have modern media shaped approaches to mysticism?
Although I avoid most media and don’t own a television I have been exposed to a mountain of children’s entertainment via my daughter. The thing that I find the most difficult with the media’s interpretation of mystical and magick based ideas is that it conceives of ideas like magick within a totally theatrical framework. Magic is presented as being about the incredible visual effects, not the concept or idea that leads to enlightenment and expanded perception. Magic becomes fireballs and flying dragons and absolute fantasy. I find this very frustrating.
Like any field the history of the study of the esoteric is full of men who would use their knowledge (or their alleged knowledge) for gain. But the body of work that we have from antiquity is clearly about a certain path toward understanding and enlightenment. It is not about flying brooms and fireballs. It is a speculative philosophy about the nature of being that is being explored, and that kind of thing is totally overlooked by the mainstream media.
How does one harness light into meaning?
After the Second World War there was a lot of interest in things like mind control among the governments of the world. The idea of “brainwashing” and things of that nature led the military to imagine a way in which we could make someone forget things, or program people to have knowledge that was only released by a specific trigger.
The Soviets did a lot of research around cinema and how color and strobing images can affect the mind. They looked at wave patterns (Alpha, beta, theta) and saw how those wave patterns changed based upon what color frequencies the subject was being exposed to and how certain patterns could trigger specific emotional states. At the same time in the US and UK people like John Lilly were experimenting with using text dropped into the peripheral field as a subliminal trigger for ‘call and response’ word association games. Both of these fields of study revealed frameworks by which someone watching a film can be controlled.
Since those humble studies in the 50s and early 60s marketing firms have poured tons of money into researching how marketing can affect changes in a person’s desires, making them susceptible to control for commercial gain. The amount of data collected by these marketing research firms is unbelievable.
These same techniques are also useful in opening the parts of the human mind that give us access to psychedelic or mystical states. The mindset that allows for the doors of perception to be open can be achieved by simply exposing the mind to specific patterns of light and sound. Our highly evolved sense of visual input will do the rest, reprogramming the mind to be entrained with the patterns, prying back the lid of our subconscious and giving the subliminal content access to our unprotected mind. What gets put in the subliminal content field is up to the filmmaker.
Are galleries a sustaining force for wider creativity or ultimately corrupting?
Much like art there is more than one kind of gallery. They divide vaguely into two types, for-profit and not-for-profit. For-profit galleries are a business. They take things people make and sell them, giving a portion of their profits to the artist. They have a stake financially in developing an audience for that artist, garnering attention for the artist and their work, and pushing the artist in the media. The good ones can take an artist who is barely surviving and make them lots of money and tons of public exposure. The problem is that galleries of this sort tend to be run by rich, overly educated elites who, having failed as artists themselves, use their parents’ money to convince their rich friends to buy the work of the artists they represent. A monetary mutual masturbation society, so to speak. The nepotism and inbreeding just gets amplified once their university protege’s graduate and become “the next big thing.”
The other kind of gallery is the NFP. They are the ones who see art for the purity of what it is; they like it and want other people to like it too. They support creative ideas and often are the champions of innovation in the field of arts. The only problem is that because they have no financial stake in the artist they tend to be more of a “book of the month club” that are constantly showing new work but not really doing anything to sell the work (meaning the artist gets practically no financial reward to do things like pay rent or eat with) and are often moving through shows so fast they have limited resources with which to promote any individual show. They love the work, but you wont make any money showing in their gallery.
I don’t have anything against people making money from their art, quite the contrary, but when the financial infrastructure controls the art, and who is presented as “important” to the public, how damaging is that going to be to art’s evolution? One of the reasons graffiti is finally coming to the front is that it is by nature a non commercial way in which to get attention to the work. You may not get paid, but people see the work. If you place your piece on the right street corner more people will see it in a single day than all of the Picassos in the world. No gallery has that power.
How did elitism ever make it into art?
Elitism gave birth to art. The first time a human made a piece of what we call ‘art’ someone with more power or gain said “Will you sell that to me?” The renaissance masters were supported by the rich and elite, so are people like Hirst and Banksy. A lot of it has to do with money, “the few who can pay the most for the best”, those are the obvious patrons of the arts.
What are the boundaries to understanding abstraction?
I feel like any boundaries in art are being brought to the table by either the artist during the creation process or the viewer during the experience. Abstraction boils down to experience without reference to anything other than itself. In abstraction we move beyond language, into something that cannot always be described in words.
Are inner space and outer space one and the same?
That is an enormous question. I don’t have that answer yet and challenge anyone who says they do, living or dead. I have done a bit of exploration into inner space but have no knowledge of ever having left earth in my physical form.
Has the media superseded armies as the single most powerful control structure?
The media and the armies both work for the same set of people. Corporations are in control of 80% of the functioning governments of the world, particularly in developed nations. With the growth of the media as a broadcast source the internet has provided an outlet for people who may not normally have access to media’s tools. The problem is that while the internet exists as the source of income for some of the most powerful corporations on earth, it also provides sets of tools for use against these corporations.
Right now we are seeing very specific legal movement across the globe as world governments all come into agreement with how copyright can be controlled on a global scale. Though they may not be able to agree on things like climate, hunger, oil or water they can all seemingly focus a great deal of sophisticated detail into crafting laws that will protect corporations from copyright infringement, all this behind closed doors and away from the eyes of the public. Corporations are paying governments to enact laws that expand protection to them, grant them equal rights as citizens, and allow them to circumnavigate the laws that normal citizens have to live by. In order to protect their financial interests, corporations are feeding the creation of laws that will expand government’s abilities to censor speech indiscriminately, generally on their own behalf.
Fortunately in the wild west of the internet there are armies of youth willing to coordinate attacks against law firms and corporations in order to protect the voice of the people. To the media these kids seem like annoying pranksters, but the reality is that the power of Anonymous is something that most governments envy. It’s like a viral form of cultural terrorism, like social cancer that attacks the weakest part of the system. Anonymous may be to the 21st century what dada was to the 20th. It could be the language of the next real artform.
Tell us about your media manipulation campaigns?
The problem with the media is that it’s soft and lazy. The line between a blog and a major media source is very blurry. Instead of giving the world access to the truth all the web has really done is let everyone know everyone else’s opinion about everything. Being able to stick a bit of something into the news feed is easy when you find the soft spot. A press release is really just an outline for a news article.
I like the idea that the internet makes multiplication easy and verification impossible. All you have to do to make it official is put the word “official” in the press release and you have a music video for Thom Yorke made by Banksy. It took 3 days/54k hits before Yorke had his people pull the video from youtube. But other people had already uploaded it and the point had been made. Words like “Yorke” and “Banksy” make the media froth at the mouth, who cares if its real, it creates traffic. I was later told that Yorke “hates” Banksy’s work and was very offended by the piece. Plus I got to talk to Holly Cushing (Banksy’s agent) on the phone. You can’t pay for that kind of entertainment.
Why does the right wing in the US seem to have a better grasp on media techniques than the supposed â”liberal elite”, on the left?
Both sides have about the same level of knowledge, but the problem is that even if some scriptwriter knows what should happen, controlling the egos of politicians isn’t always easy. The thing with the liberals is that they know they can’t play the ‘obvious’ card with their constituents because Democrats go to university and have good jobs, or they work in good factories and their union tells them to vote Democrat. Those people aren’t stupid. You have to be less ‘in your face’ with them. On the other hand, for the past 40 years the Republican party has systematically reduced spending in the education field throughout the entire geographic area of the US that is dominated by Republican voters (the south). They have intentionally bred multiple generations of people who do not read, watch tons of TV, drive big trucks and eat fast food. With these people you don’t have to be subtle. You can just say something is fact and they nod in agreement. “It has to be true if an American flag is on the screen, it’s in the Constitution!”
With the rise of the internet, do individuals and sub cultures have more power than ever before, or does the endless access to information and self-expression breed indolence and lethargy?
The internet is like any new technology. Everyone worries it is killing us and ruining our world but in the end its not TV or rock and roll or the internet that is ruining the world, its people. Greedy fucking people who don’t have the time to watch TV or surf Facebook all night because they are too busy fucking with the lives of millions of people in order to make money.
Is Faust an ever more relevant metaphor in the modern age?
We are all Faust.
Where is the balance between technique and inspiration?
My one complaint about the younger contemporary graff scene is the focus on technique – ‘can control’, sharp lines, whatever. Who gives a fuck how sharp someone’s lines are? What about the idea, the insanity of the act of total vandalism? Sometimes you can say more in 30 seconds with a bucket of red house paint than you can with hours and sharp lines and perfect fades. Writers need to make more of a mess, fuck shit up more.
How does your creative approach to music differ from film and paint?
Most of the work I do in terms of music is production of one sort or another. I am there to listen. I think listening is something that is very hard for people to do when they are trying to make music. Each musician is listening to themselves and how they sound with the other musicians, the engineer is thinking “where is that 60khz hum coming from??!!”, being a producer is about watching everything happening and just listening to both the music itself and what everyone is talking about. I try not to get involved in the making aspect of the music at all when I am producing. If you start making decisions about the actual music being made you become involved with it and lose the perspective you should have. I do make music of my own, but rarely and mostly for my own amusement, or as the soundtrack to a film.
Why do archetypes still have such power in a world so detached from its own collective consciousness?
I am not sure the world is detached from its own collective conscious. Whether we like it or not we are all irrevocably interconnected. Unfortunately the paradigm of modern living is one that lets ambiguous concepts like “moral right” dictate universal freedoms and replaces common sense with rhetoric.
The thing with archetypes is that they play an important role as markers within societies consensual reality. They provide a framework by which people share a common sense of existence. A degree by which we may measure both ourselves and the others we know within society.
At some point I realized that just as there are two kinds of galleries so are there two types of artists. The first type of artist is constantly seeking out new forms of expression, experimenting in order to push the boundaries of what is known, of what expression might truly achieve. The second type of artist is a crafts-person, who upon seeing the beauty of the work by the first type of artist, proceeds to use skill in order to recreate this original work. This second type of artist may be able to alter the variables of the work being copied, but they are rarely if ever capable of producing an original idea through experimentation.
Almost no one wants to be the second type of artist, and yet almost everyone is. Everyone attempts to be the first type of artist and yet almost everyone fails. In the end it comes down to the fact that if you can quit doing it, then you weren’t for real. It’s not a choice; it’s a way of life.
Issue Six – Stand and Deliver – January 11th 2011