“Do you hear the call? Will you heed it?” asks Adam Overton, 45 seconds into the spiritual infomercial he co-made with artists Claire Cronin and Tanya Rubbak in 2011. The three of them are the self-appointed “officials” of Signify, Sanctify, Believe, an artist collective that holds services instead of performances, and does so with at least a modicum of sincerity.
They're interested in how art, like religion, requires some suspension of disbelief and can be a haven for hard-core devotees. They're also interested in the low-tech, cobbled-together, sometimes-campy aesthetic of New Age spiritualism, which explains the cosmic panoramas and double rainbows that appear halfway through the infomercial as well as the furry white cat that stares out at you at the end.
“Skeptic or saint, believer or apostate, we'd like to talk to you,” Overton continues, in his low-key shaman voice. A still image of his face appears on the right side of the screen, floating above a blue sky. The image is translucent, so you can see the outlines of the clouds in the background through his longish beard. Thanks to that beard, his shoulder-length hair and the way the glowing sky creates a halo around him, Overton looks a little bit like Jesus.
The Signify, Sanctify, Believe (or SSB) infomercial is one of the art videos featured in “Invoking L.A.,” a new show at Otis College of Art and Design. The idea behind the show was to bring together artists who were somehow using video techniques to “invoke” the divine. Paige Tighe, an Otis alum and a curatorial fellow there, organized the show because she noticed a growing number of L.A. artists toying with spirituality by using tropes of reality TV, televangelism, marketing spiels or YouTube remixes.
“Throughout L.A., and all of America, really, there's a frantic need to connect,” says Tighe, reflecting on this spirituality-in-art trend. The proliferation of things like online social networks, reality television and increased commercialization, plus a decade of overseas military conflicts that most Americans witnessed via TV and computer screens, has made people feel more isolated, like they're watching the world, not in it. But it has become impossible to imagine a world not teeming with screens.
So what is an artist, one who really wants art to touch people, to do? Those old strategies, like “reappropriating,” “reclaiming” or “reinhabiting” mass-media imagery, or “exposing” its dark side seem a little tired. When an artist like Thomas Hirschhorn puts brutalized victims of violence in a collage next to bare-breasted porn stars, it's stating the obvious. Yeah, we know: Media have desensitized us to provocation. It doesn't do anything, it just comments on something. “Artists have this feeling now that they need to be more than just image producers,” Tighe says.
The artists Tighe enlisted want to use technology and media motifs to tap into something new and otherworldly. In one video in “Invoking L.A.,” artist Bridget Kane's I Have Something to Tell You, Kane appears blurred and in black-and-white in front of a microphone. She says things you'd post on Facebook (how your day went, how you feel) but in a proselytizing tone of voice, and there's background noise that makes it sound like she's speaking in front of a stadium full of fans hungry to hear truth with a capital T.
In Niko Solorio's remix video Yaweh or the Highway, public-access preacher Rev. Alicia breaks down into a hazy psychedelic routine to electronica by music producer Cursor Minor. Sometimes the pixilation and pulsing on screen cause her to disappear into the neon colors behind her. This seems to be where the “spiritual” comes in, like in Spielberg's movie Poltergeist, where the haunts communicate through electromagnetic waves emanating from the TV set. But that kind of spirituality is momentary, while the attraction of religion, both Old World and New Age, has always been that it gives you something to hold on to. It makes you feel “connected” because when you buy into a religion, you buy into a way of life.
At the end of the SSB infomercial, Overton's voice explains, “We believe that temporary engagement with real and imagined belief systems can lead to heightened and playful awareness in our daily, secular lives.” Overton, Cronin and Rubbak have been pursuing heightened awareness through this sort of free-form religiosity for more than a year now. They've gone on pilgrimages and hosted a series of events, including a daylong experimental meditation marathon in spring 2011. “It felt like it sort of worked,” Rubbak says of the meditation. “You felt like you could actually receive the same kind of benefits you could get by going to a professional.”
Around 2007, almost two years after Overton finished grad school at California Institute of the Arts, he decided to become a massage therapist. He had used meditation and then a kind of “laying on of hands” in his own performance work, where he'd feel people's pulses or heartbeats. He wanted to understand more about how some physical sensations could stir you in an almost supernatural way.
At first he would tell people about his massage training, and they'd say, “Wow, I guess you could make a lot of money doing that.” But then he noticed more artists doing what he was doing, studying to become yoga instructors or even learning to read tarot cards. “What I felt like I witnessed was people — artists — feeling impotent,” Overton says. Artists felt incapable of making work that cogently addressed what was happening politically. “You feel like there's no way for you to change the course.”
Cronin thinks these trends toward spiritual exploration have to do with the resurgence of a hyper-conservative element in American politics. “We've got religious groups who see things in very black-and-white terms, combined with our generation's postmodern, cynical, secular inheritance,” she says. “In reaction to this, I think there's been an upsurge of superstition, and an American pop culture that's obsessed with the paranormal and supernatural” — she cites the vampire craze and Harry Potter. “People are desperate for something magical, invisible and beyond themselves.”
When Cronin met Overton in 2008, she was working with playwright Asher Hartman, who's also a practicing psychic medium. In 2010, the two of them met Tanya Rubbak, who had recently acquired a library of New Age literature from the estate of L.A. psychic Bella Karish, who died in 2007 at age 97. In early 2011, Overton, Cronin and Rubbak were talking about creating spiritual publications or some similar sort of ongoing project. They chose a name for themselves, one that sounded like a headline and a mantra — Signify, Sanctify, Believe — and began to build their Library of Spiritual Technologies, now full of pamphlets, videos and audio recordings where artists lead meditations or describe spiritual experiences they've had. Elana Mann, for instance, describes feeling her recently deceased grandmother's spirit weighing her down on her wedding day. The group also made their infomercial.
This past spring, SSB and four other artists took a pilgrimage to Mount Shasta an hour south of the Oregon border. There they performed a sanctification ritual under a waterfall, purifying objects that people had brought to them before they'd left L.A., though they just had Polaroid photos of these objects with them, not the real things. They had crystals and wore ceremonial costumes. They weren't without skepticism, but they were genuinely interested in what would happen and what they would feel.
“We see a lot of humanity in even the strangest of New Age exercises,” Cronin says. “I also liked the idea that making art comes from the same impulse as making magic or praying to God — that a person has a powerful question or problem or need, and are filled with overwhelming desire to physicalize that.”