Forget the Brian Butler you know from Vice. This multifaceted artist is Aleister Crowley and Kenneth Anger’s heir. Javier Calvo separates the sheep from the goats.
Forget the Brian Butler you know from Vice. This multifaceted artist is Aleister Crowley and Kenneth Anger’s heir. Javier Calvo separates the sheep from the goats.
is an artist of literality.
There is no manifestation of his art -be it film, play or musical- that doesn’t seem to be based on a text quote. One of his best-known works, BARTZABEL WORKING, consisted in playing to the T, and in an art museum, a magical operation written by Aleister Crowley to be secretly executed. As a literal translation it was interesting at many different levels. To begin with, it problematized the relationship between artistic performance and magic ritual. If all theatre art historically derives from magic rituals through a process of secularisation, then what Butler does seems a wonderfully rough act of vindication. But just how subversive is Butler’s attitude, really?
Let’s examine Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis: the cornerstone of this occult inversion of the hierarchy between theatre show and religion. By taking the name of the Eleusinian Mysteries, Crowley obviously defends the theatricality preceding Greek tragedy and Aristotle’s Poetics. The theatricality of sympathetic magic, rites of passage and admonitory rites. Osiris, Dionysius and Ceres. Memphite Drama and the Passion of Abydos. Like Nietzsche, Jung and one of the central currents of Modernism, Crowley brings back onto the stage the orphic and hermetic traditions and banishes the Aristotelian one. And being faithful to the nature of eponymous mysteries, the Rites of Eleusis are public. This introduces a conceptual change in the modern occult orders, which, although not completely renouncing secretism, they become semi-public. The doors of the ‘secret & the few’ are (occasionally) open to the ‘many and known’.
Bartzabel Working is not, in this sense, such a revolutionary operation. Many of the OTO loggias represent the Rites of Eleusis, and a US theatre company have successfully represented them the last fifteen years, having adapted it as a rock opera. Kenneth Anger and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films have made the imaginary of occult rituals and initiation forms familiar to the public. They have become a kind of mass magic rituals.
What makes Bartzabel a strange and difficult to understand play is its literality, its condition of ‘objet trouvé’, of artistic ready-made. Its dramaturgy is a step-by-step transposition of Crowley’s Liber 325. And like any ready-made, its sense comes in fact from its being completely out of place.
In its only representation up to now, the 4th of December 2012 at the L&M Arts Centre in Venice, California, the Rite of Bartzabel was executed in front of more than 1000 people, minor art and film world celebrities, trend journalists, modern people and a “crowd full of celebrity observers, Twilight fans, thrill seekers and magic tourists,” as a journalist put it. Alongside Butler himself, actress and model Noot Seear (from the Twilight saga) and actor Henry Hopper, son of Dennis Hopper, also took part in the performance. Like his artistic father Kenneth Anger, Brian Butler suffers an uncontrollable compulsion to surround himself of beautiful and famous people; a compulsion that has entirely determined the reception of his work. In the recording of the event, you can see the four participants of the ritual hieratically executing their operations over a background of murmur, casual conversations and laughter: the darkest nightmare of an orthodox Thelemite.
If Butler is known for something, it’s for being an apostle and inveterate continuator of Kenneth Anger’s work. Their artistic collaboration dates back to 2008, when their joint multimedia show, TECHNICOLOR SKULL, was premiered at the Donaufestival in Austria. We could say that this start of Anger’s pupillage was also Butler’s leap to fame. Quite a lot simpler than Butler’s subsequent magical operations, Technicolor Skull is a twenty-minute edition of frames and scenes from different Anger movies that is projected while Anger himself and Butler play live an improvised soundtrack, the former one with a theremin and the latter with his guitar and a console of electronic instruments.
According to his authors, Technicolor Skull is “an experiment of light and sound exploring the psychical impact of the magic ritual in the context of an improvised performance.” The collaboration between both artists is “a performance contained inside a ritual from unknown origin, which refers to occult stories that extend the musical language to the initiation. Occult messages escape through gesture and light, revealing themselves as an only occurrence.” Even though both musicians interpret images through satisfactorily ominous drones and appropriately otherwordly beeping, as a magic ritual generator of altered states of consciousness or mantric ecstasy, the efficacy of Technicolor Skull is inferior, for instance, to a Sunn 0))) concert. Its appeal seems to be elsewhere, in particular in the two figures playing their instruments on both sides of the big screen.
The living legend and the young artist of rising career, Anger with his Lucifer tattoo, his kabuki motions around the theremin and his aspect of ancient adorer of the devil; and Butler eternally absent, his eyes lost in a hypnagogic mist, a Jimmy Page that was abducted by fairies at birth. Then an unexpected trompe l’oeil is produced: images and music accompany the stage presence of the two artists, and not vice versa. Technicolor Skull becomes successful first in its European tour and then in the United States. The audience goes to see those two men who, like Crowley, are famous for being famous: Occult culture as sensationalism, morbid fascination, a suggestion of ominous acts; glamour-bewitchment gives way to celebrity glamour.
A lot more interesting is the second collaboration between Butler and Anger, the short film NIGHT OF PAN. Night of Pan could be considered a homage to Anger’s LUCIFER RISING, if it weren’t because it is almost literal in its paraphrasing of the master’s work. Maybe not so much as Technicolor Skull, which simply consists in a music video of the highlights of Anger’s films. But it’s not far enough to be able to say that it develops its own discourse.
Night of Pan starts with images from LOCH NESS MAGICK, Butler’s film debut, a lyrical journey through the nature around Boleskine House (Aleister Crowley’s residence in Scotland and qibla of all Thelemites). The axis of the film is a symbolic dance executed by Vincent Gallo (Pan) and model Zdenka Sutton, representing the thelematic concept of the night of Pan, a voyage through the abyss that leads to the union with the absolute through the dissolution of the ego. The dance is alternated with images of a magic ceremony conducted by Butler himself (as Magician), Anger (Lucifer) and rock musician Jeordie White (ex Marilyn Manson, here in the role of ‘demon’).
Even if it doesn’t have the same complexity as Lucifer Rising, there’s no doubt that Night of Pan replicates its main elements. The use of Rich Ragsdale’s beautiful score; the festival of slow fades, over-impressions, overexposure, jump-cuts and symbolic associations. It could be said that Gallo and Sutton execute a kind of equivalent to the roles of Osiris and Isis in Anger’s film, while Butler, Anger and White are versions of Anger, Page and the rest of celebrators in Lucifer Rising. The appearance of master Anger (with the face painted as Crowley’s in his self-portrait MASTER THERION) adds a strange dimension to the film. At some moments, Butler’s art doesn’t simply seem influenced by Anger or homage to Anger. It’s more like art about Anger.
At this point, we should talk about the personal relationship between the two artists. Butler has always been reluctant to revealing anything of his life previous to his collaboration with his master. According to legend, both met at the end of the nineties, when Butler was working as a video producer for Channel 4 programme Disinformation. Butler then moved on to working for Anger Management, Anger’s production company, where he would end up becoming a producer, manager and his master’s right hand. As an indefatigable promoter of his master’s (and patron) work, Butler has ended up signing such strange (and slightly embarrassing) works such as music video KENETH ANGER by BRIAN BUTLER, for the TV channel of French fashion magazine Jalouse. In it, an Anger in dressing gown strikes a pose surrounded by lightly dressed models and Butler himself clad with his now famous red tunic of adeptus major of the A.·.A.·.
This is one of the most disconcerting sides to Butler’s work. It could be argued that Crowley himself already used his own celebrity very cleverly and knew how to manage publicity and the media. His rites of Eleusis were in great part a publicity manoeuvre, as probably was his relationship with Leila Waddell or Victor Neuberg. Anger took this obsession for beautiful and famous people to paroxysm, as proves the casting of any of his films. In this same line, Butler seems to defend a variation of Crowley’s philosophy, centred in the already mentioned double sense of the word glamour. Glamour as spell, but also as bedazzlement, as distance and reverence generated before the beautiful being blessed with public adoration. Entertainment as ethics. Fame as sanctity.
We owe to Butler the mass entrance, as of 2010, of occult imagery in the world of fashion and graphic and musical trends. The oddest example of that trend probably being James Franco’s “short film” LOVE IN THE OLD DAYS, originally shot as a music video for his band, rock Daddy. Personal friend of the Lucifer Brothers, Franco appears in photographs with Anger and Butler on social networks and was originally the actor chosen to play Bartzabel Working, although his participation had to be rejected due to aerial problems.
Love in the Old Days supposedly recreates a thelemic magick ritual, with participation of Anger in the role of priest and Butler as deacon. Butler appears quoted as ‘ creative director,’ something very eloquent (the video is shot, if not for Butler himself, at least openly copying his style). In any case, Love in the Old Days is over the top: its representation of the occult ceremony make Hammer films such as The Devil Rides Out seem realistic in comparison. Deep down, the video is a simple catalogue od lightly dressed beautiful people hieratically parading and making mystic symbols. A real Zoolander of the occult world. In Kenneth Anger’s creative genealogy, Butler might be the young Luciferian brother, but Franco is the silly nephew.
Despite all this, there are two quite interesting items that prove the complete identification of Butler and Anger’s projects. One is the new editing of Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, destined to restoring its screening in 3 screens. The other is Raising Lucifer, the documentary in episodes on Anger that Butler is shooting.
The restoration of the “original” format of Pleasure Dome consisted in taking the final segment of the film, famous for its horizontal over-impressions of parallel scenes, and restoring the form that it had in its director’s mind. Originally, the action of the film had to start in a single screen and then be replicates in the three of them to show the orgiastic climax. This couldn’t be done due to practical reasons. Sixty years later, in 2014, Butler edited the film in its original format for his projection in Art Basel. This adds a new version to the four existing ones of Anger’s film, sixties legendary ‘Sacred Mushroom’ version, the ‘Janacek’ version and the ‘Electric Light Orchestra’ version, all of them with mere slight structural differences. For the moment, the restored version has only been exhibited as an installation in art galleries.
Raising Lucifer is, as its name indicates, a documentary about Lucifer Raising. There are no dated fixed for the conclusion of the project, but for the moment Butler has published two brief segments. The first consists of a group of current interviews with Anger and with Bobby Beausoleil, the latter shot at the penitentiary institution where Beausoleil is locked up serving life sentence. The segment, eight-minute long, talks about the disagreement between Anger and the interpreter of Lucifer from the perspective of them two, up ot the famous anecdote of the curse that the director threw on his fetish actor. The second published fragment, three-minute long, is centred in the experiences of Chris O’Dell and Myriam Gibril, the actors that respectively interpreted Osiris and Isis in the film.
Although it’s too soon to know the direction Butler’s documentary is going to, there’s no doubt that the long and tortuous story of the shooting of Lucifer Raising would make a fascinating documentary. For their latest joint appearances, like the creation of an art gallery designed ad hoc for the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Fair in its 2016 edition, Anger and Butler have adopted the corporate pseudonym of Lucifer Brothers. In their “pop-up” gallery they sell works by Marjorie Cameron and Rosaleen Norton, among other artists associated with the occult scene.
It’s quite precise to define Butler as filmmaker and performer. And it’s true that almost all his works fit these two categories. As filmmaker, his influences have always been quite obvious: Anger, Wormwood Star, sixties experimental film, Wallace Berman assamblages or Mike Kelley’s disciplinary art. As performer, the influence of Crowley’s and Jack Parsons’ rituals is overwhelming. However, this categorisation leaves outside other sides of him such as publicist, music video director, producer and singular figure of Californian trend culture. There’s no clear distinction between both things: it’s a natural extension of the other.
In the last five years, Butler’s production has centred in a series of works conceived as double events. They exist in the form of filmed version and performance version. What both of them have in common is content, which is adapted to the single event or the film version to be projected an indefinite number of times.
Death Posture supposes a first distancing from the style of Night of Pan. Although it could still be a music video or an advert, in this short film there is already a transition to other resources and topics. The slow fades and the kaleidoscopic reflections begin to build a more abstract visual discourse, initially based on the dialogue between the human figure and nature. Both figure and background begin to get deconstructed and “taken back” to their geometric condition. It’s also the first collaboration between Butler and another of his “muses”, Annakim Violette, daughter of Tom Petty and notorious L.A. alternative diva.
This current of sacred geometry continues in short films The Dove and the Serpent and Union of Opposites. Both films come from two ritual performances and exist as a complement to them. The former celebrated in Normandy and the latter at the Ruskin Theater in Santa Monica, California, where Butler executed a variation of Crowley’s Ritual of the Mark of the Beast interpreted live by Annakim Violette. The culmination of this series of works is Babalon Working, possibly Butler’s best work until now.
Babalon Working is pure Brian Butler. All the ingredients are there. On the one hand, obviously, the title turns the piece into a version of the famous Babalon Working by Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard, the ritual with which in the forties both invoked Scarlet Woman, the main female non-divine figure of the Thelemic system. It seems, thus, a culmination of his previous visual explorations of the power of the female figure.
As in other of Butler’s projects, the film uses as its axis an alternation between a dance part, centred on the plasticity and mutations of the body, and the representation of the magic ritual in itself. The figure of the Mother of Abominations appears in the film with demonic force, sometimes with succubus features, using those brutal and dislocated representations of the female boy that Butler likes so much. The actress chosen this time is Paz de la Huerta, seen in Enter the Void and Boardwalk Empire, materialised as Dame Babalon in the frenzied climax and who shares credits with Butler himself, clad with his beloved Adeptus Major tunic. The shooting took place in Prague, at the lab of Elizabethan magician Edward Kelley. The danger tone builds up during the five minutes of film until it becomes almost unbearable. Stroboscopic lights, each time more fragmentation and image doublings and refractions. To this we should add the apocalyptic soundtrack, which combines a mixture of threatening composition for synthesiser by Chris Stein, Blondie’s guitar player, with Popol Vuh’s Nicht hoch im Himmel.
The film was premiered at Los Angeles MOCA, in September 2013, with the public representation of Transmigration, its “sister” performance. Conceived as multitudinous ritual, hallucinatory experience and noise concert, Transmigration uses retro-futuristic technology and avant-garde dramaturgy. In order to generate trance in the audience (and the actress, Paz de la Huerta), Butler uses orgone generators, stroboscopic lights, low frequency sounds, an ultraviolet ray machine (used in medicine in the old days) and geometric projections. The result is possibly his more perfected show, where Crowley’s theurgy is combined with stage conceptions by Artaud or Michael Chekhov.
It’s quite easy to despise Brian Butler. Sometimes it’s even inevitable. His art is often similar to a perfume ad or a music video. At his side, Sofia Coppola is almost Pasolini. It isn’t strange that his main promoter, since early days, was Vice magazine, famous for its combination of irony and free sensationalism. Vice loves Butler because he can at the same time be taken seriously and as a joke. He has an aura of enfant terrible and at the same time he’s palatable. He gives the masses the feeling of becoming part of an occult and dangerous world. He can be banal and even frivolous without losing the appearance of solemnity. His art is as hieratic as its author. Inscrutable and languid as the thin models of a fashion editorial. His biography is that of an unashamed ‘scenester’: perpetually surrounded by spectacular women and of the lost sons and daughters of sixties bohemian stars. Obsessed to death by the glamour of old-time occultists. Devoid of originality and even scornful of it. Decided to crown himself as the silent replica of his dark idols.
However, leaving all this aside, his best weapon seems to be his indifference towards all these considerations. His best works, Night of Pan and Babalon Working, really manage that alteration of consciousness that is at the base of the hermetic ritual. A glimpse of those ‘dark forces’ (quoting Dennis Wheatley) that periodically come back to life within our culture, from the Victorian era to the esoteric hippie revival. No matter his immediate references, his work has its roots well-planted in Surrealist tradition, experimental film, acid rock, psychedelia and noise. His aptitudes as producer, editor and art director are exquisite, and he practically hasn’t done anything that it wasn’t beautiful. In his best moments, however brief, he’s like a kind of compendium of the virtues of his references. It’s very difficult to resist his spell, and at the end of the day there seems to be no good reason to.