A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

Manifestation Machine: An Interview with Art Collective Dark Matters

Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill.

Dark Matters collective— artists Amie Burg, Frank De-Leon Jones and Anna Ritsch—explores the intangible aspects of the natural world, including the spiritual, alchemical and mystical. They make installations that energize spaces with symbolism and performative practices, creating room for reflection. Dark Matters performs at live events and in videos as alter egos—venerable beings attuned to ancient myths and the all-encompassing cosmos. To the artists, scientific theory and spiritual belief share a close kinship.

The artists have transformed Wave Hill’s Sunroom into an interactive site—Manifestation Machine— for contemplating the unseen energies that permeate the universe and connect the dynamic to the inert. Visitors may actuate their personal desires by using materials that are available and participating at each station, starting with collecting natural materials at a “buffet” table, an act which signifies gathering what is grown and nurtured in a garden. Geometric patterns on the floor represent the four cardinal points (north, south, east and west), as well as the four classical elements of earth, fire, air and water. Designs in the windows represent the flow of energy between the Sunroom and the outer cosmos, while also filtering the light and creating a meditative space. The room’s focal point is an obelisk, a chamber that visitors can enter with their pouch of ingredients for further contemplation. The shape of the structure refers to ancient monuments, and a mirror inside it will enable visitors to see themselves from a different perspective. Before leaving, participants may deposit their pouches on shelves.

Two of the artists were available for this interview.

Dark Collective’s Manifestation Machine is on view in the Sunroom Project Space through July 4, 2016.

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Danni Shen: How did you come up with the title for Manifestation Machine?

Aimée Burg: Well, we have been thinking about technology and I think, sort of low-end ‘technologies’ or pseudo technologies, like Wilhelm Reich’s orgone machines, etc., and how attractive they are despite their obvious functions. With these types of machines you don’t see the “technology” behind them. The Google definition of a machine is an apparatus using or applying mechanical power and having several parts, each with a definite function and together performing a particular task. And so we have this manifestation machine that is meant to invisibly help you manifest your life’s goals. The parts that work are you, the viewer, with your brain and consciousness, as well as your sub-consciousness. Then there are the herbs and what they represent for well-being and positive thinking and then the booth itself- which speaks to actual machines, like telephone booths and even the Dr. Who booth. So all these parts move together to eventually direct your focus on what you, the viewer, desires.

Frank De Leon-Jones: When coming up with the idea for this installation, we wanted to make something that could be either viewed passively or engaged in by a participant. It’s a system, one which has a certain choreographed path, but I hope we were able to provide many windows of entry into the work for people to find their own way to it.video-still-2

DS: How long have you all been a collaborative, and how did you become one?

AB: Well, it is hazy exactly, but Frank and I met in undergrad, and honestly at first we didn’t really quite click. But then something happened and we both realized how much the other had to offer. So in our final year at Pratt we started working together on small projects and Frank was my assistant for my thesis project. Since then, we’ve always worked on and off on projects together. Then one day we decided “we need a name.” And so after a few texts back and forth, sometime in like 2012, we became Dark Matters.

FDLJ: I think when Aimee and I first met in undergrad there was some hesitancy on both sides getting to know one another. Our personalities were pretty much diametrically opposed. However I always respected her work, her formalist pursuits and the way she used the body in her work: even when not physically present it was always an inherent component. Our friendship was born out of our understanding of one another through our art. When we are in synch with one another we barely have to draw a line or finish a thought for the other to be on the same page and further the idea. It’s one of my favorite things.

DS: Performance pieces involve your alter egos. How about your real-life selves? Are you among the skeptics, believers, practitioners?

AB: Frank and I have been describing ourselves as yin and yang. I need to be distressed and a non-believer in order to get over any obstacle, whereas Frank never sees the obstacles, and so is a total believer.

FDLJ: All three, of course. To have balance in your life you have to exercise all aspects of yourself. A practice in any field whether it is a pursuit in art, science or yoga is just a practice that takes constant engagement. To have a healthy rational mind is an important tool but people rationalize their ways into and out of many things they do not truly want because of some belief that they feel obligated to follow. It’s a tricky business knowing oneself and that of course is the most important practice. I don’t see these personas as characters separate from ourselves. It is our ritualized self we are holding space for, our creative spirit personified. One might call it channeling.

DS: What about the performance aspect of your work?

AB: I think it adds the personal element that is missing in interactive works sometimes. It makes it more real.

FDLJ: Every morning, I make my coffee and it is a ritual act. I take very special care in the way I blend the beans, fill the water to the correct level and set the flame at just the right height. My stovetop cafeteria is a tool that I must admit I venerate too highly. It’s an act that begins my day, a moment of contemplation and an act of empowerment where I set myself up for what lies ahead. My point is that ritual acts are not only separate from daily life but intertwined with it. Performance is a ritual act in its purest form, one that charges the space with heightened meaning and energy, allowing our creative personas to materialize. We see myth and ritual as a symbol of the reality that underlies all fact, but never itself becomes fact, and art as our looking glass.

DS: Can you talk about your interests in the spiritual, alchemical and mystical?

AB: I think when you don’t understand something, your mind will make up, or cling to, an existing story for explanation. To me, these all go into the category of spiritual and mystical. So I guess my interest in them is purely as a way of finding my place in this world and navigating between known and scientific truths and hypotheses.

FDLJ: They are all methodologies of understanding. As an artist, while pursuing an idea from the ether of imagination to its corporeal form, you learn to problem-solve in ways that seem obscure to someone who is not a cognoscente. People tend to break down alchemy into two forms. One they call “practical” or dealing in the material world, the classic idea of turning lesser metal into gold. On the flip side, you have “philosophical” alchemy; this is the search for an internal transmutation. It is what yogis, masons, theosophists, etc., practice in their differing ways. Of course, any alchemist worth his weight knows that one needs to pursue both. Dark Matters makes art, so we are neither one or the other, but maybe both.performance-still

DS: Is this New Age spirituality?

AB: To me, new age spirituality is more like an art movement and not like a real thing. So that makes it easy for me to accept it. It’s like a game that one can enter hopefully, voluntarily, and can exit also, when needed. I don’t mean to make light of people’s beliefs, but this is how I interpret it.

FDLJ: There is no such thing as a movement called New Age; it is a generic umbrella term with no real meaning. There are few belief systems that are truly homogenous with no outside influence. In the west, one is hard pressed to find a period when spiritual beliefs weren’t morphing and changing. Whether it is ancient Rome, Ptolemaic Egypt, Moorish Spain or the Renaissance, each is an apex of sorts, an era of the intermingling of ideas and beliefs which in turn lead to the western magic practiced by The Golden Dawn, Ordo Templi Orientis and so on. Here in the Americas, with Santeria, Candomblé and Mormonism, to name a few, you see a clear and more recent layering of worlds. These are all periods or movements where and when the outside influence of cultures, religions and philosophies are being practiced and incorporated into systems of belief, some becoming more rich and defined, while others become bastardized and misappropriated. I see no difference in the past and the present in regard to the multitude of systems that now falls under the umbrella of the New Age. The idea of cultural colonialism is a complex one, to me it is not cut and dry. I am the colonizer and the colonized; in me, my genetics and culture run many traditions, peoples and histories. Cultural and philosophical homogeneity is more of an idea than a reality, and I am comfortable with my fluidity in multiple realities. That being said, it is important to respect and understand the tradition of ideas and their meanings.

DS: Returning to an earlier question regarding your practice, is this an exploration, a criticism, an investigation, a parody, a serious case study?

AB: I think this is an exploration, and there will be criticism as one goes along when you learn more about any subject. I think the best description is a lighthearted investigation.

FDLJ: All of the above minus the parody, if there is something we at times poke fun of, I would say it is the aesthetics of things. In the west, we have this beautiful bounty of aestheticism that has been building up since the beginning of the last turn of the century, and that is so ripe for the picking. Whether it’s the “orientalism” of the theosophist, the faux yogi or guru nature of the 1960s, or the pastel-color-fueled mystical futurism of the 1980s, they all have connecting themes and motifs. Which in turn allows us to be part of a larger conversation within an art-historical context. If we put content aside for a moment, this is an exploration of how we work together and how we pursue making. As a studio artist, you spend many hours alone with your thoughts trying to manifest an idea. It is really quite a special thing to be able to create a world with other people, spend hours together trying to psychically understand the other’s vision and ping-pong ideas back and forth until they come into being.

Find the collective online at darkmatters.nyc and on instagram.

Pictured above, from the top:
Dark Matters, The Soul Is an Eye of Fire (video still), 2016. Video from Manifestation Machine, made for Wave Hill’s Sunroom Project Space. Courtesy of the artists.
Dark Matters, The Soul Is an Eye of Fire (video still), 2016. Video from Manifestation Machine, made for Wave Hill’s Sunroom Project Space. Courtesy of the artists.
Dark Matters, Manifestation Machine, 2016, June 5, 2016 performance. Image credit: Wave Hill.

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