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Interview with Brian Butler

Patrick Steffen: I’d like to start our conversation from your recent performance, Union of Opposites, presented at Art LA Contemporary in conjunction with the gallery Annie Wharton Los Angeles. There is a video projection, sound, light and a live performance. There is a very poetic and sensual dimension in the first part and then there is an aggressive and somehow disturbing dimension. So, I thought that it could be a good example of the range of your work. What was your main intention with this work?

Brian Butler: I wanted to create an overall experience, a tactile and physical experience, as well as visual, mental or even spiritual, a sort of consciousness altering experience, through all of these elements. I wanted to create a collective out-of-body experience. My work it’s more about a feeling or an atmosphere…

PS: What was the main feeling that you wanted to suggest through Union of Opposites?

BB: It has to do with what we could call a solar consciousness. It’s a metaphysical concept; heliocentric consciousness as opposed to earthly or geocentric consciousness. Metaphorically, it relates to the change of seasons, for instance the transition of day into night is observed from a geocentric perspective but if we expand our consciousness to a solar or heliocentric point of view, the sun is still there, whether it’s morning or night, and it’s just our perspective that changes. I try to shift our perspective, transcending dualities.

PS: And that is from where the title of the performance comes?

BB: Yes, that’s right.

PS: Were you satisfied with the result of it?

BB: I was happy with result, yes.

PS: Is satisfaction important for you or is it that you don’t care about the final impression and your goal is the exploration of your own material?

BB: Being satisfied is a very subjective experience. My motivation is to present this ritual in an authentic way: authentic to how I feel in my sensibilities, hoping that it would communicate with the audience, without altering it or compromising in a way that I think would please them. And it was an experiment.

PS: Do you usually review the tapes that you might have recorded during the performance?

BB: That is important, but I feel like I have a good awareness of it, having a strong background in film and how a performance has an impact on camera or to an audience. I don’t have to review the tapes; I have a good idea, coming from the rehearsals too.

PS: Considering you control what you want to achieve, it seems you have a clear perception of your impact on the audience. You work more through perception than through analysis…

BB: Right, I have a clear feeling and a vision that corresponds with that feeling. The challenge is to technically realize that feeling and that vision.

PS: Is it because your main background is experimental cinema?

BB Yes, I come from the experimental film scene through my work with Kenneth Anger. I mainly studied with Kenneth, and before I produced documentary films through a company in New York, so I learned mainly through a process of creating.

PS: How long have you worked with Kenneth Anger?

BB: Over ten years. Well, I have known his work a lot longer and before I discovered his work, I had interest in mysticism, the occult, music and a lot of the elements he was dealing with in his art. When I discovered his work, it was first time that I saw an artist combining all these elements…

PS: Does he give you a feedback on the quality of your work? When you work together, do you exchange opinions?

BB He’s not really the type to analyze things; he doesn’t really operate in that way. When you’re in the process, you know if you are getting what you want.

PS: One thing that was really striking in Union of Opposites, was the stage presence of Annakim Violette…

BB: We made a film before, it was last year in October. She is like me, she is very intuitive and this work is not based on a verbal communication… It transcends what can be communicated verbally which is why I chose Annakim. Her presence expressed elements of the ritual in a very visual way.

PS: You were like animals on stage…

BB: We were able to tune into the same energy and it came just naturally, since we have a similar overall vision. I felt that Annakim was very much in tune with that.

PS: I had the feeling that she knew exactly what to do, but at the same time everything was spontaneous and improvised, in the proper sense of the term. Was your performance very structured? For example, the relationship between the two of you, was it something you had structured before or was there a lot of space to improvise?

BB: There was a lot of space to improvise, but again, I had prepared certain fixed geometrical patterns and figures, which incorporated the idea of inversion, like counter clockwise motion and reversed pentagrams. That was the motivation behind our movements, and she was expressing visually and physically the energies that we were working with.

PS: Sound was also very important in the performance…

BB: Yes, I utilized very low frequencies played through 1000 watt subwoofers which were positioned in a way that the audience would experience a physical sensation from the frequencies, more than they would hear them.

PS: And where do your gestures come?

BB: The origins are from what you would call Western magick or Western mysticism, which has its roots in the Kabala, which has a lot to do with mathematics and geometry. Aleister Crowley made a lot of futuristic advancements on those concepts, he was the one that started to introduce the ideas about inversion, turning things upside down and shifting the point of view.

PS: Do we need to have an understanding of the occult and ritual magic to appreciate your work?

BB: I don’t think so, I think it’s more a feeling of it, since those things tend to be so complex…

PS: Let’s go back to another work you made in the recent past, “Night of Pan”, which features Vincent Gallo, Kenneth Anger, and has screened all over the world including the Cannes Film Festival…

BB: This work is a depiction of a personal experience I had as a result of my spiritual practices. I cast my friends to portray certain archetypes and built the sets mostly from objects in my home. It’s a metaphor for the transcendence of reason which initially can be perceived as a form of insanity – when you reach a point where logic no longer serves you.

PS: For the whole video, you used the Adagio in G Minor by Tommaso Albinoni as soundtrack…

BB: Yes, I did a shorter version of 42 seconds, for a program called “OneDreamRush” which was commissioned by the Beijing Film Studio and 42 Below Vodka; 42 directors were invited to each make 42 second films. It was quite a challenge, but that’s how I got it funded and for that film I created the music; it was very fast paced, very condensed.

PS: But let’s talk about the seven minute version…

BB: I did experiment with making a score, but I felt that it distracted from the pictures, since the music was changing too much or was too dominating, or even too dynamic. The visuals were very rich so that the Adagio by Albinoni fit into the structure, as well into the pace of the film.

PS: I asked you about that since this is not the kind of music I would associate immediately to your work, but it fits perfectly, and it suggests an interesting contrast… How did you work with Vincent Gallo?

BB: I didn’t really need to give him too much direction, I just explain the situation and then he comes up with a great idea. It was improvised, it was a live performance on his part, it wasn’t like we were shooting takes over and over. He had an idea of the character and went into that state, and that’s what we captured.

PS: Your work is based on live performances, music, sound. But you also display artwork in galleries

BB: I create installations which combine video, sound and sculpture. For me, sculptures or objects are another way of altering space, using geometry, color, and symbols.

PS: Rituals…

BB: That’s very ritualistic.

PS: Why are you so fascinated by rituals?

BB: Everything is more or less a ritual and it’s a way of accessing other states of consciousness, other worlds, it’s a way of interacting with things that are intangible, for me.

PS:Let’s talk about the future, and the evolution of your oeuvre. I can envision you working in opera and theater. I think that your universe coupled with Richard Wagner, or The Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach, for instance, would be interesting…

BB: Yes, I feel I could express myself in those realms of theater, film and more elaborate sculptures and performances. I am very much into Richard Wagner. I’ve studied The Ring of the Nibelung and I think it’s one of the greatest works of art of the 20th century. The story is just very universal and strong, and I have seen the production a few times. The whole work is so strong, on so many levels. It has also a very clear spiritual dimension, but it’s also very dramatic…

PS: And Wagner’s oeuvre it’s very ritualistic!

BB: Yes, in Parsifal for instance, the knights of the grail and all these elements are very, very ritualistic. So that could be a source of inspiration for me in the future.

by Patrick Steffen