A text by writer and curator Lars Bang Larsen To Be Spoken Like A Thing Possessed On Richard Grayson’s Possessions_inc. explores and expands ideas and themes that animate the work. This is the first of two essays commissioned for the project. The second by Erik Davis will be published later in the year.
Possessions_inc. touches on ideas of value, the agency of objects, robotics, techno animism, ecstatic states, ventriloquism, the operations of the internet, money, codes, the art-market, secret knowledge and mytho-mania. It is part t.v. series, part blog and part extended essay.
Whispers of the Demon
About Richard Grayson’s Possessions_inc.
Here is a recent tale that might have come from the imp of the posthuman perverse: In February 2019, Kim Kardashian posted an urgent warning about the ‘Momo Challenge’ on her Instagram feed. The story she passed on, and whose viral explosion she helped ensure, alerted parents that nefarious parties were using social media and YouTube Kid videos to coax children into self-harm, even suicide. While the rumour followed the loose script of earlier ALL CAPS panics over Tide Pods or the Blue Whale Challenge, the Momo meme was also wedded to an amygdala-hijacking image: a monstrous bird-lady, whose bug eyes and rictus Joker grin no doubt fanned the anxieties that spread the mind virus.
This image was not a digital concoction but a photograph of an actual piece of art. In 2016, Keisuke Aiso debuted his Mother Bird at Tokyo’s Vanilla Gallery, an outré, decidedly non-vanilla salon specializing in the steamy grotesqueries the Japanese call ‘ero-guru’. Aiso’s sculpture was an example of a class of yokai (supernatural creatures) known as ubume—the ghosts of women who have died in childbirth. Neither Aiso nor the Gallery had anything to do with the fabrication of the Momo myth, and we can’t know whether the engineers of the Momo meme knew the origins of the figure were found within a folklore of filiation and death. All we can say is that Momo emerged from the anonymous online collectives that produce creepypasta, the family of fabricated horror memes and hoaxes that included the notorious Slender Man. Momo became a moral panic because she was designed that way—as an uncanny exploit, an infectious vector of the weaponized weird.
By the end of February, however, a more sober counter-narrative had emerged from the tech sector and the mainstream news media: Momo was a hoax, there was no evidence any kids had killed themselves because of the Challenge, and parents were actually causing harm by freaking their kids out with hysterical stories of bird demons that could reach their claws through the screen. The hoax-busters offered a sort of rationalist relief: Momo is nothing more than a wildly successful prank whose only danger is the gullibility of the credulous. But are things really so simple? As the Slender Man-inspired stabbings by two Wisconsin twelve-year-olds in 2014 should remind us, parents are not totally foolish to fear the wickedness of Internet memes. Moreover, if Peppa Pig videos did not actually contain Momo prompts, as some British parents reported, the Kid videos that YouTube’s algorithms recommend alongside Peppa Pig do occasionally turn up similar-seeming fare that then erupts into blood sports and creepy sexualized images.
Though it cannily tracks hoaxes and online rumours and uncanny posthuman objects, Richard Grayson’s Possessions_inc. does not offer much in the way of relief. Instead, it is a work of devilish ambiguity. Released on an art gallery website, but full of journalism and esoterica, assembled by an artist who is also a curator, the piece features an animated demon named Asmodeus who lip-syncs histories, dialogues, fictions, and samples of mainstream media. But while this collection of signs and symptoms feels like social criticism, it never gets down to the brass tacks of argument. So is this a video essay or a punk subversion of one? A commentary on art or an art made of commentary? I am not sure, but whatever it is, Possessions_inc. is the kind of WTF?-meta-thing required to limn the liminal objects and possibilities that are its concerns: conspiratorial meta-fictions, capitalist sorceries, art pranks, haunted dolls, animist robotics.
Which is not to say that the work’s ambiguities and refusal of straight analysis simply leaves us suspended in an easy ironic distance from pop mythologies and other people’s delusions. Instead, Possessions_inc. drives us forcefully to confront the spectral (and highly capitalized) business at hand: the actual mutations in social existence that compelled the work in the first place.
Like the plurality of voices in a séance, the audio in Grayson’s work takes the form of an extended sonic collage of original and sampled material whose distorted filters, refrains, and sometimes abrupt jump-cuts refuse the soothing flow familiar from podcasts, while providing an equivalent dose of information and commentary. This is audio thought as juxtaposition: not the elaboration of theory or its middle-brow twin, opinion, but nor is it the jarring Dada bites of Burroughs and Gysin’s cut-ups. Instead, it is something in-between: an assemblage of stories, conversations, and reported facts, whose clashing sparks provide all the light we get to find our way through the mess this magickal montage invokes—which is nothing less than the mess we’re in.
Each episode of Possessions_inc. presents a rabbit hole or three, boring into a particular conundrum—Rembrandt forgeries, hacked sex toys, the great Dr. Who episode ‘Blink’—until the patter splits and branches and we find ourselves in a larger and increasingly familiar maze. This maze is familiar not just because each episode returns us to it, from a different angle, but because the maze is also the uncanny ontological infrastructure of our lives—or at least of the consensus reality whose fractures now derange those lives. Within this maze, familiar distinctions still suggest a choice of direction or point of view: fiction or history, art or accounting, machines or minds, money or shit. But whichever fork we choose, the paths keep converging on the same dizzying place, as the distinctions turn out to be two sides of a single Möbius strip. Despite the wide variety of Possession_inc.’s sources, the work gives way to the realization that, in the words of Colossal Cave, the first computer adventure game, its ‘twisty little passages’ are ‘all alike’. The garden of forking paths is really a one-way labyrinth, a plunge into a single conundrum that is swallowing us up.
At least the monster at the heart of the labyrinth is there before our eyes: Asmodeus, the carved devil who sat—until being chopped down by a fanatic—at the threshold of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in the notoriously enigmatic French town of Rennes-le-Château. Asmodeus is at once the guide and the ventriloquist dummy who mouths the various mysteries of Possessions_inc., and particularly the codes and claptrap that have grown up around the secrets supposed encoded in the small strange church, where the nineteenth-century priest François-Bérenger Saunière, who special-ordered Asmodeus through a religious catalogue, was said to have discovered a very special treasure.
As Asmodeus informs us, that documents forged half a century ago by a reactionary mystificator (Pierre Plantard) and a fringe surrealist (Philippe de Chérisey), and then tucked into the Bibliothèque Nationale, reproduced this nugget of lore and launched a phantasmagoric hoax that still holds sway. Over the decades, as the charismatic conundrum grew, heterogeneous materials—ancestral bloodlines, secret societies, UFO landing pads, crappy potboilers—became glued together in patterns that both point to and refuse a central secret whose very absence motivates the continual churn of fresh material. Over time, a variety of second-rate actors, New-Age geomancers, and feverish bestselling hermeneuts minted a counter-history that, though built like a Lovecraftian collective fiction, gained enough density and attention to become a kind of parallel world—a hybrid of art forgery, invented tradition, and postmodern prank.
As any number of parallel mutations included in Possessions_inc. suggest, this blurring of fiction and reality is an increasingly familiar leitmotif of contemporary reality. More to the point, it is becoming the very form that power takes in an attention economy defined by the technological management of belief, desire, and fantasy through media misdirection, simulacral politics, and the algorithmic exploits of human nervous tissue by nascent artificial intelligence. As the recommended links on YouTube remind us, paranoia and insincere secrets sell. Conspiracy thinking has not only become a major part of the cultural and political landscape—even an instrument of statecraft—but now stands as the necessary allegory for the feeling and fact that our lives as digitally-embedded humans are, to an unknowable degree, possessed.
But possessed by what exactly? Capital, neural programming, fictions, demons, memes, dogmas, AIs, systems of social subjectification? Grayson evokes the many objects and forces that interpolate the subject today without claiming to have discovered, like the Rennes mysterians, the key. In fact, while critical analysis, historical study, and knowledge of contemporary developments in social science and technology help clear some of the fog—Possessions_inc. is in no ways wilfully perverse—this sort of research in some ways just makes everything worse. Anyone paying attention to developments in behavioural sciences, psy-ops, predictive profiling, data tracking, and surveillance capitalism cannot help but experience the shudders of agency panic, Timothy Melley’s sharp diagnosis of an affect that both inspires so much conspiracy-theorizing, and explains the defensive absolutism of so many of its practitioners.
At times, I suspect, we all fear that we—or, more often than not, other people (who are in the end not so dissimilar from us)—have been infected by external controls and engineered scripts. Now we all talk in talking points. To make matters more confusing, our possessions too are becoming possessed. As the sometimes-paranoid Philip K. Dick pointed out, even as humans become subtly more thing-like, more seemingly programmed and prodded by external triggers, the objects around us are growing more spunky.
Here Asmodeus offers another clue, simply by gesturing to his own animated appearance (especially that mysterious right knee). Today various forces are coming together to enliven the objects in our lives, as contemporary developments in robotics and artificial intelligence dovetail with our primate imaginations and the uncanny valleys of haunted folklore to stir up a new weird animism. We return, with a posthuman twist, to the ancestral perception of an environment stuffed with non-human agents and sacred tricksters. But now those ancient alliances with beast and raincloud are crowded out by data-slurping sex bots and smart surveillance drones and the combative toasters and coffee machines of Dick’s predictive fictions. As an art(-damaged) thinker, Grayson also reminds that these uncanny transformations are directly linked to the forgeries, warehoused cast-offs, and insane overvaluations of the art market, where the force that animates the brilliant and beautiful objects of human craft is nothing less than capital itself.
Again, for all its insights and sharp ironies, Possessions_inc. is not itself a piece of criticism or social analysis. Instead, without shedding its realism or commitment to material history, Possessions_inc. body-snatches the more infectious form of the conspiracies and webs of occult correspondences it traces: a nonlinear network of resonating concepts, images, words, and similitudes that point to a dark totality that remains obscured, behind the veil, just over the horizon. As viewers, we are set loose like wanderers in this thorny forest of symbols, our recourse to scepticism and knowledge and analysis at once affirmed and submitted to the phantasmagoric undertow, this slipstream of apocalyptic foreshocks and daemonic dread.
Indeed, the most poignant moment in the series is an invented dialogue in which Philippe de Chérisey admits to his melancholy after planting his hoax time-bombs in the library. Though he believes his concocted counter-histories will come to ‘erode the real’, his exultation in this surrealist intervention is tempered by sadness and resignation. ‘We are fucked,’ he concedes. ‘By setting a trail and a tale that will allow our fictions to shape and to determine the real, we are inevitably going to set things in motion that, though marvellous, will undermine some of the things that I still hold dear.’ De Chérisey is learning the same lesson that is making so many queasy today, from postmodern relativists to anarchist pranksters, from media technologists to—who knows?—maybe even alt.right fake newscasters. A grimoire protocol from Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward says it best: ‘doe not call up Any that you cannot put downe’.
Lars Bang Larsen
To Be Spoken Like A Thing Possessed
On Richard Grayson’s Possessions_inc.
Smuggling the most up-to-the-minute contraband in antiquated charabancs – that’s what I like doing.
— Witold Gombrowicz about his novel Possessed, serialised in 1939 under
pseudonym and claimed by the author shortly before his death.
In his 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly Philip K. Dick has his protagonist state that going crazy is ‘a lost art’.[i] It is hard to overlook that this insight was offered by an exquisite speed freak – Dick, not his narrator – who cultivated paranoia with his every unhinged fibre, and, on top of that, later loses his head in Richard Grayson’s Possessions_inc. Needless to say, Dick was on to something. That he foresaw madness disappear from the horizon of aesthetic achievement already in the 70s, must be down to an extraordinary cultural sensibility that enabled him to pick up murmurs of distant future events. If you thought madness was likely to never go out of style – a symbolic default position of civilised woman and man – Dick suggests another scenario.
What we may not immediately realise is how the consequences of the loss of madness are quite dizzying, certainly in the field of art. Madness can be aptly characterised as ‘a lost art’ because it in a foundational way has shadowed the development of the art concept, as an influential supplement to the official tenets of aesthetic philosophy. It has in this way been one of art’s dialectical tropes of otherness to cultural reason, incarnated the radical subjectivity of the mad genius, and mediated artistic insights. It was one of the things that culture was not (supposed to be) – and that therefore art (and counterculture) could be, or of which it was supposed to possess an element. However it is not the only trope that contemporary art has lost. Other powerful tropes that have waned, turning altmodisch and grey, include the former harbingers of a historically redeemed human co-existence, play and childhood. This you could put down to a symptom of the brutality of our times, yet to have madness disappear without any fanfare is puzzling, considering that it – to the point of mainstream cliché – was such a motor of 19th- and 20th-century art. (I am guessing it went quietly at some point in the 1980s, seeing that the 90s were the decade that gave modernism Prozac and forgot it was part of the 20th century.)
Hermann Hesse reassured the readers of his bestselling Steppenwolf (1927) – ‘madmen only’ – that the fee to be paid for entering his magic theatre wasn’t about literally losing it, but opening your mind so that the theatre can exist within it.[ii] As Jamie Cohen-Cole has shown, the intellectual and political history of the notion of ‘keeping an open mind’ interwove Cold War era educational policies, cognitive science, and later, the struggle for political legitimacy between the neoconservatives, feminists and the New Left in the US in the 1970s.[iii] That the two latter camps succeeded in redefining openness as a characteristic of left-wing politics is unsurprising seen in the light of how artistic avant gardes earlier in the 20th century détourned and deliberately wrecked a Cartesian reason into a revolutionary, eroticised ‘Soy loco’ – as Salvador Dalí might have said – ‘therefore I am.’ If keeping an open mind marked progressivity, why make do with a little mental ventilation if you can blow it completely and play the cuckoo card in the face of bourgeois self-control, as a life-affirming affront to the distinction between fiction and truth?
If it is true that ‘no one is afraid of going crazy anymore,’ as my veteran artist friend noted about his colleagues (now all very nice, their occupational hazards veering instead towards overwork and depression at most, which is hardly very colourful) left-wing politics shows a similar reserve with regard to keeping an open mind.[iv] There is a pattern, you may say paranoically, a pattern that is part of a larger, cognitive map that Grayson draws up in Possessions_inc.
Based in conspiracy theory – the poor man’s cognitive mapping – replete with a web of mystery and hypotheses concerning hidden treasures, secret societies, occluded bloodlines, mystic geographies and geometries, the serial connects to many tropes associated with the unreasonable in its more delirious, ornate, and undeniably contemporary forms. Grayson shows how the disappearance of madness is neither a blessing nor a step towards a more enlightened humanity, but, counterintuitively, another diminishment of human agency. However, when humans abdicate the centre stage of civilisation, agency doesn’t just goes away. Like the Swiss watchmaker’s slogan goes, you only look after it for the next generation. ‘Our’ agency once came from God, remember? If it now seeps out from the human subject, history’s long-reigning potentate, like some enchanted fluid that is a medium for the great chain of modern history, it is certain to reappear somewhere soon and close by. Ever since the bourgeoisie cursed history by connecting capitalism and revolution, agency returns with a vengeance, like some accelerated spectre that only goes out to haunt at night in fresh bedlinen in the cut of the season.
The demon king Asmodeus leads and narrates Grayson’s serial, the guardian of the treasure of the Temple of Solomon. In the aspect of a scantily digi-animated sculpture from a small church at Rennes Le Chateau where for a century, it has supported a Holy Water Stoup and met entering visitors with a plastery aspect of very active misanthropy in a welcome-to-Bedlam sort of way. Commissioned by the Free Priest Abbé Saunière from a prestigious factory that provided religious statuary in Toulouse, this particular Asmodeus was part of the renovations of the church and its surrounding lands that started the rumour that Saunière had discovered a hidden treasure of Spanish origin at the start of the last century. This rumour became the starting point of the complex series of fictions and fakes initiated by right wing fabulist Pierre Plantard and small-time-actor-with- vanguard-aspirations Philipe De Chérisey in the 50s and 60s, which has led hundreds of people to further speculate, ‘research’ and ‘reveal’ the Secret Society of the Priory of Sion and hidden currents of history. This is supported through the ‘revelation’ of hidden meaning in the smallest architectural and geographical events: everything becomes a clue… part of a network of association, influence and meaning, with so many occult dots to be connected by the open-minded… including this devilish statue that has been identified as Asmodeus by one of the seekers of truth. These fictions have flowed in the real and brought an entire world into being, including 21st century airport-lit and Hollywood epics; one of hidden ‘truths’, which is why the description of the unfolding events of this history of fakes and beliefs that constitutes the Mystery of Rennes Le Chateau is the central narrative arc of Grayson’s project.
Intractable perverter of social relations, beholden only to his own laws, the devil is the perfect thing, a radical object. As an abstract surface of shape-shifting or metaphoric possibility, Grayson’s Asmodeus is the host of a highly dynamic range of narratives and properties, and, as always, animation draws the viewer’s attention to the vitality of objects while pseudo-recognitions enter the fray: ‘Some of the discoverers of treasures have faked the treasures’, as Grayson puts it in his liner notes. Vacuous effects, created and pimped by the disingenuous meddling of (highly agential) middlemen who infect discovery and dilute origins, subjecting us all to the thraldom of things and reified forces…
As with so many serials before it, the theatre of operations he has chosen for Possessions_inc. is that of a counter-Enlightenment with fascinating toys in the attic. Setting the stage between the psychoanalytical trope of the uncanny and a view of history as mystery, events are couched in a hesitant secularisation in which a web of over-determined narratives echo. Associated with a sensationalised otherness of Victorian-era pulp culture, serials were more than this, seeing that not only Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle published serially, but also writers of the canon such as Dickens, Flaubert, Dostojevskij. Its duration and emphatic relation to repetition links it to the TV series, the blog, and the podcast, as does its per tradition ambiguous relation that it establishes between domesticity and otherness. If serials were often consumed in a space that was affirmed as domestic in more than one sense – the Westerner’s hearth, where she would read the weekly installment in the paper or, later, hear an episode of her radio play – it could also be a format that allowed for alterity to seep in.
The two radio plays that Öyvind Fahlström created for the Swedish national broadcast, Birds in Sweden (1963) and The Holy Torsten Nilsson (1966), were created in a comparable spirit of madcap genre hybridity as Possessions_inc. Where Birds is a concrete poem narrated entirely in Fahlström’s home-grown monster-language ‘Birdo’, Torsten Nilsson wildly montages named celebrities, royals and politicians into a psychedelic style political thriller. With all the apocalyptic promise you want to read into this, Fahlström dubbed his radio plays ‘blind movies’, intending them to be consumed at night with the lights out. Such imaginary transport on the basis of limited visual information seems apt in relation to Possessions_inc.
‘To study nineteenth-century women’s serials,’ writes Dale M. Bauer, ‘you have to love repetition.’ The formulaic character of serial B-literature aside, the love of repetition importantly allowed authors to reflect on ways of ‘moving beyond an intolerable status quo,’ for instance in relation to ‘the fear of tragic repetition in women’s lives.’[v] In this light, the serial’s sense of social critique can be seen to reside in its heaping event upon event; the delays it continually produces in bringing the plot to a conclusion become zones of indetermination by which it produces new, non-intrinsic relations. As agency sneaks off, meaning appears in the cuts.
Marx’s forbidden rhetorical fruit, his fascination of the spectral, can help accentuate how the other side of agential objects is objectified agency. Marx would definitely concur that proprietary relations, and our possessions themselves, are possessed. The psychokinetics of the fetish… In Asmodeus’s flow of speech this extends to how we are ‘spoken by the speech of capital’, as Jeff Kinkle and Roberto Toscano put it, to address capital as a sentient being that puts us under its spell. This describes a shift from the customary patterns of commodity fetishism to what they call ‘capitalist shamanism – a ventriloquism of impersonal structures that registers an ambient experience of powerlessness before the abstraction, complexity, and global scope of an economic spirit…’[vi] Think the runaway mouth in Beckett’s Not I (1972), all yapping matter and linguistic organicity, but now spouting neoliberal blarney. Capitalism as a blind movie, spoken by each of us.
The rolling, proliferating episodes of Possessions_inc. may be seen as an attempt at so many descriptions of how totems rule the marketplace. Considering how things unfold, without sobriety and through the mouth of a devil, reference to such narrative matter-of-factness sounds absurd unless you dismiss a common-sensical understanding of description, in favour of seeing it as a way of exhausting and spending an object that has been revealed to you.[vii] In this literary economy you grind an object down in a kind of narrative potlatch that finds pleasure in calling up everything and their connections, in order to faithfully reduce normative reality to its hallucinatory constants.
If you in the 20th century were supposed to keep an open mind, the contemporary subject which is predestined for the network is expected to make the right connections. Once subjectivity was based in the dialectic between self and world that resulted from autonomy (for better or worse, another one of those near-extinct, modern terms). In the 19th and 20th centuries, political subjectivation came about through the acquisition of rights to become acknowledged as citizen or collective, say. But we no longer become somebody by choosing ourselves, as in existentialism, or through direct action, as in Marxism, or by balancing the ego and the unconscious, as in psychoanalysis. We don’t even become somebody in the head-to-head of madness and norm. For better or worse, but perhaps more vulnerably, we today become somebody by feeling out attractions and tensions, ceaselessly connecting and reconnecting in sentient posthuman milieus, navigating flows and synching in with rhythms and intensities. From a dialectical understanding of history as so many struggles between incompatible forces, we have moved collectively to a cybernetic understanding in which history itself is domesticated, playing out inside networks according to systemic parameters. Put cybernetically, the self is an environment within systems of communication. Accordingly, in the world of K.W. Jeter’s science fiction novel Noir (1998) the word ’connect’ is an obscenity: people say things like ‘connect you, you mother-connector’ or ‘connect that’ or ‘get the connect outta here’. In short, if you are connected, you are fucked.[viii] No wonder we are prone to being spoken.
Norbert Wiener, one of the fathers of cybernetics, realised towards the end of his distinguished career that a world ruled by feedback mechanisms would be a world gone literally loopy. In his God & Golem, Inc. A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (1964) – a title that in more than one way resonates with Grayson’s serial and its star demon – Weiner quotes another instance of nonhuman, ominously plasmatic instability, the Golem. In Jewish folklore this is an animated anthropomorphic figure created from inanimate matter which can be seen as an archetype for the figure of the rebellious slave automaton who has been created in a human image and (therefore?) inevitably casts off its yoke of inhuman travail obligatoire.
A world cohabitated by humans and machines is one that Wiener unhesitatingly compares to the fiction of Lewis Carroll (in whose main work, of course, the figures are ‘all mad’, if we are to believe the Cheshire Cat).[ix] Such radical ‘toying’, as Wiener put it, with ideas concerning the reproducibility of life and other questions, are key to his ethical discussion of the use and misuse of modern automatisation.[x] Wiener resorts to the unholy mix of cybernetics and religion from the conviction that thanks to our capability to build intelligent machines and self-generative systems we – ‘we’, because the human species can seemingly only get together when it comes up against that which is radically non-identical to us – will some day soon be able to create artificial life. What will humankind decide to do with these great powers? How will it comprehend its miraculous mastery over human-made nature?
Asmodeus, the best thing we could have with us, may hiss out of the corner of his mouth that it is a mastery of which we shouldn’t be too assured.
[i] Philip K. Dick: A Scanner Darkly. Gollancz, London, 1999 (1977), 42.
[ii] Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf. Picador, London, 2002 (1927), 32.
[iii] Jamie Cohen-Cole: The Open Mind. Cold War Politics and the Sciences of the Human Mind. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
[iv] Thank you to Søren Andreasen for this remark. My translation.
[v] Dale M. Bauer: ’Serial Women Writers and Racial Intimacy,’ in: Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Litearure, Culture, and Theory, vol. 72, no. 1, Spring 2016, pp. 1-24. Accessed January 11 2018 on https://muse.jhu.edu/article/612464/pdf
[vi] Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle: Cartographies of the Absolute. Zero Books, Alresford, 2015, 46.
[vii] This would be Georges Perec’s way, see for instance his An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, 1974.
[viii] KW Jeter: Noir. Bantam Books, New York 1998. I am also quoting from Steven Shaviro: Connected. Or what it means to live in the network society (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2003).
[ix] Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), in: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Other Stories. Barnes and Noble, New York 1994, 65.
[x] Norbert Wiener, God & Golem, Inc. A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1966 (1964), 36.