Interview with ‘False Monarchy’ Curator Raino Isto

This is the first installment of the False Monarchy interview series. False Monarchy features work by Kyle Kogut and is curated by Raino Isto. 

Raino Isto ||Curator/Stamp Gallery Coordinator|| Exhibiting in False Monarchy from January 24, 2018 to March 17, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery || University of Maryland, College Park || Interview by Sarah Schurman 

Before we delve into the curatorial process, let’s get to know you first. What is your artistic/personal background and how did it draw you to Kyle Kogut’s work?

I grew up around art–my father is a ceramics and sculpture instructor. My parents built a large studio on their property in Oregon, and my father has constructed several kilns over the years. I think growing up around artists working in all kinds of different media was what eventually led me to be interested in curating contemporary art because it can involve pretty direct collaborations with artists.

I was drawn to Kyle’s work because it resonated with me both culturally and ideologically. I grew up in the rural Pacific Northwest, in an area that is predominantly politically conservative, predominantly working-class or lower middle-class, predominantly religious, and predominantly white. One of the things that I saw in Kyle’s work was an attempt to understand the kinds of dreams that the American political system has helped construct for its working class, the ways we perpetuate those dreams, and the ways they function as slowly self-destructive urges that impede solidarity, self-consciousness, spiritual fulfilment, and so on. Car production and car ownership are the kinds of intertwined and overarching myths that both feed and destroy American communities, and yet precisely these kinds of myths are still at the heart of the current political system and its ideology. I guess the short way of putting that is that Kyle’s work seemed to be working with a set of myths, symbols, and belief systems that seemed very familiar to me because of where I grew up (even though it was on the opposite side of the U.S.).

At the same time, I think that Kyle’s reactions to those myths and the kinds of cultural systems he uses to draw attention to them and deconstruct them are all forms of culture I’ve also had an abiding interest in: metal music, theories of horror as an existential philosophy, the demonic, metal and drone music, the occult, and so on. So that also drew me to Kyle’s work.

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I understand this is your fourth semester here as gallery coordinator. How did your prior on-campus curatorial experiences inform or diverge from the process of bringing False Monarchy to life?

I think that False Monarchy has been different than the previous curatorial experiences I’ve had–it’s been much more direct. At this time last year, I curated Collective Monument, which included both DC-based and international artists, and with the exception of Nara Park (who was local), it was much more of what I think people traditionally have in mind when they think of curating: corresponding with artists remotely, coordinating the delivery of particular works, and installing them without necessarily having the artist present and directly involved. Likewise, Unto Itself, which Cecilia Wichmann and I curated in the Herman Maril Gallery, was essentially conceived and installed with remote input from the artist, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, although she gave us a very detailed layout for installing her work. False Monarchy has been my first experience getting to see an artist produce new work specifically for our space, and it’s been very rewarding in that sense–Kyle really took seriously the possibility of having this show be an entire environment that has its own unified theme, rather than just showing a collection of work he’s recently made. False Monarchy has also been rewarding because it’s allowed me to be pretty hands-off in my approach. A lot of my ‘curating’ (with the exception of writing the catalog essay) has been simply to suggest possibilities: this might work better than that, it would be interesting to do this, why don’t we try that, etc. I think that has allowed Kyle the freedom to really say what he wants to say with the work, but also retain an element of collaboration.

In False Monarchy, the past and present blur and notions of politics, class, and consumerism intersect with mystical and religious symbol systems. How does the convergence of the contemporary and concrete with the historical and metaphysical reflect your and Kyle’s intentions for the show?

In writing the catalog essay for False Monarchy, I was reminded of this kind of paradoxical viewpoint from early modern culture, although part of the point is that this way or thinking is only paradoxical to us. The notion was that, on  the one hand, certain practices and behaviors associated with witchcraft in the early modern period were seen by some thinkers from that time as explainable by science, using materialist, empirical methods and discourses. These thinkers believed that witchcraft wasn’t primarily (or even at all) the result of mystical powers, but something that could be explained by sciences like medicine. At the same time, however, they did still believe in the influence of the devil and demons in everyday and spiritual life. I think that many people would tend to see this as contradictory–how could you not just deconstruct the entire idea of demonic influence as something that could be explained by science? For me, part of the goal of False Monarchy is to allow these different modes of believing, these different kinds of knowledge, to credibly and explicitly coexist again. In reality, of course, in our everyday lives, these kinds of seemingly contradictory beliefs–or beliefs that seem like they would be in contradiction to our habits and embodied practices–coexist all the time. False Monarchy presents the possibility that a concrete, materialist kind of social-historical viewpoint doesn’t necessarily have to exclude a mystical, metaphysical, spiritual mode of understanding. You can undertake parallel critical projects that are aimed at deconstructing dogmas in both spheres, and those projects can intertwine without one ‘way’ of believing superseding the other.

While there is a searing social commentary that underpins False Monarchy, many viewers may have a visceral–even inflammatory–response to the pandemonium of sacred and profane imagery evoked by this exhibit. How does including an exhibition of this nature in the Stamp (the face of the university) confront perceptions of social propriety, public space, private life, and secrecy?

I think that my hope for the exhibition is that people feel like they are being welcomed into a kind of space where they feel like normally they would be judged for enjoying or engaging with, but that here they will feel empowered to indulge in enjoying and exploring aspects of themselves that they wouldn’t normally, at least not in an art gallery on a college campus. At the same time, I hope they’ll become more critical, question their own absorption in certain indulgences, wonder what actually drives their behavior and their morality. That kind of self-investigation is certainly in the spirit of the Satanic references in the exhibition and in Kyle’s work, I think. I also believe that an important aspect of Kyle’s work, and False Monarchy in particular, relates to what cultural theorists call ‘overidentification’–the process of immersing yourself in ideologies, and mimicking them, as a way of acknowledging how totally they shape our lives. It’s a way of avoiding ironic distance (although it can still be very humorous). I think that this relates closely to the sort of ambiance of cult practices: you can’t analyze these kinds of practices effectively from ‘outside’, because then you never really understand what you are analyzing, and you imagine it doesn’t matter to you. You have to really give yourself over to systems of power and influence in order to make them explicit, and then you can change them, reject them, build on them, topple them.

I believe in the importance of contemporary art’s potentially confrontational role, and I think this exhibition productively uses that confrontational aspect. Certainly not all art needs to be that way, and in the Stamp Gallery certainly not every exhibition should be that way. However, I think this exhibition looks and feels different enough from what people expect when they imagine contemporary art that even if they have no opinion about the symbolism or cultural references it makes, they still feel challenged. I think that challenge is important–it makes people have a stake in the art, and take a stance on it, even if the stance is ultimately to reject it. It makes viewers have to clarify their morals, and own up to what they do or don’t participate in at a collective social level. Ultimately, we all partake in processes of consumption, in creating myths like the auto industry’s myth, or Christianity, and we all have to own up to the role we play in the violence those systems perpetuate on others and on ourselves. That’s part of what the exhibition does in a way that’s more public than people typically expect, but I think it also offers this very public space for people to feel unashamed and welcome in being, to put it simply, engaged in a kind of blasphemy. Not any single kind–I think there could be many kinds, and I think the spirit of the exhibition is true to that. There are many lies to be dethroned, to follow LaVey’s quote that serves as the wall text.

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What inspired you to include a pop up library and select its featured books? How does presenting historically censored and banned texts subvert traditional American ideals and institutions?

At some point a month or so before the show opened, I mentioned the possibility of a pop-up library to Kyle, since we’ve done it in the past with the help of the Art Library, and it seemed like a good way to introduce the various layers of meaning and references to visitors. Kyle liked the idea and sent me a really exhaustive list of books (we’re still waiting for several to come in from interlibrary loan, since our library doesn’t own them). I think the presence of the books in the space also emphasizes the relationship of the exhibition to ‘knowledge’ in the sense of esoteric knowledge–the idea of entering into secret truths by means of both rituals and the study of particular texts. I think it’s important to note that the texts in the library, even the occult ones, aren’t books that were explicitly banned in America in any widespread way, in some cases because they postdate the times when book banning was in vogue in the education system, and in other cases because they are simply less ‘popular’. (I think the Harry Potter books have more likelihood of being banned than LaVey, ironically enough, simply because they achieved so much . However, the idea of ‘Satanic Bible’ reading groups in elementary schools is something that has raised a significant amount of controversy recently in the debates over religion in schools.

What component of False Monarchy resonates the most with you personally? What do the symbols of occultism, counterculture, metal music, and automobiles conjure based on your past? How do your schemas differ from or relate to Kyle’s?

I think that personally the incorporation of metal music as a sort of broad aesthetic resonates most with me personally. For me, the symbolism of the auto industry is recognizable and relatable, but it isn’t quite as personal, since I didn’t grow up with it the way Kyle did; I think the same is true for the religious aspects. But I’m very much of the ‘metal is a way of life’ persuasion, and so I see in Kyle’s use of metal music as an aesthetic form not just a set of themes but also a real existential stance. Metal is meant to have a kind of transformative experience on one’s whole body, and it’s also meant to produce a certain spiritual position, I think. Like blues, which is probably the biggest influence on metal’s development as a genre, metal is a music that involves giving your soul to a certain set of dark forces. The history of rock ‘n’ roll and metal owes a great deal to the influence of the occult, and in some ways occult ideas gave metal a great deal of its purpose. That’s more than a historical accident, I think–it’s part of what makes metal more than just a genre of music. And although metal has historically been ‘available’ as cultural capital primarily to certain (male, caucasian) audiences, I think that is changing; metal is becoming more inclusive precisely as its becoming more that just a genre of music with particular characteristics, and I think that openness is crucial. Soon I think metal will really be able to capitalize on the promise it’s always had, of really uniting people around powerful occult forces. Also, it just really freakin’ rocks.

How do the title of the show and wall text enhance the themes of False Monarchy?

When Kyle and I were first discussing when specifically the show would be in the Gallery, I mentioned to him him that I was excited by the possibility of having a very kind of dark show on view a year into the current presidency. Kyle chose the title of the show from a 16th-century demonology text by a physician named Johann Weyer. The text–which is actually an appendix to a longer text, an appendix that lists the names of various demons and the practices to summon them–is called the Pseudomonarchia daemonum, the Pseudo-monarchy or False Monarchy of the Demons. For Kyle, that title reflected both the occult themes of the exhibition and made not-so-veiled reference to the Trump presidency. For the wall text, early on I suggested to Kyle that I liked the idea of just having a kind of quotation or short piece of poetry that would reflect the show, and would be a part of it, instead of just a meta-commentary on the art, which is what wall text typically provides in an exhibition. I came up with a number of possible quotes for the wall text, drawn from Aleister Crowley, William Blake, Anton LaVey, and so on, but the one we chose was always my favorite, and Kyle likewise thought it reflected the political aspect of the show most directly. I think that having the wall text as this concise, meaning-laden quote contributes to this spiritual experience you can have in the exhibition: this idea that you enter a space and are given a certain moral and existential imperative by this piece of text, which then shapes how you comport yourself in the exhibition–which of course is a kind of strategy that both sacred and secular spaces often use to form followers of their belief systems. Here, hopefully, the quote also moves people to question how they are shaped by those systems, how they are made into followers and believers.

The opening performance of False Monarchy explored ritual, collectivism, and counterculture. How was the idea for the performance art developed?

At some point during the process of creating new work, Kyle was talking about doing more video work and expanding on some earlier performances that he had done with him playing the guitar. I suggested that one thing the Stamp Gallery has been trying to do over the past few years is to have performances associated with at least some of its exhibitions, and that doing a performance at the reception or some other time during the show’s run would be a great idea, and might allow Kyle expand that aspect of his practice. Basically, Kyle took that and the rest was him–I think the only other thing I suggested was that an hour-long drone performance might be longer than some of our visitors would attend, but other than that the whole shape of the performance was Kyle’s idea. I think it was really awesome that he included other performers, including students from UMD (including the Gallery’s own Grace DeWitt), and–to me at least–it has made the feel of the space very different. Knowing that the Gallery and the exhibition were the site of this elaborate and chilling kind of ritual still (for me) gives it this grim energy and urgency.

To what extent did historical, cultural and political research play a part in your curatorial process?

I decided that the exhibition needed a catalog essay because of the fact that it makes reference to many different kinds of symbols, images, and practices, and I wanted people to have a way to learn at least a little bit about how those elements play a role in Kyle’s work. I think it’s completely possible to have a rewarding experience of the exhibition without reading that essay, but since some visitors feel affronted by some of the imagery, or at least confused, I wanted there to be something for them to consult, to give them something to start from. The research for that essay was a lot of fun–reading everything from texts about early modern demonology and witchcraft to analyses of the American automobile industry. I think the research related to the themes in Kyle’s work–and just talking to Kyle about his interests and practice–has made it clear to me how important it is to think about the layering of meanings. Some people have come into the exhibition and they are convinced it is only about one thing–Satanism, for example, or just a general anti-Christianity. What I want to do is help them see the sheer build-up of meanings and symbols that happens not just in art, but also in society, and the ways we become blind to the histories and different meanings of those signs. Understanding the multiplicities of those kinds of meanings can then help you develop practices that use those signs to produce new practices and new configurations of power.

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How does False Monarchy comment on notions of moral declinism and moral panic?

Probably the most explicit reference False Monarchy makes to moral panic is in its implicit relation to the so-called ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s, when conservative America was suddenly terrified that young people were worshipping Satan, doing drugs in occult rituals, having demonic orgies, and ritually abusing children. Currently, we seem to be in the midst of several different versions of moral panic: conservatives are terrified that immigrants are bringing incompatible moral systems into America, which of course is nothing new, but it has transformed into this kind of overarching and horrible rhetoric that is playing a more explicit and visible role that at least in recent history. But there are also crises related to other kinds of moral decline and ethical decay: there’s an increased concern about ethical consumption, among other things. Personally (and I feel like I want to insert the little handclap emojis between each word) I think there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Thus, the moral panic that is currently underway about ethical consumption is ultimately just as much the result of false consciousness as other moral panics, even if it has some redeeming characteristics that others don’t. I think that, from my perspective, at least, False Monarchy helps frame the fundamental amorality and unethical character of consumption in America (and the world), and getting to that frame of mind and action can help really set the stage for overcoming current conditions of practice and belief.

Because False Monarchy has purposeful elements of ambiguity, visitors may experience a vast range of responses when they set foot in the space. When someone enters the exhibition, what do you hope they’ll feel? 

I think the main feeling I’d like to evoke (and I think this is what Kyle has in mind too) is of entering into a kind of sacred space, of entering into a kind of cultic ritual that you can’t fully understand. I hope that people experience a kind of compulsion to try to understand what is happening, what is being referenced, what is expected of them as believers in this system. I also hope that they feel drawn to really spend some time in the space and be immersed in the exhibition–the length of the musical and video components, the level of detail in Kyle’s drawings, the number of different symbols at play, all of these aspects will reward spending a good amount of time in the space.

What was the biggest curatorial challenge you faced while planning the exhibition? Conversely, what is your favorite memory of the process?

I think there were two challenges: One was just overcoming my own doubt, the creeping worry that at the last hour someone would come and say, ‘You can’t have that in this gallery!’ This concern was totally unfounded–I’ve gotten nothing but support from everyone involved behind the scenes, and their faith in the gallery and the vision for the show–regardless of whether or not they are personally ‘into it’–has been awesome. The second challenge, and also one of the most rewarding aspects, was the coordination of the opening performance, just all the practical things. Since the ‘mood’ was very important, and not breaking a kind of imaginary facade of seriousness was really important, it was great to see Kyle and the performers pull off the performance seamlessly–just total immersion that convincingly transported you into this other kind of space. I think my favorite memory, beside the opening performance itself, was just seeing Kyle put up all this new work. Like I said above, I was really excited that he took this opportunity to really make new work just for this show, and to have it really belong to this exhibition, and that was a great thing to see.

To close, is there anything else you’d like to promote here? Any current or upcoming shows you’re participating in?

I’m very much looking forward to working with the University of Maryland second-year MFA candidates on Midpoint 2018 (though I believe the show might also have a more exciting title than that). It’s exciting to see them thinking through new ways to show their work and new kinds of work that they could create that would work with our space here at the Stamp Gallery. It’s also great to see them thinking about shaping the space collaboratively, and considering ways to have their works interact spatially in new ways.

I’m starting to work on curating a small show that will hopefully happen in Laboratory Research Gallery, in the Art Department, featuring some ‘conceptual monuments’ proposed and/or documented by two members of the Congress of Conceptual Art Int’l, both of whom received their MFAs from UMD.

Finally, I have a modest work on view through February 23 in a really great show, BACK and FORTH, in the Herman Maril Gallery, curated by the students in the Art Honors program. The show is focused on the relationship between memory and objects of various kinds, and contains some really incredible works!

Opening Performance Livestream: https://www.facebook.com/StampGalleryUMD/

False Monarchy Catalog: http://thestamp.umd.edu/Portals/0/Documents/Gallery/False%20Monarchy%20Catalog%20Text_full.pdf

For more information on False Monarchy and related events, visit http://thestamp.umd.edu/stamp_gallery

 

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