Praxis of Evil

Larissa Harris on “Regarding Evil”


Left: Julian Laverdiere. Right: Boyd Rice and Ross Cisneros.

All told, Cambridge’s summit on evil last Sunday turned out to be good. Budding gnostic and MIT graduate student Ross Cisneros, one of six candidates in the institute’s visual-art program, had convened “Regarding Evil,” bringing together a “wise clergy” (in his words) that included natty artists Ronald Jones and Julian Laverdiere; bespectacled political scientist Jodi Dean; black-clad, snuff-taking, muscle-bound musician, Church of Satan associate, and Charles Manson friend Boyd Rice; and the presence of Manson himself (in the form of two incoherent missives written from prison). Matthew Barney and Arto Lindsay’s new film on the Brazilian Carnival, De Lama Lamina, 2005, received a special screening at the seven-hour event. Pale undergraduates, hipsters, people who wanted to learn about Abraxas, a surprising number of art addicts from New York, and faculty members (sitting with arms crossed in the back) made up the near-capacity crowd.

Introduced by Cisneros as an experimenter with some of “the world’s most questionable egos,” Laverdiere presented almost his entire body of work, including The First Attempted Manned Space Flight (the Vindication of Werner Von Braun), a work that involved research into the US government’s rehab of the Third Reich-trained father of the American space program. This project also revealed that a ten-year-old New Jersey boy pictured shaking hands with von Braun under the header “Young American meets his hero” was none other than Jeffrey Deitch. Next, with his back turned to the audience, Rice shouted Aleister Crowley’s incantation to the devil into a microphone over a rhythmic roar of maw-of-hell, beyond-industrial music and returned trembling to his seat. Though more or less awkward and simulated, it nonetheless came across as a manifestation of the thing itself about which everyone else was merely talking. When Dean took the stage immediately afterward, academic convention sealed over this fissure as if it never happened. In a fascinating analysis of the Big E’s invocation in presidential inaugural speeches from FDR on, she arrived at how George W. Bush’s use of evil grounds his “conviction effect.” “Now we are seeing absolutism through the lens of relativism,” she said, “and invoking ‘evil’ registers an intensity of belief amongst many individual beliefs.”

Jones, flown in from Sweden, told us how Christian belief links the existence of evil to free will: Without evil there would be no opportunity to exercise moral choice. For scientists, the “step from contemplation to application” can involve the decision to take millions of lives; for artists, Jones noted calmly, that step rarely if ever involves a choice of similar weight. That’s why, since Saint Augustine, art has been framed as “an unserious matter”; and, instead of rethinking the situation from the ground up, artists (said Jones, touching his laptop to project Serrano’s Piss Christ) are too often distracted by “protecting their effete privilege to scandalize.”

Later, after screaming briefly at us (“Do you want total war?”) Rice sat down with Cisneros to talk about ideas (“total opposition to two thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition”), pranks (handing a skinned sheep’s head to Betty Ford), and friendship with Manson (reading aloud from his letters, Rice did quite a Manson impression). After a short, contentious panel discussion focusing mostly on Jones’s provocations, the new Barney/Lindsay flick began to unspool, showing an Ogun-figure (a Candomble deity), naked but accessorized with a beak and a “root-vegetable butt plug” (as a friend put it later), strapped below the spinning axle of a giant, rusty float in the midst of the drumming crowds at Carnival. The film shifts between his activities (he slowly wraps the axle in wads of slimy cotton to create a masturbation aid, then uses it, penis flopping unwatchably right and left); those of a silent, shaggy woman who builds a kind of harness/jail for herself in a tree, à la environmental activist Julia Hill; and the crowd and musicians, including the sweating, lantern-jawed Lindsay himself, singing hoarsely in Portuguese. Talking to Bennett Simpson the next day (who had written a piece on the project) I came around to seeing the “unsublimated” nature of this new Barney as kind of interesting: good-dirty. Certainly, it bolstered the impression that Cisneros’s conception of evil as a kind of pre- or para-Judeo-Christian magic or life force, inextricably woven into all that is good, was the reading that won the day.