by Tom Ruffles
[ bookreviews ]
Hexen 2039 the book is one facet of a bizarre art project by Suzanne Treister. It may conceivably be some manifestation of outsider art, but the project was very generously supported by an Arts Council England grant of £45,590, which suggests an acute commercial sensibility. Hexen has evolved through a number of incarnations, involving various delivery mechanisms, such as a faux-documentary DVD, website and a touring exhibition, as well as this large format paperback.
The work features Treister's alter ego Rosalind Brodsky (1970-2058), an artist and filmmaker. Brodsky has a delusion that she is a time traveller employed by The Institute of Militronics and Advanced Time Interventionality, which is based in South London. Or has she actually discovered a means of time travel that allows her to play with the New York Dolls in 1973? Brodsky is always featured in her time-travel garb, essentially a modified evening dress with headgear that resembles a large silver ice bucket, so she must find it difficult to blend in, a bit like the problem the chaps from Time Tunnel had with their safari suits.
Brodsky is sent back from 2039 in order to investigate the role of early sound technology and its use in altering brainwaves as a form of mind control. This conceit allows Treister to depict links between various entities such as West Point military academy, Night on a Bald Mountain and its use in The Wizard of Oz, MGM and the film version of Stargate, Chernobyl, witchcraft, Aleister Crowley, Walpurgisnacht, The Brocken, TV towers, brainwashing, remote viewing experiments, Jack Parsons, John Dee, though not alas Jack Dee, Ordo Templi Orientis, Hollywood films, the latest cabal to attempt world economic hegemony - eBay - and so on. The premise is that parapsychology and the military-industrial complex converge in the 21st century, forming the basis for 'new British military-occult industries', which might make up for not having rifles that work. However, the name Hexen tilts the enterprise more towards the occult than science, especially as it conjures up Benjamin Christensen's 1922 classic Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages.
The process adopted by Treister highlights the standard conspiracy theory gambit: list a number of disparate elements, underdescribe them and allow the reader to fill in the links, a bit like many of Jim Garrison's rapid-fire assertions in Oliver Stone's JFK, which a moment's reflection would at best characterise as open to question and at worst dismiss as complete rubbish. This approach utilises our innate capacity for pattern recognition, an attribute highlighted in Richard Grayson's perceptive essay, Waiting for the Gift of Sound and Vision, which concludes the book. Treister takes this tendency to read causation into correlation, and our fascination with conspiracy, and satirises its ridiculousness (giving her the benefit of the doubt) by piling on arbitrary components so that the cumulative effect becomes ludicrous.
Fortuitously it transpires that 'graphite representations' - ie, drawings - when passed through an 'Electroencephalographic Current Converter' emit psychic frequencies. This allows Triester to reproduce a large number of said representations, as used in psyops (it's the non-aurally transmittable frequency groups that do it, you know). I especially love the one of Brodsky in her bucket standing next to a totally unfazed Sam Goldwyn in the late 1940s. You wonder how they were introduced, though he was probably used to a high degree of eccentricity among actors. There is also a very nice drawing of rocket whiz Wernher 'We aim for the stars but sometimes we hit London' von Braun. Grayson gets his name wrong as well as Crowley's on one of the occasions he uses it, and Treister does the same to Louis B Mayer, so I started to wonder if there was some deep significance in all this and whether it would affect those psychic frequencies.
Another rocket boffin featured prominently is scientist, occultist and extreme proponent of mother love, the butter-fingered Jack/John/Marvel Parsons. Really though, finding individuals who combined scientific pursuits with an interest in the paranormal is not particularly difficult. Isaac Newton would have been too obvious, though the image of him pushing needles into his eye sockets in order to investigate optics would have added a frisson.
We are also treated to a large number of drawings, less polished than the graphites, from a remote viewing, or scrying, session made by Treister allegedly using John Dee's crystal ball in the Science Museum. I suspect a bottle of bubble bath would have done as well, but the association with Dee certainly brings gravitas. The technique allows greater freedom than the usual run of remote viewing tests where the agent goes off to a location and the percipient has to determine it by psychic means. Here we roam past and future as well as present, and see things that are not open to verification, such as the brains of John Dee and Sam Goldwyn. There seems to be some artistic licence at work here, or else both of those gentlemen were in a bad way.
There is finally a section of very busy diagrams showing the links between people and chronology. It may not be accidental that the handwriting is so scruffy on many of these that they are virtually unreadable. You end up taking her word for it that the links indicated are genuine, which could be a metaphor for our trust in authority, or perhaps not. These drawings may work better in a gallery setting.
Some of this mixture is based on fact, such as the CIA-funded Stargate remote viewing project at Stanford Research Institute, which has only been partially declassified, and you won't find any references to the CIA in Targ and Puthoff's 1977 book on the project, Mind-Reach. The reference to transmissions targeting temporal (how appropriate) lobes in order to stimulate psychic experience clearly nods to Michael Persinger's now discontinued research on that very lobe, using the famous spiky 'God' helmet, at Laurentian University. The bit linking Hollywood product and mind control can be verified at any multiplex, and a nice irony would be to extend the project into a self-referential, and surely post-modernist, glossy feature film.
A problem assessing conspiracy theory is that it is difficult to disentangle the plausible rubbish from the truth, or even working out where the boundaries of plausibility are, but by partly setting the scenario in the future, and showing the result - Brodsky's findings are utilised by the MOD to develop non-lethal weapons (how comforting) between 2040 and 2045 - you wonder, though only for a moment, whether any of this might actually transpire. By embedding the outré in what is established, the wilder shores of speculation can be seen to have a faint ring of credibility, a lesson from which David Icke might have profited.
I am surprised that Treister has included the Harz Mountains in her web of associations, but has omitted Harry Price's 1932 experiment, conducted on the Brocken in collaboration with the faithful Cyril Joad, to turn a goat into a comely youth (Price's Gef the talking mongoose from the Isle of Man wouldn't have been out of place in all this, there must be many military applications for talking mongooses). There seem to be a few other omissions, such as the Illuminati, or Nikola Tesla, who as Christopher Nolan's film The Prestige indicates, had a persona that readily lent itself to occult dabbling. Stanford Research institute is based at Menlo Park, so it would have been easy to include the Wizard of that place, Tesla's one-time employer and later arch-enemy, Thomas Alva Edison, who became a Theosophist in 1878. We get Parsons working at Pasadena, yet not those proponents of mental torture the Pasadena Roof Orchestra. But I suppose even conspiratorial networks have to end somewhere. Perhaps they will all feature in the next iteration of the project.
Although the book was created by Treister, the title page says that it was edited by someone called Tania Nasielski, who also curated the associated exhibition. The latter's contribution is unclear and she may be yet another spoof personality, a trick already pulled by the Cohen Brothers, who edit their films under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. The credits at the rear of the book state that it was edited by Nasielski and someone called Amy Sackville, so Sackville may be the real live editor, keeping a low profile. Evidence for Nasielski's non-existence is that 'Tania Nasielski' is an anagram of 'Insane Alias Kit', a hint that Treister has spent so long creating a separate personality for herself she can no longer tell them apart. Perhaps there is a fine line between artistic creation and Multiple Personality Disorder. Or perhaps I am seeing conspiracies where there is none, and that was Triester's intention. Deliciously loopy.