The Alchemist's Shack II
Mildred's Lane Session July – August 2012
As Above So Below (Aether, Elixir, Ethanol)
Far from Pennsylvania – both literally and metaphorically - under grey, Northern English skies I try to reconstruct my experiences of The Mildred's Lane Complexity from notes accumulated, interviews gleaned, photographs taken, sounds recorded and Venn diagrams scribbled* but I find it impossible to surmise or to 'fix' with any single account or description. It is simply too complex. “It's a strange place...” the diary entry from my first day at Mildred's Lane recounts: “... a home, an ever-evolving art work, a communal space, an ecology, a frontier land, a wilderness...”. But here I am, tasked with the impossible; to describe the indescribable and my experiences of a project within it The Alchemists Shack II...
Geographically speaking, Mildred's Lane is a site of 96 acres located deep in the woods of the Upper Delaware River Valley in northeastern Pennsylvania.
“My arrival at Mildred's Lane - after a long journey from NewYork, through the wide, green farmland of Pennsylvania, across the Delaware River and down a bumpy, forested dirt track – is marked first by the sight of a giant ground hog (the size of a large family dog) ambling slowly across my path and secondly by the sounds of a séance creaking and shrieking from within a huge, slightly dilapidated wooden barn...”
Historically speaking, Mildred's Lane (or rather it's current manifestation) began in 1998 when J. Morgan Puett (Ambassador of Entanglement) and Mark Dion (Co-Ambassador of Entanglement) discovered the land which had been left derelict since the death of the previous owner and lifetime occupant, Mildred Steffens. Recognising it's unique features and possibilities, Puett and Dion began the process of preserving the original vernacular homestead in which Steffens had grown up, lived and died (now known as The Mildred House). Already in these early days of The Complexity collaborations and projects with friends and artists were beginning to take place. One of the first of these projects or interventions was Robert Williams's construction - and then cathartical burning - of a sixteen-foot giant Burnellius upon the foundations of the main house, a ritual gesture which is echoed at the conclusion of every project since.
“Like an ancestral ghost of the old world, I slip into the barn and hover behind the congregation of fellows who are watching the final minutes of an episode from Derren Brown's Channel 4 programme The Events. My arrival coincides with the emotionally charged 'reveal' in which Brown deconstructs the subtle autosuggestions, imagery and engineering behind this “psychological experiment” which led 12 members of the public to believe they were actually in communion with a ghost... As the film ends, the barn doors rattle open and the fellows disperse into the high July sunshine...”
Conceptually speaking, Mildred's Lane is a socially-engaged project based around an ethos of conviviality, creativity and comportment. When I invited J. Morgan Puett (Ambassador of Entanglement) to describe the project she explained that...
“...You can't put a finger on it, it's not an institution and it's not even a home entirely anymore although it is a home and it is a school... it's something that is about the experience... the shared experience that people has when they're here. That's what is really exciting for everybody I think. What has co-evolved amongst everyone is that they come together and they are the best they can be: it's the possibility of re-thinking how we are in the world which is really at the heart of it for me…”
This synergistic “re-thinking of how we are in the world” is manifest in every aspect of the life-work-art at Mildred's Lane; from the rigorous deconstruction of ghost stories told around the campfire; to the curation of kitchen utensils and general “inventive domesticating” (otherwise known as Workstyles**); to the design and creation of new forms or models of living - both architectural and social. In other words, every action performed at Mildred's Lane, be it domestic, academic or everyday, is intended to move towards, and embody a part of, the project's holistic goals.
The physical hub of this praxis-driven project is the main house on The Mildred's Lane Site, designed and built in the style of the vernacular, wooden Grange-Hall which was typical of Pennsylvania in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Grange Halls were originally conceived as nonpartisan community buildings, built to host a nexus of communal activity and to promote the interests and well-being (economic, political and social) of local people. As such it made sense to use The Grange Hall meeting place as a blueprint for the main house at Mildred's Lane. Designed with a communal living situation in mind the house has evolved into much more than a shared living space, enfolding into it an extensive library and a living, ever-growing museum of collected objects and artworks.
“Like a curiously layered and ever-folding dream, Mildred's Lane does not adhere to the linear values of written language; it is a living, organic, nebulous, many-authored entity.”
It is within this complex context (or bubbling crucible) that the 2012 session The Alchemists Shack II took place. Curated and led by Robert Williams and following on from the original session in 2009, The Alchemist's Shack II set out to complete the building of a small vernacular hut - an installation which would also become a place for guests to stay – whilst further exploring the interrelationship between alchemy, alchemical literature, ghosts and parallel discourses in contemporary art and science.
"Leslie and Natalie [Mildred's Lane Fellows] introduce me to the hooshing schedule. On the schedule each of the fellows are represented by an alchemical symbol they have chosen... I am reminded, in this minutiae symbolic order, of the alchemical axiom "As above so below"... of the correspondence between the mundane and the sublime (mediated by the symbolic) and the way in which this group of fellows, as elements of the alchemical process, have been mixed together in order to perform a collective transformation, a transmutation, a distillation..."
Another aim of the The Alchemists Shack II session was the creation of a co-authored Taxonomy of Ghosts from Popular Forms. Through three weeks of screenings, workshops, seminars and discussions Williams, Hilmar Schäfer (Theorist in Residence) and the nine fellows would compile, order and codify the various ghostly manifestations into an overall taxonomical schema. The source material informing this taxonomy was predominantly selected by Wiliams from British Film and Television of the 1960's and 1970's along with the literary Ghost Stories of M.R. James. This selection defined the perameters of the fieldwork to be undertaken by the group, focussing their critical enquiry upon a period of rivived interest in the occult, parapsychology and the uncanny amongst both popular and fringe culture in Britain. Revisiting the material of this time - as opposed to a more general, contemporary or localised enquiry - afforded a special degree of both temporal and cultural distance for deconstructing and analysing these forms, examined as they were by a group of predominantly young American artists and scholars.
In all taxonomical schema there is an inherent interrelationship between the phenomena observed and the observers themselves. A taxonomy ultimately reflects as much upon the architects of that particula conceptual order - including their own underlying motivations, pedagogies and sociocultural context - as upon the material being analysed and categorized***. Whilst early modern taxonomy, such as the Linnean system, underscored the belief in an ultimate, objective reality (which adheres to a fixed hierarchy) and the authority of the single author/taxonomist/scientist in mapping this, the momentum informing the Taxonomy of Ghosts from Popular Forms seemed to emphasise an indeterminate, intersubjective reality as observed, recorded and pooled between a group of individuals. In adopting methods and forms of mainstream science to conduct an enquiry into a phenomena which is both highly subjective and more often experienced through a second order of representation (television, film, literature and word of mouth) the Taxonomy of Ghosts from Popular Forms also acknowledged that phenomena are inherently influenced (or generated) by the local cultures in which they are first experienced and then ordered. This would be a taxonomy not of fixed things but visual, and culturally mediated, encounters with the liminal.
"...How will this taxonomy manifest? And what will it illuminate about the various demographics of belief and superstition?... what is the ghost in a taxonomical schema if not a disturber of order? Hovering in the liminal space between being and nothingness..."
The ghost in the machine of scientific taxonomy has the potential to contaminate certainties, to erode definitional categories and to destabilize dogma. Whilst materialist science asserts that all reality is material and can (or eventually will be) explained by science, the ghost traveses both material and immaterial realms: it does not exist wholly (provably) in the physical world but neither does it seem to be purely an 'illusion of consciousness' as ghostly encounters - in which objects are moved or broken, messages communicated or atmospheres affected - may suggest. This does not mean to imply that ghosts are real phenomena but rather that the ghostly manifestation has something to ask about the nature of reality as we understand or percieve it****.
Perhaps tellingly the material of which the Taxonomy of Ghosts from Popular Forms is based, derives from a period of advances in science as well as increased renunciation of established religion. Whilst the progression of science tends to dissalow spiritualism in favour of rationalism, aetheism may also be seen as dislodging religious experience, ritual and magical belief in a culture. Perhaps, then, revivals of interest in the occult and the supernatural may be a culture's way of channelling certain spiritual impulses or provide access to forms of magical 'otherness' amidst the spiritual vacuum created by materialism?
There is also something aberrant or slightly seditious about alchemy and the occult... In modern times it generally exists as an alternative to the mainstream and whilst a high percentage of Americans believe in ghosts1., public expressions of such beliefs tend to be infrequent because of the hostility (or sheer incredulity) such confidences can incurr. The paranormal is generally regarded as simply too 'unscientific', illogical or superstitious. Immersed as I was then in the alchemist's coven I began to feel like this was the ideal subject matter for an organisation which is itself slightly outside the 'normative' public realm and in which alternative ways of being and thinking are encouraged. Whilst Mildred's Lane provided a platform for institutional and ideological critique (an autonomous zone, removed from the everyday), the specific emphasis of The Alchemists Shack II on ghosts and ghostly encounters simultaneously honed and extended this critique by focusing upon a phenomena which is highly personal and intersubjective but which also carries implications for larger cultural and social situations, ideologies and beliefs.
"Social Saturday... I stagger away from fireside stories and songs... wonder abounds... Luke's [Mildred's Lane Fellow] exuberant celebration of beer as "aqua vie! primordial liquid! Ether!" makes me think of a certain parallelism between alchemical Aether/Ether and elixir, ethanol. Aether the first matter for alchemists, alchohol the first matter for artists. Alcohol is the the social elixir... [it] momentarily opens up that ethereal space for conversation and the exchange of thoughts... I am drunk on the ether (the matter of the universe)... I am also... possibly... somewhat drunk on ethanol (the matter of the fallible human)..."
On the evening that I arrived at Mildred's Lane Alison Pennyworth was giving a talk introducing her travelling show and research project the BeautifulPossibilities Tour exhibited in concurrence with The Alchemist's Shack II and Pebworth's three week residency at The Complexity; the shop-fronted gallery and project space in nearby Narrowsburg. Hanging on the walls of the space were ten exquisite, hand painted banners whose curling scrolls, looping fonts and allegorical style were reminiscent of the posters of 19th Century travelling circuses and Wild West Shows. The characters and scenes in these banners gleaned from the various tropes of American Identity; from Ketchican Totem Poles to Mickey Mouse and from Pocahantas to John McCain, their appropriation and amalgamation offered a simultaneously celebratory and critical reconsideration of American history and identity.
On a dark wood, glass-fronted counter at the back of the shop were a a number of large vials and vitrines containing an array of colourful, viscous liquids. From behind this pseudo-alchemical display Pebworth explained that each of these were her “Elixirs”; amalgamations of plants and herbs gathered throughout the travelling show and blended in her own home-distilled alcohol. Pebworth read from the elegantly hand-written labels of the five elixirs she had concocted whilst on residency at The Complexity, each elixir corresponding to the specific place or topography from where the ingredients were gathered; 'Garden Elixir'; 'Town and Country Elixir'; 'Woods Elixir'; 'Field Elixir'; and 'The Kitchen Herbs Elixir'. “This is my communal vessel” Pebworth said, gently lifting a large, bulbous vitrine for us to see “...so” she continued as she began to pour some of each individual elixir into the vessel “we are just going to find out what the whole experience of Mildred's Lane tastes like...”. The Mildred's Lane elixir tasted sweet and dark like a pine forest. As the communal vessel is passed around the room Pebworth talks about the travelling medicine shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which used to pedal “Americanitis Elixirs”: Medicinal elixirs intended to salve the symptoms of “Americanitis” a vague term for the negative affects associated with post-industrial, fast-paced contemporary life. In this little ritual there is a potent distillation of both old and new world forms and ideas. We are reminded of Native American medicine rituals where healing is a holistic, shared and communal activity addressing larger situations than simply an individual's ailments but also of the contemporary counterparts to “Americanitis Elixirs” i.e. the Big Pharma medicines marketed via television and social media to prescribe and medicate contemporary social illnesses such as anxiety, depression and fatigue. Once everyone present had drunk from the communal vessel, it's remaining contents would be poured into Pebworth's ever-evolving communal elixir, a blend which is gradually added to and accumulated through her travels across America. A vile of this would then also be buried at one corner of The Alchemist's Shack as a votive offering (with an owl, a bat and a bag of moths buried at the three other corners).
“On the bus back to New York from Pennsylvania I am dizzy from five days oscillating between graft, talks, social events, presentations and rituals... I can't quite put words to it yet but feel an overwhelming excitement at the possibilities and wonder the project and this group of artist-alchemists have opened up. Even in this small microcosm of experience I am bowled over by the reevaluation of values, of the possibilities of living and working collabratively in a collective reimagining art and everyday life..."
The residing impression gleaned from my time at Mildred's Lane and the Alchemists Shack II project was of the critical and creative possibilities inherent in the space between things. Whilst so many art institutions tend to present what is (finished works, resolved ideas, fixed principles) in contrast what I found valuable (and complex) about Mildred's Lane was this perpetual state of becoming: of ideas and identity constantly evolving according to the conversations and momentum of the group. The alternative modes of thinking, being and educating provide a malleable, nebulous yet vital form of institutional critique, not by offering papers on the subject but an organic, living, heterodox alternative. These principles seemed to sing with the subject and intentions of The Alchemists Shack II in which the group of fellows/artists/alchemists/scientists came together to collectively transfigure the base matter of the everyday through curious and critical enquiry. By realigning or eroding categorical boundaries and brackets – between 'scientist' and 'artist', 'objective' and 'subjective', 'public' and 'private', 'real' and 'ineffable' - The Alchemists Shack II created a potent space both for exploring cultural tropes and beliefs whilst also offering a collectively authored re enchantment of life and art.
Newcastle upon Tyne, 2013
*(which I resorted to drawing whilst trying to impose some sense of shape to the nebulous entity)
**Essentially an engaged, experimental and creative approach to day-to-day domestic duties including, but not limited to, cleaning, the curation and organisation of household items, the re-sculpting of the recycling facilities, cooking and communal meals, etc.
***For instance, in the early biological taxonomy practiced by Carl Linneaus the 'natural world' is ordered into 'ranks', assuming a hierache of nature in which humans are at the top. The form and application of this system resonates with the larger religious structures and philosophical developments of the period e.g. the Neoplatonic concept of the 'great chain of being' (in which man is located at the top of the chain and closest to God having been made in his image) and the development of the scientific revolution in which materialist, empirical science was usurping natural philosophy. Furthermore, Linnaesus's system of binomial nomenclature - i.e. The convention of naming living things with two latin names; the first denoting genus, the second the suspecies within the genus, replacing previous folk traditions of nomenclature – reflects the scientific momentum of the epoch; that of man's conquest over nature, of civilization and logos over superstition and mythos.
****Here I must include a disclaimer – though I do not ascribe to explanations of the ghost (i.e. As spirits of the dead or lingering energies etc) I have had my own ghostly encounters which appeared as 'real' as any other encounter. But this does not mean that I necessarily believe in ghosts but rather that I believe in the experience of ghosts as much as I believe in the experience of anything.
1.48% according to a CBS poll conducted in 2009 http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500160_162-994766.html [accessed 10/02/13]