Interview: Raymond Salvatore Harmon
Raymond Salvatore Harmon is a filmmaker whose works are created using a very modern, technical approach, such as his video Tactic in which a video file is converted to text, then manipulated, then output again as video. However, at the same time, viewing his body of work reveals a filmmaker using digital manipulations to explore meditative, ritualistic, transcendental and, yes, occult, themes, like this video of an Aleister Crowley ritual.
Harmon’s next big project isn’t a film, though. Instead, he’s founded the Equinox Festival, a three-day event running this year on June 12-14 in London. There will be music performances, lectures, rituals and underground film screenings focused on issues of spiritual discovery. Some of the filmmakers whose works will be screened are Alejandro Jodorowsky, Harry Smith, Maya Deren, Craig Baldwin and Harmon himself.
Although the film screenings only comprise a very small part of Equinox, I thought I’d take this opportunity to ask Harmon some questions on the issues of spirituality and film. What I wanted to get at mostly here is that while reading interviews from the ’60s with filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Harry Smith, it seems that more underground directors back then were concerned with spiritual and cosmic issues than there are today. But, has spirituality in film actually fallen out of favor? Or is it just a matter of perception?
Art As the New Religion?
A conversation with Raymond Salvatore Harmon
Underground Film Journal: Have you ever run a festival before? What inspired you to create Equinox?
Raymond Salvatore Harmon: I was heavily involved with the Chicago Underground Film Festival for many years. (8, I think?) At various times I held the offices of print traffic coordinator, projectionist, and special events programmer, and was on the screening committee for all of those years. I was invited on after the 2nd year by founder Jay Bliznick. We brought out people like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Paul Morrissey, Melvin van Peebles, etc. It was a great fest to be involved with during that time. Jay had a lot of groundbreaking ideas about what the underground was and what it stood for.
Over the years I have also been involved with a wide range of organizations putting together various exhibitions, performances and programs. I spent a year as the Director of the German Cultural Center in Chicago and screened films to critics for the Chicago International Film Fest. I also had a great group of people to go to for advice on how to run a festival. Many of the people I know run programs that are amazing and festivals that are world famous.
When I got to London, I was astounded by how extensive the various occult and transcendental scenes are. There are so many people who are interested in this topic in the UK, much more so than anyplace I have been. After a couple of performances of my work and meeting some incredible people I starting thinking about the idea for the Equinox Festival.
Along the way I had meet Simon Kane, one of my partners in the fest. He already knew everybody and had put on similar, but smaller scale events like this several times over the years. (He and Jack Sargeant had put on The Salon a few years back.) So I went to Simon and said I have this idea for a festival, something beyond what has already been done. He was into it and brought along Andrew Hartwell of Aurora Borealis Records. That was October of last year. Since then things have grown into the current lineup out of those couple of Bourbons at a bookstore.
The basic premise of the Equinox Festival is that people are looking for something beyond their conceptions of ordinary life. In contemporary society people feel a need for the spiritual, but are resistive to organized religion. (And all of its dogma and cultural conflict.) Spirituality has nothing to do with religion. Many people are drawn to transcendentalism, alternative religions, and what is often lumped under the title “occult” for lack of a better description. That ardour that is drawing people to these concepts is growing. Look around in the popular media today and you see all kinds of references to transcendental thinking.
I envision the Equinox Festival as a place where all of these ideas and traditions can come together and be discussed. Not just an academic forum, but a media arts festival where the expression of spiritual and magickal ideas can be presented via music, performance, lectures, and cinema – revealing the complex relationship between artist and creation, between self and soul.
UFJ: Your films and now Equinox exist at a point where technology and spirituality cross paths. How would you describe that point yourself?
RSH: Art is, I think, the best term available to describe the point where technology and spirituality overlap. The creative drive is itself something that draws extensively on the use of technology (in any given era) yet uses as its “fuel” (so to speak) the realm of the spiritual.
In order to create, the artist must look within themselves, identical to the way in which the shaman, magician or initiate must dive down into the sea of the soul. What the artist brings back from this inner space of temporal existence is the fruit of one’s own imagination. Like the shaman, the artist is a practitioner of a system of advanced technologies. Yet these technologies do not confine themselves to the external devices or tools used in the process of creation. They include the radical changes that occur in the mental landscape of the artist in order for the birth of idea to be fulfilled.
Every artist, regardless of when and where on this Earth, has accessed the same basic system of the creative process as centuries of mystical practitioners have utilized. In order for any artist to access their inner reservoir of creative energy, they must create a mental situation, an expanded state of thinking, if you will, that allows them to perceive detail and form in a way far beyond the ordinary.
In contemporary society, if you look for those people who are most often seeking a path toward individual spiritual expression you see the same groups of people who society defines as artists. Musicians, composers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and designers — those who are shaping the visual and sonic tapestry of their reality to their own will. Whether or not they realize it already, these individuals are the shamans and mystics of today.
In today’s world, just as in the ancient world, man has sought out something beyond the experience of the now. In this seeking, man has found much of its most important discoveries about itself and the world we inhabit. Mankind has never ceased in its search for the farthest reaches of personal discovery and continues today to push beyond and within.
The point in which we exist today is merely the transition period in which “Western” concepts of reality are giving way to both Eastern and South American ideas of reality. Experience is becoming something specific and individual in our ‘cosmology of self’ just at the point where, as individuals, we are breaking the threshold of open communication/tele presence with each other through media technologies, i.e. mobile phones, social networking sites, the internet in general.
UFJ: At Equinox, you’re screening a terrific collection of underground film classics. How do they still speak to us today?
RSH: I think the mix between contemporary filmmakers and historic filmmakers in our program will be about even by the time the festival comes together in June. We are still negotiating a few screenings and shaping the program a little more. The filmmakers/films chosen for the program are those whose work is directly affected by their involvement with spiritual discovery. Smith, Deren, Jodorowsky — these filmmakers have looked into the beyond and come back with the inspiration to make films that are truly transcendental. By that I mean the films themselves manage to actually express a sense of something beyond ordinary experience and to instill that very experience in the viewer.
On the contemporary front there are many filmmakers whose work is seeking out that exact goal — to instill a sense of the extra-ordinary in their viewers. This is in fact the entire premise for my own occult based films. To create a tool for the expansion of the conscious mind in order that we may achieve familiarity with a state of consciousness beyond that of our regular lives. This can be in conjunction with traditional ritual, or as a more installation based contemporary art experience.
UFJ: Which of those films and filmmakers — and/or others — directly inspire your own films?
RSH: Harry Smith has to be the single biggest influence on my work, not just in my films and the “research” approach I take to filmmaking, but in my work as a record producer as well. His life was an amazing story — told very eloquently in Paola Igliori’s American Magus, which screens at the festival this year making its London premiere. Even the interviews Harry gave are pieces of art in themselves.
Harry paid attention. He saw the wiring under the board. Everything from ethnic musics to blues and jazz, kabbalah, Crowley, Thelema, angels, demons, mandalas, paper airplanes, kites, string games. The man was on top of everything; a true modern alchemist.
UFJ: Which filmmaker do you think best expressed spiritual issues through their films?
RSH: The biggest dividing line in terms of films that relate to “spiritual issues” is the perspective they take of the experience of spirituality itself. Either they exist as a first person account, being within the transcendental state, or they relate the story and imagery of the spiritual experience from a third person viewpoint. Often this “third person” take on spirituality is from someone who doesn’t have a real grasp on the nature of the spiritual experience but is drawn or attracted to the iconographic depictions of ritual and mysticism from one or multiple cultures.
I would have liked to have more room to screen films at the festival this year, but time is limited between the lectures and the live performances. In future years, the Equinox Festival will give broader attention to many of the filmmakers who might not make it into this year’s program. That is not to say we only appreciate the few we are screening this year, but that in order to give room for each filmmaker we have chosen only a small selection. Forthcoming years will give us time to outline the other filmmakers working in this field.
But there are dozens of filmmakers who approach this subject as widely as they do making films. Every aspect of discussion in relating to the experience of the beyond is something worth considering.
UFJ: Why do you think Aleister Crowley has inspired so many filmmakers, such as Kenneth Anger, Harry Smith and yourself?
RSH: Crowley is a rather fashionable character again at the moment. But he has always been a person of interest in the art communities. I think Crowley’s most attractive characteristic is that his persona, much of it fictionalized or exaggerated by both the press and Crowley himself, offers something for everyone. You have drugs, bisexuality, black magic, and a ‘rebel without a cause’ nature for the kids, but then as you grow up and actually read his writings you find an educated British scholar whose knowledge of cultural esoterism is both extensive and profound. I am convinced that much of the Crowley mystique was a product of the times in which he lived. From today’s perspective how radical is a man who is bi-sexual, smokes pot, and practices tantric yoga? Nobody is lining up to worship Woody Harrelson.
But there is something very big that separates Crowley from a modern public figure like Woody Harrelson. That thing is Thelema; Crowley’s biggest contribution to contemporary thinking. Thelema is both a philosophical speculation on reality and a contemporary religious model. Thelema is part of that bit that really catches on with the grownups. Once one begins to understand what Thelema is about it sinks in with many people who have already begun on the path of spiritual discovery.
I think in the long term Thelema will give Scientology a run as the “linux” version of the ‘new model conscious.’ The single best thing about Thelema is that nobody can say anything for certain beyond what was written by Crowley. It’s an open source religion.
UFJ: A good number of underground filmmakers in the ’60s seemed to be very concerned with spiritual and cosmic issues. Why do you think that’s fallen out of favor? Actually, do you think it’s fallen out of favor? Or is it just deeper underground?
RSH: I think in the ’60s the popular media played a much bigger role in the “conscious expansion” game than people give it credit for. A lot of it had to do with how famous people like George Harrison were looking at Eastern concepts about living. Another facet is that you had Leary and Kesey running around with different takes on acid drop esoterism. But basically people were being fed the idea that something was going on outside of themselves and that they could come into touch with that — by the T.V., radio and other popular media.
By the ’70s, things had started to drift in terms of popular culture. New drugs (cocaine replaced acid), new ideas (capitalism replace Buddhism), and different concerns about life. Punk came in and folk went out. But gearing up toward the millennium people started to think about the beyond again.
Not that everyone stopped thinking about it, but major media wasn’t focusing on it for 20 plus years. But then “the End is Near!” bit started up and people started getting back into thinking beyond themselves. Now you have Harry Potter outselling the Bible for the first time since the Gutenberg press and terms like ‘Occulture’ and ‘2012’ being tossed out on the nightly news. Not to mention Dan Brown pointing the finger at Masons, Catholics, and museum curators for secretly ruining the world.
Ultimately, I think it’s the 21st century and people are tired of being told what to think. We’ve had about 2000 years of that crap and it’s about time we started thinking for ourselves again. Sometime about 100,000 years ago a primate ate some plant and it changed they way that primate perceived reality. Again, about 80 years ago, specific things started to change the way humans perceived reality. It hasn’t stopped changing since and is developing at an unbelievable rate. We stand at the threshold of understanding who and what we are, and the way in which we will find that answer is through the merging of spirituality and technology into the single form we call art.
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Mike and Ray, this is an incredible interview! The questions presented are very incisive on the convergence of spirituality and art right now in 2009 . . . I especially am intrigued by your discussion of spirituality and technology. I have been considering my video art in transcendental terms lately, and I do not quite have the language to express that yet. This interview gets the blood flowing! Thanks!
Ray, have a beautiful, infinite Equinox Festival!
That’s all Ray’s doing. His smart, thoughtful answers just made my questions seem smart.
P.S. Thanks for turning me onto his work in the first place, Jen!