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Mark Sanders, Rudá Iandê and Justin Brown on Art, Anarchy and Shamanism

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A trialogue between the art impresario Mark Sanders, shaman Rudá Iandê and Ideapod founder Justin Brown.

Rudá Iandê

I am super happy that we are talking today about the arts, and especially about anarchy in the arts, not only anarchy as a movement but also anarchy as a free spirit, which is ready to break with the rules, mess things up, redefine hierarchies and bring fresh air to our broader culture and so let it evolve. The three of us work in completely different fields and yet we all share the same kind of anarchic spirit. We are not interested in following society’s rules and want instead to live according to our own terms. Art can encapsulate this sense of freedom I think. From my perspective, I see art as a form of shamanism, as a way for us to transcend the language of our basic mind and intellect and express things that come from the deepest essence of our being. Even when it is from the mind it can reach a place that words cannot. I see art therefore as a tool for alchemy, an element that has been present in our culture for so long, transforming it and helping it to evolve. What is your position on art and its connection to an anarchist spirit?

Mark Sanders

Thanks very much, Rudá, for that really interesting and insightful introduction to this talk. Art has always for me represented a form of intellectual and emotional freedom, a space of open and uninhibited dialogue. As far back as my time at University, I recall I was obsessed by the Situationist International and the memory of the May 1968 student protest movement. By the early 1990s, I found myself in the artistic center of things in London, being the Arts Editor for Dazed & Confused Magazine and collaborating directly with some of the leading contemporary artists of my generation. The words Be Reasonable, Demand the Impossible were etched on the silver ring I wore on my right hand. But to start our story together and further expand on what art and anarchy means to me it might be interesting to explain how we first met as this is a great example of living without rules.

We met by divine providence through the performance artist Marina Abramović who some readers might know through her seminal performance in New York The Artist is Present in which she sat motionless in the foyer of MoMA for three months straight connecting with members of the public only through the power of her gaze. Anyway, Marina invited me to come to Brazil for New Year in 2012. It was just me and her alone together and I had no idea what she was planning. So it was a case of blind faith in Marina that led me eventually to my first meeting with you in Curitiba and then onto a lifetime of friendship and brotherhood. I think that was probably your first experience of an artist of that kind of fame but what was really interesting was seeing how your shamanic practice mirrored in some way her own practice as a performance artist, the way you both work through energy and vibrational patterns, the way the body becomes the vehicle spiritual transformation.

Above: Cracow, Poland. Medicina in Art Exhibition by Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Rudá Iandê

Oh, yes! When the great artist Marina Abramović arrived at my home I had no clue who she was so it was fun and created the space for a very good and amazing connection. She is a woman who I deeply admire for both her work and for her personal power, for her unstoppable capacity of going beyond her inner limitations in order to raise herself to new levels and achieve great, amazing things inside her. I remember that during one of her lectures in São Paulo during her exhibition at SESC saying that she would always exhaust herself before her performances because only when she was completely drained could she access the reservoir of boundless universal energy that was not exactly hers but that surrounds us all. You are right Mark. As a shaman, I know this place and also operate from a place beyond my mind and my sense of self. For my work to happen I must get out of the husk that is my individuality and act through my heart, through love, connect with that universal energy that is so much bigger than me.

Mark Sanders

Yes. That’s amazing and what’s really interesting is that the universal energy that you and Marina are referring to is also linked to the anarchy of spirit we were talking about earlier. If we continue to use Marina’s work as an example then it is interesting to consider what it meant for a young woman in Yugoslavia in the late 1960s to dedicate her life to performance art. Think about what it means to be a performance artist. First and foremost it is about energy transferal and working through the physical body. This is something that cannot be bought or sold but only given. You yourself the artist become the art. Your body, your action, your movement and thought processes, everything in you becomes the starting point for a work of art, the transferal of energy through the artist to the spectator with the art being born through that interaction.

A really good example of this process is an early six-hour performance piece by Marina entitled Rhythm 0 which she completed in 1974. The work involved Marina standing still in the gallery while the audience was invited to do anything they liked to her. She declared herself the object and the audience the performers. On the table next to her were placed 72 objects, some very innocent like a rose or lipstick, others more challenging like a sharp knife or a razor blade, there was even a gun on the table and a single bullet. To begin with, people just stood around looking uncomfortable. They didn’t know what to do and or how to react. Slowly members of the audience went up to her and started to engage. Someone tied a rope around her, another whipped her with the rose. By midway through the performance most of her clothes had been cut off and the word End was written on her forehead and Slut written across her chest. The performance was finally stopped when the gun with the bullet in it was held to Marina’s head and her finger placed on the trigger. At that point, a fight broke out in the audience. The point of the whole piece being how normal everyday people react when they are confronted by passivity: they become violent.

I bring all that up because just as with an anarchy of spirit, here the act of performance becomes a life force… It is that same anarchistic spirit we see throughout the history of avant-garde art, a kind of raw creativity or energetical transferal between the artist and the spectator. In Marina’s case the vehicle for this transferal is her physical body but for many other artists it is through the art object itself which becomes a kind of talisman which can create an interface between two separate individuals. I think that is where the true anarchistic element, that notion of freedom of expression, freedom of communication and energy release really comes to the fore.

Rudá Iandê

I see in Marina a woman who has the wisdom of an ancient grandmother and the flame of an innocent child, just wanting to explore with curiosity herself and everything around her. It is in this place of curiosity that we meet and which becomes a space for learning more about life. The anarchist spirit also offers us that same sense of curiosity and freedom, the need to explore the inner and outer worlds that surround us, for growing and moving beyond.

Mark Sanders

It might be helpful here to talk a little bit about what we mean by the term anarchy. The correct definition of anarchy is not chaos due to the absence of government but rather a utopian vision of a society made up of free individuals who operate outside of any societal control. We talked about the anarchist spirit in art and indeed there is quite a prescribed historical connection between the arts and the anarchist movement. In 1871 just after the Franco Prussian War, the realist painter Gustave Courbet, lauded by the French bourgeois as being an exemplar of the French arts, became the acting President for the Artists Federation for the Paris Commune and was involved in the destruction of the Vendôme Column, a symbol of the Second French Empire. Camille Pissarro, a leading French Impressionist, also had strong anarchist leanings and Picasso was also certainly an anarchist at heart in the way he lived his life.

That anarchist spirit was further spearheaded by the avant-garde in the early 20th century. Movements such as Zurich Dada who operated out of Cabaret Voltaire from 1916 encapsulated the spirit of anarchy through the actions of Tristan Tzara or Hugo Ball’s Dadaist sound poems. Art became a form of direct defiance, a renouncing of traditional forms of social being through a celebration of the absurd in search of a new artistic and linguistic freedom. As the world engaged in insanity through the slaughter of millions in front line trenches, these artists encapsulated the anarchist spirit and declared the absurdity of life as lived by bourgeois society.

Further avant-garde groups such as the Surrealists continued to explore anarchist techniques, all the way up to the late 1950s in France and the inauguration of the Situationist International or ‘SI’ in 1957. These Situationists were an amazing collective of artists and intellectuals who came together in defiance of late Capitalist consumer culture and what they termed the Society of the Spectacle. The infiltration of money as spectacle into our everyday lives. The leader of the SI was called Guy Debord who wrote an incredible little book, also called Society of the Spectacle, in 1967, also another SI member Raoul Vaneigem, who wrote an important book called The Revolution of Everyday Life published in the same year. Both Debord and Vaneigem started to develop a consciousness of the hidden mechanisms of power that control us all and more importantly came up with distinct strategies aimed at subverting those power structure from within in order to create a space of freedom for all.

Above: The nobility of time – Salvador Dali

One of the main strategies that the SI developed was what they called détournement or the idea of reversal of perspective, of turning the mechanism of power back upon itself. Linguistically that could be encapsulated in the Situationist International slogan Be Reasonable, Demand the Impossible. It’s got its own subversion contained within the statement. You can only ever be reasonable to yourself if you demand the impossible. That in part taps into that anarchist spirit we were discussing, an attitude that the SI brought into their everyday activities in both life and culture.

The SI and their theoretical take on late Capitalist consumer culture were instrumental in the student protest movement that took place in Paris in May 1968. It was their connection to May 1968 which influenced the proto-Situationist activist group King Mob in London, to which a young Malcolm McLaren, future manager of the Sex Pistols, was loosely affiliated. Many of the SI ideas therefore percolated through McLaren into the development of the British Punk movement in the 1970s. That’s why you end up with the genius of the Sex Pistols releasing their single God Save The Queen in 1976 during Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee. If you listen to the lyrics of this single – God Save the Queen, She’s not a human being, and There’s no future, in England’s dreaming… – and you find a great example of anarchist or détourned subversion, of turning the mechanisms of power back upon themselves. That kind of energy that runs through a very pronounced avant-garde history all the way up to Punk in the 1970s and then on into the British contemporary art of the 1990s, represents for me the epitome of the anarchist spirit in art.

Justin Brown

Thanks, Mark, for bringing up the historical background to the relationship between art and social movements. It makes me think about the mechanisms of power in the modern age and how subtly that power is exercised. I think when we look back in history, there’s a relationship between anarchism in art and political regimes, where … for example, in the case of a monarchy, it’s super clear who the governing power is, so it’s very easy to locate where the spaces of freedom can be created, where we can redefine the rule book. In our current climate, it is less easy to put our finger on where that power is centered which is why I believe there is so much polarization. It’s just an incredibly confusing time to be alive and to try and find that connection that we all have to our own creative spirit. For me this is what I love most about anarchism, the principle that we can all be the source of our own authority, we can reject illegitimate hierarchies. One question I wanted to ask you Mark is how do you as an art consultant or curator identify who is a great artist with the anarchist spirit you are referring to or whether that is even a desire of yours. It seems to me that the people who get to define who or what an anarchist artist is often do so from a position of privilege.

Mark Sanders

That’s a super interesting question and it’s something that I reflect on constantly. One of the interesting things about the art world is that effectively it’s like a microcosm of the broader culture that encapsulates it. On one level, you have this privileging of art and celebration of the freedom of expression, raw creativity, etc., and on the other side, it’s all about money, a form of unregulated capitalism through which is engaged in the sale of desire, of selling this idea of freedom. The art world is therefore at its core schizophrenic, there is an inherent contradiction at its heart. Guy Debord and the SI knew this which was why in the early 1960s he expelled the artists from the French movement. That contradiction has also played its role in my own career. In the 1990s I was the arts editor for Dazed & Confused Magazine in London, attempting to subvert the style magazine format in order to showcase radical artists to a broader youth-orientated audience. Artists who would open up your eyes to the inner and outer worlds within all of us.

Performance art is a good example which was why I covered artists such as Marina Abramović or Paul McCarthy in Los Angeles. Artists that connect on a very real and visceral level. Equally, I covered artists like Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger whose work uncovers the way modern mediated culture tries to control us. Barbara Kruger for instance is famous for her détourned images and slogans where she appropriates newsprint images over which she introduces declarative advertising text. A good example would be I Shop Therefore I Am in the form of a red and white calling card being offered by a black and white disembodied hand. Barbara in the end collaborated with Dazed & Confused to create her own intervention inside the actual magazine.

This is what I find really interesting and when art is at its best, when it co-opts the language of our broader culture and turns it back onto itself. As the spectator, you not only get the message the artist is posing but you also start to recognize the mechanisms of power that are attempting to control you. Equally, the art world is also an environment where you can easily lose yourself. It can be very easy to go off in one direction and focus on making money for instance. Just look at Larry Gagosian with his myriad of galleries around the world. Art just becomes a business at that stage. You can also get lost as an artist. There are plenty of artists out there who at the beginning of their careers make some really thought-provoking work but then also get led astray by fame and money. Those artists usually adhere to what I term a Warholian strategy meaning they opt to become a neutral or flattering mirror to the culture around them, they reflect without any criticism and as such end up becoming an affirmation of style for popular consumer culture. That strategy has been used again and again, and it makes money. Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Murakami… The list just goes on and on.

Above: Visitors pass through a work of art entitled Complex Pile, by the American artist Paul McCarthy, during the exhibition Mobile M +: Inflation !, on the waterfront of the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong, China, May 19, 2013

For me instead the artists who I find inspiring have that original anarchist spirit that we have been discussing, they know how to co-opt the system of art, they understand how it works, but then they have something new to say at the end of it. A great example would be Marina but also Paul McCarthy whose giant dysfunctional sculptures show up the lie of American consumer culture, or if we are talking in the British art context I would include the Chapman Brothers amongst others. Artists who have something to say, who engage, understand the mechanisms of the broader culture around them but then are still able to create their own space of freedom of expression. So those were the kinds of artists I was engaged in with Dazed & Confused, artists who question the world around them. Now twenty-five years down the line we also have other problems to deal with including Climate Change. I think that will be one of the biggest challenges to the art world as we know it, to harness the power of art as a form of cross-cultural communication so that it might maintain its position as a functioning safety valve for expressive freedom.

Rudá Iandê

Fantastic. You just mentioned these two kinds of art, the art which just mirrors our society, and the art that challenges it and brings some fresh air and new perspectives. I wonder if this kind of challenging art, which is so revolutionary and transformational, if its effect only impacts the ones who are already connected or are a part of the art world, or if its impact can really make a change in the structures of our societies, in the sense that even those who never went to a museum or researched art could get impacted by it at the end.

Mark Sanders

I think art does have the capacity to make change, absolutely I do. I lived through that in London in the 1990s. As a country, the UK and London were pretty dead for the arts. I came to London first in 1988, and there was very little going on. Art was considered elitist. People tend to forget that in the UK at that time there had been a Conservative Government since 1979 and so there was this whole explosion of creativity that happened which was very exciting to witness. Jake & Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst, Sue Webster & Tim Noble, all of these young twenty or something artists were taking the lessons of Punk in the 1970s and then using the same attitude against the establishment in the art world and beyond. The culture elites. The language and spirit of Dada, going through Surrealism and on through the SI and into Punk and finally entering the British art world of the 1990s. It was a kind of amazing time to witness. And the journey continues. You could see the same anarchist spirit in some of the graffiti interventions by Banksy which also connect back to the Sex Pistol’s graphic design by Jamie Reid all the way back to the student poster designs of May 1968.

So all of that has happened in London in the last thirty years and the city has changed dramatically because of it. Art is now a major part of the dialog of London and it has also become a form of open conversation with much less elitist barriers. We now live in a much more secular society where art fills a much-needed gap. It gives space for a sense of spirituality which is often missing in the Western context. It also creates a space in which we can think about things that are often taboo in other areas of our culture. Way before the sexual and gender revolution in society we have witnessed in recent decades artists were pushing the boundaries in those areas. Those same ideas have now become part of the mainstream culture. In effect, art becomes like the canary in the coalmine. It sings when the culture is becoming too repressive. It requires us to remain vigilant. I think within a contemporary context art now plays a central role within Western democracies although one which is often ignored by the establishment. It encapsulates the ideal of free speech and expression that is a central tenant of democracy itself. In our current climate of lockdowns and encroachment on civil liberties, we realize more than ever that art is a form of expression that needs to be protected. It was fought for over decades. Many brave individuals and misunderstood artists from centuries past had to fight for that ground with their own blood, their innate and sacred energy, so we all have a responsibility to protect the space for freedom that they carved out for us.

Rudá Iandê

For sure. I know that it’s happening. In Brazil, the situation is really horrible with the rise of the far-right party and Bolsonaro. We are experiencing all sorts of policies against artists, against the arts. No money, closing down all the public space, canceling all the concerts with artists. They are basically trying to erase arts from our country. I see it as part of this ultra-conservative mentality and the methods to just take our humanity. It’s horrible. It comes together with no human rights, destroying the educational system, even the health system, and to just leave it for the market and capitalism to do what they will. They call it freedom. It’s not. I see it as the opposite of freedom so I am expecting to see art fight back. I see it as our responsibility as individuals, artists or not, not to let anybody, any ruler or any party, take away our humanity, to destroy what makes us so beautiful and so unique that we keep breathing, keep finding our own way. Despite all the political stuff, there are things we can do on a daily basis on how we live our lives with our hearts. We can choose to just engage with the system and be a part of it as it is, or we can start writing our own story and live a more human life based on much more profound and meaningful principles than only money.

Mark Sanders

Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. It’s really interesting. We started this conversation talking about spirituality and art so I want to read out a powerful quote from a book I was reading this morning. The quote is simply as follows; “Art is important, for it commemorates the seasons of the soul, or a special or tragic event in the soul’s journey. Art is not just for oneself, not just a marker of one’s own understanding. It is also a map for those who follow after us.” I think that’s so pertinent, because effectively, art is a form of liberation of the self, through challenging yourself, challenging your own internal forms of control, the control that we impose on ourselves by ourselves as opposed to the control that we have imposed on us. Art is a way out of that. It is a way of exploring what those inner mechanisms of control are, recognizing them, and freeing ourselves up from them, but it’s also a signpost for the broader culture and for those that come after us, the next generations, to show them the path. Art is therefore some kind of map of the mind, a map of the heart, a map of the spirit.

Mark Sanders

It’s interesting but I think we’re going to need that spiritual consciousness more than ever before because the challenges that we’re all going to have to face in the next decades are going to be immense. The French art theorist and Minister of Culture in the 1960s, André Malraux wrote something which I think is very pertinent. He wrote, “The 21st century must be spiritual, or it will not be.” And that is the point. Without spiritual evolution we are not going to get to the end. We just won’t be. I think that art and anarchist spirit, that do-it-yourself spirit that doesn’t take no for an answer, that remains curious, that pushes the boundaries around it and wants to understand the culture that it’s in, to change it from within, to turn it into something else, something more positive, won’t allow the powers that be to straitjacket us and silence us. I think that is going to be one of the central beliefs that we need to hold onto going into this 21st century. We have to maintain our consciousness on that front and I think that art is the vehicle for how we can do that.

Above: Painting of the departmental park in Paris by Andre Malraux Nanterre.

Justin Brown

I think that you guys have summed it up beautifully. I just want to share one reaction to what was just said. I feel like I’m a novice when it comes to the arts, just because I’ve never focused much on it. I do feel like there’d be many members of the Ideapod community who end up reading this article who may be in a similar position to me, and become really inspired to start to explore art more, to see it as an expression of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. When we talk about defunding the arts with various conservative governments around the world, there’s a big difference between defunding the arts and criminalizing the arts. We do stand on the shoulders of many generations that have come before us to fight for these freedoms that we do have today, and it’s very important to recognize that there’s a huge amount of freedom that we have to create these new forms of art and that it’s a really interesting time as governments start to go bankrupt, potentially, especially during the pandemic with recessions all over the world, that there’s a real restructuring of where the arts get funded from.

What really excites me about the current period of time is the current restructuring of social, political and economic life. We’re not living under oppressive regimes that overtly restrict the possibilities we have before us. Rather, the oppression comes from more hidden forces. It comes from the expectations we have about what is possible.

This makes it fascinating to think about the kinds of arts that will emerge and inspire people during this restructuring. I see the possibility for new kinds of art forms to help people deeply connect with their anarchic spirit, inspiring a whole new set of possibilities with the world we are creating.

Mark Sanders

It’s true, one of the things that I’ve been really seriously thinking about recently is how to create and utilize my position to maybe create a space, as I did back in the 1990s with Dazed & Confused Magazine, to create an artist retreat which might combine art as well as other methods of mind expansion such as plant medicine or shamanic intervention. That was one of the things that was so inspirational when Rudá first met Marina Abramovic, a performance artist meeting a shaman. I would love to create a space where that transferal of knowledge and energy could take place, with art, with Ayahuasca, with lots of different elements all intermingled together, maybe with a focus on ecology, etc. As for your question about the funding of the arts, the arts don’t always have to be funded by a government. The art world is also totally capable of creating its own environment. Back in the 1970s artists were creating their own communes, making their own micro societies. Maybe that’s one of the routes that contemporary art will take in the future. We will see.

Justin Brown

I feel being open to that possibility is what’s fascinating about the current times. I’ve got a question for you. In twenty years from now who are the artists or art movements that we will look back on as being an important part of the conversation, the art or artists who made a difference?

Mark Sanders

I think any art that’s self-conscious but not in a cynical fashion. It goes back to our conversation before. I think art that opens our eyes to the world around us and the forms of manipulation and control that surrounds us, opens our eyes up to things that we have lost in our lives, such as human warmth, touch, or spirituality as opposed to work that just plays the game of the art world. It is important to understand that art is like a game. It is possible to come into the art world just for the status or the money, that goes or artists and collectors both. This is the part of the schizophrenic side of art that we all have to navigate through. Many artists and collectors are though challenging this short-sighted approach. Collectors are setting up their own Foundations, building their own Museums and as such they are creating their own artistic hubs which I think is a very interesting approach, a lot more interesting than paying hundreds of millions of dollars for a painting only to place it on your living room wall where very few people can experience it. I think therefore that we are all going to have to stand up and be counted.

For me, the artists who are going to be vital in the future will be those who helped take the veil from before our eyes. The notion that we can all continue to live our lives as passive consumers or that world capitalism will continue just as it is forever is deluded. We are going to hit a brick wall very soon and I think that artists have a role to play in helping us work our way through this necessary process. Art that is simply about playing the game and making money I see as having little future in the long term.

Justin Brown

I do feel that today’s been a very good conversation and also very focused and clear navigation through those themes. I think there’s a lot we can create from this. It’s certainly helped me personally to situate my own self as it relates to the creative endeavors and what art can be, so it’s been very positive for me.

Rudá Iandê

One thing that comes to me hearing all of this is the deep commitment, knowledge, work and self-discipline that they put into their art for these anarchist artists to really create and impact our society. Some of us can have a wrong idea of anarchism and think it is just an absence of rules but it is not. It’s an attitude. It’s fighting a preconceived establishment, and for that approach to be successful, it requires energy, discipline and strategy.

Mark Sanders

That’s right. The anarchist strategy is the creation of a society of individuals and the art world is exactly that. As you say Rudá it takes energy, attitude, and self-discipline. The easiest thing to do is to work within the system, that is the way the system has been designed. Just do what you’re told and everything will be fine. There are many people who I think are now, to coin a phrase, ‘waking up’, who are coming out of their deep sleep and realizing that it’s just not enough, playing by the rules doesn’t fulfill them enough, that we need to be honest with and honor ourselves, our own humanity and our own spirituality, and to do that we need to live. The idea of living a life half asleep is just not an option. It takes energy, power, and commitment to open your eyes and AHO to that.

Rudá Iandê

AHO. I think you are right. Especially nowadays, we have so many temptations. The system can give us every sort of distraction and dreams to pursue, and we can easily spend our lives playing a game which is not really ours, and giving ourselves over to a system which ends up eating our soul. I find everything we have been talking about, all this art, inspiring, reminding us to keep our souls alive instead of just sitting there half-asleep and playing this soul-consuming game.

Mark Sanders

It’s not just consuming our souls but it is consuming the whole world around us too.

Rudá Iandê

It’s true.

Mark Sanders

It’s consuming everything. It’s like a virus gone mad. It is our ultimate responsibility to recognize that and act accordingly.

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