We live most of our lives in a trance: an interview with Matt Mullican

Interview prepared by Edith Jeřábková and Eva Kot’átková.

Performative lectures are an integral part of your artistic work. How was this specific format born, which for a while looks like a classical presentation with pictures and commentary, and then turns into a performative performance, during which you go through different levels of consciousness and get into a hypnotic state?
I studied at the California Institute of the Arts with John Baldessari, and our studio was very verbal. There were a lot of lectures, discussions, arguments and passion. I’m not an academic, and I generally don’t feel comfortable in school. However, as a young person I lived in that environment. My first ever lecture, however, was to my father’s family in Oklahoma. I lectured to my grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, and cousins who knew nothing about art. It was the mid-seventies. When I was a student at CalArts, I experienced a lecture by Richard Serra. He lost his slides and couldn’t show any pictures. He only had a whiteboard and it was the best lecture ever! I made a note to myself that I wanted my lectures to start at ground zero. So in the first part of the lectures I draw, in the second come the pictures and in the third come the video. At the beginning I’m in an empty space and I have to tell the audience who I am and what I do. The pictures act as a false memory, but they are very accurate. I see myself performing in that medium and I comment on it.v

Why is the term “performative” important to you?
When people hear me speak, they feel that they don’t understand me. They understand what I say, but they don’t know where I am when I say it. I’ve developed a theory that maybe I have attention deficit disorder. I’m so affected by where I am that I have to keep my eyes closed. So when people see me talking, they think I’m in a trance. And I am, because I’m demonstrating what it means to tell a story. It’s like playing music. When I see musicians, they often have their eyes closed. Over time, lectures have become my artistic material. They describe my work very literally, but they also demonstrate my relationship to that work and articulate it better than any object could. That’s why I call them performative.

Your Prague lecture was about the birth of the at person, a person of unclear gender and age who speaks through you, creates artworks and so on. Under what conditions is it possible to let at Person speak, and what kind of world does it report to us?
A fairly accurate description of at Person is “it”, because it is neither male nor female, neither young nor old. It is neither black nor white, it has no nationality. I call it at Person to distinguish it from her. She was first introduced in 1982. At that time I had been performing for about five years. She clearly said at the time, “I’m not young or old, and I’m not Matt.” I remember how I felt when that came out. Being in a hypnotic trance is a strange state, you feel like you’re on drugs. Although the drug is a chemical, it functions as a symbolic structure in the brain. So who am I in a hypnotic state? Who is this person? Entering a trance is similar to the experience of hallucinogenic mushrooms. It elevates your concentration to such a level that nothing is boring. You can look at a glass of beer for five hours and find it fascinating and ridiculous, and your whole body will feel that it’s great. That’s kind of how At Person was born. But its current form didn’t emerge until around 2005, when I named it too. They expected my brain to be red or blue, for the readings to change from hot to cool or something. But in the trance it was neither hot nor cold, neither blue nor red. It was white. There were no peaks or dips. My work is also very structured. I’ve been working with the same characters and ideas for maybe forty years. At Person allows me not to understand what I’m doing – it’s like looking for ground zero. And when I say zero, I’m really thinking of Claes Oldenburg and his 1961 text I Am for an Art, where he says, “I am for art that grows without knowing it is art. Art that has the possibility of starting from the point of zero.” At Person helps me do exactly that.

You mentioned that sometimes your children alert you to the fact that the other one is “out there”, that they are talking out of you at Person. How does that manifest itself?
Hypnosis allows you to descend deep into the subconscious. But there is also a feedback loop, something comes back. I first noticed it on a family vacation in Vietnam. My daughter was sitting across from me, I was paying the bill, and she was filming me on the phone. Then she told me I should see something. I was under the impression that I normally took out my wallet, paid the waiter and everything went as it should. But when I looked at the video, I looked like a cheapskate, like a character from a Dickens novel. My face was twisted, I looked like a weirdo, I was contorted like a cartoon character. My daughter said to me, “Daddy, you’re crazy.” The kids call this face of mine “rat face”. We’re walking down the street and I think I’m fine, and suddenly a rat! They watch me like this. at Person comes back. at Person was also interviewed by Artforum magazine. I was in a trance, answering questions, and my daughter came in, it was weird. at Person is an aspect of my personality. In a lecture, it’s good to see how my body changes when at Person appears – but that’s how we all change when we watch films. We become the characters we look at. We enter the picture. I’ve been talking about this since 1973, when my first performance related to hypno-nosis was entering the image: my mind enters and walks around. I’m eleven years old, it’s early in the morning, it’s noon, it rained last night. No, I am fourteen, it is eleven o’clock in the morning. I’m 14, I’m the elder son and I’m privileged, I don’t have to work. After the performance, everyone in the audience told me that they entered there too, because in the commentary I emphasized the temperature, the time of day, the point of view in the painting… This way of looking at the painting relates to virtual reality, it’s a real entry into virtual reality. I was one of the first artists to deal with virtual space. I’m very interested in how we think and through what. Do we think in words or in images? I believe that thinking becomes very emotional when we have difficulty with intellectual algorithms. When a mathematician solves a mathematical problem and forgets the result, they have to go back and solve it again – and that is also an emotional journey. When you treat that kind of speed and intensity of thinking, intuition kicks in. Emotions and feelings. And that’s what I’m interested in.

Do the works you create yourself differ from those in which That Person takes the lead? That Person has a different approach, a different personality, it’s not me. He believes in love and truth, which I never did. He gives a different perspective to the projects. He doesn’t have to construct big concepts like I did in my work. It’s very concrete. He doesn’t create models. My work has to be precise, it takes place in modes, everything has its meanings, colors, sizes. At Person allows me not to know what I am doing – or rather what she is doing. It allows me simple and direct ways of self-expression.

As part of the Anxiety Institute program, we also reached out to Lisa Forestell of Hearing Voices Movement, an organization representing people with psychiatric experience who have chosen to live with their voices and not silence them with medication. How do you see hypnosis in the context of psychiatric care?
Do you mean the political, manipulative aspect of hypnosis? I’ve been criticized quite a bit for using hypnosis. A lot of people think I’m about control, power over other people. Of course, those aspects are connected to it. But I started hypnosis because I wanted to create a theatre in which the actors believed they were the characters they were playing. A kind of alternate reality was being performed. The performance took place at the e Kitchen Centre sometime in the late seventies. I hired a hypnotist I found in the newspaper. Three actors acted out individual lines from a text I read at a lecture in Prague. It was the most horrible and strange performance. Many people were shocked. The first performer was a woman who was both black and white, and she acted out her birth. The second actor was an Indian and the third actor was a very effeminate man. When you’re acting in a trance, you’re not acting normally. You’re acting like a caricature.

Did you see that coming?
It was surprising. I was absolutely terrified. In the next performance I had already hypnotized myself, because I was accused of being a manipulative fool, that it was all about power and control. From then on I only let myself be hypnotized. When you look at people in trance, the strangest thing is that they are blind and yet they can see. They never bump into each other. It’s because you’re there and you’re not. Two parts of the brain playing together, both present. Your brain is neither on nor off, it is neither here nor there, it is everywhere and it is on and off at the same time. My memories of trance are very vivid. I am not unconscious, but I am acting unconsciously.

At the end of your performative lecture you enter a state of self-hypnosis through a projected recording of yourself in a hypnotic state. How do you achieve such a state? You describe somewhere that it is like entering a virtual reality. How difficult is it to move between the worlds of reality and hypnosis?
I rarely do hypnosis nowadays because I am tapping into my subconscious, which can be dangerous and requires responsibility. I used to do it every day of the week. And for a week, three times a day. In the seventies, when I started working with hypnosis, my motivation was to create real theatre. That’s also when Werner Herzog made the film Heart of Glass, in which the actors are in a hypnotic state all the time and look very robotic. Halfway through in the seventies, it was a way for me to deal with the everyday. I felt like I was always in a trance. I was aware of that, so I let myself go into a real trance. But I can’t do it often. In a few performances I did it and I felt that I was being exploited, that it was seen as some kind of curiosity. So when I work with hypnosis now, it has to be meaningful, the audience must not feel that they are watching a circus. I don’t want it to become a spectacle, I’m not doing it for anyone’s curiosity. I want people to think about what they are watching and also to feel what I am doing on stage. You can’t do that three times a year. I myself haven’t even seen the performance I did this year at Hangar Bicocca. It takes me a year, sometimes longer, to watch it because it makes me physically sick. What I say in a trance state is very revealing. I can reveal the deepest secrets in the process. People are embarrassed when they see what I do. It’s like I’m stripping down and showing my body in all its ugliness. And the mental body is both more powerful and more vulnerable than the physical body. The audience is really uncomfortable about it, and it’s getting worse. When a young man descends into the subconscious, it’s different: he explores the world, the psyche, the body, and his place in the world. But when an old man does it, it’s much more disturbing, just because of the vulnerability. He’s weak, he’s forgetful, he’s sad, he’s clumsy. But part of the project is that I confront the audience with that. And when it goes wrong, and it does, it has a strong impact on my personal life.

You explore the relationship between the subject and the world through systematic systematization and categorization. You have developed your own cosmology and a system of signs and symbols for all of reality. For example, you designate the five categories of the universe with five colors: green for material elements and nature, but also for death and hell; blue for everyday life and the world unframed by art and science; yellow for objects framed by culture and science; black for language and signs; and red for subjectivity, ideas, spirituality, and also paradise. You are trying to show that understanding the world is a subjective construction. But how is subjectivity connected to systematization, and moreover to the social? What are the limits of subjectivity?

There are two ways of looking at the world. It depends on whether or not I’m standing at the center of the universe. They both coexist. In today’s world, I choose subjectivity. But whenever I open my phone, I have to enter a code. To open anything, I have to keep entering codes. But I’m for poetry, for the unaccountable. You can’t say, “Art is about this and it’s this.” Art is much more abstract. And I’m for abstraction. Politics is not about poetry, it’s about facts, and facts are junk. Because if you declare that everything is factual, and you don’t give room for subjectivity, then everything becomes literal information that you can manipulate, and you get into trouble. When I started working on my signs, there were no computers, there was no internet. But if you look at my early work, you get the impression that it existed. You see all these international characters and symbols that create certain meanings and thus form a kind of interface design. My references were different from other artists of the 1980s. I have my own cosmology and the basic questions are: where do I go after death, where was I before I was born? My work is not about images, it’s about the brain. Images don’t exist physically, they only exist mentally, they exist primarily in our minds, only secondarily as physical objects. People think I’m a fool who invented my own language, religion… But I show them icons on my mobile phone and tell them: it’s the same as here.

Can we understand public performance in hypnosis as a form of activism on a subconscious level?
I believe there is activism present, but it is an activism that relates to the rest of my work. It’s an activism that relates to the question of what it means to be an artist. I don’t think there’s room for anyone else. That’s not the way to connect with the subconscious. It’s simply a demonstration of a possible alternative. We are all far more creative than we think. Our minds are constantly playing games and slowing down processes. What does it mean to be at Person? My body does what it does, it falls into patterns of physical behavior, but there is no depression present, no anxiety. I do not question the status quo of my ow n mind. I am simply responding to an impulse that I believe is essential for me to be alive. When you go deeper, things simply slow down and get darker. My friend Lawrence Wiener doesn’t like At Person. During one of our arguments he said that she was nothing specific. Of course it is not specific, because we live most of our time in trance. Actually, trance is a normal state. Often we are not where we think we are. We think we are in the living room, but our mind is elsewhere. Lawrence, however, disagrees with the whole notion of my entering another reality. He feels it shouldn’t be made into an exotic affair. It should be very simple – and that is what I want to do.The interview was conducted on the occasion of Matt’s recent performative lecture at the Prague Trade Fair Palace, organized by the Institute of Anxiety in collaboration with the National Gallery Prague.

You can also read the interview in the print and online version of the independent cultural fortnightly A2 – www.advojka.cz

Realized with the financial support of the City of Prague and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic.