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Jesse Bransford Text


When/how did you first learn of ayahuasca?
I guess I was 16 or 17 when I first heard about ayahuasca, but that wasn’t the name I knew it as. I read Burroughs’s The Yage Letters about that time, after reading Naked Lunch. I had of course started reading Burroughs by reading Queer and Junkie, so I was really interested in what happened that could cause the rupture that is Naked Lunch. In retrospect I also realize that The Yage Letters functioned as an extension of my childhood adventure narratives; what fascinated me at the time was that the book was not Middle Earth or Starfleet—it was “real”; it was in the world. It opened up a lot of possibilities for me.

I learned about the physical properties of ayahuasca later, in the mid- to late ’90s. I was gathering images of psychotropic molecules and found dimethyltryptamine, which was new to me. It was being talked about in terms of plant-based shamanism and they kept talking about ayahuasca. When I learned part of the mixture was made from a vine I realized it had to be the same thing as Burroughs’ yage. It was interesting because this was pre-internet and I remember how slow it was getting those two points into convergence.

Is this the first plant to enter your vocabulary?
I had been thinking a lot about plants in general since about 2001. Friends of mine were getting very involved with naturalism and being outdoors (a few amateur mycologists among other interests). I spent a lot of time outside camping and hiking as a kid, but since moving to NY the focus had been pretty confined to art and books and thinking. These friends started getting me plants and I really enjoyed taking care of them, and it got me thinking about being outside. So with these friends and their outdoor activities, I was finding myself outside more and more. I guess the real trick has been getting that part of my life into my thinking, reintegrating it after all of this city life. Going to the jungle and working with Norma certainly did that.

It seems this is your most analytical body of work yet.
Ha! I was imagining this as being my “loosest” work yet, but I suppose you can meet it at either end of the spectrum. Whichever end it lands on, I would say that it is definitely my most “out on a limb” project to date. I got back from Peru and three weeks later I was still stunned (I’m still stunned, actually). I thought at the time “I have to document this.” I was really confused about a lot of things and yet felt a clarity I had not felt in a long, long time. I decided to pause in the long-term project I’ve been working on for the past five years and explore that confusion/clarity in as many ways as I could. Perhaps the feeling of analysis is my natural self (heady, verbal) trying REALLY hard to let go and get to the other side of something.

Well, the paint application is definitely looser than it has been, more expressive too. Was that going on pre-Peru or did it all develop post-Peru?
When I started all this work about the planets as symbolic structures, I began applying washes as a way to question the star fields. It had been washes up until 2007 and I had been thinking about them as abstract effects like in pre-digital film. Well, after Peru when I went back to the studio I saw this use of material in a completely different light. Put succinctly, the washes were material again! I couldn’t see them as anything other than things on the paper that were traces of my body. Which of course has been in the work all along, but seeing it this way made the washes have a presence I had not been seeing in them before. I also realized that there was an opportunity to really play with how the images I was using were made, and this led to all sorts of new recognitions.  Graphite lines, for example, took on a new relation, becoming a layering tool as well as a way to talk about the way I was drawing the image over a period of time. All obvious stuff, and it sounds dumb on the page, but I think it looks different than it sounds.

The ayhuasca experience—despite your reading and research, was it different than you expected?
The experience was like nothing I could have imagined; simultaneously more actual and concrete than I expected and wholly alien and otherworldly. Most of what I expected to see/feel is what they call chuma (drunkenness), which is commensurate with what I understood as psychedelic experience, a sort of disorientation that amplifies over time and creates visual field distortions, synesthesia, etc. The chuma is also where the nausea and vomiting typically occur. What follow the chuma are generally called pinturas (paintings), and this was completely off the scale of what I knew or expected. The visions were tangible and present in a way I could not have imagined. They were (and I have to say still are) objectively real to me. An aspect of the experience I completely (and naively) underestimated was the presence of the shaman. Norma was extremely present, singing, chanting and talking, as well as performing various rituals in and around the group. How present she was at any given moment had an enormous effect on my mental state, both visually and psychologically. When she was singing, for example, the image repertoire of the pinturas was completely different. I found out later that different songs are supposed to evoke different pinturas. Some songs are evocative of certain plants, animals, etc. There would also be periods where we were left alone to our own thoughts, and the cast of the pinturas would become more personal, and the image repertoire would change again. The control Norma exercised over what went on was pretty unbelievable. In retrospect I feel like an idiot for underestimating that aspect of the experience. It is actually what has had the most staying power. The way her images merged with mine created a whole new universe for me.

The visual anomalies in this body of work are the dice drawings. Would you comment on how they interface?
Looking at my work after my return from Peru I realized that the chance relations in the work had been pretty hidden by the other ideas I was trying to get into. I wanted to reinvent the terms of my appropriation, of how people imagined the connections were being made (they are made in all sorts of ways). Games have always been a nexus for thinking about these issues for me, and I liked how the roll of a pair of dice could free my linear thinking up, force me to be even more disjointed. I wanted to try to capture the spontaneity I feel when I work with images. It seemed like a really dumb thing to do so I knew that I must be on to something. The index cards, in their note-taking associations, really connected with the montage style of thinking I was trying to get across. So the experiment became a habit and I kept doing them, but I didn’t realize how much they informed the work until I started showing them to people. For all of the chance built into the structure and the thinking, a surprisingly coherent structure still evolves, it always does, but it was a surprise how visible it was to people looking at them: I feel like this is the subterranean process by which a lot of the meaning we come to is made.

Around 1994, while at the New School, you made a decision to get a B.A. in the history of sciences. Is what you thought that would lead you to where you have gone?
I had always intended to get a B.A. concurrent with my B.F.A., but the decision to pursue the history of the sciences was a strange one. I realized in high school that I didn’t have the mathematical chops for science, but I understood enough to be inspired by a sense of wonder that drove my interest. One of my mentors in that study really encouraged what he called my philosophical temperament, so I found science pushing further and further into what I guess we would call the mystical. I also recognized how separated the arts had generally become from this kind of thinking. While I think I’m probably pretty far from what most people think of as science, I got here via the empiricism of the enlightenment and all of the problems that line of thinking brings to the fore. Looking at the pre-Socratics through to Hume traces a line that champions where we have gotten with science and materialist thinking, but these thinkers would probably be horrified at the barren place existentialism leaves the self. So, for this self anyway, it has become about trying to imagine the paths not taken for possible ways of looking at and thinking about our being here. So I guess it’s leading in a pretty clear path in that sense . . .


Is there a philosophy or theory about the nature of reality that you subscribe to?
Hmmm. That’s a tough question for someone who’s always mashing things together. The things I keep finding myself drawn to seem ultimately to be about the relationship between a part and its whole. I think there are a few theories of the universe bound up in that idea, although I would not say I have a very coherent description of those relationships yet.

Your setting is seemingly constant, the stars, outer space, the heavens . . . what’s that about?
I actually tried to remove the stars from my vocabulary at one point a few years ago and it was extremely difficult. I think the stars remind me (and hopefully the viewer) that the backdrop I’m thinking about is everything, that these are ideas I’m working with. In my studio I often find an image or subject that I try to back away from for whatever reason and the stars remind me that if it is a part of the universe then I can use it. These “problem” ideas or images usually produce the most interesting results.

I understand that you are systematically arranging your bodies of work around an investigation of the planets. How did you come to use them as an organizing principle?
The easy answer is reading. My reading over the years has continually returned to them; in historical, magical, scientific, fantasy and sci-fi reading, the planets were always there. I realized that they have always been there in the sky to spark our imaginations, no matter what worldview you are approaching them from. So in that sense they are operating as a constant for my investigations to be directed in and around.

Is astrology lurking?
Absolutely, though I have to confess that I haven’t even had my chart done yet. Every time I try to get involved, I immediately get confused by some controversy (topical or sidereal, for example) and I never know which way to go. Someone asked if the shows were in confluence with the planet that I was referring to and the answer is no—if they were, the meaning could be fixed on that point and I’m avoiding that sort of fixity as much as possible.

Most of your references seem rather antiquated—why look to the past?
It’s funny, I always think of these images as absolutely now. I blame that on the Internet. I think culturally we are in a strange relationship with the future at the moment. All of our models of the future seem antiquated. Even my references to the space program are fifty years old. I’ve been focusing most of my thinking on places in the past that looked something like our own, the 2nd century AD for example. I’ve been looking at that moment in time for a while now, and it gets a little more relevant with each social/political catastrophe I live through.

I expect most people don’t know so much about most of your images and references. How important is an understanding of the information to an appreciation of the art?
I don’t know everything about the images I’m using, and I think that’s true of any of the historical personages who have used them. For me the use of them is an exploration, and what I hope for from the viewer is the same sense of wonder and potentiality that I feel when I use them, maybe even a curiosity that leads them to an Internet terminal when they get home...

Your palette here is limited and quite specific. Is it specific to the planet, the body of work, the emotional state, the...?
Color has always been the most difficult aspect of the work for me. I learn something every time I put down a tone and it is very confusing, but it has also recently been very rewarding. For several almost arbitrary reasons I made Mercury orange. That said, other colors are used, but always in reference to orange. In the same way that the topic has focused my use of images and ideas, the planet is making color decisions as well.

For at least three years, the column has been a floating project; would you say some-thing about its significance and function in the body of work?
A column is a support structure and as such becomes a representation of power. A freestanding column is in this sense functionless and suggests a ruin—the endgame in any play with power. This idea of power is, I think, one of the great secrets that various teachings impart. I think it is one of the first that I learned (if I have learned any “secrets”). The freestanding column is a monument, not to a lost seat of some power, but to an idea that survives and is dormant, waiting for people who look for such ideas.


Why work on the wall or on big paper and not stretched canvas? Why draw and not paint?
I think there is a big difference between the way a drawing and a painting read. I have a feeling that the distinction is purely historical, but a painting has an unquestionable quality that a drawing does not. I was never interested in these pieces saying something definitive – I’m more interested in suggestions - and drawings do that in a way that painting just can’t. It’s as if the drawing is only a suggestion of what the image could be.

Seems you've got sexual aggression dominating the penetration of space; is it horror vaccuii?
For me aggression is sexual by definition. I think the moment I started demarcating spatial relationships is when aggression entered the picture. Space and distance are the real reason we have created the awful boundaries that make up the 'social' connection between sex and aggression. That allows for the relation of 'us' and 'them,' the basic structure of a power relationship. Once you get issues of power on the table it becomes impossible to suppress the sexual content that exists between any two or more objects in a visual frame. As for horror vacuii, I guess the trend toward visual multiplicity reflects an urge to show how much more there is between a subject and object.

How were you introduced to B.Ö.C, why the focus, and what are some of the things in their music which sustained your year long project?
I had known about the Blue Öyster Cult since childhood, but I never knew any of the music beyond the two radio hits. About two years ago I started trying to find the 'origin' of the heavy metal genre, something deeply connected to my teen years. The B.Ö.C. came up early on, and I had a really hard time with them.They are so weird - possibly one of the strangest bands of all time. That to me made them extremely attractive from the outset. As I learned more and more about them (and got completely sucked in) I found all of these points of convergence with other ideas I had been thinking about.
The most fascinating aspect of the band for me is the cosmology that they fashioned for themselves, a cosmology mapped out most clearly in their album "Imaginos". It’s trans-historical and non-linear, and deals with many of the thought-worlds I’ve been working with. It seemed for a while that every interest I have is referenced somewhere by the Öyster boys, a fact that honestly sort of frightens me. Those interested in further info on the B.Ö.C. I would direct to the B.Ö.C. FAQ at: http://members.aol.com/bocfaqman/

Why such a limited and specific palette?
Color was an extremely difficult transition to make from black and white. I had to have a reason for it that was not purely visual. Experiment after experiment led me to the realization that color could be used as another graphic element, that it could carry information the same way the images themselves are. I’ve also been using it as a way of distinguishing objects that are on top of one another and making the idea of layering visually important.

Has your conception of time, especially linear time, been eroding as to what happens in your art making?
The more I work, the more blurred distinctions become, particularly temporal ones. This was the root of the problem that let me stumble into the B.Ö.C. as a subject matter in the first place. At the point I started these I had thoroughly contaminated the subjects I was pulling the imagery from (Star Trek, Heaven's Gate, etc.). I was totally paranoid in my thinking and I had lost my bearings as to how these images related to one another (a holistic meltdown, where everything means everything...). I was no longer separating the imagery by subject or historical context. The images were perilously close to becoming empty, purely visual. Ultimately the problem was a productive one in that I had to tear everything back down before I could begin again.


Pictured Information
Visual information can allow for a nonlinear interpretation of any given element. Instead of one word following another in a narrative, any single image can interface with any other image in the visual field. That’s not to say there aren’t visual systems that have their own ‘language,’ and that’s something I’m thinking about a lot when I incorporate two more specific visual systems, like a technical schematic and a computer interface.

The World Wide Web
Something I think has been misunderstood about the web is this notion of all information being equal on the web. My experience of the medium suggests not a leveling of information, but a reorganization of the way we interface it. I remember when I was a kid spending hours in the library, learning how to find things there: originally we learned the Dewey Decimal System, which organized all of the books into general categories. It took a long time to learn how the system worked, and even then I still did a lot of the navigation by space rather than the actual system. Then the library switched to the Library of Congress system, which has many, many more categories than the DD system did. It was cataclysmic in that I could no longer find anything. As frustrating as it was, I stumbled on a lot of really interesting things I don’t think I would have found otherwise. I think that is where we are with the web right now, that point before the organizational system is really in place. I think it’s a temporary condition, but amazing things have come of it, personally speaking.

I’m really interested in the moment of realization that occurs when your assumptions about something are destroyed by actually looking at what is in front of you. The ‘is it two black faces or one white chalice’ images from visual psychology really strike me in the way that something visual can be one thing one instant and then be something completely different the next. What fascinates me is that the image can never be both, it’s always one or another, and that we can see both only in time, by actually focusing on what it is we are looking at, and then realizing that there is more than one visual system at work. That’s what abstraction is to me, the act of bringing an image forth and allowing it to reveal its fractured nature.

Creating a sense of depth or volume in a two-dimensional plane has always been, to me, the everlasting paradox: I always think of the book Flatland, a story about a being in two dimensions given the revelation of three...I try not to consciously create a space, and I’ve learned how objects themselves create a space in relation to one another by our visual assumptions. By ignoring traditional Western perspective and using imagery that refers to space in a schematized manner, perceived ‘space’ will collapse on itself given further inspection.

It’s a notion I can only begin to relate to when I think of ideas. I mean, you can’t imagine a body or a thing in those terms, it’s a very metaphysical concept. It becomes interesting when you look at the history of ideas, then you realize that it was all there from the beginning, that every ‘new’ idea has an analog somewhere in the past. It jars the here and now attitude, the obsession with the contemporary. I like wrestling with the notion because it puts our immediate surroundings on the same level as any daydream, novel or half-baked what-if scenario.

Stuart Davis’s paintings
I had never thought of making a direct connection with his work, but I can see some connections, especially with reference to abstraction. I could never really pay attention to the subject of his work because I was so inundated with what other people thought his work represented. There always seems to be a Mondrian in the eyeshot of one of Davis’s works in a museum, and I remember having that ‘what is abstraction’ revelation making the transition between the two.

This goes back to the idea of timelessness from before. If you look at our attempts to represent information visually, you recognize how similar the languages and the content are throughout time. Astrological charts from the Middle Ages look strikingly similar to modern astronomy maps, partly because there is a history linking them, but also because the diagram attempts to present the information in the most efficable manner. When you look at these similarities and differences in the context of time, the ‘facts’ presented become so seated in their time, so subjective. As for the future, I love how bound our dreams are to our present and past. The differences between the original Star Trek and The Next Generation for example, both worlds have such different visions of the same ‘future.’

Why draw on the wall?
When I started working on the large scale paper, I simply covered my entire studio wall and began working. They seemed so overwhelming in the studio confines. It was something I really liked, the way my field of vision couldn’t encompass the entire scene. It very much reminded me of the Mexican muralists or the government sponsored murals of the WPA. I also remembered as a kid going to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and standing in front of the “space” mural. When I first saw the large drawings in a gallery context, I was struck at how the space could actually contain them. The wall piece seemed to be a way of recapturing the all over feeling of the drawings in my closet studio.

The way people invent themselves is fascinating. I was infinitely moved by the Heaven’s Gate/Hale Bopp events. Here was an example of a self created belief system using all manner of found symbols and events to rationalize and justify their actions. The use of the black Nike shoes was really profound to me: they understood the symbolism of the product better than the marketers did. What’s more, they weren’t the ones who started the rumor of Hale Bopp hiding a UFO, the web was rife with rumors and explanations of an anomalous second tail on the comet long before they acted on this information, so the use of the comet wasn’t just symbolic, it was another found object in that sense. The ability to mold symbols and ideas to invent a reality was so profoundly apparent in this situation, but it happens everywhere. What we believe, it’s made by us...

Sometime back you described your drawings as a “drawn clash of esoteric belief systems.” I keep wondering, what’s the clash?
Most of the imagery I’m using is from what I call un-popular culture. Some hide themselves, some are high profile, some are virtually American institutions, but they are all marginalized to some degree. I was fascinated with the idea that all these sub-cultures constituted the reality of American culture, not the so-called consumer culture. I was amazed how much the imagery from these seemingly disparate groups spoke to each other.

Information becomes life
I think people are becoming more actively engaged in the information they receive. There’s so much information available, from so many sources, that people are becoming very conscious of how constructed information is. The press has characterized this new consciousness as the “death of trust,” but I think it’s one of the greatest things to happen. People are finally realizing that things are never as they seem, and that’s making people have a more active relationship to their environments.

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