The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2017

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APR 2017 Issue
Art In Conversation

PAM GROSSMAN with Jessica Caroline

Pam Grossman is the author of What Is a Witch?, an illuminated manuscript in collaboration with Tin Can Forest. She is also Visual Trends Director at Getty Images. She studied cultural anthropology, art history, and comparative religion at New York University. Residing in Brooklyn, she lives with her playwright husband, Matthew Freeman, and their two cats, Albee and Remedios “Remy” Varo. Jessica Caroline talks with Pam about art, archetypes, politics, pragmatism, and the confluence of witchery with technology.

Jessica Caroline (Rail): What was the impetus for writing your illuminated manifesto What Is a Witch?

Pamela Grossman: I’m a big comic book person, so it’s a medium I’ve wanted to work in for a long time. And Tin Can Forest and I were mutual fans of each other, so it struck me to ask them if they might want to collaborate on something. Their artwork and comics are staggeringly beautiful, and have an aesthetic that’s Eastern European folklore meets surrealist punk rock, so I felt like they would really get the tone I was after: an ode to the witch that’s reverential and playful at the same time.  

I wanted to write something that celebrates the many different aspects of the witch archetype, because it’s such a complicated and nuanced one with so many associations, many of them contradictory. And I hoped it would also serve as a piece of writing that would make readers feel a sense of sustenance. A reminder that magical women are powerful and necessary, even though (and perhaps because) they are marginal beings.

Most of our modern stories, whether religious or otherwise, tend to have male gods and male protagonists. And I think it’s hugely damaging, because we internalize stories, and we live by them, consciously and unconsciously. So it’s crucial to me that we focus on stories with complicated, powerful female characters in them. And the witch is the female character who happens to fascinate me the most. She has agency, she’s not dependent on a relationship to anyone else, and she is free. And that makes her dangerous.

Rail: Mythology as much as science has informed our understanding of intangible concepts such as consciousness, deep time, and nonhuman being. Do you agree that certain philosophical approaches to energy and spirits such as animism deserve a revival? 

Grossman: I think all of our myths are worthy of mining for scientific and other material truths. There’s that famous story of the chemist Kekulé daydreaming about the Ouroboros—the occult image of the snake that eats its own tail—which helped him unlock the structure of benzene. And so much of quantum physics has seemingly magical properties. So I would love if more scientists studied magical beliefs and used them as springboards for further inquiry.

Rail: The Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers discusses reclaiming animism at length:

The idea that we do not need protection typically refers to an idealistic conception of truth: if we have truth on our side, it will protect us. One way to circumvent this habit of thought is to never divide people into good and bad, but to start instead from the fact that we all live in an unhealthy environment. We become especially vulnerable if we believe we are, by some miracle, undamaged. The rituals of Neo-pagan witches are both a protection and a resource for action, for collectively becoming able to decipher what is “now” the “work of the Goddess,” while never believing that they by themselves possess the capacity to determine it. But the rituals are also needed to turn horror into power. 

Do you agree with Stengers that Neo-pagan practices are a resource for action? If so, how so? 

From What Is a Witch?

Grossman: Absolutely. First of all, whether you call it self-care or inner house cleaning or getting centered, spiritual practice of any form is an excellent method for drawing strength, focusing on what really matters, and connecting to something greater than yourself. The modern Pagan movement is particularly relevant to the moment we’re currently in, because it incorporates nature, the planet, and the body—specifically the female body—into its belief system, and puts forth the idea that the corporeal world is holy and worth protecting.

Rail: Do you view the resurgent interest in witchcraft and in social media movement, such as “#bindtrump” and “#magicresistance,” as a positive and useful expression of rebellion and being an outsider from the current cultural and political malaise?

Grossman: To be honest, I don’t care what people do to stay engaged as long as they are not harming anyone, and are working from a place of love and compassion. Anger is healthy, but if it’s not channeled into something productive and focused on helping, then I’m not interested. I’m happy for people to engage in ritual actions or not. But I also want them make phone calls and protest and vote. I’m a pragmatic witch, what can I say.

Rail: As the British author and cultural theorist Sadie Plant observes, the desire for transcendence is sought through science, technology, and the feminine. As a moral reckoning with technology unfolds, we see a Neo-pagan reckoning also unravel. While at first artificial intelligence and paganism may seem at odds with one another, they do in fact share many an affinity. Witches emerged as a patriarchal construct; historically they are symbols of subjugated feminine power, the female body and, more recently, of patriarchal rebellion. So too does artificial intelligence emerge as a man-made invention, but one that also has the potential to transcend anthropocentric control. Artists such as Juliana Huxtable explore this coalescence, declaring herself a “cyborg, cunt, priestess, witch, Nuwaubian princess.”

You’ve anticipated waves of interest in robotics and female empowerment. Do you see links between unlikely pairings such as artificial intelligence and Neo-paganism? And what do you imagine such a combination of aesthetics might look like?

Grossman: It’s interesting: a good friend of mine, Peter Bebergal, is currently writing a book on the relationship between spirit and technology. There’s a long history of tech being used in conjunction with spiritual work, whether using clay to build golems or cameras to capture ghosts on film. Even puppets or voodoo dolls can be considered a sort of spirit-tech. And divination in general is a mash-up of technology and spirit: you take a material object like tarot cards or sticks or coins, and see what chance and/or Spirit communicates through them.  

So, it wouldn’t surprise me if we start seeing more combinations of robotics and religion.  Aesthetically, it makes me think of some of Björk’s imagery, or work by Saya Woolfalk. Or even the Ooba midwife droids in the Star Wars prequels. Something with design that feels feminine and organic and neo-tribal/post-national, but with components that can monitor human physiology and brain activity and respond in kind. I was just reading about a new robot called Shiromaru who is supposed to help people with meditation, and I imagine we’ll be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing in the coming years. It will be interesting to see how these evolve, both in design and intent. It’s only a matter of time before someone take a crack at coming up with an iShaman. As to whether or not it will be effective? We’ll have to wait and see. Can spirits dwell in mechanics? Some might argue it already does.

Rail: Given your experience with collective intelligence and pattern recognition in visual culture, where do you see this kind of intelligence going?

Grossman: It’s definitely being influenced by female forces. The rise of fem-focused culture is happening rapidly, and is been catalyzed by social media, hands down. More females than males use platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat thus finally being able to share their opinions, interests, and images on the world stage. It’s arguably the first time in history that females are holding the proverbial mic, and it means that commerce, culture, politics, and policy are scrambling to adjust. “The future is female” isn’t just a slogan for your tote bag. The 4th wave is a tsunami, and it’s been exciting to watch and be part of. I think it’s remaking everything: socio-economics, politics, media, art, interpersonal dynamics—it’s all in flux because of this, and I’m very much heartened by it.

Rail: The Language of Birds: Occult and Art exhibition that you curated at 80WSE Gallery last year was a stellar cast of artists from Leonora Carrington to Paul Laffoley and Kiki Smith. You refer to these artists in the press release as magicians “when seen through a mythopoetic lens”—who can open us up to “numinous realms.” The word “numinous” strikes me as such an old-school word, the only other time I’ve heard it used in recent times is probably from James Hollis and his book The Archetypal Imagination, who, like you and Laffoley, is influenced by Carl Jung. Jung referred to the numinous as an experience arising from the individuation process. How do you evoke the term?

From What Is a Witch?

Grossman: I first encountered the term as an Anthropology undergrad reading the work of Mircea Eliade. I use it to mean all that is which is sacred, liminal, and capital “m” Mysterious.

Rail: How have Jung’s perspectives on archetypes and Campbell’s ideas of mythology influenced your curatorial projects and your understanding of the power of images?

Grossman: They are perhaps the two thinkers who have had the biggest influence on my worldview. They taught me at a relatively young age that a) religious costumes, names, and practices vary from group to group, thus are, frankly, arbitrary—and therefore foolish to fundamentalize—and b) that behind all of them are truths, desires, stories, and experiences that are universal, and that is what connects us as humans. Madame Blavatsky also wrote and spoke extensively about this concept by the way, and she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for that as far as I’m concerned. Theosophy has been far more influential on religious and cultural thinking than many people realize. Anyhow, it is through symbols that we can access that truth behind the veil. Images are the language of dreams, the unconscious, and art. They are the best vehicle we have for interfacing with the ineffable.  

Rail: You have observed that the more digital we become, the more we seek tactile, “bodied experiences.” Do you see seeking refuge as a delusion or as a kind of necessity for psychic survival?

Grossman: The more we’re exposed to pixels, the more we long for sensuality, spirituality, and real-world connection. And to me this is a positive thing. I realize we risk getting screen-zombified. But in fact, the most exciting, transformational things happening now are because people link up online, but then choose to step outside and meet up, make things, march.

Rail: Can you describe further your approach to spirituality in daily life?

Grossman: The material and the immaterial are interlaced, and that’s how I like to approach the topic of magic and spirit. I want to have moments of transcendence, of awe, of sublimity. But I also want to pay my rent on time and laugh my ass off at Rick and Morty and make sure I show up to my friend’s baby shower. I have little interest in people who use spirituality as an excuse to disengage with the visible, bodied world. If your inner work is making you act like a boring jerk, it’s time to find a different path.

Rail: Do you think it’s important that technology be dependent on us or do you want to see how far machine intelligence can go without or moral jurisdiction to govern it? I.e., a kind of Ex Machina ending to humanity as we know it?

Grossman: I’m not sure it’s something we can fully control, even if we want to. But I think we should do our best to build systems that are constructive and kind and helpful and healing, and to put moral guidelines in place to keep these inventions from doing harm. Let’s be honest, though: everything has a shadow side. The internet is both one of the most amazing inventions in human history, and a cesspool of trolls and cruelty and criminal activity. Both of these things are true. It’s up to us as individuals to lean towards goodness every day, and to do our very best with the tools we build and use. Google has “don’t be evil” as a tenant, but whether or not they’re living up to that re: issues like privacy and security is up for debate. But I think it’s crucial that we keep striving to do good and to be better in all regards, A.I. development included.

Rail: What’s next for you in terms of upcoming projects?

Grossman: I’m writing a book about witches, which is daunting and exhilarating in equal measure. In the short term, I’ll be at MoCCA Festival signing copies of What Is a Witch on April 1st and 2nd, and then giving my “Witch Pictures” talk at SEPTEMBER Gallery in Hudson on the 22nd as part of their current Witches exhibition. And we’re starting to plan the Third Occult Humanities Conference at NYU, which will be happening this fall. Magick is definitely afoot.


Jessica Caroline

JESSICA CAROLINE is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She holds a BA in Art Theory and English Literature. Her interests are in consciousness, cybernetics, and storytelling.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2017

All Issues