Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Margaret V. Haines

Margaret Haines, I dreamt in heaven, 2018 4K video, loop, color, sound, 4 min.

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, February 2020

Margaret Haines is an artist and filmmaker based in Los Angeles and Amsterdam. She is a recent resident of the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten. Her work has been presented at the East End Film Festival, Carroll Fletcher, Auto Italia South East, and the ICA, in London; 1646 in The Hague; VISIO lo schermo dell’arte, Florence; Human Resources and ltd in Los Angeles; Spazi Murate, Bari, Italy; and Western Front Exhibitions, Vancouver.

Haines’s forthcoming book On Air: Purity, Corruption and Pollution is a narrative biography of Marjorie Cameron and pairs Haines’s formal archival work with a wider analysis of the contemporary moment and an alignment with the tangential and apophenic. Haines is the author of Love with Stranger X Coco (New Byzantium, 2012), which includes a discussion of Cameron and her work. She has been a board member of the Cameron Parsons Foundation since 2014.

James D. Campbell: I’d like to talk with you about your work, and more specifically the artist book you are now working on: On Air: Purity, Corruption and Pollution. You’ve spent over a decade investigating the life and work of artist and occultist Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995). Cameron was a gifted artist and savant of the Left hand Path in occultist circles. She was a hugely influential figure of the American underground in the mid-20th century and a spiritual and artistic mentor to many radical thinkers and artists of the era. What drew you to Cameron?

Margaret Haines: I was almost paralyzed into paying attention to her work, which felt distinctly sexual, or a sexuality that did not pander to a flattened, market understanding of sex.

My work is not like hers visually. My writing is not like hers. I have other references that exist like that for my visual work, or writing, but in this instance it was a combination of dismay that there wasn't more information about her work, matched with curiosity, and a resonance or sadness. Which almost became addictive.

Margaret Haines, COCO, 2014, 4K video, color, sound, 43 minutes.

JDC: Cameron appeared in Kenneth Anger’s 1954 landmark work of experimental cinema Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. You met with Anger?

MH: I never interviewed him, but I met him outside my apartment in Hollywood when I first started to write about Cameron. 

He was just standing there. I was in the middle of writing about her for the first time. This was around 2010. It was also my birthday, and he was excited because it was the day before Crowley's birthday. We had a very brief conversation, and he was very nice.

I included this moment in the writing and the essay Love with Stranger. The chance meeting on its own was also beautiful somehow, and it made sense to include based on how I was writing and the voice I was using. Now, I wouldn't include that moment in the current writing for On Air. The earlier writing was  about an experience of the present, whereas On Air happens across time with even weighty periods occurring in the 1940s and the future, in 2050, as dialogue or narrative or analysis, but I am completely absent from On Air, at least as a directed voice, and in a way, so is the present era. 

JDC: Cameron was married to rocket scientist and occultist, Jack Parsons, and their relationship is at the heart of your book. Can you tell us about that? 

MH: I wouldn't say their relationship is at the heart of the book, but his voice surfaces. I really want the book to be about her, her work and her ideas and avoid any satellite-ization. That said,  On Air is a hybrid of existing mythology, her work, alongside drawn out monologues, dialogues, conversations related to historical occurrences.  There are a few voices which are completely fictional or invisible to reality. Like, the two twins from the future, Castor and Pollux, who almost act like avatars for my own limited understanding of some of the phenomena. They are potentially not human but AI, but in a vintage way, and maybe immortal, and interested in the mortality of the early 21st century and mid 20th century. They discover Jack Parsons for the reader. Castor and Pollux squabble in the book, and there is an echo of this same idea of counterpart occurring with Cameron and Jack. There is a duality within Cameron and Jack's relationship that transcends status quo understandings of heterosexuality. 

Jack is the only person who uses the present tense first person singular: I see the horizon, I walk down to the beach, ... I wanted to unearth the immediacy of his existence in her life. The drawings Cameron made in the period after his death inspired this voice, these drawings are in the book Songs to the Witchwoman. In a way, this is also her seeing him see her, an embodiment of the other through desire, and how this movement and mannerism shifts as a relationship evolves. So, it's him inventing her, but her inventing him inventing her. 

JDC: You spent a lot of time researching at the Cameron Parsons Foundation archive. What was that like and where did it lead?

MH:  Cameron's archive, records, and writing are indispensable, especially with an artist who has such an expanded mythology.

JDC: Your research brought you into the orbit of the Thelemites. Agreeable people?

MH: Yes. Anyone I have met or talked to has been sensitive, patient and open. Cameron was not in the OTO officially, but the context is important to understanding her work, somehow, somewhat.

Margaret V. Haines, 2019. Photo: Z. Varfis.

JDC: I understand you had some meetings with Ordo Templi Orientis people like Bill Breeze, also an admirer of Cameron? 

MH:. Bill contacted me to write an essay for the catalogue, Songs to the Witchwoman, which is the title of the collaborative work between Cameron and Jack. Cameron continues the work after Jack's death, the drawings are illustrations of his poems to her. I consider in this essay, Lucky Star, the implications of trauma on creativity and flow, but the drawings could also be read as a recording of Cameron's initial embracement of ritual magick, or the system her husband worked within, in a way I suppose the two are interchangeable. 

Bill and Cameron were close and she trusted him to publish Jack's writings. There is a great interview with Bill about Cameron by Ewen Chardronnet and Valérie Caradec in Optical Sound, which occurred as a companion to the exhibition of Cameron's works at agnès b. in Paris.

JDC: Did you have to do extensive research into occult matters? You became an astrologer?

MH: I understood astrology, and made an unrelated work to Cameron, a video called The Stars Down To Earth that considers both Adorno's critique of the occult and pattern recognition within the surveillance age. Adorno considers specifically this horoscope from this class, the Carroll Righter Astrology Foundation in the Hollywood Hills. I attend their class. I found out about them through Cynthia MacAdams, Cameron's close friend, and also the subject of the Netflix documentary on second wave feminism. Cameron and Aya also attended together in the 1980s. I learn a lot from the class. I go whenever I can.

Astrology was important to Cameron's work. Astrological archetypes figure prominently in her later works such as Pluto Transiting the Twelfth House and Lion's Path. For On Air  I am working with my friend, artist and writer Martha Windhal, who does this project called MWTarotscopes, http://www.mwtarotscopes.com/. Martha is also from Iowa like Cameron, and within each chapter there is a heavy element of astrology, and so Martha is almost a guide, she sees more than I see, and picks up on things I have missed. But the book is still in process, so my process is also still evolving, the writing at times feels like learning. On Air has an ephemeris embedded within the narrative.

I also have tried as much as possible to return to the source material, the Crowley books, The Vision and the Voice.  Manon Hedenborg White's new book on Babalon, The Eloquent Blood, is important, and this work helped frame some of the context necessary to decode the analogous practice to the material drawings.

JDC: Was it important for you to achieve something like verisimilitude in terms of the magickal?

MH: Like I have said, I am not an initiate, but there is a system and genealogy I am sensitive towards and within this, and within the writing, I am attempting to reproduce an experience which approaches this system, but I am also working in the dark. I have no choice but to prefer this form of intuition for writing this material, even if at moments the process reaches clarity. In this way, landscape became important. With New Mexico, or the desert.

JDC: How much did this play a part in your research as a way of guaranteeing authenticity?

MH: I cannot guarantee authenticity as I was not there. In a way, this has always been my response when asked about why not write a more straight analysis of her life and work. I cannot write anything authoritative as to pretend to do so or to attempt to do so would be a disservice, especially with Cameron.

That said, in terms of her work, attempting a verisimilitude with the magickal has in a way delineated the tone or style or structure of the book and in this way there is a reconciliation with authenticity. Then there are the practical devices. Organizing the archive, interviews, looking at her works, transcribing. I also write in a hympnogagic state, the state right after waking. I am working with an editor, Steph Kretowicz, who approached me with AQNB magazine in London to help manage the project, and with their assistance I was able to secure funding from the Canada Council for the Arts so that I actually have the time to write this.

JDC: In 2019, your solo exhibition Battlefield ReX offered a sort of a sculptural preview for your forthcoming book, On Air: Purity, Corruption and Pollution. The work presented is as much an assertion of historical fact as a reflection of your personal experience of researching Cameron’s oeuvre. Can you tell us about that?

MH: At times, the research and work for the writing is very visceral, and mostly non verbal, or experiential both environmentally, outwardly and subjectively, with the body acting as a barometer. Sculpture and installation evoke this, while this experience is difficult to locate with writing, or to include in the book, although the sensation may be present in the interspersed monologues, which are more reflective than historical.

I wanted to enact the apriori sensation or sensuality which transmits before hard research, or traditional research. At the same time, I was asked to present an installation for the venue Krieg in Belgium. The work eventually evolved into considering the process or architecture when a script is being tested out, so the writing is still present, but within the installation. The exhibition is a bit of a mess, each table acting as a maquette within dense research. And then, the harp became a focus, but to treat the harp like an instrument of travel.

I was living in Athens at the time and I couldn't find a harp, but then across the street from my apartment was a music school. They said they didn't have one, but then I went back one more time, and then on the last floor there's this harp that they keep but no one plays, because it’s 100 years old, it was Maria Callas' harp someone said, as it was her school, and it's across from my apartment and I could see it actually from my window, I just didn't see it before. So I wanted these moments that have nothing and everything to do with what happens when you are writing to be realized but outside the writing, the marble masonic floor like snakes or worms, and the libation vessels, like the archive as this vessel of knowledge that is filtered through subjectivity, half tainted, and presented within a distorted version of the fabricated architecture of a script read through, or a table read, or a writer's room for a tv show, within these industrialized spaces meant to cradle inspiration.

JDC: I do admire your language and voice in the book, from the fragments I’ve read. It’s very enticing, crisp and has phenomenal clarity. Can you discuss why parafiction?

MH: Parafiction is a term that has been ascribed to my writing which at times makes sense, but this is a term used by Carrie Lambert Beatty to describe the tactic of prank-like ness or a meld of fiction and reality in contemporary art via using channels normally outside contemporary art, where the fiction is never revealed, because it might be true, hinging on plausability.

I consider On Air foremost speculative fiction, if it has to have a term, than parafiction. I want a direct entry into the world, it's more of a nervous system experience. I finished the Sidney Gottlieb biography and while there are moments that act as a force of horror and you put the book down just struck, it's not the same living of the research, it's not the same embodiment that fiction can concur within your own lived experience, and that is what I am interested in. I'm trying to be as truthful as I can to the facts and to her work without distortion, the book potentially  offers as endnotes a verification. I feel I have to do this so the work can breathe and there isn't confusion amongst the fiction or wild misinformation. But when it's fiction, I think the reader will know. I think the reader will know that 2050 hasn't occurred yet, etc.

I do worry about how the book will be absorbed by people looking for an absolute biography or an absolute critical analysis of her work. That said, there will be many books on Cameron and I am sure that can be fulfilled by different scholars, journalists or writers in the future. In a way, I didn't really have a choice.

JDC: Can you speak about your early project, Love with Stranger x Coco?

MH: Love with Stranger x Coco, was a book to accompany my first film, COCO. The book is more a recording of initial research on Cameron and considers my friends, life and documents the research in a kind of contemporaneous present.

I was also trying to mimic the expected self of girl confessional, while introducing comparisons between Artaud and Cameron, who felt starkly outside that space. I wanted to splinter that expectation.

JDC: You are now on the Board of the Cameron Parsons Foundation. How did that come about?

MH: The director, Scott Hobbs asked me to. I had already written a few essays about her work. It was very gracious of him to formalize those conversations into a role or title. This gave me the confidence to write and work through difficult periods of research.

JDC: You have published some very interesting catalogue essays on Cameron, as well as acted as curator to an exhibition of her correspondences with filmmaker Kenneth Anger at The Fondation agnès b. in Paris in Winter 2017. Can you talk about this?

MH: Ewen Chardronnet invited me to curate a show with him on Cameron's work at agnès b. in Paris. He has written a book about Malina and Parsons, called Mojave Épiphanie.

Agnès has collected Kenneth Anger's work. The exhibition considered one of Cameron's few sketchbooks from the 1960s, Prince Arindal, which acts as a Wagnerian retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, the fall from grace.

Margaret Haines, The Stars Down To Earth, 2016, 4K video, color, sound, 24 minutes.

JDC: Do you see your feminist practice as reparative, especially where Cameron is concerned?

MH: No.

I know that women's ideas are disappeared fast, the footnote is erased. The administrative or archival work feels reparative, but this is part of a larger group effort.

The writing is my own and in some ways although a nod to this larger project, it's separate. Also, I find the term reparative signifies, at times, some form of damage has taken place, which hasn't.  She lived her life outside of a system that would like to see her repaired. But, at the same time, I also understand the contemporary need for, the normalization, the canon, recogntion. 

I do think it's important to note that her work has been termed as outsider work when it's not. All women's work in a way from a certain period looks like outsider art, as they were not allowed the privilege of being part of a club that leveraged them positioning, or a label, or normalcy or neutrality within a canon. They worked alone. This is why her work is so out there for the era, it's not pop or assemblage work, as the grouping at the time was mildly if not viciously prohibitive.

JDC: What does Cameron have to say to contemporary art and artists? 

MH: Cameron stopped showing her work after Peyote Vision was censored in 1957 by the LA vice squad. She could have had a career, she refused all that, she also had no money. I think about that when I see how things churn, and the careerism instilled by what has become an industry, with faux and real investment, the collection of accolades, when artists are bought like apartments for an investment portfolio, and it's just an empty building, the investor profits, not the city. In one interview I did for the book, John Chamberlain came up, as they knew one another and he made a film of her, and it was said during the interview, something to the extent, like, well after all this time she is by far the more interesting artist. I'm biased, obviously, but I believe this is true. After all the work that divorces you from the true work, it's almost like the real black magic is that which takes you away from real work or the real craft, without the panic of approval, how looking elsewhere or outside of oneself in a rush of relevancy without core is black magic, like if a director is making a film and they're just thinking about an acceptance speech while directing. I think her work erases this platform of thought, it's a complete disavowal of this trampling.

This is perhaps a more general response, and probably true for a variety of artists. Whereas, a more precise influence of her work is the consideration of supposed anachronism. When I learned that she considered UFOs not hi tech, but of the elements, this congealed something for me. The hi tech as almost a mirage of the past than as a subterfuge or glimpse of the future, and perhaps how this relates to things like bio-hacking, eco-feminism or working within the as is, how the future is contained in the seeming past, how utopic invention can occur without a drastic imagined industrialized hi tech and still be visionary. WM


James D. Campbell

James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.

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