Black Magic Mind War

Mark Titchner

'The Outsider's case against society is very clear. All men and women have these dangerous, unnameable impulses, yet they keep up a pretence, to themselves, to others; their respectability, their philosophy, their religion, are all attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational, something that is savage, unorganized, irrational. He is an outsider because he stands for truth.'
Colin Wilson, The Outsider (1956)

A poster in an advertising lightbox depicts two skeletal figures, bony hands clasped as their empty sockets stare out into the street. The text reads: 'We Were Thinking of Evolving', which is also the title of the work (2003). It's a casual-sounding proposition, yet at its bleakest it recognizes a possible evolutionary phase entirely dependent on humanity's demise. Simply put, Mark Titchner's work is about belief, a recognition that the human spirit has infinite potential but is for the most part making do in a crappy world.

It's a practice that has strong parallels with Wilson's exploration of alienation and the modern mind-set in his seminal text The Outsider. As Wilson explored the possibility of alternative truths and hidden timelines, so too does Titchner. The eclectic philosophies of William Burroughs, the S. F. Diggers, Brion Gysin and Philip K. Dick - to name just a few - are thrown into the mix, held aloft for re-examination. Chosen texts are equally eclectic; sources range from the New Scientist, the lyrics of Frankie Sparo and Sebadoh to the aphorisms of Friedrich Nietzsche. It's an intriguing search for answers, a peculiar act of redemption in the margins of history.

The tools for Titchner's project are many and varied, from wall paintings, vinyl banners, lightboxes, seven-inch records and digital animation to crafted wooden sculpture. Yet the impetus remains the same. If, as William Burroughs surmised, the 'written word was actually a virus that made the spoken word possible', then simply put, how are our actions manipulated by it? What are the consequences of a world swamped in text? What is discarded and what is acted on?

A series of recent poster works boldly state: 'In our infinite ignorance we are all equal.'; 'The nihilism of the hip will destroy civilization.'; 'W-w-work is love made solid. Do not attempt to reform man.'; 'We are what we are.'; 'Begin now.' Exulted pithy aphorisms and directives float over abstract geometric forms. Who are the hip, and what's their problem with the world? Can work ever be thought of as love? In If You Can Dream It, You Must Do It (2002) a hand reaches out to the viewer, inviting us to act on the statement. Saturated colour glows with the certainty of digital rendering, a graphic encounter that's a little like the schizophrenic hearing voices pre-action. Imagine Lawrence Weiner employing the tripped-out graphics of psychedelic poster art and the suburban extremism of Heavy Metal.

Beyond their immediate context as art Titchner's posters assault the senses with all the unshakeable earnestness of evangelical literature, in which the desperate attempt to picture a state of rapture or spiritual excess is reduced to the lens flare filter of Adobe Photoshop. A reminder that, for all the advancement in modern image technology, we are still equipped with such bad tools to express our inner life. Maybe this explains the peculiar feeling of absence at the heart of Titchner's images. They offer so much, yet leave the viewer in a state of perplexed anxiety. What is it we are being sold? Maybe they're an elaborate form of Post-it note, held over by history to gnaw at the mind of subsequent generations; a call for the renewal of purpose for a largely apolitical and spiritually absent generation. For Titchner it's a Nietzschean exercise in free will, a recognition that without application the text is nothing more than an empty catch-phrase.

The proposal of activity is again central to Titchner's latest sculptural work. A laboriously carved wooden structure reads Everything Beautiful Is Far Away (2002). An improvised methane-production kit sits at its base, its plastic tubing connected to a lead lotus flower. At the risk of appearing over-reductive, it takes a lot of shovelling shit to see the beauty of the flame. In Resolving Conflict by Superficial Means (2002) a spinning Op art disc provides a hypnotic backboard for an outstretched concrete hand connected to a lump of rock. The viewer is invited to grasp the hand and release all inner angst into the stone. A kind of karmic sublimation, an open offer to complete the work that is both generous and ridiculous in equal measure. Mixing the paranoid ramblings of Burroughs' Black Magic Mind War (1976) - in which he suggests the CIA have developed psychic warfare machines - with the Constructivists' 'Art into Life' Agit-prop, Titchner returns to a pre-Modern, totemistic form of sculpture in an attempt to side step a use-value based solely on economics. It's a beguiling thought.

The seemingly opposed states of activity and stasis are again key in Artists Are Cowards (2002). A migraine-inducing series of digital images and half-registered texts revolve and flash on screen. A goldfish circles endlessly - a lesser-known Duchamp Rotorelief - overlaid with Beckett's text 'Fail Again, Fail Better'. The logo of the Vertigo record label - home of Black Sabbath - spins anti-clockwise, an unlikely backdrop for Hegel's vicious tautology 'The rational is real. The real is rational.' A conflict of ideologies that conflates the urban myth of certain Vertigo records played backwards summoning the devil, with the static certainty of philosophic thought. An attempt to rewire seemingly irreconcilable texts, to believe two things you are told are contradictory.

To borrow the words of Marxist theorist Ernst Fischer, 'Form is conservative; content is revolutionary'. If, as it appears, Titchner's world takes many forms, this is not the world of empty gloss or pop spin. Objects are not easily consumed; rather, they infiltrate with the slow arrow of beauty, almost unnoticed, like the refrain from a favoured song repeated in the mind like a mantra. It's a world in which the science of the bong shares its hit with the conviction that, as Wilson puts it, 'a new religion is needed'. What form that religion should take is unclear, but perhaps for Titchner freedom of choice or response is the only authentic freedom
 

Issue 74

First published in Issue 74

April 2003

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Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

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