(Art) The Strange Uniformity of Madness

After discovering Posadism and the “Amok” dispatches, which is the most engrossing book catalog you will ever read, I recently got sucked into the art and philosophy of the ectocultures (my term). I don’t mean the Occupy movement or Anonymous, but the real deviants, people who either were (or maybe should’ve been) institutionalized. There is almost no coherent categorization, except that they’re all highly conspiratorial, anti-rational, and often invoke alien or demonic powers (or both).

Despite this complete heterogeny of thought, however, the art all has a distinctive style, often blending handwritten words and phrases — which bend and turn with the image — into extremely colorful, often diagram-like visual manifestos designed to convey truths, like the love for one’s parents, that can only be got at secondhand.

I’ll share some examples so you can spot the similarities.

These are works by Adolf Wölfli. From Wikipedia: “Wölfli was born in Bern, Switzerland. He was abused both physically and sexually as a child, and was orphaned at the age of 10. He thereafter grew up in a series of state-run foster homes. He worked as a Verdingbub (indentured child labourer) and briefly joined the army, but was later convicted of attempted child molestation, for which he served prison time. After being freed, he was re-arrested for a similar offense and in 1895 was admitted to the Waldau Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Bern where he spent the rest of his adult life. He was very disturbed and sometimes violent on admission, leading to him being kept in isolation for his early time at hospital. He suffered from psychosis, which led to intense hallucinations.

At some point after his admission Wölfli began to draw. His first surviving works (a series of 50 pencil drawings) are dated from between 1904 and 1906.

Walter Morgenthaler, a doctor at the Waldau Clinic, took a particular interest in Wölfli’s art and his condition, later publishing Ein Geisteskranker als Künstler (A Psychiatric Patient as Artist) in 1921 which first brought Wölfli to the attention of the art world.”

A similar but looser style can be found in the works of Jean Perdrizet, a Frenchman who “was a combat engineer in Grenoble, then at Électricité de France from 1944 to 1949. Around 1955 he started to invent prototypes and draw plans of machines to communicate with the ghosts or aliens : an ‘electric ouija,’ a ‘thermoelectronic net for the ghosts,’ a ‘Robot cosmonaut,’ ‘space scale,’ an ‘imagination cursor,’ a ‘flying pipe.’ He also invented a universal language, the so-called ‘T language.’ He sent his studies to NASA, CNRS and the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences.”

Next are works by Paul Laffoley. Again from Wikipedia: “He attended the progressive Mary Lee Burbank School in Belmont, Massachusetts, where his draftsman’s talent was ridiculed by his abstract expressionist teachers. After attending Boston public schools for a short time, Laffoley matriculated at Brown University, graduating in 1962 with honors in classics, philosophy, and art history. Laffoley has written that he was given eight electroshock treatments after the termination of ‘about a year of weekly sessions with a psychiatrist, who had treated me for a mild state of catatonia’ while at Brown in 1961.

In 1963, he enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he apprenticed with the sculptor Mirko Basaldella before being dismissed from the institution. In a search for expanded opportunities, Laffoley came to New York to work with the visionary Frederick Kiesler, and was recruited by Andy Warhol, who wanted someone to watch television for him at all hours of the night. Laffoley watched television in the pre-dawn hours, before programming had actually begun.

By the late 1980s, Laffoley began to move from the spiritual and the intellectual, and evolved to the view of his work as an interactive, physically engaging psychotronic device, perhaps similar to architectural monuments such as Stonehenge or the Cathedral of Notre Dame and their spiritual aura.”

Next we have selections from a tarot deck by author Suzanne Treister created to accompany her book HEXEN 2.0, a sequel to HEXEN 2039, wherein she laid out a vision of the future based on the “interconnected histories of the computer and the Internet, cybernetics and the counterculture, science-fiction and scientific projections of the future, government and military research programmes, social engineering and ideas of the control society; alongside diverse philosophical, literary and political responses to the advance of technology including the claims of anarchoprimitivism, technogaianism, and transhumanism” (Amazon). The deck features, among other things, Timothy Leary as The Magician, Robert Oppenheimer as the Six of Pentacles, and Ada Lovelace as the Queen of Cups.

Interestingly, we seem the same style develop in Liber Novus (also called “The Red Book”) by Carl Jung, a man who was not by any reasonable definition mad but who did spend an inordinate amount of time swimming in his own subconscious. Indeed, Jung seems a bit too preoccupied with coloring inside the lines, which suggests a man who’s seen madness but returned.

Perhaps there’s something to it after all…