“Nevertheless, the current submission of spirituality under the rules of the capitalist market, forced by an armada of suppliers, is a development, which has he potential to irreversibly transform questions of belief into marketable services and tools.”
“This Will Change Your Life Forever” could be interpreted at a cynical attack at belief systems in general. Klaus Pichler is no stranger to looking at his subjects from a very close position. He wishes to understand their often-time complex beliefs and actions as also evinced in his incredible “Golden Days Before They End”. His work therefore becomes a sort of anthropological investigation, which errs on the side of self-involvement to some degree. In TWCYLF, Pichler takes a step forward (or more ljkely backward) to examine the thought process and market that enshrouds esoteric spiritual commodities found on the Internet, at fairs and in close-network groups that meet to share a common point of view on spiritual matters for a very real and high price. The outcome is a post-truth, post-spiritual investigation in which Pichler uses himself as a stand-in for a believer while also pandering to these various flawed ideologies to gain access. I have followed the project from its inception and have to say the result is even more frustratingly well-executed than I had given the well-received early attempts credit for. It is, in ever sense, and with every pun intended: Unreal.
“I discovered heavy metal music and got hooked to the more extreme bands with their anti-Christian attitude. Suddenly I found myself in a scene, which considered itself antagonist to the Catholic Church, and since being a teenager is mainly about rebellion, I loved being part of this provocative movement.”
BF: So, I remember seeing the infancy of this book a few years ago at Unseen and remember feeling blown away by the content. Perhaps this was because you and I share a black metal background and I am sure we have both come through our early years with some sort of occult or esoteric (in the Isis Unveiled sense) thought in some way or another, either through music or film. I do not suggest a devout interest, but rather one that fits the terrain of a metal dude. And although your book adds a look into different commercially –motivated “doctrines”, I cannot help but think in researching this you were perhaps reminded of some of those earlier tendencies…or perhaps it was the complete opposite. I know the book is personal and it states this as such. Can you give us a general background as to how you stumbled into this?
KP: I grew up in a little town in the countryside with limited abilities for a kid to be part of a community – there were the firefighters, the rural youth association, some sports associations, and the Catholic Church. Don’t ask me why, but I ended up as part of the catholic youth, being an altar boy, singing in the church choir and so on. I considered myself as part of the community, not necessarily a believer, but dedicated to the group activities, which were linked to religion. This came to an abrupt end when I firstly concentrated on the content of the prayers and songs when I was about 15 and thought it was nonsense and did not work for me any longer. At the same time, I discovered heavy metal music and got hooked to the more extreme bands with their anti-Christian attitude. Suddenly I found myself in a scene, which considered itself antagonist to the Catholic Church, and since being a teenager is mainly about rebellion, I loved being part of this provocative movement. Over time, when I found my place in life in my twenties, spirituality seemed more and more irrelevant to me, nevertheless I am glad that I went through these stages because they brought me some topics which still are very relevant to me: the arts, music, philosophy, creativity, politics and so on. Of course, my time in the metal scene (it must have been almost 10 years) definitely has shaped my personal taste in aesthetics and my approach in creating images, although that might not be noticeable in the pictures of this project since the hyperglycemic visual world of esotericism can’t be further away from the evil aesthetics of the metal imagery, haha!
“You are right, the age of Internet, and especially Social Media, is a development, which enables all kinds of nonsense to gain plenty of attention and to find followers. I think that besides the ‘swarm intelligence’ in Social Media, there’s also a ‘swarm stupidity’.”
Nowadays, I consider myself as being highly skeptical towards all forms of organized religions and cults. Linked to that, I am very interested in natural sciences and their evidence-based model of creating theory. To sum it up, I would say that in my personal ‘belief’ spirituality has been replaced by rationalism. On the other hand, creating art for me is a process where I consciously leave the path of rationalism and logic to play with facts and fictions. In the current project, this has been a constant ping-pong between doing research with a strictly logical or scientific mindset, and trying to transform the found nonsense in images, which capture both the rational and the irrational aspects.
The book itself reads like a catalogue of lunacy depending on your position. Some of the “items” within cannot even be handled, such as remote healing or the powerful spell, the latter in particular you have reduced to a beautiful Rothko-esque studio background photograph.
BF: HAAAAA, so that I didn’t know! We both sparred with the Pope in education and at the Altar. Christianity still churns out the best Satanists.
The book itself reads like a catalogue of lunacy depending on your position. Some of the “items” within cannot even be handled, such as remote healing or the powerful spell, the latter in particular you have reduced to a beautiful Rothko-esque studio background photograph. I guess this is very much about belief, which is also not tangible. Finding solutions for photographing these non-material forces must have been a good part of the fun as it would naturally have to employ a skillset of technical means, but also to “photograph the invisible” puts the operator in servant side of the issue at hand. Some of the catalogue objects are hilarious (until I see their purchase prices) and work well together such as the “Tachyon Love Lube” and the “Angel Energy Donut”, which I’m pretty sure you could enlist in one spiritual action depending on the actual size of the donut. All of these items are dumb as shit but do you have any particular objects that stuck to or with you for any particular reason?
KP: Basically, when doing research and trying to find nonsensical products and items, my concentration has always been double-layered: on the one hand, I focused on the strange kind of ‘logic’ around these products, on the ‘system’ they are embedded in (one example: esotericists think that the whole earth is surrounded by an invisible ‘crystal grid’ or ‘divine matrix’, consisting of ‘fine matter energy’, reaching from large scale down to micro scale, surrounding literally everything. Therefore, a large number of products are referring to this mumbo-jumbo model, from ‘earth acupuncture’ and ‘energetic cleansing’ of spaces to ‘aura surgery’ – all of them claim to restore the ‘natural order’ of the crystal grid in it’s different scales). On the other hand, I was always interested in the psychological or anthropological aspect of these products, trying to find out why on earth a product like that has been created and which kind of human issue or deficit may stand behind it. All of these products have one thing in common: they are presented with a promise of salvation. Focusing not on the promise but on the issue the product claims to be cure of was really revealing in terms of human nature and human issues.
One product, which I am really fascinated about is the barcode harmonizer, a regular pen which is sold for exorbitant prices. It is linked to one of the strangest claims I have stumbled upon: some people believe that barcodes on product packaging would poison the contained goods by triggering the release of toxic bio-energetic substances. This theory has lead to a (from a paranoid point of view) really clever product: the barcode harmonizer pen, a pen with an ‘energized chip’ which can be used to dismantle the toxic effect of barcodes by crossing them out. What particularly fascinates me about this product is that a whole system of (non-existent) danger was created in order to present the cure for it.
“All of these products have one thing in common: they are presented with a promise of salvation. Focusing not on the promise but on the issue the product claims to be cure of was really revealing in terms of human nature and human issues.”
“I stumbled upon plenty of groups and beliefs which promote this kind of thinking, reaching from conspiracy theorists with anti-semitic background, spiritualist Social Darwinist movements to openly promoted Neo-Nazism, sometimes linked to the esoteric practice in the Nazi regime, sometimes linked to the current wave of right wing populist parties fancying the merciless attitude of the Nazis.”
BF: How much did you spend in the process of collecting all of these ideas and objects? A cursory look at the prices seems to indicate that a good amount of the projects overall expense must have been the items within. Do you still have all of them and have you exhibited the series with the objects included?
KP: I did not add up all my expenses but I estimate that it must have been well over 1000 Euro I have spent for the products. I have always planned to buy them in order to add them to the exhibition of the project, so the whole project has not been a bargain. I have to confess that my personal limit per product has been 50-60 Euro each, and that I ordered products, which were more expensive just to photograph them and then sent them back to the provider to get my money back. Luckily, I was able to replace most of these shamelessly expensive products with regular products that looked the same (like the ‘outlet strip harmonizer’ or the ‘energy harmonizer’ – a wooden chopping board), so I was still able to exhibit them. I still have all of the products, accurately packed in my so-called ‘nonsense- box’, which is stored in my bedroom, supporting my relaxing sleep. I love to exhibit not only the photos but also the products, because they might look valuable on the photos, but in real life they are just cheap clutter.
BF: I made a personal note about “Adolph Hitler Water” as it does, as you mentioned in the booklet, lead to questions about esoteric belief systems and political economy, notably far-right ideology and the conundrum of Blavatsky, race, Thule Society, Wewelsburg, Himmler, The SS occult and Nicholas Goodrich Clarke’s take on the hidden history of esoteric practice in Nazi Germany. Did you run across any dubious political groups or new rightwing esoteric ideologies when working on this?
KP: I stumbled upon plenty of groups and beliefs which promote this kind of thinking, reaching from conspiracy theorists with anti-semitic background, spiritualist Social Darwinist movements to openly promoted Neo-Nazism, sometimes linked to the esoteric practice in the Nazi regime, sometimes linked to the current wave of right wing populist parties fancying the merciless attitude of the Nazis. No matter which kind of right-wing attitude, one principle was common: a belief that members of the particular group are considered as the ‘elite’ whereas the ‘others’ were minor. Especially linked with esoteric philosophies the separation line is not ethnicity or culture, but the fact if one considers himself as ‘awakened’ (which basically means if one I a regular customer of esotericist offers and products) or if one is still ‘sleeping’ (like the rest of the world, especially people with rationalist thinking). While groups linked to Nazi ideologies are fully aware of their status as right-wing-extremists, I doubt that members of the esotericist movements are conscious about how fascist their way of thinking is. Probably the fascist base of modern day esotericism is difficult to notice for the deluded members of the in-group since everything is wrapped in positive energy and love. Nevertheless, plenty of texts and quotes underline the Darwinist to fascist ideology, like an often-shared blog post of a prominent guru who reinterpreted the Tsunami in South-East-Asia in 2004 as an act of karmic cleansing of the earth. She claimed that people whose karma has been polluted by former reincarnations were unintentionally gathering in South-East-Asia to get killed by the Tsunami and therefore did a service to the karmic state of the whole world. This is not only cynical, it is really close to fascist ideology where people were declared as not worth living.
“While groups linked to Nazi ideologies are fully aware of their status as right-wing-extremists, I doubt that members of the esotericist movements are conscious about how fascist their way of thinking is. Probably the fascist base of modern day esotericism is difficult to notice for the deluded members of the in-group since everything is wrapped in positive energy and love.”
BF: That and we lost the singer for Nasum in that, so fuck that asshole. “Useless Eaters and Life unworthy of living” are staples of Fascist Ideology.
Morgellon’s disease and Indigo Children. I like to think of a special maggot-infested aura to crown those people with. There is such a psychological rather illogical range of instability in the book that you focus on. I start feeling that in their breadth and scope, it points more to the anxiety of the times we live in, metered out by a capitalist discourse. Do you see the proliferation of these ideas as being woefully abundant or rather something that has always been with humanity at this level-can I blame the Internet and Nietzsche?
P.S. that I have to capitalize Internet when writing is a fun analogous proposition to Nietzsche.
KP: The main fact, which was driving me into working on this project was the unholy connection of spirituality and capitalism. I consider spirituality as being an important tool for human needs and I think it can be a comforting and also inspiring thing to focus on- things between heaven and earth where no one will ever find answers in a rational sense. Nevertheless, the current submission of spirituality under the rules of the capitalist market, forced by an armada of suppliers, is a development, which has he potential to irreversibly transform questions of belief into marketable services and tools. The fact that the whole range of post-truth ‘realities’ from conspiracy theorists to esotericists are increasingly relevant in times like these, where science and medicine are dismissed on a level like never before, is telling a lot about the anxieties and deficits of 21st century life. The foundation of the esotericist market is the practice of making profit by exploiting gullible or superstitious people. Even though this is not a new phenomenon (there is evidence of examples reaching back many centuries, i.e. the sale of indulgences in Middle Ages) the contemporary form is characterized by capitalist modes of production. The spiritual-religious needs are satisfied by products and services with a precisely quantifiable monetary value. Spirituality is for sale on a market like any other products. If you turn around, taking esotericism as a starting point and focusing on manufacturers of products on the ‘regular’ market, the contextual distance is not too far. Companies like Apple advertise themselves as a quasi-religious group, selling not only products, but also a way of life and the feeling of being part of an elitist group. Emotional marketing is a sign of the time and, of course, esotericist suppliers are taking advantage of that. There’s only one significant difference: most of the products on the ‘regular’ market do have a relevant practical value, while most of the esotericist products is just junk, marketed with fantastic stories and promises of salvation.
You are right, the age of Internet, and especially Social Media, is a development, which enables all kinds of nonsense to gain plenty of attention and to find followers. I think that besides the ‘swarm intelligence’ in Social Media, there’s also a ‘swarm stupidity’. If you take really, really stupid concepts like that gravity is just an illusion (which is a relevant concept in some groups), you just need Social Media to amplify your ideas and to find followers, and if you manage to find enough people you can convince there’s the potential that you have created a mass movement out of nothing. This is not fiction: take the chemtrail believers, the anti-vaxxers, the healing numbers- propagandists and so on – all groups consisting of a significant amount of people, all based on concepts without any scientific evidence. For me, this is really alarming.
BF: Flat-Earthers and Gravity. The critical correlation between ideology and the impotence of Youtube commentators all in one fetid gluten-free sushi roll.
Did you speak with any of the believers in depth at the fairs etc? Did you give any of their ilk a indication that this would become a book? Did you have to fake your own beliefs when communicating with them and to what reception have you had of the book from them?
KP: Since I claimed to be a believer myself when talking to people from the scene in real life, I had a lot of talks with both providers and believers. Sometimes I had to bite my tongue not to start ranting about their passionate ideological blindness, but I decided not to reveal myself. My approach was not to criticize any particular person or group, but get an insight into the scene as a whole, which would not have been possible if I had sought critical discourse. I more took the role of the over-affirming naive soon-to-be-member, taking advantage of the fact that addressing their vanity was more useful than criticizing them.
The reactions on the book from the scene are countable on zero fingers: there were none. This does not puzzle me at all: although some members do have a missionary zeal when it comes to convincing potentially interested people,
it is a common practice in the scene to ignore criticism and not to search public discourse if confronted with other opinions. This is according to the fact that the always claim that they are only concentrating on the ‘positive’ facts because everything else is ‘negative energy’ and therefore harmful.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Klaus Pichler.)