Brian Butler Conjures the Demon Bartzabel
By Dr. Paul Koudounaris
Photos by Luke Gilford
I had the good sense to arrive early and avoid the mob. The line outside L & M Arts in Venice, California, stretched along two city blocks and showed no signs of moving. A murmur of disparate voices could be heard from those trapped on the wrong side of the gallery’s door, basically amounting to a communal cry of “this is crazy.” Crazy or not, those of us in the inner sanctum were shepherded by security into a courtyard that was enveloped in a growing cloud of incense and fog, and vibrating from a sub bass rumbling.
An apparition parted the mist in the form of a figure wearing a red robe and hood. Wielding a sword, he solemnly traversed the perimeter of a black stage decorated with a blood red circle and altar. A pair of women soon followed, leading a blindfolded and bound figure who was escorted to a triangular area surrounded by mystic sigils. It all sounds like something from an unwritten chapter by J. K. Huysmans, but the event was being performed live in front of a crowd upwards of 1000 people—a curious amalgam of artists, occultists, and celebutantes, who alternately looked on with varying amounts of anticipation, confusion, and envy.
The auteur of this scene is Los Angeles-based artist Brian Butler, an icon in an occult subculture that has blossomed over the last decade. A would be polymath—artist, filmmaker, musician, and writer—Butler’s persona has been constructed around an overt dedication to the black arts, and a willingness to make public the rituals and tenets of a faith that have traditionally been kept secret by others. That, along with his ties to people with infamous reputations, most notably Kenneth Anger, have made him equally lauded and reviled.
The scene in question—Butler’s latest and most grandiose display—was a public performance of Aleister Crowley’s The Bartzabel Working. Based on techniques of evocation found in medieval grimoires, the ritual was written in 1910 and designed to manifest Bartzabel, a traditional spirit of Mars in Western occultism, through a hooded person placed in a magical triangle. The crowd, which packed the gallery’s courtyard, was the largest ever assembled to witness a Crowleyan rite.
VICE: Over the last few years, you have performed large-scale evocations and related performances in galleries and museums across the globe—the USA, Mexico, France, the UK, Portugal, Austria, Italy, Denmark, and China—and created a body of work in which ritual and art are inseparable. How do you do view the connection between the two, and what is it that appeals to you about public evocations?
Brian Butler: I have always considered magick to be an art and my study of the occult inspired my vision as an artist. I also feel that the imagery of ceremonial magick is visually striking and has the potential to impact an audience in a powerful way. The idea of a public evocation appeals to me on several levels. Technically, art is a work of creation, but for me it often feels like a manifestation of something that already exists on another plane of awareness, which provides another cognate for me with occult practice. A public ritual performance offers me a forum where I can bring a spiritual manifestation down to a superficial level that the average person can perceive.
Are there precedents for what you are doing, or do you believe it to be unique? What do you think the connection with ritual portends for the future of art and performance?
In the context of the art world, this connection is a new one—it hasn’t really been explored. Certainly there have always been artists interested in the occult, and who allowed that to inspire their work—it even became a kind of subgenre in early Modernism, but it was often hidden under the formal content of the work, as in the case of Piet Mondrian, for instance. But the overt connection, with the performance of ritual magick as art, is something new. I think it is a step towards a more intimate relationship between artist and audience—I am reminded of something that Marina Abramovic elucidated to me about the occult in the context of performance, that the future will be one of a non-objective world without art in the sense that we have it now. She foresees us attaining a mental state and level of consciousness enabling us to transmit thoughts to other people. “There will not be sculptures, or paintings, or installations,” she once said, “there will just be the artist standing in front of a public, which is developed enough to receive a message or energy.” I think the fusion of art and ritual is a step toward that kind of connectivity and that kind of intimacy.
The occult has often fallen prey to kitsch-culture, with what had been high becoming very low. Does the fusion of art and ritual help to elevate it again?
Yes, due to sensationalism in the media, elements of Crowley’s work have been coopted and become a part of pop culture in a very low brow, horror film type of way. And to me that has nothing to do with the essence of what Crowley was or what he did. The recontextualization of the rituals as fine art helps to salvage them from that level of pop culture and allow an assessment of their own sophisticated aesthetics and cultural value.
As the tableau unfolded, Butler pointed his sword at the triangle and called for protection against evil. Gathering his power and reaching a state of exultation, he approached the triangle and began to chant. As the spirit of Bartzabel was summoned, there was a scream of agony from the bound figure—he represented a material basis, the object from which the immaterial would take form. His body writhed in rebellion against the preternatural experience it was undergoing. Moving forward, Butler interrogated the specter inhabiting the man and swore it to an oath of obedience.
Many within the crowd were wrapped in reverent attention as Butler solemnly tended his altar, but others were furtive. Fusing art and ritual in a gallery setting creates an uneasy marriage for those who fail to comprehend the solemnity of such ceremonies, and consider the events instead as a kind of spectator sport. These people will fail to recognize the subtle and highly nuanced nature of Butler’s rituals. For The Bartzabel Working, for instance, the red robed figures were placed against the deep black background, where they took on an abstract quality. Moving but seeming something other than fully human, they created the sense of a liminal space. Light and staging were likewise carefully contrived, creating patterns of shadow, which reinforced Butler’s gestures. These swatches of dark and light congealed and dissipated to create the sense of an alternate, ambiguous presence emanating from Butler as officiant, and consuming those participating in the ritual.
Some may blanche at what had been secretive becoming not only public, but presented as a spectacle. Others, such as Crowley expert Rodney Orpheus, author of The Grimoire of Aleister Crowley and the head of the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis) in Ireland, praises Butler’s efforts to make the occult less opaque.
VICE: What would Crowley have thought about these spectacles, and how do they jibe with his own methods?
Rodney Orpheus: I think Crowley would have loved it. We’re talking about a guy who sold tickets to public performances of “The Rites of Eleusis” after all, so this is exactly in line with Crowley’s own modus operandi. It’s the first time I’ve heard of this being performed publicly, period. Crowley’s original wasn’t public, it was a private working.
Do you think Brian is helping to spark a new wave of interest in Crowley in particular, and occultism in general? There was, after all, a ridiculously large crowd, maybe 1000 people for his Barztabel evocation.
I’m very pleasantly surprised and impressed to hear this. I do think that many, many people hold an interest in these things and are capable (and eager) of comprehending it. I very much applaud Brian’s approach.
The increasingly high profile of Brian’s rituals has had the effect of bringing him critics in the form of armchair occultists, who either misunderstand his intent, or fail to recognize the amount of diligent study that goes into every one of his performances.Are the subtleties of such rituals too difficult for the uneducated public to really understand?
As they say, “haters gonna hate.” You’re always going to have people criticizing this stuff, from one side or another. Often this criticism is justified—most attempts to put on real magickal rituals in public fall flat on their faces, mainly because the performers just aren’t capable of pulling it off; either because they are great occultists and terrible showmen, or the other way around. There are very few people who have skill in both disciplines.
Brian Butler is one of those few people, apparently. Part of his genius as a showman is in the diligent care he takes to select the appropriate rituals—those that would not only entice occult experts, but also appeal to the general public and have a site-specific aspect. The Bartzabel Working is a perfect example. The oration itself has great appeal, since it was an attempt by Crowley to devise a ritual that would be poetic and inspiring. Further, it dovetails perfectly with the space, since Butler was conjuring a Martian symbol, and the building housing L & M Arts was once part of the home of Ray Bradbury, the author of The Martian Chronicles.
A cloudy night sky had parted over the gallery’s courtyard as Butler neared his climax. Now, under the glow of a deep moon, Bartzabel was given license to depart. Butler’s shadow coalesced with those of the women standing beside him, and their darkened silhouettes fell as a group on the bound man, triangulating outward to express the release of the entity.At the climatic moment, Butler triumphantly smashed his fist down and declared “ABRAHADABRA!” The portal was closed, and the women led the hobbled and exhausted man from the triangle; and the audience, some initiated, some perplexed, were themselves released into the dark night.
Butler will stage another performance of The Bartzabel Working in Berlin later this month at a location to be announced. Check out brianbutler.com for details.
Butler’s upcoming group shows include:
Ma Prochaine Vie
Courtesy via ForYourArt
6020 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Opening January 22nd
8687 Melrose Avenue
West Hollywood, CA 90069
January 17 to March 8
Sanctified: Spirituality in Contemporary Art
Vincent Price Museum
East Los Angeles College
1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez
Monterey Park, CA 91754-6099
February 9 to April 26