“Here are men’s memories and the ruins of their beliefs.” – Jean Cocteau
About A Season in Hell
A Season in Hell is a historical portrait of political and social turmoil in the post-9/11 era, a hallucinatory spectacle of America as a vision of Hell. The multimedia performance work chronicles a journey through America as told by the artist and his doppelganger, the rogue government official: Secretary-at-Large of the virtual government agency, US Department of Art & Technology. The title of the work is borrowed from Arthur Rimbaud’s 19-century farewell poem, A Season in Hell, to support the artist’s struggle to confront the deterioration of humanity. A Season in Hell draws from additional literary influences including Dante’s Inferno, the legend of Orpheus, the apocalyptic paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake, and the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson. These sources provide the basis for a contemporary depiction of the Underworld of America, a world rendered from the tumultuous political era of the George W. Bush Administration.
Storyboard: The Chronicles of the Secretary-at-Large
Capitol Gaze (2003)
Once, if I remember well, I held utopian aspiration for the role of the artist on the world stage. I saw America transformed through revolutionary artistic thought, inspired by the avant-garde, Government revised. My life was a feast in which true freedom was found through the power of imagination, where all was opened beyond what is, to what can be... I transcended bureaucracies, I dissolved the distinction between what is real and what is not, I created new worlds, and I indulged in collective toasts. Photo by Jill Steinberg.
I believed the role of the artist in society was to function as a cultural barometer, to construct a totalizing vision of art and life that has no boundaries, which blurs the inner and outer worlds of the individual and society, a defiant rejection of insularity, the embrace of action.
USDAT Headquarters (2001)
The US Department of Art & Technology (USDAT) began to extrude into the physical environment of Washington, DC, through techniques of virtualization. The USDAT was situated at a site formerly housing the US Department of the Interior, the agency that paradoxically oversees the management of the physical space in America.
Ich bin ein Berliner Künstler (2002)
As the newly sworn in Secretary, I delivered my first European address to announce the formation of the Global Virtualization Council. I gathered together an international body of artist-ambassadors to mobilize artistic forces of mediation. Photo by Thomas Brun.
10,000 Acts of Artistic Mediation (2004)
With the 2004 Republican National Convention coming to New York City, a grand spectacle of political theater timed to exploit the 3rd anniversary of 9/11, I delivered the “10,000 Acts of Artistic Mediation” speech at the Freedom of Expression National Monument - a brazen act of total theater, a call to artists resounding through the corridors of the City. Photo by Andrew Nagy.
The Invention of the Unknown (2005/08)
But with the 2004 election, the dream of an artist-driven government was shrouded in the gathering doom of war and dis- information. I fled underground and declared myself the Secretary-at-Large. I heard a voice from the Other side and began chronicling my descent through the treacherous Under World of America (and beyond). Photo by Phyllis Hecht.
Ancient Notions of Fate (2005/08)
January 20, 2005: on that day the nation died. I found myself crushed by reality. The bureaucracy I conceived turned against me. I contrived to purge my mind of all human hope in this Hellish place.
2005 Presidential Inauguration
The nation’s Capital had been transformed into a mighty walled fortress, armed to the teeth, locked-down, swept clean - all joy had been strangled. On any suspicion, they would pounce with the stealth of a wild beast, eyes wide, filled with a dreadful fear.
Eulogy: "We gather here in this dark hour of our grief. So many have suffered so great a loss, and today we express our sorrow for the Death of the Nation. We are here to pray for America, to bear witness to the passing of its spirit, which was always at risk, and now, to that which is missing: its dreams, aspirations, idealism, extinguished... snuffed out."
What lies before us are men’s memories and the ruins of their beliefs. The list of casual- ties we are only beginning to fathom... those who died believing in the iridescent glow and ghosted images of the hallowed voice of cable news, perverted and falsified until nothing remained but static and ashes.
Revolt Against Deep Forms of Social Regimentation (2005/08)
I then laid myself down in the deserted streets. I roamed the wind-swept alleys. I prowled the cold, steely security fences. I called out: “Celebrate Death with all your appetites, your selfishness and all the capital sins!”
The White House Fortress
In my darkest hour, the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations left me empty, drained, and I cursed them all.
The White House Militia
I announced I would see the artistic process through, wherever it leads. I scanned the terrain of the dominant order, a shadowy world, far from reality.
The Secret Service
I saw fear and terror and control locked behind fences. I saw the raw outline of their barricades planted deep into our consciousness.
Situational Tour: White House
I infiltrated the infiltrators, and tracked and scanned their security systems.
The Hubris of Self-Mutilation (2005/08)
I exited the Beltway and descended into the Heartland... the Industrial Heartland of America. Once magnificent cities of steel now ruined carcasses of twisted metal, smashed illusions, shattered dreams, poisoned. A collapse of the human spirit, peeling and splintered.
Ever Forward Into the Darkness (2005/08)
Times of crisis demand urgent action. I traveled further, to the East, for unmediated clarity. Out on the terrace at the US Consulate in Istanbul, I reflected on the state of art midway through a post-apocalyptic decade, an attempt to break through the darkness, reaching for some elusive truth. Art must not be petrified in the art world!
The Zones of Light (2005/08)
Descending into Venice, I penetrated the shadows in search of the mysterious notion of art that extends itself beyond our grasp.
It is only through artists underground and established, transmitting an ethereliquary of ideas that won’t burn; that we will draw back the veil on the convoluted and the ideology of Now!
Begging for Mercy (2005)
The next day I discovered the death of Art in search of the Biennale. Santa Claus begged for mercy while the art intelligentsia worked the phones.
Mars Attack on the American Pavilion
As I reached the US Pavilion, renegade insurgents from the Mars Pavilion attacked Ed Ruscha’s exhibi tion: “Course of Empire.”
Empire Runs its Course
I then invoked techniques of virtualization to suspend all powers of disbelief and erased the American Pavilion and its contents.
Situational Tour: Venice Biennale
Visitors at the Venice Biennale were surprised to find only the columns and pediment remaining from the former American Pavilion. Now that we have executed "Empire Runs its Course" and reclaimed the American Pavilion, we have completed the first phase of our important task to transform it as the "Virtual Pavilion."
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (2005/08)
I returned to Washington, where the End was here and now. Orf arrived as my guide to bear witness to grave and deteriorating conditions, to transgress the boundaries between life and death.
I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned (2005/08)
Orf comes from the Other World, he is a poet, he sees the world through different eyes. Orf doesn’t know fear, he wanders through trajectories in space and time.
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child (2005/08)
Orf (from the legend of Orpheus) walked through the Arlington Cemetery where he carried out a spectacular vigil to bear witness in extraordinary times of crisis. He sang black spirituals in juxtaposition to his movement through the iconic environment of the Nation's Capital.
George W. Bush Parkway (2005/08)
Afterwards, a phenomenon occurred in Crawford, Texas, the President’s sleepy ranch paradise.
Situational Tour: Crawford, Texas
I descended into the dusty town to engage the showdown that had erupted between the Sheehan Camp and a posse of Cowboys and Christian Bikers who ride and pray for the President. Out behind the Yellow Rose memorabilia shop they ceremoniously declared war against the protestors. As battle lines were drawn and the bugle sounded, I hastily exited the scene.
The Mysterium Tremendum (2008)
Armageddon arrived in the City of New Orleans, city of Death. A storm of biblical proportions erupted, the forces of misjudgment, the terrors overwhelming, thousands left Behind, just as they predicted. The passages from Revelations, Hell on Earth! - a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ectasy, Nightmare, and Sleep in a Nest of Flames (2006/08)
On the evening of Mardi Gras, the moon burned bright in the black sky over New Orleans: intoxication, madness, determination, anger, and despair filled the night air.
Orf's Immolation (2006 - 2008)
Orf executed a ritual dance from the Marigny Triangle to the heart of the French Quarter - to protest, and to burn.
Biblical Clouds (2006)
The descent led me deep into the Bible Belt, the beginning of belief, gateway to the Promised Land, where miracles occur every day, without exception, without a doubt, so long as you believe. The fear of the unseen, dark enemies were proof of their patriotism.
Prayer Hands (2006/08)
I descended to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK where I encountered Roberts' own hands, sculpted in bronze.
Statue of Liberation (2006/08)
In Memphis, TN I encountered the Status of Liberation, where lady liberty held the cross in her right hand, and the 10 Commandments in her left. Surely I must be closing in on the lowest level of the Underworld of America.
Blood on Their Hands (2006)
In the cotton fields of Tennessee, I held a cotton ball for the first time, reflecting on the bloody history of this pure, white flower.
On All Hallow’s Eve, that liminal time of the year when magic is most potent, Orf descended through the Georgia countryside.
Orf at the Gate (2006/08)
Under a full moon at dusk, Orf opened the gate to the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, where the Souls of slaves were buried.
Voices of the Souls (2006/08)
Orf awakened the Souls, to hear their testimony, as witnesses to the religion of the Lie, as evidence of culpability of the slave owners, while he listened to their soft sound of static, shifting, wispy, words on the edge of recognition. He was looking for proof from those who were left behind.
Orf’s Baptism (2006/08)
In the heart of the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, Orf unleashed a spectacular Baptism and drowned the Moral Authority of the Tele-Evangelists through immersion in water: a cleansing purification, baptism from religion – as the Souls bear witness.
Mystery is so Enormous (2007/08)
We arrive at our final destination, the Desert of the Bottom of America, the Abyss From Which There is no Return, to dispose of the remains of the nation.
I say to those who stand guilty of the carnage and the shock and awe, to those who tasted temptation in the unfolding human drama... brought down by their own hubris, today I say to them, on the Last Day: “You who judge us, are judged by us... we are waiting at the turning!”
Requiem II (2007/08)
But it never really happened that way. The stark desert was sufficient to burn the remains: Orf sang his final Requiem and then vanished forever. I never saw him again.
Listen, I tell you a mystery, we will not all sleep, but we will be changed, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, and the dead will be made imperishable, and WE SHALL BE CHANGED.
Revolutionary Experiments in Culture
On the back of the library reads the words of Secretary Randall M. Packer, as a testament to future generations of artists.
Theatrical Work: A Season in Hell
Performed at the San Jose Stage as part of the 2010 ZERO1 Biennial.
Orf descends to the bottom of the Underworld of America, Death Valley, where he performs the Requiem and completes the journey.