He’s got more artistic flair than just about anyone I know. His works in writing, art, and transmedia continue to impress me on a daily basis. In fact, I’d go as far to say he’s one of the world’s most profound unknowns that should be known. This guy has been busting his ass day in and day out to put out some entertaining and thought-provoking creative materials.
His book on the legacy of David Bowie, titled Masks, drops next year. It’s an in-depth thought piece on the life and times of the music god. Based on his previous work, I’m very much looking forward to it and I think you should be as well.
In the meantime, get to know a bit about Jamie and the work he’s done, where it started, and why he creates.
GZS: Let’s get the standard info out of the way first. Tell us a bit about Jamie Curcio’s upbringing and childhood and how that eventually led you down the artistic path you’ve taken. Give us your secret origin, if you will.
That’s a difficult one. Let me say this: given time, I could come up with ten different “origin stories” which are all based on historical fact, but they’re all still a narrative I’m constructing out of insufficient evidence. And playing with just that is one of my central preoccupations as an artist.
My upbringing was what it was. I was raised by my mother, who was an artist, and later, art therapist, and several of her girlfriends, over the years. I tell the story of my relationship with my grandfather, who eventually disowned me for being an artist myself, in the Epilogue for Masks: Bowie and Artists of Artifice. But what I just said about origin stories is true. Their power as an explanatory device is highly overrated by comic book and movie writers everywhere, because they work in fiction, and let the writer get on to the story. Life is much larger than us, and our explanations.
GZS: Based on what I’ve seen of your work and the topics you seem to explore, I can say without a doubt you are moved on some personal level by the mythology of it all. You seem to be very attuned to what Joseph Campbell always tried to teach his students — about archetypes, story structure, etc. Was Joseph Campbell a big influence on you? What about other outside influences that have informed your work?
When I was seventeen, a friend of my mother’s died, and she was gifted a large collection of Campbell lectures on VHS. And through him, I was re-introduced to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Kant, and this sort of German Idealist interpretation of Buddhism that permeates Campbell’s work and of course Jung, who also had a strong influence on Campbell. I must have listened to some of those tapes to the point they warped and distorted, and the labels wore off.
By that point in time I was already reading a lot of German philosophers, because we really knew how to party in the nineties, clearly — actually we did, but that’s another story — but I didn’t realize then that this was itself a sort of gloss, a creative invention born of misunderstanding as much as it was actually Buddhism. At seventeen, I just thought Schopenhauer and Jung’s Buddhism was what Buddhism was, but yeah… he was really significant in terms of helping me to realize the direction I was already headed if that makes any sense.
At the same time, there’s something a little parochial about Campbell, especially in terms of the material that’s meant to be the most accessible. He was a professor, after all, and I think mostly a very good one, for the times. And his career capitalized on providing entry-ways into topics that had been sectioned off into the academic world and not really talked about anywhere else. Whether that was by design or because no one cared, because it had never been properly packaged, is debatable.
Now that I think of it, all of my non-fiction work works on this premise as well — most of it isn’t groundbreaking to those who have been studying the related subjects for thirty years, but instead, it approaches them from novel directions, or in unique ways. Our works are unique to the extent that we are, but the existing materials are what they are.
I think the very thing that helped Campbell become so accessible is also what’s most problematic in his work: the idea of a monomyth, that is, that there are “elementary ideas” — an idea he regularly borrowed from an earlier anthropologist, Adolf Bastian — in other words, that all variation between cultures is sort of secondary, and there is a primary link between all the worlds-within-worlds that we invent in our stories about the world.
That’s what myths are, of course. Stories about what the world is, and what our place in it is. They don’t necessarily need to parables, clearly, it doesn’t need to be overt.
This is a problem in that it tends to undervalue the variation and distinction that is the life-blood of culture. This is a tendency that exists in Jung as well, as I said, and in fact, a lot of Occultists are prone to it: generalizing in search of the underlying essence, in the end, you wind up writing your own preconceptions and assumptions large. That sort of analysis isn’t valueless, but if you aren’t aware of the amount we write ourselves into…
Another irony, this is precisely the sort of blindness that Jung accused Freud of, during their schism about the occult. Freud saw the basis of the psyche in sex, and Jung, who was incredibly interested in the function of Projection himself, said Freud was essentially writing himself into his view of the entire human psyche. But in his own way, Jung did the same thing. We can’t help it. Maybe this is why I try to stick to fiction or cultural theory that points at these things without claiming to be The Entire Truth.
Anyway, I don’t know how much you want to get into the minutiae of cultural ethnography here but as I came to study these things more closely, I developed more issues with that framework. I get into this in Narrative Machines. Suffice to say, he’s a good place to start, but he would have been the first to say that one should never, ever stop there.
In terms of a list of my influences, frankly, it’d be a very long list. Each project has a long list of influences, and there’s certainly some accumulation and favorites through the years.
GZS: We met through the CMG 2.0 group, a pretty popular chaos magick group on Facebook. Your work seems to be directly connected to the very source of what I consider magick to be, namely artistic endeavor. Would you say, with your work in mythmaking and myth exploration, that your work is infused with magick? Also, tell us a bit about how you got into the whole occult scene.
My public association with chaos magick was solidified with Disinfo’s release of Generation Hex. This was of course back when Disinfo still had some cultural capital, though it was already kind of the tail end. Since our launch party at Alex Grey’s CoSM in 2005, I don’t think there’s been a single interview where I’ve not been asked about chaos magick. But what to say about it?
That’s the basic chaos magick philosophy. The problem is that if we’re being absolutely honest, I’m not sure how many chaos magickians really care about what “works”, so much as come off like they’ve got unseen power. It’s a perennial question— why are occultists so commonly broke? Money, an illusion that depends on collective belief for its great power, is a perfect analogy for magick. But understanding that doesn’t in itself make us wealthy. Maybe a more honest chaos magick motto might be, “everything is bullshit, may as well masturbate on some sigils!”
Jokes aside, there’s still a bit more to it than that. Chaos Magick is fundamentally postmodern and I’d say that’s how I first got into it. The jump from Lyotard, Derrida, and Baudrillard to Phil Hine and Peter Carroll is more stylistic than conceptual, though the philosophers are either more rigorous or more pedantic depending on who you ask. Perhaps that’s merely a style, too.
At any rate, all of them acknowledge, and to some extent exaggerate, the relativism and arbitrary absolutism of language and our models of the world. A 101 level vein of this runs through Robert Anton Wilson and Crowley as well, “the menu isn’t the meal” and so on. That’s postmodernism.
By the way, Crowley gets a lot of criticism for “intellectual theft,” and there’s definitely something to that — he preferred to obfuscate his sources. If you don’t know better, you might think he invented a great deal more than he did. But he was very early to the game when it comes to postmodernism. If you pick through some of his materials, The Book of Lies and Book of Thoth specifically, and parts of Book 4, you’ll find many of the ingredients of the Phenomenology that would be so explosive in France, still couched in a British Empiricist frame.
I know that Po Mo isn’t currently in vogue. In fact, it’s hardly even understood, for instance when Jordan Peterson talks about “postmodernism,” he’s doing a little myth-making himself. Traditionalism is popular now, especially in occult circles, fighting against relativism with the bulwark of reason. It’s a fundamentally modern sort of neurosis. People are anxious about finding solid ground.
I wrote about this as well in Narrative Machines. It is my first full-length nonfiction book, so, although it opens many more questions than it closes, that is probably the best first stop for my thoughts on the application of theory.
I think the pendulum will swing back, given time. But there’s a lot of basic critical thinking and epistemology America apparently needs to catch up on. Until that happens, I suppose the assurances of anti-authoritarian authorities will continue to hold away — preaching their own pseudo-Rationalist version of the “opiate of the masses.” And yes, I put Jordan Peterson in that category. Either he’s disingenuous, or incapable of seeing himself. Neither is good.
GZS: Would you say there is a “magick” connection in your stories or are you really just riffing on popular myth archetypes and just restructuring a new mythos out of old tales?
It’s absolutely a spiritual practice. Beyond that, as usual, I’m going to have to answer this in a pretty roundabout way because it really isn’t an either/or. When you say “a magick connection” I assume you’re referring to Crowley’s stock definition, “Causing change in conformity with Will”. Of course, he was the one who started the practice of using an additional “k” to distinguish it from works of art.
I get into this in Masks at length, because Bowie’s more Avante-Garde work gives such a wonderful opportunity to discuss this theme: the illusion of art is the illusion of magick, and the ability to affect reality through that illusion is equivalent as well. So far as I’m concerned there really is no difference. That isn’t to say that a still-life is generally a work of magick, but it is practice for it. And there are some still-lives that have been quite significant in the lives of people.
Still, I find it easier to say “art.”
Art is an act, which is both the sense of performance, “he acted in a play”, and an action in the real world, real. Does it work on the unseen realm, same as any realm of religious or occult iconography? Certainly. Though I think its area of effect pertains most specifically to other humans, so we might wonder what a pigeon makes of the Mona Lisa. Certainly, it’s something. And it pertains to something far older too, things unseen. But occultists who don’t recognize that what they’re doing is art, are often consequently shitty artists.
The second part of your question… When I engage with myths, legends, history, really anything that I turn up in the research phase that might be the first half-year to a year of a major project. If the end purpose is fiction and not non-fiction, I am looking to be inspired during this phase, while also doing an amount of due diligence in terms of the work that’s already been done in that vein. If you’re just re-telling a myth or period of history, that can be a great work of craft to do it well, but it’s not at all what I’m interested in as an artist. Even if the story and all the characters and places in it are fictional, it has to be authentic. This wasn’t true when I had just started writing, but at this point, I don’t even let myself out of the concept phase until I can hear each character’s voice very clearly in my head.
When it comes time to get to work, that’s a very personal process, I don’t feel any particular commitment to put anything in that source material before the needs of the work. That’s a very mysterious thing if you think about it, “the needs of the work.” How does it need things? But it really is that way, once you have the initial germ around which the whole thing grows. You need to create out of a relationship with the work itself, this is what I mean by being genuine: you make a choice, it grows, you react to that, on and on for years. Each of those choices accumulates, so there’s really no room to hide. This is what I mean by authenticity. It’s not about being “your true self.” There’s no such thing. But if you ever try to use an ink brush, that is authenticity: the thinnest moment of hesitation or lack of presence and you’ve made a mess.
Each time I try to develop more clarity and learn better how to get out of the way and manifest that vision.
There are things you can do in a book or a play that you can’t do in the real world, and through those sort of effects. I definitely am seeking a direct connection with certain people. The people it speaks to. Put that end product in the wrong set of hands and it may as well be gibberish. After all the worlds we can imagine in a book, it’s also just marks on paper.
The work that we do as an artist is in a sense trying to figure out what it is that’s already pulling us. We’re all chasing — or eating—our own tails. In the process, sometimes the results are beautiful, or sad, or exciting. But for me anyway, it’s all about the incessant chase, and trying to improve on the last time ’round. Or try something different. And most every time you reach a point a hundred times over that you want to toss it all and die in a hole somewhere. What makes us do it? Imagine prioritizing your artwork overspending your final months in Tahiti or wherever. Art… making a career of it… is a kind of madness. But if you can’t stop, then get over yourself and get to work. The truth is most of us with this compulsion, a few days of vacation is fine but after that we’re going out of our minds, ready to get on with the next thing.
As always, a very insightful look in the mind of an amazing creator!
Be sure to check out all of Jamie’s work at jamescurcio.com and fallencycle.com. Also check out modernmythology.net to stay up to date on Jamie’s developing projects. Some of the art included in this piece is the beautiful work of Amun Disalvatron and you can check out the rest of his art here.