ECSTATIC UPHEAVAL: A conversation with artist David Chaim Smith (Arthur, 2013)

Originally published in Arthur No. 34 (April 2013)….


Is there a way to examine the nature of existence at its very foundation? Esoteric mapmaker DAVID CHAIM SMITH say yes—but there’s a price.
by Jay Babcock

I first encountered David Chaim Smith’s remarkable, bewildering work through Pam Grossman’s Phantasmaphile newsletter, a daily email bulletin spotlighting a contemporary or historic personage up to something witchy and beautiful, usually in the visual arts. Smith’s work was particularly striking in its unusual combination of diagrammatic composition, simple media (pencil!?!) and unapologetically rarefied Kabbalistic-Gnostic content. Generally that would be more than enough to warrant further investigation, but it was the work’s difficult-to-grok provenance that intrigued me the most: these pieces looked like plates that could have been included in Alexander Roob’s Taschen compendium of dazzling Medieval alchemical artwork, The Hermetic Museum (alternative title, courtesy of Adam Egypt Mortimer: The Original Face Melter Times A Thousand). They seemed like the kind of work that’s usually brought to light by accident, decades after the a recluse’s death or disappearance (or committal to a mental ward): strange, highly charged devotional work rescued from a trashbin, the details of its artist’s life and practice gone to dust, Iain Sinclair on the case.


And yet, the author of these stupefying drawings is alive and well—David Chaim Smith [above] is a contemporary New York artist with an MFA, a publisher and (until recently) a gallery. Despite living a semi-monastic life, Smith seems eager to engage with a curious public. He has a website. He’s on Facebook. Dig a little and you’ll find a few occultist-oriented podcast interviews and accounts of public talks he’s given in the last few years around the publication of his two books—2010’s esoteric exegesis The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis: Commentary on Genesis 1-3 (Daat Press) and 2012’s massive art/text collection The Sacrificial Universe (Fulgur)—and a 2010 gallery show. And now, here he is on the other end of the telephone line in late January, just days after completing his new book, Blazing Dew of Stars, set for publication this springOctober 23, 2013 by Fulgur. A surprisingly garrulous fellow, Smith spoke frankly about who he is, where he comes from and how his day-to-day life and spiritual practice generates such artwork. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

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OUT, DEMONS, OUT!: The 1967 Exorcism of the Pentagon and the Birth of Yippie! (Arthur, 2004)

This piece was originally published in Arthur No. 13 (Nov. 2004), with cover artwork by John Coulthart and design by William T. Nelson, pictured above (click image to view at larger size). A correction involving Cosmic Charlie published in a later issue has been embedded in the text here at the most natural point. I’m sorry that I’ve been unable to include the many fantastic photographs from the print article here. However, I have added a still from the film “Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up” by Dick Fontaine, which we did not have access to at the time of print publication into the text, and there are more stills from various films appended. —Jay Babcock

Clip from Arthur No. 13’s Table of Contents page, featuring photo by Robert A. Altman.


On October 21, 1967, the Pentagon came under a most unconventional assault.

An oral history by Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Michael Simmons and Jay Babcock

* * *

By Autumn of 1967, the “police action” in Vietnam had escalated. The United States of America waged War—that hideous manifestation of the human race’s worst instincts—against the small, distant, sovereign land. 485,600 American troops were then stationed in Nam; 9,353 would die in ’67 alone. We were there under false pretenses (the “attack’ at the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened), operating under a paranoid doctrine (the Domino Theory, fretting that Vietnamese Communists fighting a civil war in their own country with popular support would envelop all of Southeast Asia and end up invading Dubuque, Iowa). Seven million tons of bombs would eventually be dropped, as opposed to two million during World War II. Indiscriminate use of gruesome weaponry was deployed, most infamously napalm, a jelly that sticks to—and burns through—human skin. Saturation bombings, free-fire zones, massive defoliation with the carcinogen Agent Orange. “Destroying the village to save it,” as one American military man put it.

For a generation that remembered the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals after WW II, something had to be done. Genocidal fugitive Adolf Eichmann’s “I was just following orders” excuse would not fly. The draft was sending 18-year-olds off to die. A domestic anti-war movement emerged, as had a counterculture of hairy young people who rejected the militarism, greed, sexual repression, and stunted consciousness of their parents and leaders to pursue Joy and Sharing as well as Dope, Rock and Roll, and Fucking in the Streets. Pundits spoke of The Generation Gap. A quaking chasm had split the nation.

San Francisco painter Michael Bowen had a dream of people coming together to celebrate his city’s burgeoning hippie subculture, and so he and his wife Martine initiated the Great Human Be-In on Sunday, January 14, 1967. Sub-billed as A Gathering of the Tribes, 10,000 hippies, radicals and free spirits convened in Golden Gate Park. Beat poets emceed (Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lenore Kandel), rock bands rocked (Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Charlatans), Hell’s Angels returned lost kids to their mommies – and the cops busted no one, despite rampant open marijuana use. For many, the realization that there were other Martians was transcendental. Berkeley anti-war activist Jerry Rubin gave a speech, but his narrow political rap was dubbed “too histrionic” by Ginsberg and many in the crowd. It fortuitously forked Rubin’s direction. “It was the first time I did see a new society,” he said later. “I saw there was no need for a political statement. I didn’t understand that until then, either.”

Events ending with the suffix “In” became the rage. Bob Fass hosted the hippest radio show in the country, “Radio Unnameable” on New York’s WBAI. The all-night gab-and-music fest was Freak Centra, functioning as a pre-internet audio website. Regular guests included Realist editor Paul Krassner (dubbed “Father of the Underground Press”), underground film director Robert Downey Sr. (father and namesake of…), actor/writer Marshall Efron (arguably the funniest man on the planet), and a manic activist-gone-psychedelic named Abbie Hoffman—all rapping madly, verbally riffing and improvising like musicians. One night after participating in a UsCo avant-garde multi-media show of projections, movies, music, etc., at an airplane hangar, Fass stopped by nearby JFK International Airport and noticed a group of three dozen young people—clearly ripped to the tits—communally entranced by a giant mobile centerpiecing a terminal. The vast open spaces of an airport, with jet planes and stars in the sky, were the stage for dreams to come to life. Fass flashed on the infinite possibilities.

He conceived a Fly-In at JFK and announced it on Radio Unnameable. Though Saturday night, February 11, was freezing cold, 3,000 of the underground’s finest came to sing Beatles songs, torch reefers, dance the body electric, and groove with their sisters and brothers. “One of the things that happened,” Fass observed, “was that there was such a colossal amount of human connection that there was something akin to feedback that happened, and people really began to experience not ‘happiness,’ but Ecstasy and Joy. We’re planning another one at your house.”

New York responded to San Francisco’s Be-In with its own. Key to its success was Jim Fouratt, a young actor who’d become one of the most effective hippie organizers on the Lower East Side. Promotion for the event cost $250, which paid for posters and leaflets. On Easter Sunday, March 27, 10,000 full and part-time hippies came together—some in the carnal definition—at Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. It was a glistening, no bad vibes, lysergic day. Fouratt was central to virtually every NYC hip community event, including the infamous Soot-In at Consolidated Edison, where he, Abbie Hoffman, and others dumped bags of nasty black soot at the coal burning, energy company’s offices, in a protest that prefigured and influenced the birth of the environmental movement.

Emmett Grogan was a brilliant and enigmatic prankster/con man at the heart of San Francisco’s do-goodnik anarcho-rogues the Diggers. He suggested to his friend Bob Fass that a Sweep-In would strengthen the momentum the Fly-In had sparked. The idea was to “clean up the Lower East Side” area of NYC where the hippies dwelled. Fass conspired with Krassner and Abbie and listeners on his radio show, and they chose Seventh Street, where Krassner lived. The buzz grew louder and one day an inquiring bureaucrat from the Sanitation Department called Radio Unnameable. The potentates of garbage at City Hall were nervous about these beatniks with brooms taking their gig. While appearing cooperative on the phone and in a later meeting, the city pranked the pranksters on the day of the Sweep-In, April 8. When thousands of mop-wielding longhairs appeared at 11 a.m., they beheld a garbage-free, sparkling fresh, squeaky clean street of slums—courtesy of the Sanitation Department. Fass and Krassner were amused that they’d actually forced the city to do its job. Unfazed, they moved the Sweep-In to Third Street. When a city garbage truck turned the corner, the street peeps leaped on it and cleaned it as well.

No single human—other than Tribal Elder Allen Ginsberg—was as influential on this emerging culture than Ed Sanders. He led the satirical-protest-smut-folk-rock band The Fugs with East Village legend Tuli Kupferberg, ran the Peace Eye Bookstore (and community center) on 10th Street, published Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, made films like Mongolian Clusterfuck, wrote poetry, rabble roused for myriad peacenik causes and cannabis legalization. Sanders—one of the first public figures to live seamlessly within realms of Politics, Art, and Fun—was a first cousin to Che Guevara’s paradigmatic New Man—albeit thoroughly American and anti-authoritarian.

But the Life Actor who embodies the Revolutionary Prankster in 20th-century history books is Abbie Hoffman. And he is where our story begins…

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Today's Autonomedia Jubilee Saint — Roland Barthes

barthes photo
French Marxist theorist of the pleasure of the text.
“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” — A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, 1967.


1381 — Adolphus, Count of Cleves, founds “The Brotherhood of Fools.”
1660 — John Bunyan jailed for preaching without a license, Bedfordshire, England.
1815 — Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton born, Johnstown, NY.
1817 — Religious mystic Bahá’u’lláh born.
1845 — French progressive anarcho-communist Jules Guesde born, Paris, France.
1915 — French literary critic Roland Barthes born, Cherbourg, Manche, France.
1939 — Canadian-born Chinese revolutionist Norman Bethune dies, Heibei, China.
1990 — Iran gives Kuwaitis untilmatum to acquire Iraqi identity cards.

Excerpted from The 2009 Autonomedia Calendar of Jubilee Saints: Radical Heroes for the New Millennium by James Koehnline and the Autonomedia Collective

Lionel Ziprin Talks Smith-Abulafia Recordings

from Ian Nagoski:

The story of Harry Smith‘s mid-50s recordings of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, a Kabbalist involved with word-permutations, made between the release of the Anthology of American Folk Music and the beginng of work on the Mirror Animations and Heaven and Earth Magic has been told and retold, but it’s nice to see these newly-posted clips, filmed a dozen years ago of Abulafia’s grandson, poet Lionel Ziprin explaining the story of an extraordinary recording, which the larger world has yet to hear. It’ll happen eventually. Maybe we’ll get a decent reissue of Smith’s Kiowa peyote song recordings, too…

"If you were with Harry you could discover something new every moment."

23 MAY 02: “If you were with Harry you could discover something new every moment.”


Harry Smith circa 1975

Last Stop, Mahagonny

Harry Smith’s magical mystery tour de force

by Kristine McKenna

There was little that Harry
Smith regarded as unworthy of his attention, and less that escaped his
notice. “No matter where he was, Harry found the treasures of the world
under his feet — heard things, saw things and tasted things nobody ever
had before,” recalls Smith’s friend Harvey Bialy in American Magus, a volume
of reminiscences about Smith published in 1996. “If you were with Harry
you could discover something new every moment.” Smith needed a methodology
for handling the mass of data he took in every day, hence the labyrinthine
systems and elaborate, compartmentalizing structures that make up the through
line in his far-flung body of work.

The best-known manifestation
of Smith’s genius for compiling and organizing is Anthology of American
Folk Music, culled from Smith’s collection of performances by obscure folk
and blues artists of the early 20th century, now available as a six-CD
set from Smithsonian/Folkways. Less known, but equally epic, is Mahagonny,
the last and most ambitious of the 22 films Smith completed between 1946
and 1980. Smith based his four-screen, 141-minute magnum opus on Lotte
Lenya’s 1953 recording of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s 1930 opera The
Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which chronicles the adventures
of three Depression-era fugitives from justice who found a utopian city
in a desolate patch of America. Smith’s film debuted in 1980 with six screenings
at Anthology Film Archives in New York, then immediately disappeared into
the chaos of Smith’s personal life. A compulsive substance abuser who lost,
destroyed or gave away much of his work, Smith was a man of unusual priorities.
He claimed to have remained celibate throughout his life, took terrible
care of himself, and was occasionally reduced to living in flophouses —
a fate that didn’t bother him at all, as long as he had money to buy books.

Through the joint efforts
of the Harry Smith Archive, the Getty Research Institute and Anthology
Film Archives, Mahagonny returns from oblivion with a newly restored print
that screens for the first time at the Getty next Thursday. The following
day, the Getty will host “Investigating Mahagonny,” a symposium featuring
presentations from Gary Indiana, Jonas Mekas and Patti Smith, who appears
in Smith’s film and performs at the Getty that night.

“After Harry died in 1991,
this was the first project I decided had to be done,” says Rani Singh,
who was Smith’s assistant at the time of his death and is now director
of the Harry Smith Archive and a staff member at the Getty Research Institute.
“Mahagonny is a culmination of Harry’s life’s work, combining things he’d
been developing for 40 years. The seeds of everything come to fruition
here, and it’s one of his biggest and most conceptually intense works,”
continues Singh, who’s overseen the 1996 reissue of Anthology of American
Folk Music; the publication of Think of the Self Speaking, a collection
of interviews with Smith that came out in 1999; and the organization of
last year’s Smith symposium at the Getty. “Hardly anyone’s seen Mahagonny,
however, in part because it was so difficult to screen it.”

Among those who are familiar
with the movie is filmmaker Jonas Mekas, founder of Anthology Film Archives.
“Most people consider Mahagonny Harry’s most ambitious film, and it was
very well-received when we screened it in 1980 — everyone considered it
a masterpiece,” Mekas recalls. “But Harry was very temperamental. The last
time we screened it at Anthology, he got into a fight with someone, then
ran into the projection room, grabbed the gels being used for the film,
ran into the street and smashed them. So that was the end of Mahagonny.
Harry could behave badly, but we respected him because he was a very erudite,
complex person.”

To describe Smith as complex
is an understatement. Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1923, Smith was exposed
to a variety of pantheistic ideas by his parents, who were Theosophists
and encouraged his interest in unorthodox spiritual traditions. By the
age of 15 he was recording Northwest Indian songs and rituals and compiling
a dictionary of Puget Sound dialects. Following two years of anthropology
studies at the University of Washington, he moved to Northern California,
where, in the late ’40s, he devoted himself to painting and developed animation
techniques that led to the numbered series of hand-painted films that established
his reputation as an experimental filmmaker. Throughout his life Smith
was involved in varying degrees with the occult, and his knowledge of Aleister
Crowley’s hermetic fraternity, the OTO, deepened in San Francisco. In 1950,
Smith moved to New York and began studying the cabala.

Smith had been a serious
record collector since he was a child, and in 1952 Folkways Records’ Moe
Asch recognized the quality of Smith’s collection and invited him to edit
it down to a representative selection. More than a decade later, in 1964,
Smith traveled to Anadarko, Oklahoma, to record the peyote songs of the
Kiowa Indians. In the ’80s, he donated his definitive collection of paper
airplanes to the Smithsonian. An authority on Highland tartans, Seminole
patchwork textiles, string figures and Ukrainian Easter eggs, among many
other folk artifacts, Smith spent the last years of his life at the Naropa
Institute in Colorado, where he was named “shaman in residence” in 1988.
During his years in Colorado, Smith maintained his residence at New York’s
Chelsea Hotel, and it was there that he died in November 1991.

HAS BEEN NO SMALL achievement, and has required every penny of the $200,000
provided by the Warhol Foundation, the NEA and Sony Pictures. “The mode
of presentation was a key issue we had to resolve,” says Michael Friend,
a Sony Pictures film historian and archivist who’s been a technical adviser
on the Mahagonny project. “When it was originally shown, four projectors
and two projectionists who were frantically changing reels were crammed
into a tiny booth. In order to be able to show the film without the acrobatics
— with four matching projectors — we essentially made a 35mm print of
the four 16mm frames being projected simultaneously. So now all that’s
required to show the film is a single 35mm projector.”

It’s hard to estimate what
it may have cost Smith to make Mahagonny; he tended to squander whatever
grant moneys he received on book- and record-buying binges, drugs and so
forth. He was, in fact, quite the amphetamine enthusiast during the early
’70s, when he began work on the film. His friend Debbie Freeman was on
the scene at the time, and she recalls in a 1993 interview published in
American Magus that “Mahagonny was made in some kind of diabolical frenzy.”

Smith confirmed as much back
in 1976, in an interview he gave to A.J. Melita. “As the sort of film I
make is improvised through the dictates of a diseased brain, I can never
tell in which direction it’s going to jump any more than I can tell what
I’m going to dream of a week from next Thursday,” declared Smith, who spent
two years compiling 11 hours of footage, then cut the film based on an
elaborate set of charts he made. “Mahagonny is particularly difficult,”
he said. “You have to live Mahagonny — in fact, be Mahagonny — in order
to work on it.”

Opening with a nighttime
shot of Manhattan glittering like the Emerald City, Mahagonny is a kaleidoscopic
work that juxtaposes passages of astonishing beauty with images that are
difficult to parse. Much of the action takes place in the Chelsea Hotel,
though the camera compulsively returns to the streets of the city, which
is always out there, throbbing with life. It’s essentially a silent film,
with “actors” moving in the theatrical fashion of silent film stars, and
Lenya’s recording of Weill’s music further lends it the quality of a period
piece — which, of course, it is. The New York City of the early ’70s wasn’t
so very long ago, but it is, nonetheless, a vanished world. As we progress
through the film, we watch a young girl knitting, Allen Ginsberg eating
a banana, lovers kissing and quarreling. Sequences of stop-action animation
give way to slow pans of intricate patterns created with glitter, colored
sand, marbles, shells, candies, origami figures and painted blocks. It
can be a challenge to connect the dots between Brecht-Weill’s Mahagonny
and Smith’s, but it is possible once you surrender to Smith’s vocabulary
of symbols.

In the midst of cutting the
film in 1977, Smith told film historian P. Adams Sitney that Mahagonny
was an attempt to “translate an opera into an occult experience.” Then
again, Smith was a wickedly playful man who said lots of things. In a 1974
grant application submitted to the American Film Institute, Smith summarized
Mahagonny as a “mathematical analysis” of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped
Bare by Her Bachelors, Even — which is akin to saying the film is a mathematical
analysis of Mona Lisa’s smile. Also known as The Large Glass, The Bride
is a mixed-media work that obsessed Duchamp for eight years and is often
described as a study of the mechanization of sex. However, nobody’s absolutely
certain of anything about that inscrutable piece.

“Harry may have said there
was a connection between these two works, but I can’t see it,” says Mekas.
“The only insight I could offer is that one shouldn’t try to interpret
Harry’s Mahagonny by comparing it with the Brecht opera, because, as The
Large Glass is shattered, Harry shattered Brecht’s original. He didn’t
interpret Brecht’s opera, he transformed it. He basically used that piece
of music as a launching point into a work of his own.”

Tom Crow, director of the
Getty Research Institute, finds the film’s link with Duchamp less of a
stretch. “Brecht’s Mahagonny is a parable of capitalism’s destructive tendencies,
and Smith created a fairly literal interpretation of that, but at the same
time, Mahagonny is evocative of The Large Glass in that both are about
interruption and disharmony. I wouldn’t have pegged Smith as a Marxist
or a Duchampian ironist, and it seems impossible to combine those two things
in a single work, but Smith believed any conflict could be resolved through
a visionary grasp of harmonic relationships.”

ARE what it was all about for Smith. “I selected Mahagonny as a vehicle
because the story is simple and widespread; the joyous gathering of a great
number of people, the breaking of the rules of liberty and love, and consequent
fall into oblivion,” Smith explained in his AFI grant application. “My
photography has not been directed toward making a ‘realistic’ version of
the opera, but rather toward translating the German text into a universal
script based on the similarities of life and aspiration in all humans.
As far as I know, the attempt to make a film for all people, whether they
be Papuans or New Yorkers, has not been made so far. The final film will
be just as intelligible to the Zulu, the Eskimo or the Australian Aborigine
as to people of any other cultural background or age.”

Smith was convinced this
was possible, and that all aspects of all visible and invisible worlds
were connected. The cabala’s Tree of Life, Brecht operas, Tibetan mandalas
and tankas, peyote ritual, civilizations gathering power then destroying
themselves, fairy tales, tantric art, ancient alphabets, folk music, occult
formulations, string figures, the past, present and future — Smith believed
if you stacked them up on some giant template in the sky, you’d find the
human breath rising and falling in all of them, at the same rate, forever.
Such consolations of union and continuity are the gift Smith offers, and
the leitmotif of his Mahagonny.