Last weekend marked a victory for goths, Tarot freaks, and magic nerds everywhere as the second annual Occult Humanities Conference convened at NYU for a sold-out marathon of lectures with names like “Blues Magic,” “Bohemian Occult Subculture in Britain’s 1890s,” and “The Cut in Ritual Psychoanalysis and Art.” And while, yes, in many ways this was an academic-ish conference, organized by Pam Grossman (founder of the esoterica blog Phantasmaphile) and Jesse Bransford (Chair of the Art & Art Professions Department at NYU), the convening of occultists and occult obsessives still managed to keep it real.
The very first Occult Humanities Conference, held in October of 2013, was also a sold-out affair, which might seem strange for an event concerned with the “knowledge of the hidden” (the word”occult” is derived from the Latin word “occulo” meaning to hide or conceal). And yet, anyone paying attention to happenings in North Brooklyn in the last several years (Tarot Society, Atlas Obscura, Morbid Anatomy, etc.) should have picked up on the fact that this world of the magic-curious is hardly obscured behind closed doors or relayed only in riddles anymore.
It’s no accident that many of these organizations and happenings can be traced back to a now-defunct Gowanus event space called Observatory, which closed in 2014. “We started that space to really celebrate and delve deeper into the frankly strange and arcane interests that we all shared,” Grossman recalled, “and to get experts to come in and give lectures and teach courses and do art shows– it was a really rich and vital and peculiarly wonderful space.” The conference that grew out of Observatory was meant to “explore this journey into magic and creativity from all of its different angles and approaches,” Grossman said. “I love putting all these different people and their different approaches together and rubbing them together and making new sparks.”
True to that, presenters, exhibitors and attendees ranged from the new co-owner of Catland (Bushwick’s own “metaphysical boutique”) to experts, independent scholars, and entrenched academics from Stockholm, London, and, of course, Salem, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, I was told Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, who as the founder of Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth is a preeminent occultist as well as an industrial-music legend, canceled her lecture due to food poisoning. But there was plenty else to chomp on– from the discussion of visual art to whitewashed history, enchanted roots and mojo hands, the Occult Humanities Conference had a lot to teach even a seasoned ouija boardist.
1. Witches are real.
Sure, there were plenty of people who had the look down: black lipstick, more rings than fingers, magik staffs, velvet dresses, and more man ponytails than you could neigh at. On Saturday, Jesse Bransford asked the audience “Did anyone lose a phone? The case has a sort of Tibetan design on it,” and there was zero laughter in response. But the deal was sealed when Pam Grossman introduced Judika Illes, author of the Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells and lecturer on “Blues Magic,” as not only an esteemed independent scholar and historian, but also as a “witch.”
Not only had Grossman legitimized Illes’s identity as a witch, but she’d said these words inside a major research institution in front of scholars, scientists, artists, and academics. (On a side note, there’s also something to be said for the “witch” moniker in terms of female empowerment; women played a major role at this conference, a setting where they’re usually a minority.)
Illes proceeded to discuss hoodoo references in blues songs by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, and Aunt Caroline Dye. “These are not metaphors,” she argued. This African-American musical tradition, much like the practical magic discussed in blues lyrics, “has tremendous healing power.” Rather than speaking about history from an ostensibly detached, impartial perspective, Illes spoke of magical traditions and tools, such as John the Conqueror– a root thought to bring sex appeal, luck, and desirability– in a way that regarded them as legitimate rather than make-believe.
Could this mean that the occult is coming out of the dark?
“We’re slowly but surely seeing more traditionally academic programs in what’s being calling ‘Western Esotericism’ being developed around the world,” Grossman explained. “I keep hearing of classes cropping up at Harvard or wherever else that focus on witchcraft or the history of the occult. I think that’s really exciting because this is such a true part of the human experience and whether or not you ‘believe’ in it, the fact of the matter is the ideas have largely influenced history.”
Still, hearing open discussion like this could easily slip into the pseudo-science category unless some considerations are abided. “I think we definitely have a lot more elasticity for the topic because we’re doing it under the rubric of ‘art’– we’re definitely making connections between magic and creativity, which allows us to explore these things with a very eclectic attitude and to include intuition and speculation as part of the conversation,” Grossman said. She argued it was important to include some more rigidly academic elements, which the conference certainly did, but also to spotlight discussions that were “not academic, [but] experiential– I think it’s highly valuable and a really crucial part of the story.”
2. There may not be one definitive book on the occult, but Carl Jung’s Red Book is really freaking important.
One of the more sciencey topics up for discussion was Carl Jung’s Red Book (not to be confused with the spine-chillingly awful lady’s magazine.) Its pages, blown up and reproduced, were on display throughout the conference. Depending on who you ask, the legendary book –meticulously illustrated and calligraphed by the Swiss psychoanalyst from 1914 to sometime in the 1920s– is the product of either years spent in an insomniac psychotic episode, visions from deep transcendental meditation, profound religious enlightenment, demonic influence, or literary and artistic genius. For decades, it went unseen by human eyes, let alone publishers’ presses because following Jung’s death, his family locked the massive book away in a safety-deposit box. Finally, in 2009, the Jung estate was convinced to archive and preserve the book.
Hugh Milstein, the “chemist and computer scientist” founder of super-fancy, futurist archiving firm Digital Fusion, was on hand at the conference to describe what it felt like to have the Jung family breathe down his neck while he scanned the 205 oversized pages of a wilting book and left it basically unaltered by human, atmospheric, or otherwise ungodly influences. Milstein and his team went through more than 100 pairs of gloves working 15-hour-days craned over a special rig designed by a boat builder to ensure the Red Book was never tilted more than 90 degrees to avoid compromising the spine. At one point, Milstein laughed while recalling a moment when humidity changes caused the pages to stand up on end, as if held up by an invisible hand– a Jung relative was sure Satan was responsible.
So, what exactly does the book contain? Well, tbh that calligraphy was pretty tedious to read, but the illustrations depicting various magic things like the tree of life, fractals, and scary cat-eyed snakes with fangs, are pretty cool. While some of the allure of the Red Book may have been forever depleted by the digitization process (I mean, how romantic is the dang thing if you can pull it up on Google Books now?), Grossman made a solid point at the conference. “Magic is wonderful, but often is needs to be made material to let us exchange these ideas.”
3. It feels good to “find your people.”
Scott Treleaven, a filmmaker and artist whose work focuses on sexuality and mysticism, presented a lengthy memoir-as-lecture discussion in which he recounted his lifelong fascination with the occult and how his interest in the esoteric and mysterious has shaped his creative work and worldview. For Treleaven, the occult, in its various forms, provided both an escape and an alternative to a larger, hostile society which early on he felt alienated from. From the monsters found in scary stories to issues of Rapid Eye and books from Genesis P-Orridge’s Temple Press, the artist traced his coming-of-age experiences through the occult. The map was extensive– all the way from his life as a closeted kid in suburban Toronto in the 1980s, when Satanic Panic and the AIDS epidemic raged on, to his early 20s, when he was broke, living in London, working for a dominatrix, and posting up at bookshops “to read the books I couldn’t afford.”
“Whatever was hidden, whatever was occluded or forbidden suggested freedom,” Treleaven recalled of his early adolescence. “Aleister Crowley’s radical self-determination, ‘Do what thou wilt,’ the Pagans with their hey-nonny, back-to-the-land lustiness, quite reasonably saved my life.”
And wasn’t that was this conference was all about?
As Pam explained over the phone, “You can be interested in all these weird and wonderful topics and study them in solitary, but there’s something so magical that happens when you find your people, and you can have this exchange of ideas in person.”
4. A lot of famous artists were also occultists. You just wouldn’t know it thanks to whitewashing.
As the bad kid on the playground, it’s no surprise that occult in art, as Treleaven argued, has proven to be somewhat “indigestible” for scholars, historians, and art dealers alike. He pointed to artists like Kandinsky, whose his “magical beliefs” largely go unmentioned, as well as artists like John McCracken, whose abstract minimalist sculptures belie a man “obsessed with UFOs and aliens,” and who truly believed his work conveyed “messages from another world.” These aspects of artistic work are all too often “entirely overlooked,” Treleaven charged. And then there are artists like Agnes Martin, a “schizophrenic lesbian Zen master– a triple negative if you’re an academic or art dealer.” She was apparently too rare to live in the art world but not too rare to find some modest success later on, even in spite of her penchant for “desert mysticism.”
Many of the surrealists were obviously concerned with the realm of the otherworldly: unexplainable phenomenon, dreamscapes, and alien existence. Kurt Seligmann, a surrealist painter whose works looks like Jodorowsky on canvas, tapped into “occult knowledge [that] has generally been rejected by academia,” according to University of Manitoba professor Celia Rabinovitch. She pointed out that, in 1943, Seligmann “broke” with his fellow surrealist, Andre Breton, as the result of an “argument over a tarot card.”
5. Magic can’t be sold.
An audience member noted that with the popularization of some occult imagery there’s fear that what was for so long regarded as mysterious and clandestine could become watered down. But as two presentations made clear, haters and fakers have been trying to capture and harness the nuances of the occult and the power of magic for their own ends pretty much since the beginning of time.
As Judika Illes demonstrated in “Blues Magic,” Hoodoo was co-opted by business people and swindlers trying to make a buck. Fillers and food coloring were often utilized to make counterfeit herbs, roots, and essences, products to be bought and sold. By the 20th century, Hoodoo, “the magic of poor people,” the powerless and exploited, suddenly “became urban and marketable,” Illes recounted. Still, blues lyrics that made mention of these Hoodoo traditions like the “mojo hand,” were largely misinterpreted to mean something overtly and purely sexual, as opposed to a handheld spell. This gets at the slipperiness of the occult within the context of the larger culture– rather than acknowledge something unexplainable or magic, it’s easier to chalk it up to sexy talk or something.
Scott Treleaven had a rather incredible story related to a zine series he published in the ’90s called The Salivation Army. “This was the most magic that’s ever happened to me,” he said. Toward the end of the zine’s run, he began receiving a series of anonymous letters that were building toward a foreboding message: he was about to encounter a great trial which would put him on a path toward good or evil. Shortly thereafter he began receiving phone calls from a mysterious company offering him a “business opportunity”– they were looking to woo two wayward constituencies, the “autonomous post-consumerists” and the “new Aquarians.” Treleaven’s zine was a “a forensic artifact” of sorts for this company because it appealed to both of these groups and more, seemingly holding the key to unlocking the secrets of marketing toward them. Treleaven demanded to know who was calling him. “They admitted it was Pepsi,” he laughed. The audience gasped. He recalled telling the Pepsi people to never call him again and hung up. To close his story, Treleaven quoted Jean Genet: “I would like the world not to change, so that I may be against the world.”
During Saturday’s panel discussion, Grossman said that leading up to Language of the Birds, an exhibition of occult art happening in conjunction with the conference, people had asked her, “Are you going to let out all the secrets?”
“I think people have been interested in mystical or magical or otherworldly things for as long as humans have been alive,” Grossman explained later over the phone. One of the big and obvious questions being, what’s the meaning of life? But, as Grossman pointed out, occult concerns go a little bit farther. “Why is it that we can sense things that we can’t necessarily see? And there are all different kinds of answers and interpretations to that– but I think the question is ageless.” She attributed a recent surge in popularity to media interest– of course, there seem to be more nuanced takes on the occult now than was seen with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.
“Some stigmatization is going away, which I think is a really good thing,” Grossman conceded. “Certainly there are these romantic ideas attached to this material, it is very much about secrecy, and I do think it’s important that we preserve that. And yet, I don’t believe that people being interested will necessarily deplete the mystery, because the mystery is always there.”
Correction: Scott Treleaven noted his interest in Gensis P-Orridge’s Temple Press, not in Temple Lodge Press, as a previous version of this article stated.