Ritual Magick as Performance Art?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 6, 2012 — 20 Comments

For some time now there’s been a current of occult and magic(k)al elements within the arts, most notably in the worlds of fashion and fine art. An especially popular theme within this current today are the works of magician Aleister Crowley, most likely due to the influence of experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who introduced several famous actors and musicians to Crowley’s philosophies and practices. I mention Anger specifically, because a recent ritual performance of a Crowley working at L&M Arts in Los Angeles stems directly from his influence, involving Anger collaborator Brian Butler. Why is this of note? Because Butler was joined (and almost joined) by some rather famous names.

Noot Seear at The Bartzebel Working.

Noot Seear at The Bartzebel Working

“Tuesday night, artist/musician Brian Butler assisted by Twilight: New Moon actress Noot Seear, and actor Henry Hopper [son of Dennis Hopper] was supposed to  invoke Bartzabel, the forceful spirit of Mars into to the body of actor/hipster/James Franco at L&M Gallery to celebrate “For The Martian Chronicles” exhibit, honoring the work of sci-fi author Ray Bradbury. But UPDATE: JAMES FRANCO MISSED HIS FLIGHT AND THERE WAS AN UNANNOUNCED STAND-IN, ACCORDING TO COMMENTS AFTER THIS WENT TO PRESSWe have revised this post to reflect this. According to L&M Gallery, Material Basis was performed by Christopher Emerson.”

I’ll leave commentary on the ritual itself to Lisa Derrick, who noted that “despite the act of invoking and drawing a magical circle, at the end of the ritual, there was no closing or banishing–kinda like sterilizing a jar, making jam, then leaving it unsealed in a toilet.” What I’m more interested in are the larger cultural questions this poses. Is this just a closed cul-de-sac of the hipster famous (and semi-famous) slumming it with robes and a bit of Thelema to bring a bit of excitement to their lives (and the LA gallery scene), or does this represent something else? Are Seear, Franco, Emerson, and others earnestly interested in ritual magick? It’s not all that unusual to see an occasional “big name” become truly interested in Paganism or the occult, but it is unusual to see a number of them expressing their interest at once (publicly).


My second question is, if this is simply theater, a performance in tribute to Crowley and the mystique of magic(k), does this event signify a new resurgence of ritual as performance art? Performance art has often turned to religion and magical ritual as a vehicle for expression, Gina Ulysse’s recent avant-garde meditation, “Voodoo Doll, What if Haiti Were a Woman,” or the “Manhattanhenge” workings in New York, for instance. But both of those have a sincerity at their core that implies adherence to the underlying belief systems involved. While I have no doubt that Brian Butler is a sincere occultist, one wonders how Seear or Franco understand or experience events like this. In short, can you separate the art of magic(k), of religion, from its tenants or belief systems? One spectator at the event seemed dissatisfied with how the ritual performance seemed to want to both be a serious ritual, and be a performance piece.

“Would it be an actual (attempted) evocation of Bartzabel, the spirit of Mars? Would it rather be a piece of performance art inspired by Crowley’s evocation of the same? It was neither – or, to be more specific, it was BOTH and that’s why it failed miserably. Evocation is an art unto itself. Even if one is skeptical as to the efficacy of magical activity outside the purely psychological realm, one must recognize the fact that every art form has its own rules. Film has its rules. Theater has its own. Performance art also has certain ideals and conventions that make exclusive demands on the artist. Successful evocation is no different.”

If we are going to see more high-profile ritual magic(k) as performance art, then the ritual must be respected as an art form in of itself, one that can be appropriated, surely, but treated with care all the same. Practitioners who have connections with the art world will also have to decide how they want to engage with this trend, and if it serves their beliefs and practices well to become involved, or distance themselves. Finally, for the famous, semi-famous, or nearly famous who decide to practice these rituals, if only for the sake of performance, should remember that even the intoning of lines and mere participation can have consequences. Not of the dark and spooky alarmist variety, but simply that invoking your Will ritually can change you, and those around you.  What begins as fun, can turn into something else, and no one should make a decision like that lightly.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • JoanneYoungElliott

    Interesting to think about art using religion. I’ve experienced it the other way. Temple of the Goddess here in LA is Pagan religion using art. We call what we do ritual theatre. Some, not of this religion, see it as simply theatre, but it is done as ritual where after the performance of the myth the audience/congregation can participate…and of course one is participating vicariously through the actors/dancers as they perform. Either way it’s a trend I’d like to see more of.

  • Greenflame

    I like the comment about evocation being an art with its own rules. There is a close relationship among drama, music, the visual arts, and magick – but they are not the same thing. Would it work? Maybe yes, maybe no; “yes,” perhaps, if the actor doing the evocation had an unknown talent for evocation, was perhaps a bit more “tapped in” to the Otherworld than others. But probably “no” if the “rules” of evocation were not followed.

  • Ken

    Art, music, drama, theater, sport all grew out of ritual. They all have at their core delineating sacred space and time. A place and time where actions have meaning and significance. In as much as the performance actually accomplishes that aim, most people will be satisfied. Seeing what the secular, consumer society has done with sport, for instance, does not leave me feeling particularly optimistic.

  • Tara

    Crowley & co. performed theatrical rituals for paying audiences in London (The Rites of Eluesis). Ofcourse, they were dedicated occultists first, and claimed to alter the consiousness of thier audience rather than simply provide an amusing diversion.

  • Anonymous

    These people make me sick, publicly humilating a spirit by forcing it into a physical vessel that’s tied up and blindfolded, is going to end so well. /sarcasm.

    They aren’t play things.

  • Raven Chant

    i just watched the video of this – and man – this is awful. in theory i could buy the ‘ritual as performance art’ argument – but this is worse – it’s bad performance art! if you’re gonna do something like this, at least do it right. as it is it’s just the equivalent of a photo op for a politician or celebrity

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    “In short, can you separate the art of magic(k), of religion, from its tenants or belief systems?”
    Do you mean ‘tenets’?

    I think that, a lot of the time, people do separate magic from religion. I probably know more people who self declare as Pagan/Witch that are into magic than those who treat it as a genuine religion. Usually, they are the ‘pick-and-mixers’, as well. Taking bits of ‘pretty mystery’ from anywhere that catches their eye and amalgamating it into a chimerical system that has no coherence, let alone respect for anything.

    I don’t think that taking ritual and making it into performance art will retain any efficacy. In a true ritual, there will be a force of active will at play. In the pantomime ritual there will just be actors going by rote.

    • Deborah Bender

      I don’t think that is always true. We’ve all read anecdotes from people who fooled around with a spell or a ritual out of a book without understanding or belief in the underlying principles, not expecting any result, who were mightily surprised.

      Method acting is very close in technique to bhakti yoga and some methods of invocation and evocation; the operator is always affected and sometimes spectators are as well.

      There were rock performers in the Sixties and Seventies who adopted some aspects of particular gods and spirits as part of their onstage personae, and were better at invoking than at banishing. I don’t think it was coincidence that the attempt on Mick Jagger’s life at Altamont took place while he was singing “Sympathy for the Devil.”

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Nothing is ‘always true’, hence why I said ‘a lot of the time’.

        Of course the actor is going to be effected by the method system of acting – it is a willing giving up of the self to the role. It shows how a person can subsume their identity in order to become someone/thing else, even if that someone/thing is fictional.

        • JuniperJ

          Do you mean ‘affected’?

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Probably, I am constantly getting the two words the wrong way round.

      • Deborah Bender

        My “I don’t think that is always true” was in reference to the statements in your third paragraph, which were not qualified. IMO, sometimes rituals done as performance art do retain efficacy.

        I agree that people do separate magic from religion “a lot of the time.”

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Those rituals will be in a distinct minority.

  • Watching the video, I’m left with the impression that Bartzabel wasn’t in that triangle. He was in the audience, laughing himself silly.

  • Krystal H.

    I’ve read ritual scripts for ceremonial magic(k) type rituals and they’ve always seemed kind of funny to me, but this is just….wow….the guy asking the questions sounds like an actor in a porn flick, and I’m not sure the other person is so much “possessed by the spirit of Mars” as he is “trying to do his best Gollum impression”.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I watched a medium go into trance in order to be possessed by a spirit, once. Plenty of drama, and most of the audience were convinced that there was an actual (and literal) spirit possession going on. All I could think was that her accent kept slipping.

  • Charles Cosimano

    It all reminds me of an old story about a performance of Dr. Faustus. Faustus is on stage doing the conjuration and the demons appear. Only problem was that there was an extra demon. The cast, and audience, realizing that something had actually been called from the nether regions ran out of the theater for their lives, leaving behind a very confused devil.

  • Charles Cosimano

    After listening to that terribly uninspiring evocation I can imagine if Bartzabel were to actually manifest, it would be with very loud snoring.

  • So when do we get to see a performance of the Catholic Mass? That’s ritual. You could get really clever with all those spooky robes and the incense and…

    I hope this is a fad that dies quickly. “Disgusted” sums it up pretty well for me. What’s next? Cartoon versions of a Samhain ritual? This is disrespectful and yes, careless. I cannot see this as anything other than mockery and exploitation. I suppose a ritual enacted in the larger context of a play about Crowley or some other religious figure could be okay if done right. But sacred rites are not theater.

  • I am the “dissatisfied spectator” you quote at the end of the article.

    For the record, I believe that some rituals not only work with an audience, they require one. Sacrament rituals like the Mass are designed to distribute virtue and a kind of “power” to those in attendance. Seasonal rites often have a similar function that is inherently oriented towards the group or community. Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis, which one commentator has already mentioned, were explicitly designed as a form of public outreach theater. That was their intended purpose, successful or not. Therefore the idea of having an audience was essential to the purpose of the ritual. Evocation of a spirit in the manner portrayed by Mr. Butler does not function well in this manner.

    There is a tendency among many people to try to explain magical action through approved modern categories. It strikes them as impossible that “action at a distance” may be effective, yet they are attracted to the occult all the same, so they try to re-frame magick as something more comfortable – like performance art. It isn’t that good art, good theater or good psychology isn’t magick. If you accept Crowley’s definitions, all of those CAN be magick, but magick cannot be reduced to any of those categories. There is this tendency even (especially?) among the leaders of many occult groups. They cannot just do magick without an audience. Everything has to be “community oriented”, and this is not keeping the purpose of your ritual work singular, which is the first requirement of success.

    Some people have objected to my critique on the grounds that this was not supposed to be an evocation, but simply a performance. I think that’s not entirely true, and the event was left intentionally ambiguous. I think Mr. Butler hoped to accomplish both simultaneously Sadly, Mr. Butler’s work failed both as ritual AND as performance art. His reading was flat, emotionless and awkward. The participants seemed to not know what was going on. The actor portraying the spirit (who was not James Franco, as Mr. Franco had a “last minute cancellation” ) was, as a friend of mine put it “channeling Gollum”. What they had was “star power”, primarily borrowed from Mr. Franco and Ms. Seear, which is why there was a line around the block and people being turned away at the door.

    I think what also draws people to events like this is the rather lack-luster state of occultism today. People drawn to this kind of thing are starving for someplace to go and something to do. The mid-nineties were something of a boom. The aughts saw decreasing engagement and the teens have been rather lackluster so far. I imagine this cycle of activity will pick up again eventually, but right now there is a lack of occult related activity. Some of this might have to do with the mainstreaming of fantasy and science fiction. If you can get your “fix” by staying home and watching Twilight and Lord of the Rings, you don’t need to find a deserted hilltop to hold Sabbath on, do you? Doing more requires an investment that goes deeper than aesthetics, which – sadly, many simply don’t have.