From: ISEPCAH Occasional Paper XVII (Spring 2009): Report on the So-called “Ouija Board Assisted Ghost Art” of Cummings and Decker Doug Harvey, M.F.A. In the summer of 2007 at a retreat on San Diego’s Fiesta Island sponsored by The Burns Institute1, I was approached by Prof. Buck Burns with the proposal that I undertake an investigation and report for the Institute for Skeptical Examination of Paranormal Claims in the Arts and Humanities (ISEPCAH) 2 regarding the activities of some young artists of my acquaintance, Christian Cummings and Michael Decker, whose idiosyncratic practice had veered into the realm of supernatural communication with the dead. The following is excerpted and adapted from that report, privately circulated at the Spring 2009 ISEPCAH Symposium, also on Fiesta Island. My research reveals that Cummings and his allegedly mediumistic artist collaborator Michael Decker have made several public displays of their “Automatic Drawing Brought Forth through the Ouija Board” over the previous year, mostly in art world venues in the Los Angeles area, and also in New York City. Cummings and Decker typically operate the purpose-modified oracular gameboard wearing cheap black sleeping eyemasks in some sort of cartoonish and contemptuous gesture of simulated scientific control. With a felt-tip marker embedded in the planchette, the team invariably claims to make almost immediate and continuous contact with a series of deceased personalities eager to create extraordinarily unconvincing line drawings as their communication to we, the living. The artifacts generated by these farcical proceedings at best try the credulity of even the most gullible of art naïfs. They display the barest minimum of craftsmanship in their execution and a level of fatuous “creativity” more reminiscent of a subnormal Kindergartener than a supposedly transcended soul that has moved on from a completed earthly existence, let alone that of some of the world famous professionals—Walt Disney, Paul Klee, Barnett Newman, Keith Haring, David Smith, etc.—Cummings and Decker claim to have channeled. None of the drawings make any attempt to reproduce the slightest stylistic similarity to the works of their supposed spirit creators, a failing Cummings excuses as the possible result of “prankster spirits falsely claiming famous identities”. Some of the “strategies” deployed in the fabrication of these aesthetic abominations align themselves – oh so coincidentally! – with current fads and fashions of the contemporary art market, an arena defined by the foisting of deliberately slapdash and conceptually anemic artworks – “deskilled” they call it – onto an audience of complicit shills bullied or bribed into refraining from pointing out that the emperor wears no clothes!
The blatant admixture of attention-seeking sensationalism and ideomotor action was a fundamental aspect of the “automatist” works of the media-savvy Surrealists. Similarly, much of the early history of 20th century abstract painting is tainted by its entanglement with efforts to propagate the flaky Theosophical art theories of Wassily Kandinsky et al, as well as lesser known crackpots like Emma Kunz, Hilma Af Klint, and Agnes Martin, whose three-person retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum of Art hosted one of Cummings and Decker’s egregious charades. The so-called “Postmodern” era has been defined largely by efforts to blur or disrupt conventions of authorship, and in this sense the Cumming-Decker Ouija project may be understood as an extension of that impulse, though there is no record of any claims to that effect by the participants. They have, in fact, derailed the possibility of being taken seriously as part of this tradition, while simultaneously displaying a cavalier disregard for the supposed autonomous identities being “channeled” by freely modifying the artworks (particularly in their recent realizations of Ouija-generated sculptural sketches) to be more in keeping with their own aesthetic preferences—not that they look much different in any case.
Most recently, the art world trend has been to give preference to groups of artists exploring “collaboration” as if the lowest common denominator of a gaggle of pretentious slackers was some kind of synergistic revelation of humankind’s highest potential. Cummings and Decker have recently completed a suite of “paintings”—each purported to be the cumulative effort of 100 channeled spirits. These bear considerable resemblance to the torturous doodlings produced by the drug-addled gangs of twenty-something sophomores currently passing themselves off as creative think tanks. Quite inadvertently, this “coincidental” art world currency aspect of the Cummings-Decker hoax constitutes a sidelong critique of the social mechanism by which both the promulgation of preposterous put-ons as great artworks and the persuasion of substantial portions of the population of the objective reality of occult and paranormal phenomena come to pass. In both cases, the deadpan assertion of a palpable falsehood is campaigned into a state of consensual illusion through a series of subtle and continual social punishments and rewards, which, upon said falsehood achieving the status of group identity, become an internalized, self-policing, self-replicating credo. Multiple layers of plausible ironic deniability ensure that spectators who “play along” out of titillation, a sense of satirical sociological superiority, or political expediency do not in any way disrupt or undermine the fundamental, and fundamentally duplicitous, claim of objective empirical authenticity. No hard evidence has come to my attention that Cummings and Decker are insincere in their claims of paranormal contact, although the above qualitative analysis of the resultant artifacts suggests a contemptuous disregard for a certain minimal degree of persuasive illusion needed to sustain the suspension of disbelief. Yet a considerable number of apparently not subnormal audience members interviewed by my team claimed to be convinced by the artist-mediums’ preposterous sham. It may also be important to note that Cummings and Decker do not seem to be pursuing typical paths to financial gain associated with mediumistic fraud. There have been no attempts to channel the spirits of departed loved ones of wealthy art patrons, nor have there been any publications of channeled New Age wisdom (or any consistently discernible coherent agenda whatsoever, for that matter). Whether Cummings and Decker are engaged in some carefully guarded form of a “pat art world joke”3 (as one commentator suggested) is unverifiable, though Cummings’ long-running interest and involvement with paranormal culture would seem to belie this interpretation. Not that the sincere dissemination of morbid superstitions is in any sense better. But it is apparent that Cummings and Decker are not incapable of making a social impact, however inadequate and ill conceived their efforts might seem to the rational mind. Should they come to realize the folly and error of this line of pursuit, and decide to seek out ways to apply their talents to more socially pressing and consequential issues than pajama-party spook pantomimes or art world posturing, an unpaid internship on Fiesta Island with ISEPCAH and/or The Burns Institute awaits them. Doug Harvey is a Los Angeles based artist, writer, curator, and educator whose art criticism has appeared regularly in LA Weekly and elsewhere since the mid-90s. He is a fellow of The Burns Institute and Board Member of ISEPCAH.
1 The Burns Institute is an independent “Thoughtstyling” tank founded by Prof. Burns in 1993 to foster scholarly applications of his Theory of Trialectics. Their most recent (2008) symposium was entitled “Baden-Powell, Betty Page, and Lacan: The Hyperbolic Macrame Owl in the Closet”(A note that explains what the Burns Institute is)
2 Prof. Burns was at the time and at time of writing remains Director of ISEPCAH.