MART 702: The Hermetic

Last week’s reading and discussion of The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus inspired me to create a remix of my classmate’s previous projects in the course. I argued that the remediation of their videos as animated .gifs hosted to a website remediated (new media format) and remixed (new meaning) their projects served as the alchemical substances from which a produced a philosopher’s stone.

I anticipated mixed feedback from my peers; I thought they might feel somewhat violated that I used their works for my own purposes without their consultation. This expected reaction was intended to augment the isolation experienced by an alchemist, such as Paracelsus, but in this case, me (the artist). On the contrary, my classmates voiced that they loved the concept and thought it clever! Such much for the veiled hostility; the presentation was not at all uncomfortable.

[P.S. the below is not my best writing, as I was severely rushed last week]

“Now at this time, I, Theophrastus Paracelsus Bombast, Monarch of the Arcana, am endowed by God with special gifts for this end, that every searcher after this supreme philosophic work may be forced to imitate me… Come hither after me, all you philosophers, astronomers, and spagyrists, of however lofty a name ye may be, I will show and open to you, Alchemists and Doctors, who are exalted by me with the most consummate labours, this corporeal regeneration. I will teach you the tincture, the Arcanum, the quintessence, wherein lie hid the foundations of all mysteries and of all works.” Thus wrote Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, a Swiss German Renaissance physician and occultist who preferred the sobriquet Paracelsus, in his meticulous compendium on alchemy (p.45). Today, his texts are available in English as The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus.

However, readers who expect to uncover the alchemists’ ancient secrets through the author’s vast wisdom and instruction might be disappointed. The opening passages of the book promise that alchemy is a practice that rewards few. Paracelsus writes that, “You who are skilled in Alchemy… who willingly undergo toil and vexations, and wish not be freed from them, until you have attained your rewards… experience teaches this everyday, that out of thousands of you not even one accomplishes his desire” (p.10) His words suggest that alchemical knowledge is only imparted to those who devote their entire life to the craft: “Is this the failure of Nature or of Art? I say, no; but it is rather the fault of fate, or of the unskillfulness of the operator” (p.10). His words of caution imply that only a select number will achieve proficiency in the purported craft. These passages, above, imply that Paracelsus’ writing, at the literal level, appears to imbue scholarship and knowledge to aspiring alchemists. Figuratively, the book is a much different read.

The allegorical interpretations of this monograph are a testament to the deception of words and appearances. There is no doubt that Paracelsus was a brilliant man. But was he a brilliant alchemist? The answer to this question is open to interpretation. Paracelsus explains that, “In this Art, nothing is more true than this… all the fault and cause of difficulty in Alchemy… is wholly and solely lack of skill in the operator… the straight road is easy, but it is found by very few” (p.11). His brilliancy lies in is his power to convince others that he possessed vast occult wisdom and performed transmutation, the changing of one substance into another. This is evident in his bombastic words, “An inferior intelligence does not easily perceive occult and abstruse objects… Many persons, puffed up with pride, fancy they can easily comprehend all which this book comprises” (p.11). To rebuff Paracelsus and his text as the words of a driveling madman was equivalent to ignorance. It is imagined that few men might have contested his expertise for fear of being branded incompetent.

In class, we discussed how Paracelsus’ book was a cunning means to influence his readers and assessed that, “a good alchemist is someone who has convinced others that they are a good alchemist.” This statement intrigues me because I accept that most, if not all, people might relate to it. I assume that the majority of individuals, at one point or another, have performed a pretense to appear/behave like something/someone they are not. In a world that prioritizes appearance and opinion over character and knowledge, it is not an impossibility to imply that humans adopt facades in order to be accepted, loved, or to survive.

I am also drawn to the central tenant of alchemy: transmuting one thing into another; and that this is possible because every thing shares in common the essence of everything. Paracelsus asserts that, “Any one can at pleasure learn this Art in Alchemy [transmuting mercury into silver or gold], since it is so simple and easy; and by it, in a short time, he could make any quantity of silver and gold… the method of making Sol [gold] and Luna [silver] by Alchemy is so prompt that there is no more need of books… than there would be if one wished to write about last year’s snow” (p.13). Paracelsus implies that, for a gifted Alchemist, gold and silver are an unlimited bounty. At the literal level, he speaks of Sol and Luna in the valued mineral forms. For the context of Alchemy as a philosophy, Sol and Luna might be construed as positives arising from something negative, or the improvement of something deemed average into a more spectacular form.

For an Alchemist’s response that plays with these concepts, I transmuted the previous projects of my classmates James, Keyes, Jordan, Alison, and Katie. I re-mixed their respective video projects, the previously submitted responses to Invisible Cities and Portal. In this way, their works served as the object of transmutation. I.e., I produced an original series of animated gifs from their videos. Two of the remixes are more obvious than others (obvious meaning that it is apparent what the original project was). Two are happy accidents; glitches produced by unusual css formatting of a div container. The glitches are more experimental and less obvious than the other transmutations.

For the context of my project, I use remix to mean “a new context” and remediation as a “a new form.” The remediation is from video to animated gifs, still images, and presentation on a new webpage called Art Alchemy. Paracelsus explains that during the transmutation process, “… the Alchemist, who again corrupts, mortifies, and artificially prepares such a metallic body” (p.17). Similarly, I “corrupt” and otherwise alter the original projects of my peers into something else. Transmuted into the animated gif format on a webpage, the stills from video are less transitory; as animated gifs embedded into a website, they continue to play in cyclical fashion until the user leaves the webpage or closes their web browser. This means that the stills may be more closely examined than they would be in their original format.

For example, this is my intention with the transmutations of James’ and Katie’s video projects for Invisible Cities and Portal, respectively. “Absentia” features a table that expanses four columns by three rows. Each cell contains an animated gif. “Refresh your visit” appears at the very top of the page above the table. Upon refreshing the page, the gifs appear in new cells each time. One cell, located in the top left corner, abruptly cycles through all of the gifs that load into each table cell.  Truthfully, I wanted the javascript to perform this task for all of the cells but there is an error in the code that prevents this. Arguably, the new format for James’ video might not change/alter the message of his work; there still exists a sense of absence and quiet from the images that I have chosen to display on the webpage. I kept the essence in tact but chose to alter the way it is mediated. Instead of playing in sequence from beginning to end, a narrative timeline no longer exists. The objects in frame remain in frame and at the same time, they may appear in another frame within the cell on the table. In this way, the remediation calls attention to the materials that clutter spaces. The repetition of these objects is meant to espouse a sense that the things once valued never remain so.

Similarly, I conveyed how gifs may concisely and, perhaps, more efficiently, perform the same message of a video. I demonstrated this using Katie’s Portal project, a video response that visually represented the themes of fragmented self and surveillance. Her montage featured several intriguing sequences, which unfortunately, suffered from overexposure. I felt that the he presence of several long takes in the original piece was unnecessary. As such, I screen capped the five most relevant shots, imported the stills into GIMP photo editing software, and copied the layers to ensure that each image, once animated, would loop back to the beginning of the sequence. It was tedious but worth the effort. “Refraction,” my transmutation of Katie’s video, is one of my more successful remixes. Again, the thematic connotations of the piece are not disturbed via the transmutation process; rather, it was my attempt with “Refraction” to reinforce them through succinct visuals.

Two of the pieces are the result of a glitch of the animated gifs created from Keyes’ and Jordan’s video projects. “Spectra,” the corruption of Keyes’ response to Invisible Cities, illustrates how a conceptual piece remains susceptible to further abstraction. “Spectra” compresses a gif of Keyes’ video of peripheral lights to create a spectrum of colors as they animate across the screen. “Noisy,” the bastardization of Jordan’s Portal response is a similar but less stunning visually.

The transmutation of my peers’ artwork into a different form suggests that I might have a higher opinion of my own creations. This also reflects the status of Paracelsus, who was estranged to his contemporary community of scholars and doctors. My remix project might espouse a similar reaction from the artists whose work I manipulated for my own purposes.