Even after years of creating weird and off-kilter art courses for teens, one of the darkest and strangest teen art courses we’ve ever offered might very well be last season’s Under the Spell of Mysterious Forces: Magic, Illusion, and Performance Based Art. Taking the young participants deep into a realm where magic, trance, and extrasensory perception mingle with performance art, the course attracted a range of curious open-minded teens, all wiling to take the plunge into the artistic unknown. In this blog post, teaching artist Alan Calpe reflects on one of the most incredible days of the entire course—a visit from hypnotist John Cerbone.
Our summer course began with such incredible force. On our first meeting the students had already begun huddling over Ouija boards attempting to conjure spirits, explored telekinesis by mentally transmitting messages to plants, and participated in group rituals exploring heightened energetic states through choral yells and laughter that echoed throughout the Museum. We concluded our first session by letting the teens know that a guest would be working with us the next day that would require them to return with parental permission slips—all in preparation to be hypnotized! Though we could sense some nervousness, the groups’ curious excitement was palpable.
At the beginning of the second class, our visitor, professional hypnotist John Cerbone, began by quickly putting us at ease (quick is a key word here, as he specializes in “speed trances” that hypnotize subjects in mere seconds), explaining how we’ve all experienced hypnotism before. For example, when we’ve become so entranced in a film that we lose awareness of the separation between ourselves and the screen, when we’re at half attention during school lectures, and most frequently, during the barely-conscious time before falling asleep and waking up.
Soon we found ourselves testing our susceptibility to trance-induction. For one exercise, everyone was asked to hold their index fingers upwards, inches apart, and train their eyes intently on them. All of a sudden, he began instructing in rapid speed…something along the lines of “your fingers REALLY want to touch, it feels as if magnets are pulling them together, no matter how hard you try, your fingers CANNOT separate…” Suddenly, when asked to pull our fingers apart, nearly everyone in the group couldn’t get their fingers to move at first. There was laughter and gasps in the room, but nothing that compared to what came next.
John then called for a volunteer. Nicolas, one of our most calm and collected students raised his hand and was led to a chair in the front of the room. He cooly, maybe even suspiciously, followed the directives to fully relax his arm as it was wiggled gently and following the path of John’s fingers with his eyes until, in a quick utterance, of “On the count of 1, 2, 3, drop!” his head collapsed into his own lap. As his body dropped, those of us watching’s jaws instantaneously dropped too! While in this suggestive glazed state, he enacted a few simple tasks, waving his hand, laughing at the sight of a flashing light, before being led back to full consciousness and given a round of applause. Immediately most everyone’s hands raised, hoping to be the next volunteer. One after another, heads slumped over, they genuinely appeared to be “elsewhere” and each time it was just as surprising as the first.
The last activity was particularly intriguing, in light of our class theme. I had spoken with John prior to his visit, asking if we might try integrating art making while induced. Welcoming the suggestion, he guided several students in drawing a self-portrait under hypnosis. The instructions were simple encouragements…you possess talent, have no expectation. In reflecting on the experience, all of the students mentioned a strange relaxed focus while creating their drawings. Though they might not have felt that they were completely finished works or made entirely without self-awareness, the process was described as being genuinely freeing, opening their perspective towards the kinds of mental turmoil that often comes with creating art.
The following class, we spoke of artists who’ve used hypnotism as a strategy, viewing Matt Mullican’s current installation at MoMA, as well as other works by Marcos Lutyens, Christian Lemmerz, Susan Hiller, and Hilma Af Klint. We then further explored meditation and (near) trance states, listening to binaural beats and self-visualizing during drawing activities to help manifest creative potential in subconscious expression.
Throughout the course, we’ve hosted many amazing workshops with incredible guests, including artist Ross Moreno, magician Mark Mitton, practitioners from the Marina Abramović Institute, and Wiccan Priestess Courtney Weber, all of whom have provided students with moments of sheer awe and enjoyment while challenging them with new approaches to art making and a larger understanding of the mysterious potentiality of the body and spirit in our everyday lives.
Artwork from this season’s In the Making course is currently on view to the public in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education & Research Building located at 4 West 54th Street. Special thanks to everyone involved in the course including Alan Calpe, John Cerbone, Sophie Grant, Ross Moreno, Mark Mitton, Courtney Weber, and the Marina Abramović Institute’s Billy Zhao. More information on MoMA Teen Programs can be found at teens.MoMA.org, facebook.com/MoMAteens, and MoMA.org/MoMAteens.