Curated by Pepe Karmel
The New Society for Universal Harmony
Fact or Fiction?
The New Society for Universal Harmony is a pastoral commune, a cult for self-improvement that espouses magnetic healing. Rooted in history and utopianism, it updates and reinvents a utopian society founded in the late l8th century by Franz Anton Mesmer that employed animal magnetism or "mesmerism" for healing and spirituality.
The archives of The New Society-consisting of various prints, videos and memorabilia on display at the CUE Art Foundation-are documents of the society's rituals and re-enactments, philosophy and science. They are evidence of its material culture.
Mesmer was a late-enlightenment physician caught between paradigms. His theories were wildly incorrect, but his name still resonates. His cure-all involved the passage of "magnetic fluid" from his fingertips to a patient's body. While his followers gradually understood this phenomenon as hypnotism, Mesmerism still became a mass hysterical movement and the preeminent occult spectacle of the late l8th and l9th centuries.
The New Society
Members of The "New" Society call themselves "the harmonites" and a new Doctor Mesmer heads the new society. Mesmer never cures anyone, but believes that she does. All the while viewers are invited "in," not fully knowing the ground rules or even the terrain.
Through the lens of the past The New Society examines enchanting systems of belief from animal magnetism to our own culture's techno-addictions. Are we all mesmerized? The New Society touches on the occult, the forces beyond the bounds of our understanding that we dismiss as dreams; it examines ritual behavior, something that we ascribe to other cultures, but do not perceive in our own. Some pictures offer the possibility of mystical union, undercut by a strong sense of the ridiculous. The work shows the lengths to which we go to believe and to belong.
I've tried to construct a social utopia like the ones that existed in the past. Have we lost the capacity to imagine such a thing - that the world could be different from the one we live in? The New Society reminds us that we must laugh at what we can't attain.
by Pepe Karmel
People arrive at the headquarters of The New Society for Universal Harmony in Athol Springs, New York, with much the same problems and anxieties found in waiting rooms off Park Avenue and Central Park West. Instead of Freud's "talking cure," however, they engage in treatments based on the eighteenth-century theories of Franz Anton Mesmer. Although Mesmerism was in fact a precursor to psychoanalysis, it expresses itself in an unfamiliar language. What Freud called libido, Mesmer described as animal magnetism. Where Freud aimed for catharsis, Mesmer spoke of correcting fluidic imbalances. A patient's excess magnetism could be drained off into a "baquet." Inadequate magnetism could be corrected by roping patients to natural sources of magnetic fluid such as trees. Other imbalances could be evened out by having patients join hands in a human chain.
The New Society for Universal Harmony is an invention of the artist Lenore Malen. Her work falls in the tradition of conceptual art extending from the simple photo-plus-text documentation of Hans Haacke and Martha Rosler to the dramatic installations of Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle, and Ilya Kabakov. The demonstrations of treatment at The New Society are enacted by Malen's friends and acquaintances. We see some patients straining against the robes, slumping to the floor, or relaxing under metallic blankets. Others have electrodes clamped to their brows, or are wrapped like corpses in sheets of plastic, or are stranded in the branches of trees. As in the performances of Eleanor Antin, Vito Acconci and Marina Abramovic, bodies are pushed and pulled to their limits. The urge to giggle is stifled by the absolute seriousness of the proceedings.
One of Malen's recent videos is set against the backdrop of the 1964 World's Fair, where the dreams of the future have now become relics of the past. Nearby, vitrines present documents of the original Society for Universal Harmony: images impregnated with a utopianism we can recognize as our own. Past and present exchange places in Malen's work. It is a roundelay of science and mysticism, propelled by an insatiable craving for transformation. Invented beliefs yield real miracles.
In her ongoing project, The New Society for Universal Harmony, Lenore Malen uses pseudo-documentary photos, video and audio transcriptions, testimonials, case histories and arcane imagery to archive the functioning of her own reinvention of a utopian society, founded by Franz Anton Mesmer in l784.
Portions of The New Society have been shown and performed in New York at Location One (2006), Participant Inc. (2005), and apexart (2003). The New Society has been installed at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, PA (2004); and at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY (2005). It has been featured in numerous group exhibitions and screenings, including Orion's Belt, University of Reno, NV; France Fiction, Paris; Gavin Brown's CAE Passerby, New York, NY. In 2004 and 2005 it was seen in Germany as part of Jochan Gerz's Anthology-of-Art. The work was shown in Paradise/Paradox curated by Susan Canning and Ann McCoy's The Ethers in 2003. The project has been documented in many media including a performance for the BBC (2004) and a 144-page book (Granary Books, Inc., 2005). A feature article on The New Society, "Lenore Malen's Fictions of Utopia," by Gary Indiana appeared in the February '06 issue of Art in America.
Malen's artwork has been reviewed and featured in The New York Times, Art in America, Arts Magazine, The Village Voice, Art on Paper, Sculpture and BOMB Magazine.
Pepe Karmel is Associate Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, New York University. His book, Picasso and the Invention of Cubism, was published by Yale University Press in 2003. He organized the 1989 exhibition, Robert Morris: Felt Works, at the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York University and was co-curator of the 1998 retrospective Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 2004, he organized The Age of Picasso: Gifts to American Museums, at the Fondazione Memmo in Rome and the Fundacion Marcellino Botin in Santander, Spain. He has contributed to numerous other exhibition catalogues, and has written widely on modern and contemporary art for publications including Art in America and The New York Times.