Presented as one of the many digital projects gravitating around Manchester’s Virtual Factory, “a space for fully immersive and groundbreaking digital experiences”, The Neon Hieroglyph is the brainchild of Tai Shani, an artist who has exhibited both in Britain and internationally, interested in exploring forgotten histories and tales. Uniting poetry, sculpture, documentary filmmaking, CGI and performance art, Shani creates a visual essay unlike any other, an hour-long trip that challenges every notion of individual, egotistical resistance to it and fully immerses the viewer into what seems like the ultra-modern equivalent of a mythological collective journey, a cosmic version of the Argonauts’ tale remade by the politics of the ’60s, a body-and-soul-welding altered state, a consciousness-rewarding and expanding experience.
The Neon Hieroglyph is an epic journey, digital art installation and virtual world, a feminist-utopian exploration of the effects of LSD, and depending on whether one wants to start with the trip itself or the explanation, both the screening of the final project – with a live score by composer Maxwell Sterling, and narration by Molly Moody – and the 15-minute after-interview discussing its conception and originating ideas are available to watch below.
Hosted by Fold, this ‘redux’ special screening of The Neon Hyeroglyph is made up of Molly Moody’s narration, Maxwell Sterling’s futuristic experimental electronic music (a style which imdb describes as ranging from “improvised jazz to classical, left-field electronic to minimal, always taking lead from the narrative”, words that do not do his music justice) and images mostly consisting of close-ups, wide spaces or distinct patterns. It is the images which end up mattering very little, mostly easing the journey, with the words taking front and center every step of the way.
Shani’s poetry and Moody’s narration rely heavily on alliteration, oxymora, juxtapositions of metaphysical and physical concepts. In the first half, Sterling’s music is more low-key, as the viewer is led down nine discrete steps of a transformation, starting from life in a rural community, going down a dark cave, ending up in a prison gazing at the light beams making their way in between the bars (an act described as ‘prisoner cinema’, with cinema also having a larger place later in the story) and in front of the microscope. Orgasms, artificial intelligence, fascism, “the violence of indifference to violence”, large buildings and structures, tiny gods, a substance that kills heroes, disassembly to a molecular/atomic/quark-level, death and rebirth, stardust, the forming of new systems, bread, carnivores, transformation, taking flight, celestial entities and cosmic connections. Moody’s involved recitation and Sterling’s synths necessarily impose themselves over the rational brain’s natural resistance and promise liberation: the nine stories are abstract, held together by strands, which is why the listener will most likely fixate on words and topics that are of interest to them and just glide along the rest, to the point where they won’t ever hear complete sentences at all, but strange music they will struggle to make sense of later. But ‘later’ shouldn’t even be a word that matters in the context of The Neon Hieroglyph – this is mind-altering art to get lost in, not judge or review.
As for the explanation of the work itself, at first it can be daunting, at least to someone who didn’t think twice about the many mentions of the word ‘fascism’. The Neon Hieroglyph rarely imposes its politics on the viewer, but is, in Shani’s own words, an anti-capitalist, utopian, feminist, even anarcho-communist exploration of community, witchcraft, ergot and LSD. It will make one think long and hard about why governments insist on ‘the war on drugs’, and why psychedelic explorations are largely connected with antisocial sentiments. Perhaps the most interesting connection is Silicon Valley being interested in micro-dosing (a concept helped into mainstream popularity by shows like last year’s ‘Nine Perfect Strangers‘) in order to increase productivity, and the fact that acid can work on everyone – it does not require faith. However, Shani grimly concludes that shamanic practices and ‘the old ways’ cannot by themselves withstand the cannibalistic bulldozer that is capitalism.
If anything else deserves special mention, it is Maxwell Sterling’s compositions outside of this project. On his “Turn of Phrase” album, he seems to invent an entirely new language, an alien soundscape, a music that defies rhythm, tonality, texture, harmony and noise but blends them in an entirely new fashion, never once seeming lost or without vision. Sterling is a musician who challenges the notion of ‘popular’ in the same way artists like Kuedo, Clark or Laurel Halo do, by suggesting an entirely new, cinematic but visceral way of listening. This is music that seems to devour the ears just as it bathes one in soundwaves and strands of melody, that decomposes and deconstructs itself to a molecular level. On “Tenderness”, Sterling and Leslie Winer concoct their own resistance art, using poetry in a more ominous way than in The Neon Hyeroglyph (“people pay for pretty/ just improve yourself, that’s all you can do/ to improve this world”, “queer as it sounds/ that sums up my ethics/ this is a man who lived on a land/ and knows it firsthand”). But one does not easily forget either project, and soundwaves will propagate and resist as long as we, the ‘mollecular collaborators’ do.
Featured image is Mollecular Spirit by Javier Casas.