“He was into a lot of stuff,” said Tony Oursler one recent afternoon. He was referring to infamous British occultist Aleister Crowley, but he was also standing in the middle of his own stuff-filled Lower East Side studio. In addition to works in progress (projections of fluttering eyeballs), a brown labradoodle named Ruby, and a bust of Yoda, Oursler’s studio houses a collection of over 2,500 relics of human belief systems and magical thinking. Beginning with the Spencer Collection, an encyclopedic “cookbook” of the pre-Christian occult, Oursler’s archive spans areas of stage magic, thought photography, the paranormal, demonology, cryptozoology (Bigfoot and the like), optics, automatic writing, hypnotism, fairies, cults, color theory, and UFOs. For an upcoming LUMA Foundation–commissioned exhibition at Parc des Ateliers in Arles, France, Oursler will be showing his collection, sourced from auctions and flea markets alike since the mid-’90s, and publishing ten scholarly essays and several interviews (including one with a self-proclaimed UFO-abduction survivor).
Oursler will also premiere a special “4-D” film for the occasion—a contemporary film projected onto old photos—and maybe even a zine, a sort of coda for the whole project. “It’ll be about the way magical thinking is actually the norm in our culture,” he told me. “If you say that one third of the American public does not believe in evolution, or 50 percent of the American public has seen UFOs, or 40 percent of the American public believes in ghosts—these beliefs are not necessarily as far out as you think.”
A pioneer in the realm of video art, Oursler says that his work, which often manifests as low-fi, optical-illusion humanoid projections, has always dealt with belief systems. “I studied as a Conceptual artist,” he said, referring to his CalArts days. “And naturally I progressed beyond, because that was a previous generation. But looking at the Conceptual artists, I think I see certain rules in the way they made art, just like the Abstract Expressionists had their own way of creating, or the Suprematists in Russia had their own way of doing things. Art in itself is a kind of belief system. You have to believe in culture.”
Oursler inherited his interest in the science of human belief. His grandfather, Fulton Oursler—whom he doesn’t resemble, judging from a copper plate in the studio, engraved with Fulton’s profile—was a great friend of Harry Houdini’s. Houdini had learned the same tricks as the mediums who saw WWI’s unprecedented death toll as an opportunity to make money, and he and Fulton delighted in exposing them during séances. “My theory,” Oursler said, “is that some of these mediums would have become Surrealists had they even known that these performances had some other way of functioning in the world.”
He showed me ectoplasm, a gauze-like material that would emerge from the orifices—including ears, noses, and, in at least one instance, the colon—of mediums as proof of an otherworldly presence. “I have to show you something,” Oursler said, leaving the room. He returned with a black light, which he directed at two squares of ectoplasm dating back to the 1920s. Two phosphorescent outlines appeared—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. “For all I know, this is slightly radioactive,” Oursler said. “I usually have a Geiger counter around. I got it in Kiev—I thought it would be fun to see what it was like.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 32 under the title “Black Magic.”