From Bhagwan’s Rajneeshism to Jim Jones’ The People’s Temple, cults have a long, fascinating history. Their working mechanisms of manipulation, isolation and brainwashing have been studied and analysed in books, articles and documentaries, but there is something ghoulishly attractive about them that makes us wonder: how is the life inside a cult? Artist Michael Linders explores so in his solo show I’m Done, on view at Smith in Cape Town until February 15, where he’s presenting a variety of artworks exploring idolization, egomania, psychology, community and group behaviour.
You’ve recently opened I’m Done, your second solo show at Cape Town’s art gallery Smith. But it’s not a regular exhibition; it’s a sort of site-specific installation emulating the headquarters of a cult you’ve invented, named I’m Done. But how did you first think of this idea? What sparked your interest in cults?
I am interested in systems – be it religious, corporate or any structural institution – as they inform the basis of an experience. A cult is the ultimate form of devotion to a system. It is all-consuming. There is no middle of the road or dipping a toe in. I found this to be an interesting premise to start thinking about conveying a vast array of discombobulated ideas.
As a curiosity, why did you name the cult I’m Done? What are you done with?
‘I’m done’ has a finality attached to its broad understanding. It’s the finality, the end of the road that interested me in the name. When I was thinking about the theology of the cult, I needed a simple banner to bring everything together and make it seem like it makes sense, as it truly makes no sense at all.
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The rituals that cults perform and the many symbols they have are developed over time and create a sense of community and belonging. How did you approach this creation process from an artistic point of view?
This was an interesting process. I always wanted to start the whole idea from the point of knowing that I was developing a con. The concept of a belief system created out of an intention that is impure to begin with and then open it up for interpretation and development beyond its original intention. The way this developed as an artistic idea culminated in the development of a visual language that looked at techniques I had used in the past but incorporating elements from my research into the communication languages of cults. This involved communicating an idea both directly and creating an environment of interest and further discovery.
One of your main inspirations for the exhibition is Jim Jones, who founded the cult People’s Temple in the 1950s but gained notoriety in the 1970s, and became worldwide famous when he and some of his followers committed mass suicide by drinking Flavor Aid or Kool Aid with cyanide. Among all cults and cult leaders, why him?
Jim Jones defines the fundamental corruption of a good cause or idea that is altered by megalomania and the overwhelming strength of an ego. The People’s Temple and Jim Jones started out as a Christian, communist movement that had racial equality at its root. For me, the proof of where this movement could have gone was when Jim Jones received the Martin Luther King Jr Humanitarian award in 1977. I found myself interested in the ideas and belief system of The People’s Temple, where Christianity was used as a form of liberation. I have always had an issue with forced beliefs without a questioning of the given beliefs, but I have had a soft spot or a bit of a blind spot when a belief system is used for the liberation of oppressed people. This conflict of hope and despair feels true to a general human experience of following a belief system to better understand our own experience.
For I’m Done, you’ve made a sculpture, t-shirts, light works and even a super funny take on Flavor Aid. How was the process of thinking, designing and creating/producing such a variety of artworks in so many mediums like?
This started with different industrial processes that are used in mass communication, like techniques of production used in signage, postcards and pamphlets. A lot of the times, these techniques are based on a kind of gimmick to attract the eye to something it has not seen before. I used thermoformed plastic signage, lenticular printing technique and merchandise and transformed them into the bases for the artworks. With all these techniques, I created a formal visual language using repetition in the source references so as to have a cohesive overview.
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In the exhibition, we find an amalgamation of vague allusions – to Jonestown (the place in Guyana where Jim Jones settled his cult), space-race conspiracy, the creepy mythology of Pinocchio or pop psychology. How do they all make sense together? Is ‘cultness’ the only thread uniting them all, or are there other shared elements?
Everything I do is informed by my fundamental belief in the philosophy of bullshit. That is then put through the filter of a joke, in particular a one-liner. So as to refine something utterly ridiculous into its most minimal delusion. So the idea of vagueness is used to leave everything open for interpretation and force the links and connections between the various subjects up to the viewer. In general, there is no right or wrong connection, just an interpretation of a journey through a lot of bullshit.
For the exhibition, I assume you’ve done lots of research. Could you tell us more about this documentation process?
My research process always starts with a couple of headings: the source, the history, the body, the mind, the journey. Then, over time, I start filling in the chapters with information, which comes from all sources – books, the Internet, etc. My research technique is very fluid and unfocused, one thing leads to another and then, after a certain time, I drastically edit my information into an infographic type of language which then forms the basis of physical works.
This research previous to the exhibition has some academic connotations. Did you get to any conclusions about cults and myth-making practices? Or that wasn’t the goal?
I grew up in communities, so I have always been interested in the psychology of group environments. I have worked through a lot of my understandings of the environment through therapy, but I have always wanted to understand the techniques used to manipulate people – learning and studying things such as pluralistic ignorance, the Abilene paradox, emotional contagion and groupthink. It was an interesting process because, unbeknown to me at the time, I started actioning some of these manipulative techniques. Eventually, I caught myself and had to re-evaluate how invested I was in my research.
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Visitors will play different roles when entering the exhibition: potential followers, art viewers and consumers. Is there any way you expect them to act while visiting the exhibition?
The whole environment of the exhibition is designed to be welcoming, from the wall colour to the warm light. So I just want people to be confusedly happy.
If I’m not wrong, some audience members will be given a free book and a t-shirt once they’ve committed to following the cult. How exactly will they do so? Is there any ritual they have to perform?
This has as much to do with being part of something, but it’s mainly about an economic inclusion. Art is generally viewed as an elitist world, so by giving away works for free, it opens up the experience to a wider audience and gives them the chance to feel included. So, basically, manipulating people with free shit.
After this show, what are some plans for the near future? Any other projects you’re working on? Maybe starting a real cult?
Yes, going to sleep for a bit, and then I am working on a movie. I don’t like people enough to start a real cult, so that’s a no.
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