The morning before my interview with model-cum-performance-slash-multimedia-artist Myla Dalbesio, I sat in front of my computer watching Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate cult initiation video. The bald, wide-eyed man lulled me from beyond space and time. “Planet Earth [is] about to be recycled,” he said. “Your only chance to survive, or evacuate, is to leave, with us.”
“That’s the most well-known video,” Dalbesio informed me when I met her at RH Gallery on Duane Street. She was in the middle of installing her piece in the back room, called “Ascension Room,” for the exhibition 22.214.171.124.0: a group show based on the end of the 13th Bak’tun cycle in the Mayan calendar (it falls on December 23, 2012, for all the non-doomsday fetishists out there).
“Ascension Room” is a space where people can practice transcending from this reality into the next. And as soon as I walked into the half-installed room, I was already transported. All four walls were draped in teal curtains, similar to the ones in Applewhite’s video. The room was dimly lit, and had teal carpeting, a textured silver ceiling (made from safety blankets), and a television at the far wall (one of three that are in the final piece).
Dalbesio was arranging the curtains. She looked comfortable and cool in her Smiths t-shirt and beanie. She’s also undoubtedly beautiful. And nice. Led Zeppelin floated from the loudspeakers, but only the mellow songs, the ones that you listened to in high school while smoking a joint and having deep conversations with your closest friends. I can’t remember the last time I sat, cross-legged, on a carpet, and aoon we were sprawled across the floor, talking about everything: cults and religion, landscapes, modeling, art, and the lifelong pursuit of meaning. All we were missing was the joint.
What is the installation going to include?
Essentially what I’m building here is a room that would have been taken out of a cult. I’m trying to shy away from using the word ‘cult’ to describe what I’m building, because really we’re at the beginning of this process.
You already sound like you’re starting a cult.
[Laughs.] It’s like a “gathering” of like-minded individuals. It’s a family. What fascinates me the most about these famous cults, like Heaven’s Gate and Peoples Temple with Jim Jones, is that it all starts out very innocent and sweet, and it seems very rational and makes a lot of sense. It’s like, you love each other and everyone is included, and the world that we’re in right now is temporary, and blah blah blah. And those are all ideas that I think a lot of people subscribe to, but what happens after that, after this power is gained, is that kind of starts to turn dark, and things evolve and turn really nasty. That’s what I think is so interesting. But right now with this family that we’re building, we’re just at the beginning.
How many members of this family are you at right now?
I would say we’re at a good twenty right now.
What will people experience coming into this room?
This is basically a meditation room. The piece itself is called the “Ascension Room.” So if you were to go into this ‘house’ that we would live in, which has no geographic location yet, this would be the room that you go in to meditate, and to train yourself into being able to transcend from one plane of reality to alternative planes of reality. The part of the room that I’m most excited about right now is the audio. There’s going to be a sound piece that I’ve been working on with one of my best friends, Omar Elsayed, who is this amazing audio producer. We’ve been working on this meditation track together, which is [a mix of] noise and narration, and it’s like this guided journey that you’re supposed to take. And there will be cots that people will be welcome to lay down on and just engage in the practice of this room.
Why did you choose cults and Heaven’s Gate as inspiration for your installation?
It’s less focused on Heaven’s Gate. That’s just a small fraction of something I was inspired by. It’s more this whole overall idea of cult mythology and group think. That’s something that I’ve been interested in for years. It started from going upstate with friends for long weekends, which I now affectionately refer to as “The Lost Weekends.” I feel like every young twentysomething goes through those moments where they’re like “we’re so important, what we’re doing is just amazing, it’s so beautiful, and blaahhh,” and those kind of backwards dreams of building compounds and everyone just going up there and dropping acid all the time. And I’ve always been interested in religion and spirituality. For a long time I was interested in the southern Appalachian religions. They all have this strain of very fervent devotion that I think is really interesting.
You say that this room is just the first part of a much larger project. What general scope is the bigger project?
Well it’s building this organization, and this community, and kind of letting it evolve organically from there. After this [installation], I have a solo show in Germany next year, which is a continuation of this whole idea. It’s on a larger scale, with multiple rooms, and more physical work as opposed to just the installed piece. I’m also working on taking it onto this internet platform. It’s like a new media for art: digital internet art. It reminds me a lot of what was happening with Heaven’s Gate, towards the end when they were focusing more on their website and trying to recruit people from the internet.
What’s your relationship with the internet?
Well I’m on it every day! But it scares me a lot. I definitely respect the power of it. That idea that once something is on the internet you can never erase it. And then there’s this whole question of work sharing and rights. You have these pieces that you made and that you’re really proud of and you want to share, but once it’s out there anyone can take it and do whatever they want with it, and how do you control it? Copyright issues are so rough these days!
Do you think that takes away from the art that you’re trying to create? Or should art be able to evolve once it’s out of your hands?
I’m still trying to work out how I feel about that. You can’t control it forever, and if you try to control it forever no one would ever see anything because it would never leave your studio. I have separation issues, so calling it [done], and taking my hands off it, that’s hard.
Are you trying to move away from performance art?
It’s always an element. It’s just not everything that I do. I’ll always do it, but I’m interested in so much more than just that. But there are definitely performances that go along with what is happening here, and I’m definitely super excited about finding the right situations to do those.
I heard you made a cult initiation tape. Can you tell me a bit about that video?
That is more directly inspired by the Heaven’s Gate video. There are going to be three televisions playing a rundown of the fundamental ideology behind what’s happening here: the idea of alternate planes of reality, being able to travel between them, the power of the ocean as a controlling force over our lives, that water is our essential life force and what we’re born from and what gives us rebirth and this cleansing throughout our lives.
Speaking of water, do you think Hurricane Sandy signified the end of the world?
It’s been a very interesting situation these days, hasn’t it? I made a playlist for the storm and it was of apocalypse-themed songs, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat since then, which is kind of fucking with my head a lot, and then this [group] show is all about the end of the world, and then I started watching Walking Dead…
Photography by Christopher Harth