Inspiration, Coercion and Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth
Ask the crew behind the documentary A Message From the Temple just exactly what the subject organization is all about and you'll get a surprising answer — they're still learning every day. Such is the case with Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth, an organization founded in the late '80s that was part artistic collective and part magic practitioners, using the teachings of left-hand and right-hand ritual magic, in addition to incorporating the ideas of everyone from Crowley and Burroughs to the Process Church of the Final Judgement. Somewhat incorrectly associated with Psychic TV, Coil, Current 93 and others, TOPY's main objective was to encourage individual thought and a DIY ethos, and push the boundaries of creativity. The crew of Jacqueline Castel, Ryan Martin (Dais), Caleb Braaten (Sacred Bones) and Aldona Watts aim to get to the heart of the organization with the documentary.
With A Message From the Temple now funded via crowdsourcing (donate here), and with another 30+ hours remaining as of this posting, we wanted to discuss some of the ideas behind the film, the inspiration and the process with the four principal crew members. The results of our conversation are below.
In a recent interview, I read that Caleb texted Ryan and said, "Have you ever made a film before?" Ryan said he hadn't and had no desire to. So, what made you think that he would be a good partner for this project?
Caleb Braaten: Well, Ryan is a very talented person. Regardless of whether he wanted to make a film, I knew that he could.
What was your hesitance about making a film in general, Ryan? What was the tide that swayed the ship?
Ryan Martin: I got that text from Caleb, and I said, "No, I've never made a movie," and he responded, "Well, we should meet up and talk about this film idea I have." It sounded like a bizarre enough request, so when we met up and talked about it, it was a different film idea than what we actually ended up doing. It was kind of a loose film based on the book England's Hidden Reverse. During that, he said, “We gotta get a director on board,” because neither I nor Caleb know how to really direct a film. It was just an idea.
So, our next meeting was with Jacqueline, and she's obviously the best candidate for director of any film. It's just the perfect fit. Then, Jacqueline needed more technical help from the producer side. It all happened pretty fast. That's how I came into the fold, being someone that had nothing to do with making any kind of motion picture whatsoever; [the fact] that Caleb asked based on the idea of doing the book was interesting, and I thought it was a cool challenge.
When did these meetings start to take place? How long has this been bubbling under the surface before it kind of came out earlier this month?
CB: About a year and a half ago.
RM: It was early summer 2015, I guess. We worked on it a little bit at Berserktown in 2015, and had already been working on it for a couple months at that point.
Jacqueline Castel: Once Caleb and Ryan approached me, I had thought to include Aldona. I knew her from WNYU, from DJing at the same radio station together. She had directed a feature documentary in Lithuania and I just knew that her heart was in the right place for this specific project. There's so much work required — you have to find people that care. That is the most defining factor for me, especially when you're going to be in [it for] the long haul with a crew. What I really like about this crew in particular is that we're coming from different disciplines and backgrounds, we all wear different hats. I embrace that; it's what makes us a unique team.
Jacqueline, obviously, a lot of what people have seen already is kind of your super-stylized videos — so artistic, visual and well-crafted. Are you going to be applying that sort of look to the film? When people think "documentary," they think kind of more straight-ahead, in general.
JC: Yeah, and I think that's actually kind of a shame. There are so many different ways in which one can make a film — so many ways you can collage the past and the present. Tell the narrative, tell the story, but do it in a provocative and visually interesting and pleasing way. I don't think that we need to be beholden to just, “We're going to watch a talking head,” and then, “We're going to watch another talking head." I'm not really interested in that, and I don't think any of us are. There's such a strong aesthetic with this project because a big part of TOPY is their heavy involvement in early video experimentation — they created this whole visual world. That's intriguing and exciting to me, so I want to be faithful to that world in our film.
Caleb, why did you feel like Jacqueline was the right person for this? Did you have this idea about a larger, kind of not-square interview doc? Or did this all kind of come from the organic relationship between you guys?
CB: I couldn't possibly imagine working on a film project without Jacqueline, to be honest. Beyond that, I also wouldn't know who would be better at it. Even putting our relationship aside, she has a deep understanding of the subject matter and her style, I think, really will lend itself very well to this project.
For people who aren't familiar with the Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth, what do you think is sort of an elevator pitch on why it was so influential? Outside of core fans and those on the outer edges, what would make someone want to watch this film?
JC: I think that the core principles that are inherent in this story — regardless of the sort of art, music and other things that clamored around it — are most important: the idea of working internally on yourself as a means to understand and operate in the world.
I don't want to put words in your mouth, but maybe how the Temple's aesthetic and influence permeated into larger society, and how they brought in all these ideas like chaos magic and all these kind of influential underground figures towards the mainstream, and the panic that ensued. Does that makes sense?
Aldona Watts: I mean, they were taking some of those esoteric ideas from the occult and stripping them down to make them accessible to people in a way that is really open. They were not trying to keep it hidden or keep it to this rarified part of society, because it was about letting everyone achieve their potential and self-actualization. It’s important because a lot of people were feeling incredibly disempowered at that time. It became an international network, so it resonated with people all over the world and continues to do so — especially today, you could say.
This is pre-internet, too.
JC: Exactly, yeah.
CB: The information that they were freeing up, this was information that you couldn't find — things that people tried to keep hidden. They made it available to anybody who was possibly interested in learning.
AW: I think they also kind of provided a pre-internet support system for the freaks and weirdos, you could say. Just having a place to write in and gather resources. We recently interviewed Tom Headbanger (Coyote 2/12), and he said he would sit down and respond to every letter — printing out resources and figuring out local help for these people. That sort of provided a network that the internet now provides for so many people who don’t feel empowered or feel disenfranchised.
JC: Yeah, I remember him saying he would always have, like, 15-year-olds who would reach out and say they were suicidal because they felt completely alone in their environment. This is a means for people to connect. Another thing that I really love about a lot of the principles of it is just the idea of you taking responsibility. That you have to do it yourself. It was this kind of philosophy — this punk version of esoteric thought. And like Aldona was saying, stripping it down and making it something that was accessible.
RM: Another interesting aspect of it was, while it's a network, there was no sense of “joining,” like you would in an organization or anything. We tried to break up the whole ranking system, but you could connect or disconnect at any moment, and the participation was all in your hands. Do you just want [a] pamphlet about boroughs? That's fine. Do you want to really get intense with people and do these rituals? That's fine. So, there was no sense of joining or quitting; there was no hierarchy. People sort of eventually will gravitate and create a hierarchy, because that's just human nature. You made your own little system, and that's what makes it semi-difficult to document, because we have people reaching out to us: “Well, I got some pamphlets in the mail one time.” So, we're trying to get more involved and speak to people that have really deep involvement, because if you contact everyone that possibly wrote a letter, it's about a hundred thousand people. They blurred a lot of lines, and all these institutions that were around at that time — or were around previously — they kind of, as much as possible, discarded all the stereotypical kind of things ... the hierarchy, like it's the freaking Boy Scouts or something. It was not that — it was just plug in and plug out, which is like what you do in the internet. You could go and just check your email, but you can go and look around Wikipedia for eight hours, you could go on Amazon — you can do all these things, and your level of involvement is totally based on yourself and what you do.
As opposed to trying to take the concepts of religion in general, of them being about personal belief and personal enlightenment and finding the real world.
JC: TOPY was also about playing off of the idea of hierarchy, to be subversive and mischievous with that whole structure. Even in the early days of TOPY when there was this uniformed look, it was almost kind of militaristic and religious. That look was playing off those power structures and was a way to call attention to them and play into them a little bit — create an ambiguous perspective at all times, thereby questioning everything that's around you. I think that's really interesting as well. It was always about challenging. So, that's always kind of underneath the surface — that kind of humor, which I really love about it, too. There was always that sense of playfulness.
We talked about the internet earlier. Obviously, we're all of the age where we came up with the internet. Did any of you find out about the Temple outside of that? And if so, how?
CB: I knew about it as a kid growing up in Denver. TOPY had a presence there — Denver was the North American headquarters. So, I knew what it was, and I remember people talking about it and seeing those guys around town, but I didn't really know anything about it, other than the number 23. It wasn't really until later that I started to really understand — I mean, I still don't fully understand. That's what this is: It's an exercise to really, fully understand what the Temple was.
RM: I found out about it through the stereotypical channel of — it was in all the Psychic TV records you'd get. I would get those records at this place called Oliver's in the early ’90s and they would, thankfully, get a couple kind of weird industrial records, experimental records and more. I thought it was like [a] Psychic TV fan club or something like that. I left it there for years, until I started working with Genesis [P-Orridge] and my knowledge came firsthand. The archives and everything — 12, 13 years ago — weren't really sitting online. TOPY wasn't my main focus, but it was kind of the most interesting stuff to me, and then the more I was sitting around and getting around to the TOPY stuff, it got increasingly more interesting, and even more arcane and weird. And like Caleb said, spending all these years around the stuff, I still can't really fully wrap my head around it. It's a really unique phenomenon — good or bad. It's a really fascinating flash point ... within an underground culture that kind of leaked into the mainstream.
How far are you along with the project? Who have you talked to already?
JC:We've probably logged about 15 to 20 interviews at this point, and all of those have been either shot in New York or California as people come through town — people who live as far as Thailand or Scandinavia. Ryan is really good about coordinating that, and then we pull people into my studio for interviews. We've also been doing a lot of archival work. I was just at the Tate Britain in August to transfer media from the Genesis Breyer P-Orridge collection. A lot of it is starting to degrade because it's VHS or formats that are not really stable, so we're trying to get to that as quickly as we can. So, we've been doing research and also putting our master list together of all the people that we hope to interview. We're going after funding now for a few different reasons — so far, we've been putting our own funds into this project equally, but we were getting stressed to a point that we needed some extra help to see it through. But otherwise, we aim in this campaign to also prove to investors that there is interest in this and people care about this topic. It's also just the means to find people, because they went by aliases and are otherwise impossible to find, or fell out of contact decades ago, so this is also a way to shoot out a signal and have everybody come to us, as well as us coming to them. It kind of fulfills a lot of different purposes, so that was why we wanted to do it and do it now.
OK, makes sense. You said that you went to the tape and, obviously, Ryan, you've been involved in a lot of the older archival. What's the most fascinating piece of archival that you guys have come across that you want to speak about?
AW: The diary?
RM: Yeah, I guess diaries. Genesis was kind enough to lend us her personal diary from — I think it starts in early '81 and ends around '91-'92, so it's about 10 years. It's the size of, like, two phone books put together. It's huge. We're not really using it to put in the movie; we're using it as a guide. Now we know kind of the day-to-day from one of the co-founders. Secondly, we found the ritual diary. It's small, it's not very long. It's more like a sketchbook, like a piece of art, because it's got these collages and writings and drawings in it that were all done during various TOPY rituals. So, we have that to look at, and that's really personal. There’s real insight, and looking at it through a documentary lens, it's like, “Now we can see where they were attempting to go.” So, having those two diaries gives us a little bit more direction and more insight because it's tough talking to people about these kind of personal events that took place. A lot of people don't want to or are sworn [to] secrecy, but certain people have been very open about it. This gives us kind of a glimpse of ground zero of what was happening behind closed doors.
JC: Another thing was this entire collection of audio cassettes, boxes and boxes of them, of their rituals, TOPY meetings, etc. That's going to be a good way to get that kind of glimpse, that ground zero glimpse, of what was going on.
What do you guys see as far as a rollout is concerned? Like, if this thing gets made, how would you like to present it to the public? Has this been thought out?
JC: We've thought out our process for the next couple of years and I think that our goal in 2017 is to be cataloging archives and doing all of our primary interviews, spacing them out as we need to on a physical and financial level. 2018-2019 will be the editing period, and we'll be doing follow-up interviews as we craft the narrative, so that will be a big year. We're hoping to do festivals starting in early 2019, which we would also like to pair with site-specific screenings like we did for our fundraising benefit, where we can show it in interesting spaces. We want to do a lot of special things with this project, but realistically we aren't likely to be releasing until 2019 or 2020. That's just sort of the reality, looking at the actual rollout for how it needs to happen.
Is there anything that you would like to say about the Temple? Especially to someone who is not familiar with TOPY or the bands or anything? Why should this documentary be important to them?
JC: I think the search for personal liberation, and existing outside of our current political and economic climate, appeals to a lot of people today. We don't really have any control over the outside forces that are surrounding us, so if we want to have that sense of control internally, the only means in which we can do that is to take personal responsibility and create our own world. I think that's kind of adherent in all of TOPY's philosophy — it's your responsibility. It's however much you want to engage and participate, and I think that it's a really important message to get through to people. This is the core of DIY ethos.
RM: A lot of people loop the musical side of it with Psychic TV, but the more we have been delving into the topic, we're realizing that it is such a small part. As time went on, it became really diminished to the point where PTV was its own separate entity. They were operating in two different paths. It's just that TOPY and PTV were kind of almost twins — birthed, but grew in separate directions. There were people in TOPY that couldn't care less about PTV. They were into it for the culture, the connections, or the contact or the network.
CB: It was a place for people to come to incubate their ideas regardless of whether that was a band or whether it was filmmaking. It was a place where people were encouraged to grow creatively and — ultimately, whatever that was — were supported.
AW: I always think about how Genesis always says, "Do it yourself."