The Photic Wave Is a Cult You'll Want to Join

June 9, 2015


Deep in a dungeon-like basement in SOMA — in the shell of a former leather store — art collective Nightmare City toils on a new exhibition for Alter Space’s Jail Cell Residency. Artists Keturah Cummings and Carol Anne McChrystal have founded The Photic Wave, an “ideological organization” aimed at expanding infinite awareness, otherwise known as a cult. Opening this Saturday, The Photic Wave will preach the group’s mystical beliefs through a two-story immersive exhibition of video, projections, photographs, shrines, and sculpture.

The essence of The Photic Wave, McChrystal and Cummings tell me with straight faces, is interspecies communication between humans and dolphins, the utopian promise of broadcast television, and the promise of radical architecture. And, they assure me, if you triangulate these three concepts, you will find that what they all have in common are restorative theta waves. During a studio visit with the San Francisco and Berlin-based duo, they handed me one of several tri-fold brochures claiming that “Theta is key to unlocking your doorway to eternity.”

Several “mediation aid” videos will be on view, including one of dolphins swimming under the sea, punctuated with a flashing light and a low humming sound, both at the theta wave’s frequency of four-to-seven cycles per second. The aid is indeed hypnotic. (Maybe they’re on to something.) Nightmare City will also provide several “indoctrination videos,” in installation form and as take-away DVDs. These videos document Cummings and McChrystal performing ceremonies at sites in California and Germany with occult, ufology, and countercultural significance. In one video, shot at Giant Rock in Joshua Tree, Cummings and McChrystal ritualistically and rhythmically toss around a giant, inflated, rainbow-colored tetrahedron, a symbol that recurs in much of their work.

Beginning in the 1950s, when George Van Tassel claimed to have been visited by a Venusian there, Giant Rock has become a pilgrimage site for UFO devotees. Van Tassel spent twenty-four years quixotically building the Integratron, an unfinished building that promised rejuvenation and time travel. Following in Van Tassel’s footsteps, Nightmare City will install two large inflatable structures that viewers can enter. Video will be projected onto the translucent bubble wall of one structure, and the other will contain a luminous sculpture. A miniature test bubble was rather womb-like, even sitting on the basement’s concrete floor. The pumping of auditory theta waves in the dark and damp dungeon will likely heighten this feeling.

But The Photic Wave teeters on the precipice of something more sinister than New Age positivity and desert ufology. A video shot at Wewelsburg castle in Germany references Nazi and neo-Nazi occultism and the symbol of the Black Sun. A series of photographs projected on the basement wall picture the artists in cult-like, almost fascistic, poses in front of monuments of failed utopianism, including the Jonestown memorial in Oakland, the Goetheanum in Switzerland, Scientology’s Celebrity Center, and, of course, the headquarters of Google.

Nightmare City’s work seems to exist somewhere between critique and genuine interest. One gets the impression that Cummings and McChrystal are drawn to these promises of metaphysical healing and a better world. After all, who wouldn’t want to telepathically commune with dolphins? But there's little chance viewers, even the most susceptible, will be drawn into The Photic Wave. Though you might want to fall for it, The Photic Wave cautions against itself.