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A few years ago, a Wall Street Journal reporter called to ask if I thought JJ Brine would be famous. I said yes. He’d only been running his controversial gallery for a year or so, but it’s a question you automatically wonder about him; his intensity draws attention and curiosity equally translatable to an E! True Hollywood Story, a true crime documentary, a religious following, or a PS1 retrospective. So when he mentioned his plans to move his gallery from Los Angeles to D.C. this spring—the Gallery of Satan, in the inner ring of the media circus, in the middle of history’s craziest election cycle—I couldn’t wait for him to bring it on.
I’d first met Brine a year prior, across from my Lower East Side apartment, where Vector Gallery had appeared out of nowhere. A foil-papered neon nimbus packed to the gills with lynched baby dolls, witchy paraphernalia, and a “Charles Manson is Jesus Christ” sign, it was an instant magnet for mystics and barhoppers alike. Vector advertised itself as “The Official Gallery of Satan,” and JJ was the Crown Prince of Hell, leader of the Vectorian State, and High Priest of the Church of Vector. And he had real power; his blue eyes seemed to run on the gallery’s high-voltage generator, constantly scanning for reactions and interpretations while he jumped between philosophies with the articulation of John Berger and political sophistication of, well, no artist I’ve ever met. He was a mystery, always deflecting personal questions with “Who do you think I am?” (I would never have guessed anyway; the Wall Street Journal piece would reveal his former life as a speechwriter for former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.)
The gallery disappeared months later as swiftly as it opened, but over the following year, he’d appear periodically in tabloids alongside new friend Amanda Bynes, and the strange performances circulated through Artnet News, Gawker, TMZ, and VICE. Each publication gives him a different headline; sometimes “artist,” alternately “gay cult leader,” or “Amanda Bynes’ wild-eyed friend.” He’s drawn many comparisons to Warhol. The similarities were obvious in the mysterious persona, the Warhol-Sedgwick alloy, and the silver-walled Factory, but the more I learned about Vector, the more I realized how off-base I was. Warhol was about fame alone, and he wasn’t very smart. JJ knows exactly what he’s doing.
If “holding a mirror up to society” is the world’s hackiest art trope, it’s still one of the most unquestioned values of art. At Vector, society’s reflected in all-caps press releases and neon lighting, but it’s based on thoughtful observation.
The gallery most recently made the media rounds when Vector invited Charles Manson’s reputed biological son, Matthew Roberts, to stand in for his father in a mock Manson Family retrial. The allegation wasn’t whether Manson was guilty of crimes, but, as a press release states, “that Manson is personally responsible for any and all criminal acts, as well as the potential for crime to exist in this world.” After a colorful procession and some deliberation, the parties arrived at the conclusion that there would be no judgement, and Vector would be a place without laws. “It’s important,” JJ says to me in a recent phone conversation, “that the boogieman of one generation be exalted as the hero of that age in order for the air to change its course, in order for the new age to come.”
“Is he actually advocating for lawless killing?” crossed my mind. “But some judicial system is good in some cases, right?” I ask. He sounds gobsmacked. Didn’t I get it was a performance? “I think the judicial system makes for great art,” he says. “I appreciate the pageantry of justice and judgement as an elaborate art project, as performance art within a bounded context, within prescribed parameters.”
Vector is not actually Satanic. The swastika-like symbol comes from the Process Church of the Final Judgement, a 1960s-’70s offshoot from Scientology which worshipped Christ and the devil equally. The gallery—extensively laid out in its online literature—refers to itself as both a “conceptual art destination” and a “non-denominational worship space.” The church, which has named its own god “ALAN,” pulls from about half a dozen religious traditions. I won’t untangle the specifics here, but basically it’s a neutral zone where all ends of extremism balance each other out. “If somebody says, ‘I want to wash your brain. Let me wash it clean,’” JJ says over the phone. “Give them the benefit of the doubt.”
The logic gets really heady here, as laid out on JJ’s Wikipedia page (written in suspiciously Vectorian language): Vector defines “neutrality” to the extent that it’s even removed from a linear progression of time, existing in the “lemniverse,” what JJ describes as a “temporal-spatial simulation experiment.” And what to make of the kicker, that “Brine predicts the world will end in 2033 AD through the simultaneous annihilation of all life on earth, or the return to ALAN”?
I’m not sure, and I’m not converting anytime soon. But as an art concept, it works well. Vector forces you to stake a position, and JJ’s paid for those ideas in constant harassment and storefront vandalism—once, I watched him scrape “FUCK YOU” graffiti off his window for hours on end in a blizzard. And while I get why sexy kids smoking weed all night under a Charles Manson portrait might offend some people, it’s this kind of zealotry that sort of proves Vector’s point.
The commitment to the Church is so convincing that I often find myself wanting to leave criticality at the door, climb into timelessness, and let the doctrines wash over me. But Vector is grounded in lived political experience. JJ lived in Lebanon from 2007 to 2009, seeing the apocalyptic collision of Western passivity with the wrath of ancient beliefs. He did not take this lightly. “There was a Facebook pub that was open at the time that I just couldn’t deal with,” he remembers. “Everyone thought it was hilarious, where you would exchange ‘likes’ at the bar, but right next to that, there was this bombed-out church with posters advertising different militia leaders.” Vector’s self-proclaimed status as a sovereign state which has “seceded” from the U.S., then, is a real political proposition. When I ask him about Syria, I even sense a hint of uncharacteristic outrage. “Thank you, Russia. Thank you for intervening on our behalf.”
One time, he was kidnapped by Shi’a Islamist militant group Hezbollah, when his ex took a photo of him in a Shia mosque in Dahiye in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Security reacted by inspecting the photos on their camera and keyed in on one in particular. Security then confiscated their possessions, they were hooded, driven in circles, marched up a flight of stairs, and threatened by the sound of guns loading, begging for their lives. “After about seven hours of many questions and answers, they got the reaction they were looking for,” he says, and they were dropped off on the outskirts of Dahieh. The incriminating photo was a can with Hebrew writing on it, which JJ had picked up earlier that day at Hezbollah’s open-air exhibit in tribute to its “victory” over Israel in the previous year’s 33-day Summer War.
It’s insane that in some parts of the world you can get your brains blown out over a can, and I think about the incident alongside some of Vector’s more nonsensical performances, which tie pointed political statements to apparently random objects. Nobody really understood what the vagina cell phone charging station (performed by Vector’s Minister of State Lena Marquise) at Art Basel in 2014 was about, but JJ gave TMZ a succinct explanation. “We’re charging the Syrian regime. This is all really about advancing the interests of Syria.”
To JJ, the connection should be obvious because everything is connected. “What relationships are not related to charging?” he asks.
But a vagina cell phone charger referencing Syria is relatively tame compared to Vector’s next feat, to insert itself into politics as a kind of psychic control center for JJ to, in his words, “program” the presidential elections to cause “systemic shifts in the geopolitical configuration of power in the Middle East, particularly in relation to the competing national interests within The Levant.” That leaves a lot of room for spin, and this isn’t the forgiving art scene of Los Angeles or downtown New York. Frankly, I worry for his safety.
I bumped into JJ again at Art Basel this year, where he told me about the D.C. project, which he plans to open on May Day and hopes to be in the center of the city.
His 2016 iPhone album is like if the Dalai Lama went rogue and converted to Voodooism; he’s in a mud room waiting to interview the late Voodoo High Priest Max Beauvoir, surrounded by Prince Philip worshippers on Tanna Island (think a modelesque white-blonde with perfect skin surrounded by villagers) and then glowing, star-like, with Amanda Bynes. “Amanda is brilliant,” he says. “She’s the only person I know who’s more psychic than I am.”
I thought it was funny that his serendipitous connection with Bynes happened right in the middle of her witch-burning in the press (apparently, they’d met at a McDonald’s and just hit it off). He seemed indifferent to the coverage. “I’m drawn to people who show all sides of themselves,” he says. “I’m not really a fan of American pop culture per se. I’m interested in the Middle East and I’m interested in a few subjects of very precise interest.”
And almost as soon as we parted ways, there he was in my Facebook feed, this time on TMZ. He’s drawn an X on his forehead, and a guy with long black hair and a “kroll” T-shirt has his arm over him. They’re under the headline “CHARLES MANSON’S SON: I’LL PROVE MY DAD’S INNOCENCE.” They look like best friends. I’d believe it.
The Vector Gallery plans to open May 1 at a location to be determined.
Photo by Genaro Magaña