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Moby Photographs the World's First Post-Apocalyptic Cult

"If I were a little more ambitious, I’d figure out how to reinvent myself as a cult leader. I don’t want to be a cult leader, and I don’t think I’d be a very good one, either. But if things had gone exceptionally wrong in my childhood and I were a...

When Moby moved fron New York into a Hollywood Hills castle built in 1927, he was inspired to create both a record and a series of photos, which work in tandem to depict two very different sides of Los Angeles. The record, Innocents, was released last October, and an exhibition of the accompanying photographs opens at Project Gallery in Hollywood tomorrow. When I got an email from Moby’s press agent asking if VICE would like to cover the event, I jumped at the chance to talk with the man himself about the differences between art and music, the subjectivity of symbols, and how he came to imagine the world’s first post-apocalyptic cult.

VICE: Hi, I’m calling for Moby?

Moby: Yeah, this is Moby.

Cool. Let’s get started, then. What does photography offer as a medium that music does not?

In many ways, it seems like photography and music have nothing to do with one another. Music takes place over time, and with photography, the time a viewer spends looking at it is really up to him. 

Yeah, photography is kind of anti-time. What drew you to photography as a medium in the first place?

I started taking pictures when I was ten years old. My uncle was a photographer at the New York Times, and he would give me his old hand-me-down photo equipment. The first camera he gave me was an old Nikon F that had been in Vietnam. I grew up with a bunch of visual artists. My mom was a painter, and another uncle was a sculptor. 

Part of what photography represents to me is this really odd decontextualizing of semiotic signifiers.  There’s no way to say that without sounding like a pretentious grad student.

Well, those are very specific words. 

At its core, on a molecular level, music is just air molecules hitting the ear a little bit differently. But by doing that you can make someone weep or laugh or dance or cut their hair or change their opinion. When I look at photography, it’s just light reflecting and refracting a little differently, but people still have such profound emotional reactions to it. A photograph is just a piece of paper with some pixels on it, but it can communicate so much. 

Do you think photography can be as powerful as music?

It’s a collective thing—sometimes we all just agree upon the power of an image. And of course I’m human, so I respond to things as well. If I see a picture of a Vietnamese monk who has set himself on fire, of course I have a very visceral reaction to that. But then I take a step back and ask myself what I’m really having a reaction to, because really I’m just looking at a piece of paper.  I’m fascinated with the way creating an image affects me emotionally, and the way printing the image affects other people emotionally. Deep down, I always wanted to go to Brown to study semiotics.

I am really interested in the relationships between signifiers within an image: when you take conventional, easily understood signifiers, and you compare and contrast them at the same time. One of the pictures from the show is a person in a supermarket wearing a monkey mask wrapped in a sheet. It takes something utterly banal that we’ve all experienced, which is a generic suburban supermarket, and introduces this unexplained variable. It’s really simple—a mask and a sheet, and a human figure, and it immediately asks all these questions. Is this intentional? Is this threatening? Is this comedic? What does this represent? That to me is the most exciting thing about photography. 

Because photography is a still point in time, it has the potential to be more ambiguous. 

I love when art has that core of ambiguity to it. I find myself resenting artists when they’re just trying to lead me to their conclusion. If I see a picture of a hungry kid by the side of the road in Bangladesh, I’m glad there is a photojournalist documenting injustice, but I feel like they’re making too much of an effort to lead me to a conclusion. It’s kind of pedantic in a way. I much prefer being confronted with something that’s ambiguous, and allowing myself to reach my own collusion, or no conclusion. 

Your last series of photos, Destroyed, was more documentary. It was made along the way as you went about your life. Now it seems like you’re making more staged images.

I hope so. I’ll state the obvious— we live in a really odd world. There are so many great photographers whose life’s work is documenting the strangeness of the world in which we live. I like doing that as well, but I think there’s something really creatively satisfying about constructing your own images and constructing your own narratives. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to make films. I don’t know how to be a filmmaker or a director, but I do know how to take pictures. So this is my half-assed, vague version of trying to be a filmmaker. It’s really crafting a narrative with 12 still images.

How do you see the photos and the album relating to each other?

In a way they’re both the products of moving to Los Angeles. But they both represent two very different sides of LA. The music on the record is kind of winsome and for the most part has a sweetness to it. Hopefully it’s not overly saccharine, but it has a gentleness for the most part. Whereas the art to me has a very disconcerting strangeness. 

To me, LA is those two things equally: There’s cute hominess on one side, and disconcerting strangeness on the other side. There’s people living in craftsman houses in Silver Lake going to the farmers' market, and then there’s the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree, and a few million square miles of desert that doesn’t support human life. 

The pictures are definitely creepy. 

Masks are scary for a lot of people, but they are inherently neutral. It’s just a molded piece of plastic. I want someone to look at it and have a conditioned reaction, and if possible even question where that reaction is coming from.  

I stopped drinking about 5 years ago, but in 2004 I gathered all my friends together to watch the election results. We’d all worked on the Kerry campaign, and as the results came in I got really drunk and took a lot of drugs. I was sitting in front of the TV, and my friends were crying because we were so upset Bush had won again. I had this epiphany that we were sitting there, emotionally decimated, because this box of glass and pixels was comporting itself slightly differently than if it were turned off. At the end of the day it’s still just a metal box with glass and electricity running through it. 

Part of the reason the images look so ominous is the connection you’re making to religious cults with the sheets and the masks. 

I bought this crazy old castle from 1927 in the Hollywood Hills. If I were a little more ambitious, I’d figure out how to reinvent myself as a cult leader. But I don’t want to be a cult leader, and I don’t think I’d be a very good one, either. If things had gone exceptionally wrong in my childhood and I were a little more emotionally unbalanced, I’d use my 1927 castle as the base for a cult. 

Historically, most cults have been pre-apocalyptic cults. They often think the apocalypse is about to happen, and their leaders have figured out some secret that will protect them. The idea behind the art show Innocents is that the apocalypse has already happened, and this is the world’s first post-apocalyptic cult. 

Cults say a lot about us as a species—our need to belong, our need to have gregarious contact with other humans, and our utter willingness to cede authority to almost anyone who wants to take it. Looking back, there is a certain innocence, a strange cluelessness to many cults. All these gentle, well-intentioned people come together and put on weird clothes and claim a shared belief, and they feel like they have access to a truth that other people don’t have. There’s something kind of endearing about that. Of course, not when they kill themselves or other people.

That wouldn’t happen in your cult?

This is why I’d be such a terrible cult leader! I’d probably let people do whatever they wanted.

Innocents, photographs by Moby, will be on view from February 21 – March 30, 2014 at Project Gallery in Hollywood, CA

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