Above featured image credited to Adrian Pijoan and Ray Ewing, Salty (The Salton Sea Monster)
As a child, I would spend the days of summer vacation glued in front of a television. Tuning in for the torpid daytime block, I clung to the various detritus of 90s TV culture: The Golden Girls, Home Improvement, Legends of the Hidden Temple. None of these shows, however, had the same dramatic effect on me as Unsolved Mysteries. The clamoring, disorienting theme song that accompanied the soaring logo would send me running to the screen, not blinking from Robert Stack’s introduction to the credit sequence. Stack would emerge from the darkness, dressed in a trenchcoat, and his gravelly voice would plot out the episode’s agenda. Stack led me like a mundane grim reaper through various segments of the unexplained, punctuated by cheesy reenactments and Ken Burns effect photo transitions. Scenarios of near-death experiences, bizarre murders, and haunted lighthouses permeated my young brain.
One of the most affecting Unsolved Mysteries episodes focused on the Allagash abductions. In the mid 70s, four men on a camping trip in Maine claimed they had experienced a bizarre interaction with a UFO, including temporal fugue and amnesia. The episode presented recordings of the men made during hypnosis designed to recall repressed memories. Their somnambulist shrieks as they re-lived torture and experimentation at the hands of sinister aliens sent chills down my spine. Regardless of how speculative the situation seemed, their screams felt truly real. Since then, the validity of hypnotherapy processes such as these have been questioned, and one of the abductees has stated that the whole thing was a hoax.
While on holiday break a few years back, I was able to track down a digital copy of the Unsolved Mysteries complete series, and went on a total nostalgia binge/bender. All of the eerie feelings associated with the show came rushing back. Vague memories of horrific situations that had sunk deep into my subconscious became untethered. There’s something about the sensation of the uncanny that has always fascinated me, and I am sure that staring wide-eyed through episode after episode of Unsolved Mysteries helped inform this.
Not long ago, during a trip to the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library, I found a large-print copy of Whitley Strieber’s Communion sitting out on a reading table, as if left for me to find. The stereotypical alien face on the cover stared at me, beckoning. I sat down and read the book cover-to-cover. Throughout, I couldn’t stop wondering what I found more disturbing: the thought that these events actually happened, or that someone could believe that they actually happened.
Adrian Pijoan’s work situates itself in this ambiguity. I discovered Adrian through mutual connections in both Southern California and Northern Florida. His engagement with the unexplained in his practice isn’t drenched in self-aware irony, but he also doesn’t take himself too seriously. Simultaneously light-hearted and disturbing, Adrian’s work seems to be the perfect vessel of transference for the creepy tenor of Unsolved Mysteries. Working across mediums and paranormal subjects, Pijoan utilizes humor and sincerity to humanize the non-human, flipping the script on what we consider alien or unfit for genuine research, both artistic and otherwise.
I had the chance to ask Adrian a few questions about the origin of his current artistic focuses and inspirations. Subjects covered in the conversation include political debates over Bigfoot, shapeshifting reptilian overlords, ufology, flat Earth theory, and Pijoan’s new web series, Alien Hour.
– Barrett White
Barrett White: Where are you right now?
Adrian Pijoan: I just moved back to New Mexico. After grad school I moved out to California for a couple years, but the New Mexico vortex found a way to bring me back.
What began your interest in extraterrestrial life, and how did you find yourself beginning to make art focusing on this subject?
In 2013 I started the art and ecology MFA program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. At the time I was mostly making comics and zines about ecology and conservation, and thought that I would continue and expand that work in grad school. My first week in Albuquerque I met Andy Lyman, a local gallerist, artist, musician, and weirdo. I asked him if anything fun was happening in Albuquerque that weekend. He told me that while it wasn’t exactly fun, I should go with him to the monthly meeting of the New Mexico UFO and Paranormal Forum (NMUPF). I think I went to that first NMUPF meeting before I even had my grad student orientation meeting, so my plans for grad school were pretty much immediately
waylaid. Actually, that’s not entirely true — I tried to make what I perceived as more traditional art and ecology work during the first semester, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was much more excited about the UFO meetings. There were frequently over 100 people at NMUPF meetings, so it was clear that lots of people were seeing or excited about UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, secret moon bases, etc.
Basically I started going to UFO meetings in grad school, fell in love with the community and the stories, and thought it was the most interesting thing in the world to make art about. Later, because the paranormal experiences were almost always intimately tied to specific landscapes or locations, I felt like I could legitimately pursue it as a topic for my art and ecology MFA.
I’m wondering about the community that has coalesced around the NMUPF. Is it like a support group? Research group? Conspiracy theory forum? Could you describe a particular moment that solidified your involvement in these communities?
NMUPF is a very active group, and I haven’t encountered anything quite like it outside of New Mexico. They have regular meetings once a month, but have more recently started an abductee support group, and they’re also putting together a couple of conferences this fall. The monthly meetings usually involve a talk given by a single presenter, with a different topic every month. Some of the speakers relate their personal encounters with the paranormal, and others present research. I’m always more interested in hearing from people with personal experiences.
During that first fall in grad school, I went to my first Bigfoot conference. It was partially organized by NMUPF and took place up near the Four Corners region in the Navajo Nation. That conference featured a mixture of local and national Bigfoot researchers, and there were some pretty serious disagreements between the locals and the researchers from out of town. Many of the locals had experienced Bigfoot as a violent creature who was mutilating livestock and threatening people by tapping on bedroom windows in the middle of the night. The researchers from out of town insisted that Bigfoot was a friendly creature, and would never act like that. When I realized that people had deeply personal, lived experiences with the paranormal that go far beyond the kitschy pop culture ideas of these communities — that’s when I was really hooked. I first saw Scott Nelson, one of my absolute favorite paranormal researchers, at that conference. Scott is a linguist who developed a transcription system for Bigfoot language.
Adrian Pijoan, Abductee Hugging Pillow
Can you speak to the idea of performativity in your work?
While attending an alien abductee panel discussion at the NMUPF back in 2015, I realized that my childhood experiences with sleep paralysis might have been alien abductions. Several of the abductees told stories that sounded similar to my own experiences. There was another NMUPF member who specialized in regression hypnotherapy, and this had helped the abductees remember their experiences under hypnosis. From the beginning it was very important to me not to make work about specific people or stories I encountered at the UFO meetings because I didn’t want to expose them to criticism or ridicule. The realization that I might also be an alien abductee solved that problem. I could examine my own history and experiences, and not worry about putting another abductee in an uncomfortable position. I contacted the NMUPF hypnotherapist and underwent several lengthy hypnosis sessions at their house to find out whether or not I had been abducted by aliens. During one of these sessions I very suddenly and unexpectedly experienced intense memories of an alien abduction.
That experience led to a weird period where I couldn’t tell if the hypnotherapist had implanted these memories, or if I was making the whole thing up because I wanted to believe. Then, shortly before you contacted me, I found a notebook from fourth grade at my mom’s house. In it I’d written out my sleep paralysis / alien abduction experiences and then, afterwards, furiously crossed them out. For me that kind of validated everything. I still don’t know if I was really abducted by aliens, but I experienced something that really affected me as a kid. These experiences peaked in my late teens when I woke up in the middle
of the night and thought I saw a vision of my own corpse sprawled out above me. Later I realized that I had been looking down at myself from the ceiling and that I’d had an out of body experience.
I’m an artist, and not an anthropologist or journalist, so I don’t even have to pretend to be objective. Also there’s no standard methodology for paranormal research, so I perform a synthesis of investigative methods I’ve encountered in my research, and acts that I’ve come up with on my own.
More recently I’ve been funneling all of these experiences into a character, Dr. Howard. He’s a veterinarian turned paranormal talk show host. He’s a true believer. Dr. Howard has been to Area 51, telepathically communicated with Bigfoot, explored flat Earth theory, looked for the ghost in the machine, and lots more. Right now I perform as Dr. Howard through his YouTube talk show, Alien Hour, and writing on his website. I filmed five episodes of Alien Hour between 2013 and 2015. At the end of the final episode, Dr. Howard is abducted by aliens and disappeared. Dr. Howard reached out to me again in early 2018, and told me he wanted to come back and resurrect Alien Hour. Since then we’ve filmed eight episodes and have thirteen more currently in production.
In a lot of ways Dr. Howard is me — we share a lot of personality traits and some biographical details. As Alien Hour expands, I hope to explore performing other identities from within the paranormal community, especially ones that are very different from me. I’ve always had difficulty performing hypermasculine roles in my real life, so I’m intrigued by the idea of becoming, for example, a conservative gun nut Bigfoot hunter.
But I also plan to go beyond the human participants in the paranormal. What would it mean to live as Bigfoot, or as an Illuminati reptilian overlord? How would an alien astronaut experience the desert
landscape around Roswell after crashing their spaceship? I see these as both artistically interesting questions and legitimate forms of paranormal investigation.
There are other contemporary artists that have investigated UFOs, the paranormal, and arcane themes in their work. Mike Kelley’s aesthetics of “Ufology” come to mind. In 2016, I was mesmerized by the exhibition “Tony Oursler: The Imponderable Archive” at the Hessel Museum of Art. The galleries were filled with a maze of display cases presenting Oursler’s encyclopedic archive of all things weird. There were hundreds of photographs and other ephemera related to parapsychology, the occult, and the supernatural. It was pretty overwhelming. The obsessiveness embedded in the indexicality of these artifacts turned the gallery into a labyrinth. Seemingly random arrangements of material would link Satanism to el chupacabra, Zener cards to spirit photography…the whole exhibition was this giant network of the speculative. Are there any other artists working with these subjects, contemporary or otherwise, whose practices resonate with you?
I haven’t encountered many artists working with these subjects in the way that I’m working with them. Usually it’s either a more clinical, removed approach, or a purely ironic one. People get interested in the subject matter, but don’t try to experience it for themselves. One exception is Desirée Holman, whose work I respect a lot. I’m mostly influenced by other artists who are living out personas and possibilities. Artists like Maya Ben David who personifies objects and concepts, Guadalupe Maravilla with their different performance personas, and Michael Smith’s Baby Ikki.
Back when I was a freshman studying botany and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin — completely unsure of what I wanted from life — I would attend all of these art events without any idea what they were. In retrospect it makes a lot of sense, but at the time it was a weird thing to do, and I could never convince any of my friends to come with me. Anyway, I had the privilege of seeing both Shana Moulton and John Kilduff perform live through a student organization called Starlight Cinema. Both of them made deep impressions on my 19-year-old brain, and continue to be two of the biggest influences on my work to this day. Sometimes I think that my current project, Alien Hour, is a synthesis of Whispering Pines and Let’s Paint TV that has been simmering on the back burner of my brain for a decade now. A couple years ago, I got to hang out with John as part of his Art Basil project. Sitting there sipping brandy in his beautiful backyard in Van Nuys, I really felt like I finally knew what I was doing with my life.
I saw Mike Kelley’s “Kandors” at Hauser and Wirth Los Angeles last year, and that show really resonated with me. The way that he synthesized research into Superman’s world with his own attempts at constructing and living out that utopia felt a lot like what I’m trying to do.
Adrian Pijoan, Abductee Sleeping Bag
You also focus on cryptid life in your art and research. Can you speak a little more about your interest in other subjects like Bigfoot?
in 2017, I attended the three-day International Bigfoot Conference in Kennewick, WA and produced an art book Gone Squatchin’ about my experiences. To sum the book up, my experiences were life-changing. Before the conference I only had a casual interest in Bigfoot, but spending 72 hours in a hotel full of believers was a transcendental experience. There was an energy that everyone at the conference shared — an almost religious fervor. That conference also showed me that Bigfoot acts as a common ground for people all over the political spectrum.
I love Bigfoot culture, with its mixture of camping aesthetics, amateur wildlife biology, and storytelling. It makes me feel like I’m a kid again, out in the forest listening to stories around a campfire. It has a regional feeling too, with every area inhabited by a different Bigfoot creature. At the time I was living in the desert in Southern California, and even out in that harsh and very much unforested landscape there’s a Bigfoot — the Borrego Sandman.
My belief in Bigfoot definitely exists on a spectrum. Some days I’m 100% sure Bigfoot exists and other days I can watch the Patterson-Gimlin film — the classic footage of Bigfoot walking through the woods — and be 100% certain that what I’m watching is a guy in a suit. A lot of it has to do with how recently I’ve
been to a Bigfoot event. It’s like how cults don’t let their members communicate with the outside world — proximity fosters belief.
As for other cryptids I’m really hoping to make it to the Mothman Festival and Loch Ness in the next few years.
Bigfoot acting as some sort of intermediary between opposing worldviews is fascinating. There are many convoluted, overlapping political valences when it comes to conspiracy and cryptozoology. I’m thinking of flat Earth theory, which you mentioned earlier, but also the deep state/global elite, CIA mind control, death camp bunkers, and the government cover-up of extraterrestrial contact. There are all of these complex, interwoven, at times oppositional logics at play. How do you engage with these sort of thematic arenas in your work?
The culture of ufology specifically has changed over the decades. Its origins in the 1940s and 50s were much more utopian. The traumatic abduction and government coverup narratives began in the 70s and were later made mainstream by media like the X-Files in the 90s. The number of UFO sightings tends to ramp up during politically turbulent times. I’ve seen heated arguments about the nature of extraterrestrials and Bigfoot, about whether these beings are benevolent, benign, or malicious.
Last February I was invited to look for UFOs as a residency with Tokio Galería in Lima, Peru. While there, I encountered a completely different perspective on UFOs. Many of the people I talked to described UFOs as a part of nature, and are organic and freeform — a contrast with the sightings of sharp-edged, military-style craft that are frequently reported in the US. I heard accounts of UFOs emerging from the
ocean. A Peruvian UFO researcher told me that he believes that they are intraterrestrials that come from the center of the Earth, not extraterrestrials from space.
I remain interested in the paranormal as a subject because of this richness. Initially it can sound like a narrow or hokey subject, but it encompasses so many subjects — politics, history, spirituality, psychology, hopes, fears, and humanity’s search for meaning.
There’s a synthesis of these ideas I’m really interested in right now. Conspiracy theorist David Icke presents a vision of the human-reptoid utopia. Reptilians are usually thought of as malicious shapeshifting aliens from either another planet or another dimension. Many conspiracy theorists believe that these beings are in control of politics, the economy, etc. Icke’s theory has moved to a place where he believes we can’t win a fight against the reptilians. Instead we should focus our efforts on the idea that humans and reptilians are all part of the same unified energy field, and that we need to join them in multidimensional love. Obviously there are some politically problematic aspects to this idea in action in the real world. But the synthesis of earlier, utopian UFO theory and a more contemporary fascination with dystopia really excites me. Beyond Alien Hour I think my next body of work will focus on these ideas.
I was reading something the other day about conspiracy theories, and it identified some of these thought-spaces as a “terra incognita” between 60s anti-establishment counterculture and elements of the radical right. Both sides think “the government is controlling us!” or “the government is keeping the truth from us!” The pervading, unifying factor here seems to be the unknown, and the fears that come with it. What are your strategies, both in your practice and your research, for dealing with the fear of the unknown, especially in our current cultural and political climate?
For my show Holographic I juxtaposed shiny, but toxic epoxy sculptures with depictions of bodies in various state of dissection made from pillows, fleece, and other materials associated with comfort. A lot of these notions came from Mike Kelley’s observation that ufology combines high-tech fetishism in the form of the UFOs with body horror in the form of the monsters that inhabit the UFOs. At the time I imagined this as an ecological statement about our fascination with shiny new technology and our deliberate ignorance of the horrors of its production.
Ufology, cryptozoology, conspiracy culture — all of these worlds are dripping in symbolism that has preoccupied humanity for ages. Jung wrote that during times of political strife we look to the heavens for answers. He believed that visions of circular UFO forms expressed a collective yearning for unity and wholeness. I recently heard an abductee tell a story about a UFO shaped like a giant egg land in his backyard. From a psychological perspective maybe this is why UFO culture appeals to people on the extreme ends of the political spectrum.
My dad immigrated to the US as an adult, so I’m keenly aware of connotations of alien beyond the extraterrestrial. For now my interest in working too directly with those ideas in my art is low, though Dr. Howard has done a number of performances now about embracing (sometimes literally) the alien. I hope that the imagery I use can operate at a subconscious level. Dr. Howard will try his best to blur lines between the factions that exist within paranormal and conspiracy communities.
I recently made some preliminary social media posts about my visions of the human-reptoid utopia, and those posts received surprisingly strong and mixed responses. I post a lot of weird stuff so it’s interesting when something hits a nerve. Some people were excited and some obviously felt threatened by the idea. Shapeshifting reptilian overlords exist in both left and right wing conspiracy theories, so if we want to build a new utopia with these beings we’ll all have to take off together in the unified mandala UFO.
Adrian Pijoan transmits his work from somewhere out in the desert of the American Southwest. Sightings of Adrian have been reported at UFO festivals, Bigfoot research conferences, and in the dark recesses of the comments sections of low view count YouTube videos. Through his work Adrian explores the paranormal landscapes of both real world and digital places.
Adrian received his MFA in Art and Ecology at the University of New Mexico. His work has been shown at SCA Contemporary in Albuquerque, New Mexico, SITE Santa Fe, CCA Santa Fe, Szara Kamienica Gallery in Krakow, Poland, Tokio Galería in Lima, Peru, Bikini Wax Gallery in Mexico City, Mexico, as part of the International Symposium of Electronic Arts in Vancouver, Canada, and in other traditional and nontraditional spaces.
Barrett White is an editor for Tagvverk. His writings on contemporary art have appeared in Fanzine, Full Stop, Document Journal, and elsewhere.