Jason Martin was first visited by the creatures when he was 5 or 6 years old. They came in dreams and waking visions but never spoke to him with words. He knew enough not to be afraid of them when they arrived—wolves, dogs and wild cats, hybridized with human bodies—but he couldn’t escape them either. It felt like they had chosen him or he had somehow unconsciously accessed them, these denizens of another realm, perhaps outer space, grappling with one another and performing sacred rites to unlock esoteric energy systems. Around age 7, Martin started to draw the recurrent characters because their presence was so intense and insistent and because he lacked any other frame of reference to understand their symbols, patterns, urges and suggestions. Whether or not he decided to, he became a conduit for their unstated mission, a portal for them to manifest into the third dimension.
Now, on the cusp of 40, Martin is visited less by the Power Animal Systems but that’s only because his life and art work have become inseperable from their will. “Sometimes I don’t want to do it,” he says of the project that has taken the form of zines, rock bands, performance and video art, “but I have to do it. They force me to make time for them.” Even out of costume, Martin cuts a wolfish figure, balding and bearded, not unlike a mid-1960s Allen Ginseberg. In costume, he’s a “sexy spacewolf warrior,” grappling with his collaborators in a slow-motion, archetypal wrestling match wherever gallery curators and touring musicians will have them. Before she cancelled her spring tour, Lady Gaga had the group booked as part of her opening act, an opportunity for the project to access its largest audience yet. So, it’s not as if these liminal entities are exactly coercing Martin to do their bidding. “Part of it is me connecting to this larger thing that I don’t fully understand,” he says, “and I get unsatisfied when it’s not expressed.” So, it’s a collaboration across both sides of the beyond in what might be the classical artist-muse relationship.
You know, a win-win.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s not just the cosmic mind rays beaming out of this page and into your skull. Jason Martin is no stranger to the Capital Region or to these pages, although he’s only relocated to Troy in the past couple years. Having grown up in Niskayuna, Martin was a staple of the DIY/punk/freak/art scene of the late ’90s and his YouTube channel hasn’t spared us any documentation. With his band, Brown Cuts Neighbors, he walked the fine line between noise and pop, entertainer and provocateur, performing surrealist acts on public access TV, delivering spoken-word theatrical pieces at LarkFest, backing his sister, the performance artist Lady Starlight (more on this later) and even organizing an exorcism of the Empire State Plaza on July 4, 1993. Through much of the last decade, he ran 51 3rd Street, the multi-purpose Troy space that remains a bastion of underground oddity.
The first kernal of what is now Power Animal Systems began in 2005 with Evolution Revolution, first a zine and then a rock band that Martin used to unload and process what these creatures had been teaching him since he was a child. The zine included illustrations, mythologies and historical information, a sort of blueprint for his later time-based work. The band of the same name found Martin performing in a wolf mask, singing songs about the characters and attempting to tie the whole thing up in one big stage show. If the zine was a jubilant outing of material that Martin had been hiding all those years, an expression of something so secret and sacred that he’d even sought counseling to ensure it wasn’t some cover for unprocessed pyschic baggage, the band was overly ambitious and “freaked a lot of people out.”
“It spoke to a lot of young people,” Martin says. “People inclined toward alternative lifestyle or ‘queerness’ got it right away. But a lot of people thought it was just a stage gimmick.” Martin doesn’t lament this fact and still appreciates a strong reaction to his work over a neutral one, but this first attempt to bring the animals to the stage proved a couple things. First, that the performance art coupled with the music was simply too much to stuff into one package. Secondly, that audiences often mistakenly conflate absurdity with irony. With the current Power Animal Systems show, he says “Sometimes I laugh at my own pieces because they’re absurd and I love absurdity. But the work we’re doing is completely unironic, super honest and vulnerable. Absurdity is playful. It can be serious and it can make you laugh.” People who react negatively to the show, he says, do so because they think the act is a put-on. To be serious about adults dressed in silver Lycra and animal masks, rolling around on the floor of a rock club like an anthropomorphic Barbarella, can make an unsuspecting audience member feel uncomfortable—in fact, it probably should. But only so long as they resist the spectacle or attempt to immediately classify the experience.
On account of this tension and other “real-world” reasons pretaining to teaching qualifications and such, Martin moved to New York City to get a studio art degree from New York University. It was in this time that he began to hatch Power Animal Systems in its current formation. Approaching the work through the lens of photography and video work, he began to fine-tune the symbolism and movement of each character, drawing on principles of sacred geometry and alignment. After all, he’d known from a young age that the characters themselves weren’t solid personalities (they have no names) so much as embodied energies and dynamics that can be inhabited and reconfigured. “Everytime I put on one of these costumes, it’s not zentai, it’s not cosplay, it’s not furry, it’s not role playing,” he says. “It’s channeling entities. They’re real as individuals but also representations of all this encoded information, only a small percentage of which I understand.”
And he’s not the only one doing the channeling. In its present form, Power Animal Systems is a three-person act with his partners Heather Brown and Jessie Pellerin. The whole thing is meant to work on a prelinguistic level, so very little is scripted but there are rules to the ritual meant to “open certain gates.” The performers know it’s working if, Martin says, “[the performers] experience a loss of self and a loss of time immediately upon putting on the costumes and getting in the mindset.” As the triadic power dynamic plays out, the performers hold poses for long periods of time, a freeze-frame style that translates well from the stage to video and photography. Sometimes the space in which they wrestle is modeled on certain shapes of occult power, but this isn’t the only reason the work can be thought of as archetypal. Martin says that while his relationship to the creatures is expressed through his experience, he’s not the only one they communicate with. “It’s something out there that has happened and has been expressed in many other ways in many other cultures.”
In the coming months, Power Animal Systems will premiere a half-hour ritual performance, first at AS220 in Providence, R.I., and then at New York’s Gershwin Hotel alongside Bibbe Hanson (mother of Beck). The piece is meant to work like a séance, “to transform the energy in the room enough to call these beasts forth.” Yet, even as the fine art world is coming to embrace the project, Martin says the work often still resonates with a younger audience who will approach him after a show looking for a “scene” that doesn’t yet exist. This is, perhaps, why the prospect of Power Animal Systems touring with Lady Gaga makes a fair amount of sense.
Martin’s sister, Colleen, is the performance artist Lady Starlight, an early collaborator with Lady Gaga and regular opening act for her tours. While Gaga has become one of the most succesful pop stars of her generation, it’s both despite and because of an interest in more provocative performance art. Martin says Gaga has long used her opening acts (including the Darkness) to contextualize her work and “provide more of an art setup to her show.” The opener is meant to tenderize her audience’s expectations so that Gaga can slip in some rather sophisticated art references and elements. Power Animal Systems were slated to perform in the closing section of Lady Starlight’s set, an act that included a duet with his sister and eventually would dissolve into improvised noise.
“A lot of her fans are very young,” Martin says, “and if they’re at a Gaga show, they’re already partway there.” There’s no word yet as to whether Lady Gaga will reschedule her tour following hip surgery but Martin expects his material to go over well with Gaga’s audience if he gets another chance. “This is what they have in pop culture that’s weird and pulling them in. Younger people might not get it but are ready for it, open to it and want to talk about it. It can only have a positive net effect.”
In the meantime, Martin has never stopped making music. This fall he dashed off three forthcoming releases with the Jason Martin Electrical Band, a collaboration with Pellerin and Troy Pohl that Martin describes as “pop propaganda” for Power Animal Systems, crafted in his South Troy basement studio. This and his work teaching video at UAlbany and with the Schenectady Boys and Girls Club give him an outlet in which Spandex is only optional—but it doesn’t seem like it will ever eclipse his work with the creatures. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that,” he says of where the creatures want him to take their project, even though he says, “It terrifies the hell out of me” everytime he has to put the costume on. It seems like he’s spent enough time in their skin such that the action is automatic and there’s no real option to stop. “I just do it,” he says, “work on these creatures’ message and help them come into the third dimension through me.”