Although the Summoners' only dispatch promised to spare him should their demands be met, by the time they remove my blindfold in a secret underground barracks, my boss, Louis Black, is dead. Soon, his head will be rendered with Omnichum, launched into orbit as bait for the Beast.
I'm shaken, trying to buy a little time. Tell me about the Beast, I say to the leader, War Elephant, when I'm finally allowed to sit down. I'm engulfed in a darkness almost as deep as when I couldn't see: The only light comes from a couple of candles and a screen 17 inches, maybe, tops looping images of Black, his smiling face bloodied, his body burning in effigy. At this point, I can only pray it's an intimidation tactic.
"The Beast?" War Elephant answers my question with a question. The three other Summoners present and accountable shift uncomfortably. "Well, tell me what you know of the Beast."
I grope for passages from their propaganda: That he I think it's a he will at some point subsume part of our existence, if not all of it. That he's a leviathan's leviathan.
"To say the least." War Elephant pauses for a beat, smug, but considering his words carefully. "The Beast, literally, is the largest creature in the universe. He's about the size of a star. Not a white dwarf; not a red giant, either. Like the size of our sun. He eats planets.
"For a planet as technologically limited as ours, we have not yet mastered the art of wormhole travel, so, until then, our only means of getting to higher levels of the Omniverse is through the Omnibeast. And it is prophecized that if our planet is consumed by the Beast, we will be transported to another level of the Omniverse, and, to do that, the whole world needs to be in one joyous voice calling to the Beast. But that's not happening, so wars are being fought, and people are dying, and we're having to kill."
Is he a vision? Is he religion? Science and math? Art? Does he come in peace?
"He's benevolent," War Elephant says, "yes. He's a living thing. Ultimately, he comes down to simple things, and that is hunger. But hunger for what? That's what we're trying to find out: What does he eat and why? Right now we think he eats frenzied passion. That's why we'll go to any means to achieve that. Many people have been lost."
I wonder out loud at the phrase "frenzied passion."
"Frenzied passion," repeats Karl Sapien, crouching to my left. "Well, we did kill Louis Black."
"Yeah," War Elephant says. "He's dead. He represents the enemy. He represents the subdued nature of passion, when it becomes a ticking clock rather than a roaring lion, almost. So, we had to kill him, but he's back. He's a clone, we think. But we'll kill him again. It's gonna have to be done, and we'll keep doing it."
He points to the screen. "The person who did this is on another assignment. I think he's doing something with John Pierson, scouting him out and trying to figure out the best means of attack. These people represent the Ziggurnaut Army. It's an upper crust. They use technology and brute force to bring the Omnibeast here, which is against the code of the Omnibook as we know it."
There are wires draped and tangled throughout the area, video-game controllers piled up against a stone wall. The Summoners say that gaming savvy is but one criterion in recruitment; it's far more valuable as a rough indicator of one's age and new literacy, themselves crucial factors.
"That's something that we've been born with," War Elephant says. "People 20 years older can't actively engage. And, now, I'm afraid when we get older, we won't be able to actively watch six TV screens at the same time and put it all together in a huge mess of information and cognitively be able to understand it. That's why I've always said that I'd be more than happy to give up my body and be fully digitized in order to go on living.
It's not simplistic to say the Summoners favor the young, yet Magic Johnson, for instance, makes the cut among the 1 million. "Magic Johnson is kind of an anomaly in that he's one of the first to discover the Beast," War Elephant says. "Yeah, he's 50, but he lives like a kid, and we all know it."
On the monitor now are cinematic battle scenes that will be "greenbeamed" and "Triforce!-projected" onto three discrete but interdependent surfaces during a climactic gathering next week.
"The three projections represent the mystic pyramid by which the Omnibeast will descend to the Earth and consume it," says Summoner Mark P. Hensile. "Greenbeams are portals into the mystic-digital realm."
As such, for the layman, it's hard to fathom what differentiates the Summoners' technologies from the Ziggurnauts'.
"Well, theirs are electronic and ours are magic," says War Elephant matter of factly. "Lately, we've been having to succumb to some electronic temptations, such as in sort of these propaganda videos, which we can only hope in the end will be forgiven. Look, we'll be explaining one of the classic stories in the Omnibook using live performers, music, hooting and hollering, chanting, and more. We fear that the Ziggurnauts may make a surprise assault on us that night, but we'll have our army there, hopefully, if we can muster them all."
"That's why, hopefully, there'll be at least 10 people there," says David Salinas in what seems like the same instant but what must be a moment or two later. He's a 21-year-old student wearing an animal pelt, large earrings, and frames without lenses. He's clutching a staff; a plastic white horse is fastened to its head with yarn that he continually fiddles with. He's War Elephant. "If we're lucky, 15. Start small to get big."
He's discussing a performance that he, Lanneau White, and a group of friends will be putting on as part of Cinematexas' Eye+Ear program (see schedule, p.60). It will include three projectors and their corresponding screens, music, and theatre.
"The collaborative nature of the movie makes it harder to preach to one specific audience," says Dan, another would-be Summoner. "That's the strength of it."
Alas, those seeking actual Armageddon will be disappointed, unless experimental video art at its most narrative should happen to restore their faith in humanity while simultaneously floating their boat.
"It doesn't matter if they get the specifics of the Omnibeast mythology, but I think people are able to put together images and put together multiple things going on and comprehend something of their own," Salinas says. "It matters to me that they leave confused but in some way inspired that people who spent $40 on green poster board were able to make a movie."
Salinas and White, aka Karl Sapien, met as freshmen in the University of Texas' Jester Hall. According to the former, they "admired each other's energy and spirit before we knew what each other actually did," which was radio-television-film and art, respectively.
In conversation, they complement each other: Salinas talks nonstop if only to compensate for White's reticence; White radiates a quiet confidence, while Salinas is charming and articulate enough to outwardly stay one step ahead of his insecurities.
Both are pretty obviously brilliant undergrads, funny, curious, and capable. They make a great team, even if I'm not sure quite what to make of what they're doing. When I floated the idea of interviewing them to another writer, he demurred. "I would," he said, "if I didn't think I'd strangle them first."
But they're not as bad as all of that, even after making me meet a "scout" at BookPeople, blindfolding me, and driving me to a secret location before consenting to an interview. Until then having only exchanged e-mails with the group, I nonetheless experienced pure fear just once during my transport, when I was led, stumbling, up a hill and into the sound of highway traffic.
Here, then, is what they are: Not on acid.
Really excited about the rumor of Yoko Ono as a surprise guest at Cinematexas.
A little bit precious and possibly unhinged, disillusioned young men with elevated but hardly unprecedented anxieties who happened to be sophomores in high school on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a moment that for kids reared amid societal explosions one after another in information technology, mainly, but also in options of every kind must have had catastrophic effects on their already fragile worldviews just as they were starting to click. The wounds are still open, uncauterized by media insistent on doing so. Certain gaps have not been closed.
They're stunted, angry, afraid. They like sci-fi, video games, and to smoke pot in the basement while playing dress-up.
They also feel abandoned, I think, by a creative class that doesn't have time for them to catch up. In assuming the performative identities of Summoners and cloaking their generation's cultural overload and imbalance in the metaphor of the Omnibeast, Salinas, White, and associates are protecting not only themselves from a meaningless existence amid so much passive consumption, but their art from meaning itself. In some sense, they're buying time, too.
In Austin, they're looking around a city that expects them as young, talented artists to flourish, and finding what they believe to be shortsighted elitism whose scope is in the self-interested hands of a few.
They're willing to admit that they might be wrong, but in waging a guerilla war of the language of images, their own interests are less aesthetic than egalitarian, less Whitney Biennial than whatever.
"Let me take my glasses off," laughs War Elephant, becoming more candid, sort of, as Salinas regarding himself and his friends. "The Summoners are just as bad as the Ziggurnauts. The Summoners are terrorists, willing to do anything to gain a voice, and then to make videos about it. We feel we're being denied a voice, though clearly there are classes far worse off than us. Still, who speaks for us? We are now forced to live under this South by Southwest, Austin Chronicle, Cinematexas, ACL Fest halo that we want nothing to do with, because it has nothing to do with what makes a city strong or with what makes a city a city or what makes a people healthy."
He puts the frames back on.
"So, glasses on, yes. We will kill them if we have to. There will be no mercy for the Ziggurnauts. And we will force the people who remain into the mouth of the Beast, whether they like it or not, because we know what's best for the people. We know what they need."
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