PUT YOURSELF ON THE ALTAR
A conversation with Siolo Thompson and Nathan Langston of Psychopomp Projects on battling softness, the cost of making big art, and chasing white rabbits.
by Amanda Manitach
Saturday, February 11, 2023
It’s 6pm on the nose. An Instagrammable fireball sunset has just taken a bow as I slip through the door of the Hideout into the warm, boozy womb of Seattle’s iconic art bar. Lush, big-bodied jazz tunes flood the dimly lit jewel box, and I’m immediately warmed to the marrow.
Today a new configuration of art has just been installed. The shimmering of freshly dried shellac glints off the surface of new paintings. Some old friends—beloved pieces from the Hideout’s permanent collection—remain peppered throughout. As I crane my neck to take in the new arrangement, I’m reminded of this rule of feng shui: that if the energy of a room feels stuck or stuffy, one should rearrange exactly 27 things. Touch them, shuffle them, dust ‘em off. It freshens the juju.
This spirit of benevolent disruption sets the stage for my art chat. I slide into a seat next to Siolo Thompson and Nathan Langston. Thompson I know well: she’s a pillar of the art scene, self-described “author, illustrator, pirate, witch.” I’m not sure about the pirate part, but her artistic output is consistently prodigious, brimming with feverish curiosity and a contagious lust for…everything. Thompson is notable for the rate at which she executes her visions: her best-selling books and decks of tarot cards and oracles are stocked in shops across the globe. Her fancies are manifested with seeming ease. Langston, seated across the table from Thompson, is a new face to me. Polymathic to the hilt, speaking with a luxurious, exaggerated southern drawl, Langston has lived many lives as a classically trained violinist, composer, indie rocker, data architect, and cyber security analyst. Though the two only recently met, their twin flame juju sparked its own fireball: For the past six months they’ve been producing a series of not-insignificant art events under the name Psychopomp Projects.
In Greek mythology, a psychopomp serves as spirit guide through the world of dreams (sometimes through the darker underworld). To date, their events have ranged from staging the immersive performance “Dance Is Cringe” by Boise-based company LED, facilitating production of a synthpop/chamber music-infused EP by Vibrant Mortals, and hosting a hyper-intimate (8 person), hyper-sensory book reading-cum-tea party featuring Oakland-based author and musician Nick Jaina.
It’s fitting that the Psychopomp logo is simply the visage of a somewhat menacing, if encircling, white rabbit. For the moment at least, Psychopomp seems like a train that won’t stop.
I swirl a square of ice in my Negroni as I kick things off, the ruby of the Campari bleeds beautifully into the gin. Thompson’s drink of choice is whiskey, always. Langston sips a pint of effervescent beer.
AM: I hear you met during a literal game of telephone? You didn’t know about each other at all before this?
ST: Nope. I really got sucked into TELEPHONE. I don’t even know who invited me in the first place! I know that I, in turn, invited a bunch of artists from Scotland…
AM: Describe to me how exactly the game works?
NL: Well, this was the second game of TELEPHONE. The first iteration came about when I was living in New York, in 2015. Up to then I had lived my entire life in Portland, Oregon.
AM: Um, I was gonna say…where’s your accent from? [Laughter from both.]
NL: Most of its fake. Some of it I get from my dad, and it got cemented when I toured through the South. But it’s totally fucking fake.
ST: It gets more pronounced the more you drink. But then you also go into Bard Mode. He does the itinerant poet bit.
NL: There’s some multiple personalities in here. When I moved to New York in 2009 I knew nobody. I just felt fucking lost. I had just got married, moved to New York three days later. We thought we’d be there for two years; that turned to 10. TELEPHONE was a strategy to meet people.
AM: Selfish, I like it!
NL: It worked! The first version was analogue, which didn’t work so well. Like, I’d be riding the subway with a painting under one arm, to drop it off at a poet’s apartment in Brooklyn somewhere. Then return to collect the painting in a week or so. The logistics were totally unfeasible, so slow, and if folks dropped out, it was sheer chaos. There were only around 350 artists involved.
AM: Um, that’s still…a lot. Also, it was notable enough it got written up in the New York Times.
NL: Well, I felt very much the same way during the pandemic. I just really missed people. The second game of TELEPHONE [www.phonebook.gallery] involved around a thousand artists, from 472 cities in 73 countries. Siolo’s contributions were particularly interesting because they were drawings about dance.
ST: I was super into books of choreography at the moment and really interested in, like, how do you document movement? So, I made a drawing that did just that. And then someone danced my poem, and from there it was passed on to a composer who wrote music to it. It went from poem to a drawing to actual movement to music.
AM: I can see how this vibe of cross-pollination feeds into the energy of Psychopomp: the events are really mixing up art forms. It’s a mashup of curating, publishing, making space, conducting. You’re kind of playing host of a conceptually borderless salon.
ST: “Salon” is a word that keeps coming up for us. It is very much about making connections. This past summer was a huge inspiration for me: the city was so alive! I volunteered and helped with Forest For The Trees a bunch. To see that whole building activated—it gave me a serious feeling of like, ok, we’re all right.
NL: That’s something we had in common when we first met: we both had our own beef with Seattle, for different reasons.
AM: Everyone in Seattle does!
NL: As with so many of the cities I’ve been in—New York, Portland, wherever—a lot of the dialogue centers around, this city is shit, it used to be so great, getting worse and worse and worse. Not saying that isn’t legitimate, but how does that help us out? We can keep moving to the next town and continue the cycle of gentrification, but the only reason any of these places were cool in the first place was that people just decided to do cool stuff. I feel like I get that a lot from Siolo. You commit to something, and you just do it.
ST: I guess that’s partly because I’ve lived in a lot of places. I've been spending a lot of time in Italy, and in Rome nothing ever closes. For 24 hours a day the most wonderful, dumb stuff is happening—always another poetry reading, performance, party around the next corner.
NL: All cities must go in cycles though…like, Rome must have taken a pause under Mussolini?
ST: No, I think it was even more so [energized] during that time. Seriously, I think part of why Berlin, Paris all these places that have had fascist governments are so activated is because people have had to be. I think Seattle has a problem with being soft. Too much money, life is too soft, the climate is too soft, there’s no long winters. You don’t need things the way you need things when you have a fascist government. In South America, I grew up seeing bodies hanging from lamp posts in the street under Fujimori’s regime. In Lima, it’s a horrible place always plagued with menace, but it is so alive.
NL: When you think about what made all the great cities great in the good ol’ days—Paris in the ‘20s, New York ‘60s and ‘70s—what made the cities great was that all those different art forms were smushing up together.
ST: And that tension is refreshing.
NL: Not just in Seattle, but in most cities these days the various art scenes are very siloed. It’s not just that having all the art forms and artists together in the same space makes for the best party. If a problem exists in one art form that’s making it slow, making it boring—usually that problem has already been “solved” over in the arena of some other art form. If they’re not talking to each other, things languish. So smush them together!
AM: How does your background in cyber security and data play into all this, beyond allowing you to build a platform for games like TELEPHONE?
NL: I’d like to say there’s some kind of design or intention behind any career path of my life, but it’s more that I’m like a leaf being blown around by the wind. Things just happen, and I have no inkling, other than everything is connected.
AM: I love the energy of no one else is doing something…why the fuck not us? How do you approach financing all this? You talk about each other as business partners…
ST: Well, right now we aren’t making money. Frankly I’m low-key bleeding money out my eyes, and there isn’t an infinite well of funds.
AM: I appreciate that, because folks don’t always want to get into the inglorious magic of how the sausage is made.
ST: Yes, and I think it’s important to be transparent. Of course [bleeding money out the eyes] is not our end goal. I’ve been in phases of life where I didn’t have to worry about money, or I’ve been supported a bunch. That’s not the case now, but I’m an eternal hustler and I’m hustling to make all this work.
AM: To support the project, you’re ticketing all events?
ST: Yes, and we are selling shows out, but all the money goes to the venues and artists—that’s our priority right now and always will be.
NL: We do plan on doing more commercial projects going forward. From the start, getting everybody paid right is top priority. I spent all my time in New York stressing about how to scrape together money. I never stuck with one art form long enough to make a viable career of it. Now that I’m in tech, all I want to spend my money on is art. Don’t care about the Teslas, the toys, the clothes, I just wanna do cool shows and give money to people who are doing good work, good medicinal social artwork.
AM: You are the Seattle dream.
NL: It’s a hard thing, grappling with the fact that Seattle is financially positioned to be one of the best art cities in the world…
ST: We talk about this all the time! How to bring tech money into the arts.
AM: This is the Seattle Conversation.
NL: I think this [Psychopomp] is how we do it. You learn to create something of benefit that can operate and manage to sustain even at a loss. I mean, the New York ballet operates at a loss. Many nonprofits and organizations do. If we do something that is sweaty and holy and incredible—if I or we can afford to drop one or two thousand dollars out of our pockets, if we can shoulder that—that’s money well spent. And why the fuck not.
AM: It’s inspiring, and hopefully catalyzing. It’s not every day you encounter folks literally putting their money where their mouth is.
ST: Don’t ask where is the art, just do the art! Just make it. Have the space, do the thing. The thing is: you can buy the labor, or you can do the labor. You burn hard, you burn out. You go through cycles because you have a finite amount of resources. You can only put yourself on the altar so many times, then you have to take a break. That’s the upside to not developing a fully commercial model—you can write your own schedule, your own reality. You don’t have to answer to anyone. I just want to do weird shit, and I am willing to put myself on the altar for that. I want to lose money on stuff that makes my heartbeat.
AM: We chose this life.
ST: I do worry about us in old age. [Laughing]
AM: We’ll have to all move in together. You’ll be our mother.
ST: I’ll be your mother. I bring the big mother energy.
AM: Wait, what’s your sign?
ST: I’m a triple Sagittarius fire dragon! [Cackling]
AM: Of course you are!
ST: The only thing that calms me down is taking a swim. I just have to be in the water all the time….
For More on Psychopomp Projects visit www.psychopompprojects.com