Margaret Haines

"I was in love with being a girl."

Interview by Fiona Duncan
Portrait by Paul Marcus Rodriguez

Silk tank from X-Filles lookbook, 2014

Margaret Haines is a Canadian artist with a serious knowledge of astrology, pop girlhood, and off-center LA artists. She has spent the better part of the last seven years in LA, and it shows — even when not there, she moves as if in its air, kinda floating. Haines recently completed a 45 minute long art film, Coco. Named after its protagonist, who’s played by four different actors (among them, three-year-old Coco Urban and horror movie star Maria Olsen), Coco is a sublime bildungsroman set in “girl world,” that pop imaginary space where glitter and heart emojis tumble like PMS tears onto Justin Bieber’s young, pleading gaze. Coco first screened at the ltd gallery in LA in early August. Then, at Anthology Film Archives in New York in late September. This interview was conducted in between the two, in late August, Virgo season.

What were you like as a kid? Did you live in “girl world” as the characters in your movie do?
I was in love with being a girl. It was an almost erotic girlhood. I think Coco also demonstrated that space, and I identified. When I encountered the adult world, I became more self-conscious of girlhood, of the power it had over adults. From kindergarten until age twenty-two, I sublimated my femininity into a kind of strapped conventional neutrality.
What was it about kindergarten and the adult world that made you sublimate?
I think institutions thrive to an extent on fear, that they’re needed to provide some order. From an early age, you’re taught that you need certain things to happen within that space in order for you to be, like, functional. Even when you’re five, you’re told that. I also think there’s something about encountering adults and the idea that predators were out there... I just remember being totally afraid of aliens and Jesus and men.

Coco at age 7, still from COCO, 2014

Ha. How did you cast Coco?
Coco is an interesting cast in that it was never this kind of, like, Peggy Ahwesh or Nan Goldin thing, not to deride that, but it was very much about casting proper. From day one, I was babysitting Coco for her to be in the film, as a trade with her mother, Hope, who is also in the film. It was this manufactured and transactional relationship that would also allow her to hopefully feel comfortable with me and the project. But then of course it grew into a real, non-manufactured relationship.
How old was she when you first met her?
Coco was three. She’s eight now.
Wow. So that’s a five year span from when you met her.

Um, yeah. Shooting was four years. The images at the beginning and ending of the film are Coco and all of the actresses basically four years after the initial shoot. I should stress that Coco is a character, and that four different actresses play that character, of which Coco, the girl I babysat, is one. Even though she is the namesake.

Still from COCO, 2014

It’s interesting that you opted not to use professional actors when you’re in LA and you have access to so many professional actors, kid actors.
I feel like part of casting children was to not have that self-conscious actorly attitude you see in a lot of film. I wanted to be really careful about how I approached that particular veneer. Maria Olsen is a professional, though. She’s in a bunch of horror films, like Paranormal Activity 3. She’s constantly shooting. She is a method actress, too, and I was into the idea of someone sourcing from childhood or earlier memories in order to perform, like a cousin space with the kids in the film. Maria is interesting because she writes about what it means to be constantly portrayed as either a victim or a monster because of her age and how she looks and so forth. It’s something she capitalizes on but has a very conscious relationship to. She goes to like Comic-Con all the time too. I think that’s it. Comic… whatever that comic thing is.
Comic-Con. Does she do it as a fan or because she’s attached to project?
I have a blind spot to some music and pop culture stuff, so I don’t know. She could be super-famous and I wouldn’t… I don’t think she’s super-famous but she could be, like, more famous and I might not know what’s going on.

Still from COCO, 2014

The writing that stuck with me most from the film was that early speech Maria delivers about Saturn being in her sign.
That comes from a few things. First, I was into Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons. There was something desperate and victorious about Elvira that spoke to the character I wanted Coco to be. I was also into how a specific appointment of time provides for a dramatic and delineated period of trauma and unrest. Like, it’s begun and then it’s over. Like astrological transits, like a score. And then there’s how Saturn relates to Babalon. That ties in the research about Cameron… Babalon is really confusing to me. It’s about party and unleashing ultimate femininity. But it’s also about this insane amount of sacrifice and order, which is Saturn, and pertains to the creative process. I was interested in how that could potentially relate to someone who’s completely devoted to creativity, and in a way I thought of Coco’s character—she’s totally devoted to pop stardom. And, Saturn is just this astrology thing that I was way into while making the film.
Was into?
Still into. Still very much into.

Still from COCO, 2014

Could you explain who Cameron is?
Cameron was an artist, poet, and occultist who lived predominantly in LA. She was born in 1922 in Iowa and died in Los Angeles in 1995. For whatever reason, she profoundly touched every era or scene she was involved in in LA, and every scene she was involved in became somewhat major, at least on some level. Like the OTO group, that early California Aleister Crowley organization: she unwittingly became involved in that scene but then immediately moved to its center as the Whore of Babalon. When her husband, Jack Parsons, was killed in 1952, probably by the FBI or an affiliate, she ran away from Pasadena bureaucrats and became a seminal figure with the LA Beat scene. And from there, she moves into Kenneth Anger's circle and took over Anais Nin’s role in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. She describes herself as “a catalyst and a visionary.” Maybe because LA was this barren cultural landscape, she could freely appear as its catalyst.
How did you discover Cameron?
I saw her in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome in New York in 2009. I was drawn to her performance and then I looked her up online and found that most websites were really crazy—disproportionate to the performance I had witnessed. I contacted this one website, the Cameron Parsons Foundation, because they listed her magical diaries as published and I was like oh, I’d like to read those. I contacted its director, Scott Hobbs, and he invited me to come to his house. So I went to his house and did a short interview with him. I didn’t know for what at the time. We kept in touch. I think he was into the idea of an art student and a woman being into Cameron. He wanted a woman to write about her. Cameron and Scott were close. After her death, he spent close to two decades amassing her archive and conducting interviews with her friends and acquaintances. I also met Aya Tarlow through Scott. Aya is a Beat poet associated with Cameron. I want to work with her on reissuing her early 70’s zine, Matrix. Anyway, talking with Aya and listening to Cameron’s archive interviews, I became annoyed at the websites that represented Cameron as this flat, ethereal, mystical witch. It felt like an injustice had been done. Like, here’s this really interesting artist who’d been paved over by this inept, apolitical, and sexist mythology. But now Cameron has a show coming up at MOCA, which is cool.

Maria Olsen, still from COCO, 2014

The show opens soon, right?
Yeah, it opens on my birthday. On October 11th.
So the show is a Libra?
Yeah. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the show opens because Cameron has such a strange following. I did something at the University of Southern California with Scott, this small panel. Art kids came, mostly my friends, and then the front row was all these Jack Parsons conspiracy theory aficionados.
Their story is so captivating.
I’m sure at one point it will be made into a film.
I was thinking about that. It’s epic.
They also self-mythologized extensively. They were both fabulists. But it is still extremely captivating. There’s also weird untold things, like I’m writing something now where I’m going through their FBI file and it seems obvious he was killed as part of the McCarthy witch hunts, or something darker. Cameron talks about late-night meetings in limos with government people. Regardless of the magnitude of Jack conspiracy theories, his death changed her life. Her artwork changes. She seriously takes up ritual magick, and from then on believes she has to go “underground,” but not in an art way—to literally hide.

Still from COCO, 2014

You included stuff about Cameron in the book you published in conjunction with the film?
The first Cameron text is in the book and the book accompanies the film. The book is two different character studies: a visual character study of Coco and then a written character study of Cameron. Cameron was this antithesis to Coco’s very cute, quiet commercial girlhood.
Commercial girlhood. Speaking of, you made all these fashion props around the film, clothes and accessories. Were they conceived while you were making the film or afterwards?
The USB necklace I made was definitely almost conceived before I made the film. Because I really am into the idea of a film just being something that can be attached to any object. With music and film, so much time and energy goes into it, but in the end they are in the air. It’s interesting to think about grounding them in the somatic objects of their packaging. Also, I was friends with Arielle de Pinto and so I was like “oh, I can finally somehow get her to make me something custom!” All of her Libra friends want custom work. We love luxury and justice. The other accessories grew out of the USB necklace, but they play more with the mass produced objects, like the credit card USB lanyards, or the Internet-order sunglasses. I also really wanted to make a line called X Filles, like Kim Gordon and Daisy von Furth’s X-Girl and like X-Files the TV show; it’s hands down the most successful show. The name X Filles came out of a conversation about the title sequence with Patrick Dyer, who made the soundtrack for the film.

USB necklace in collaboration with Arielle de Pinto, 2011-2014

Could you talk about the film’s soundtrack? Are you going to release it on its own?
I think the music works with the film, and there was like talk of releasing it on its own, but we kind of felt like this would maybe misrepresent its intended space and be too decontextualized? The music is really part of the film. Patrick made it in response to and while I was still shooting and editing; it’s integrated into the film, like the cinematography and editing. Patrick Dyer has been making music for a while, but it’s… I don’t know, I feel weird talking for him, but his project is very genius and complex. His own project is called United Nations or, and it’s beyond. We’ve known each other for so long, and so we had similar references, but he’d also pick up details and morph them into this space where midi music, like heavy presets, similar to everyone’s first electric keyboard, and South American digital cumbia music mix with New Age music. He was really able to channel this sort of child/teen developmental space that was simultaneously very adult.
Last question. I was watching Kenneth Anger’s movies last night and I noticed the length of them, the surreal experimentation, the layered sound design, all reminded me of your film. What’s your relationship to Anger?
I have a lot of respect for his work. I’m a total fan. I like thinking about Cameron’s description of him as a lion-tamer, that he kind of works with what is in front of him and then directs in a way that turns the mundane into something seminal, glamorous, glorious, and grotesque. But I don’t really want to talk about him too much because he scares me!
Oh, really! Like he’s powerful?
Ya. Like, on my birthday I was writing about Cameron, editing the film, in the middle of making the book--doing all that hard research. And I left my apartment in Hollywood and Kenneth Anger was standing outside Starbucks, just waiting. He was doing his laundry and… It was my birthday so I had all this extra confidence. I went up to him and was like “I know who you are.” It was probably the only celebrity sighting where I actually recognized the celebrity and was happy about it.

Still from COCO, 2014

From Sex Magazine #9 Fall 2014
Labelled Art