Opus Alchymicum: The Special Edition

Animation, video and music © 1993, 1995 Aaron F. Ross
6 minutes 5 seconds

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This was my Master of Fine Arts thesis project at California Institute of the Arts. The project began production in the fall of 1992. It was primarily completed by May 1993, and I was awarded the MFA degree. Two years later, while working as technical staff at CalArts, I re-animated the final sequence of the piece using updated hardware and software. The result is what you see here: the “Special Edition”.

The following text was transcribed from my sketchbook entry dated December 31, 1991. It includes several obscure allusions to alchemical precepts, as well as references to mythology, astrophysics and higher-dimensional geometry. I've included footnotes to help elucidate the meanings of these arcane references, in the event the reader is unfamiliar with them.

Opus Alchymicum is the third in a series of living alchemical experiments, the others being MANTRA and TEMENOS (already realized), plus the forthcoming PANTHEON... my first exploration of virtual reality.

Being the third segment of a quaternary hyper-intelligence, Opus Alchymicum is classical, hierarchical, and patriarchal. This is the ego, my children. All hail! The video prophet has arrived. Yet another manifestation of the bodhisattva ideal!!! 1

So, I have taken alchemy as subject matter, and subjected it to the power of the will. This will, however, is not entirely that of my ego... it is the supraordinate “self”... the unconscious. All that's happening is that I am freely projecting meaning into the work. “We made the gods flesh.” 2

This is my role: liquid revealer of images... merely a filter. 3 There are forces at work deep within the earth. The wind carries it in its belly.4

The chaotic information spewing out of the feedback vortex is the same as that of the projections forming at the fractal boundary between ego and archetypes. There are also interesting phenomena at the boundary of ego and environment— but I digress.

Here's what happens when I bump up against classical alchemy:


One: The Elixir

The sun sets over a simulated ocean. The water is artificial; obviously a computer graphic.

A bottle of this impossible water washes up on a grey concrete shore. We see a closeup of an armored hand grasping the bottle.

The bottle is lifted closer to the virtual camera. This POV shot cuts to the armored figure drinking from the bottle.

The image freezes on a frame depicting half killer, half saint. The tape glitches and rewinds, drawing trails. Cut to white noise— loss of transmission.

From the noise emerges a music that is thunderous and terrible. It sings of the apocalypse. It is somewhere between the Tibetan ritual music and Throbbing Gristle. An overwhelming barrage of information fills the screen. Science and magic are fused in the mind through one- and two-frame edits of static images and patterns. The sequence climaxes with a stroboscopic play of light and imperceptibly segues into the second segment.


Two: The Stone

Light spills outward from the screen in waves of red and blue. It is a primordial landscape; the sea is replaced by a volcano. When the flicker becomes hypnagogic (or unbearable, depending on the viewer), a form materializes in the foreground. It is a chunk of raw earth ... the prima materia5

This matter transforms into a block of lead. The lead in turn morphs into a gold bar. A halo of yellow light forms around the gold. It grows so intense that it is like unto the sun. The rays from its fused core emanate from the cathode ray tube. Whiteout phases to black.


Three: The Tablet

A heavy stone door grinds open to the left. We enter a secret place— a hallowed chamber. Resting on a marble dias in the center of this cylindrical room is a large green gem. Its nearest face is etched in strange letters... a magickal script. It reads: “As above, so below.” 6

We circumambulate the shrine to the right. After a single orbit, the stone looms large in the screen. We pass through the gem; through darkness to another world.


Four: The Vessel

A miracle is taking place. The inverted sphere has assumed cosmic proportions. It rotates in the void of hyperspace.

Within it are nested three additional sections of the hypersphere... a quaternary glass onion known as the Clifford Torus. 7 We observe it from above, then below. The outermost figure is yellow and metallic; it rotates to the south and calls itself the earth... cold and dead.

Within the earth is a sea of blue; it flows northward. As it ripples, we hear its song. Bathed in amniotic fluid, we descend further into the depths.

A rich sylvan tapestry is woven beneath; the elves have been busy. The wind caresses, the trees sigh. The wind comes in cold from north to south, but leaves a crisp scent. All is pastoral... the plunge is immanent.

We pass through to the deepest and most exalted realm, where the lux æterna 8 burns fiercely. She is unquenchable and unfathomable. Our power to transform is negated; our laws do not apply.

The technicolor void is made visible, but only as a boundary or aura surrounding a black hole. This is a singularity... the singularity... where the supernatural resides. 9 It pulsates, inhaling and exhaling at the same time.

We are consumed by flames, licking upward— to the north on the dexter hand. This is the epiphany... the cool nirvana within the molten core at the center of the vas10

So mote it be.



1In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a being who has attained Buddhahood, but who forgoes nirvana to help others achieve enlightenment. I make no claims to divinity, but the metaphor is entertaining. return

2As Carl Jung (among others) has pointed out, if the gods did not exist, it would be necessary to create them. Also, the expression “god's flesh” refers to the Native American ritual drug, peyote, as well as the the mythical soma of prehistoric India. return

3According to Salvador Dali, consciousness plays a passive role in the creation of meaning. His paranoiac-critical method is an indispensible tool for integrating the contents of the unconscious. The structure of perception itself is analyzed, revealing the limitless projections which the unconscious imposes on “reality.” return

4“The wind carries it in its belly.” A quote from the 13 Precepts of Hermes, which, according to legend, were inscribed upon the Emerald Tablet. It refers to the philosopher's stone: a perfect, quintessential substance endowed with the ability to transform matter and prolong life indefinitely. return

5The prima materia is the primordial, undifferentiated, chaotic unity of being. It is the base material from which the elements of earth, air, fire, and water are formed. It is ubiquitous, and is considered the polar opposite of the philosopher's stone: “the stone of no worth.” return

6“As above, so below.” An abbreviated quote from the Emerald Tablet; signifying the identification of the macrocosm (the universe) with the microcosm (the individual). return

7The Clifford Torus is a mathematical object that cannot exist in three-dimensional space. It is a segment of the 4-D hypersphere, corresponding to the polyhedral torus in the tesseract or hypercube. Unfortunately, I did not possess the code-writing chops to animate this object rotating in hyperspace, which Thomas Banchoff demonstrates in his book, Beyond the Third Dimension. return

8The “eternal light” in alchemy is reminiscent of the Clear Light of the Void in Buddhist philosophy. It is the source and the termination of all things, but is not a thing itself. return

9According to current cosmological theory, the center of a black hole compresses matter and energy into a singularity of infinite mass and no space. It represents the boundary of our understanding of the universe, due to its inherent inaccessibility and somewhat mystical connotations. In a sense, all black holes share the same singularity, which is outside our known physical universe. return

10The famous vessel of the alchemists is known as the vas of transformation. It represents the body of the self, within which the magickal transformative processes of individuation take place. return

Computer hardware:
Silicon Graphics Inc. Iris 3000
Silicon Graphics Inc. Professional Iris 4D/80

Wavefront 2.x
Softimage|3D 3.x

Video equipment:
Electronics Associates Berkeley Videolab II
Fairlight Computer Video Instrument
Ikegami tube camera
Grass Valley Group 1600-1X switcher
Ampex ADO 100 digital video effects

Music equipment:
Yamaha TX-816 FM synthesizer
Roland SH-5 analog synthesizer
E-mu EMAX II sampler
Guitar and e-bow

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