Representing the International Esoteric Scene: a Conversation With Livia Filotico
Livia Filotico is the contributions manager for Abraxas: International Journal of Esoteric Studies. Founded in 2009 by Christina Oakley Harrington of Treadwell’s Bookshop and Robert Ansell of Fulgur Limited, Abraxas is a non-partisan window on the international esoteric movement. The lavishly produced full-colour journal, published twice a year, offers features on historical and contemporary occultism accented with art, photography and poetry. The editors want Abraxasto to "embody that magical, creative nexus which feeds both mind and soul."
Raised in Rome, Livia completed her college studies in classics before moving to London, where she graduated from Goldsmiths University with a focus on comparative religions, affect, and embodiment. As well as the Contributions Manager for Abraxas, Livia is the Marketing and Business Development Manager at Fulgur Esoterica and the Marketing and Promotions Manager at Treadwell’s Books. Livia says, "I seek beauty in everything I do, which is why I am extremely proud to be one of the faces for Fulgur Esoterica, Abraxas Journal and Treadwell’s Books."
Interview by Stanley Trice
Various dictionaries define esoteric as rare and understood by members of a special group. Other definitions of esoteric study explain ‘that which is hidden’. For those who are not familiar with esoteric studies, could you explain what it includes? Who are the people of esotericism? Is there an interest in esoteric studies within other countries outside of the UK?
There are as many people debating over what esotericism is as there are grains of sand on a beach. Especially now that magic and the occult are getting so much interest from popular culture definitions all over the place (think of a grown up Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and imagine how his or her definition of magic can differ from someone who poured years of research into the same topic by looking at 15th century manuscripts). The academic study of esoteric currents is also becoming more and more widespread with university degrees dedicated to it in Amsterdam, Paris, and Exeter.
One way of thinking about esotericism is the study (and later practical application) of a set of symbols through which reality can be interpreted. Those symbols belong to different, sometimes initiatory, traditions such as alchemy, astrology, ceremonial magic, witchcraft, and more eclectic systems. One of the first things an anthropology student learns is that a symbol has many different levels of meaning. Esoteric symbols are ‘hidden’ in so far as it takes a lifelong commitment to unpack them and learn how to live by them fully.
So actually, contrary to what most people would say, one of the beautiful things about esotericism is precisely the offering of different points of access. It’s very inclusive. As for who are the people of western esotericism, check what’s hidden under your local librarian’s desk, you might be surprised with what you find there!
The May 2013 special issue of Abraxas coincided with I:MAGE, an exhibition of esoteric art that was the first time bringing together an international group of artists who worked in the esoteric genre. Are there other events planned this year or next? If other events are held, do you plan special issues to coincide with these events? Finally, how did I:MAGE help with the promotion of Abraxas?
There are indeed! In October 2014 Fulgur is hosting a second I:MAGE and this time it will focus on the relationship between spirit entities and artists. And, along with several other publications and events, there will also be a special issue of Abraxas on esotericism in film. What’s so exciting about this issue is that it will look at important figures in the countercultural film scene, such as Jodorowsky, Clive Barker, Maya Deren, and Derek Jarman, and show how at the root of their art is an esoteric undercurrent. We’re very excited because film makers have been very supportive of the idea and because no one has ever done a collection of essays on film and esotericism. So, stepping on completely new ground is always a thrill.
Another event planned for 2015 is the Occult Humanities Conference at NYU, hosted by Abraxas NY editor Pam Grossman and Fulgur artist Jesse Bransford. The first conference they organised in 2013 was a great success and I am sure the second won’t disappoint either. Given that we go into the habit of producing special issues for important events, I wouldn’t be surprised if by then we’ll come up with a third one!
In answer to your last question, I:MAGE was a tremendous tool for promoting Abraxas, but perhaps it’d be more appropriate to talk of mutual support. Backing up an exhibition with a quality, peer reviewed publication helped people understand the premises of the art on the walls and at the same time show context and physical form to what Abraxas is about: great art and, as Christina once put it, ‘unabashedly esoteric’.
How should an author or artist approach Abraxas with their work? In other words, do they need an extensive background in esotericism or just a personal interest in this field of study?
It depends on what they’re submitting. If an author is sending a scholarly article on a very specific topic then yes, they have to prove they are experts. Strictly speaking, we are not a peer reviewed journal but we do informally fire off articles to leading experts when we feel the subject covered doesn’t fall within our remit. Another crucial aspect our editors look for is for the author to be able to show they have done something creative with the theories they have read about or have studied. You’d be surprised to see how much material there is out there that deals with esoteric motives in a superficial way. It’s often very useful material as it introduces people to the field, but it simply not what we are about. Painting a magical symbol on a canvas is just not enough. Another question our editors always ask before accepting an article is: Does this person want to communicate enchanting ideas to a broader public? The author/artist needs to be able to evoke that feeling without compromising clarity.
How are submissions selected for publication in Abraxas? Is it by consensus of several people? What do you and the editors look for in the submissions?
Christina and Pam are the commissioning editors, although we all pitch in with ideas. Written content for Abraxas attempts to strike a balance of accessibility, expertise, entertainment, and information for both experts and for those who are new to the field. I have a piece of paper taped to my desk, a gift from Christina, that reads, 'Abraxas is not an academic journal. Articles need to ENCHANT’.
Different problems come in when we’re dealing with art. You know, a poorly written article on a very specialist topic is likely to be read by very few people and that’s where it dies. But, an image is so immediate. Once it’s up online it’s very easy to consume and share regardless of its quality. A poor quality but striking image can go viral in a matter of seconds. And, that’s where stereotypes begin. So, anything that does not reflect an esoteric clique is already a step ahead from the rest.
Each issue combines colorful art and pictures to enhance what is written. What is the process to match the graphics with the authors’ submissions? Such as, who does the final selections? Is the graphic representation chosen after the writing has been accepted?
Oh it varies really and that’s one of my tasks. For historical pieces for example, we tend to select art after the piece has been written. Sometimes we ask the writer to choose something s/he likes and other times we commission artists to do a bespoke series of work for us. We’re doing that more and more and there are 2 examples of it in issue 5.
It’s of course quite different with contemporary art which is not meant to illustrate articles. That has a life of its own and is selected and published for its own sake. We seldom publish something which has been published elsewhere or is up online. As for how the submission process goes, art is first sent to me and then to Robert Ansell, the art editor and publisher, who has the final say.
Besides unsolicited submissions, do you and the editors also reach out to authors and artists you are familiar with and request submissions?
Absolutely, I would go as far as to say they constitute a good seventy percent of each issue’s content. We all love reading so if we come across something or someone we are intrigued by we never hesitate contacting the writer for a contribution. That is after the editors have approved of course. We’ve all been told off at least once for skipping the appropriate production procedure. J
Besides non-fiction and poems, will Abraxas in the future include prose such as short stories?
That’s one for Christina I am afraid. It’s definitely something that has been put on the table before as there is a long standing tradition of esoteric and paganism inspired fiction, from late 19th century novelists such as Mary Butts and Arthur Machen to surrealist writers such as Leonora Carrington. So who knows, perhaps?
How did Christina, Robert, and yourself meet? Also, is associate editor Pam Grossman, who is in New York City, an outreach to the US? If so, do you plan outreaches to other countries?
Robert and Christina have been best friends for over ten years. In 2003, when they met, Robert was already the director of Fulgur while Christina had recently opened Treadwell’s Bookshop that today stands as the primary London hub for people interested in esotericism. When Robert heard of a new esoteric bookshop opening in London, he thought of checking it out for himself. Christina was sitting behind the till, they shook hands, and have been best friends since . As for me, I met Christina in 2006 on a visit to London. I visited Treadwell’s Bookshop and decided there and then that one day I would somehow make that wonderful space a part of my life.
So, I visited Treadwell’s on and off for five years while studying and when I graduated, I finally gathered the strength to ask for a job. Christina needed help with Abraxas and of course, I was more than happy to oblige. As for Pam, she is an important figure in the NY esoteric scene. Her blog Phantasmaphile and her events center Observatory are one of the most established resources for witchcraft, esotericism, and art in the States. When Christina met her in New York, it was love at first sight!
With a successful career so far, do you also plan to contribute as a writer or artist to Abraxasor another publication? What other events are you planning in the near future?
Ahah! Maybe one day I’ll submit an anonymous piece. I have the advantage of knowing what the editors are looking for, but that also makes me less bold as I know they want A LOT. Let’s just say that for the next few years there are plenty of exciting projects for me to look forward to. I am running I:MAGE for 2014, a conference at the Warburg Institute around the same time. In June, we’ve just been offered a one day exhibition at Café Royal which we are exceptionally excited about. We’re also working on a programme of screenings to tour Europe to tie in with Abraxas Special Issue 2. As for personal projects, I am becoming more and more interested in the history of advertising and marketing as a magical practice. Who know, maybe that’s what I’ll submit on?
More than a dozen of Stanley Trice's short stories have been published in national and international literary journals. He is a member of the Riverside Writers, the Virginia Writers' Club, and the North Carolina Writers' Network. You can find him listed in Poet and Writers’ “Directory for Writers.” He grew up on a dairy farm in Spotsylvania, VA and has lived most of his life in the Fredericksburg, VA area where he currently commutes by train to work on budgets and legislative issues in Northern Virginia. He is presently looking for publication of his novel where a lonely, unemployed chemist has too much time on his hands.