Blackmore talks about de-stigmatising Satanism and rallying a community of rebellious outcasts defending civil liberties
This article originally appeared in issue 2 of Good Trouble magazine
Jex Blackmore reminds us that people have the power. She hopes her performance art and theatrical protests inspire people to challenge systems of power. Jex Blackmore is also a Satanist and her rituals and activist projects have received a lot of heat. It’s now easier for a neo-Nazi to book event spaces than it is for Jex.
It’s dreary and overcast in Detroit as we slice through the empty neighbourhoods to Jex Blackmore’s studio. A text message provided the whereabouts – a funny riddle I would have liked to share, but for Jex’s safety we can’t provide any breadcrumbs. On arrival, Jex walks to us with a welcoming smile, with black tousled hair and a large camouflage jacket. Her boots are decorated in chains and her hands heavy with silver jewellery. We walk through the studio, discussing past performances and plans to go watch a renegade molten iron pouring later that afternoon. A neon light fabricator shares the space, and pinks and blues dance around the room; a pink Jex Hex leans against a table, a recurring symbol in a few of her performances. Above her desk is a mirror, with permanent marker scratchings reading: “BIRTH CONTROL AS PROXY FOR RELIGIOUS DOMINANCE”.
For the last few years, I have been intrigued by the Satanic Temple of Detroit’s efforts to defend human rights, specifically women’s reproductive rights. As the Temple started to gain momentum, Blackmore appeared on the scene and dived into the deep end of public relations, setting about de-stigmatising Satanism and turning the Temple into a community of rebellious outcasts defending civil liberties. Now, evangelical Christian groups, neo-Nazis, right-wing protestors, and most recently the Westboro Baptist Church are among those who have gone head-to-head with Jex, a calm and confident opponent with a quick wit and sharp tongue.
Unmother was the first project by Blackmore that drew me into her world – a transparent and honest live blog, a daily entry from the moment she discovered she was pregnant right through to the termination. There was also the controversial “The Future of Baby is Now” which garnered attention as a performance piece: “fetish babies” – adults in baby masks, diapers, and BDSM gear – gathered next to pro-life protesting Planned Parenthood locations, in a counter-protest intended to expose their idolising of the foetus as a kind of demigod. The theatrics of these BDSM babies, half-naked, moaning, and pouring milk on one another, highlighted the absurdity of the anti-choice movement and its grotesque position on reproductive rights. It’s also really funny.
Riddled with controversy, Blackmore’s ever-evolving and boundary-pushing performances have also included naked, chained bodies, pig heads impaled on stakes, goat ‘births’, dragging crucifixes down the street, and even “Alt-Right Clowns”. Blackmore’s performances are so outlandish and powerful that recently Blackmore and the Temple have parted ways. After a fruitful few years, Blackmore is now finding new and bold ways to continue the fight.
Let’s begin with how you got involved with the Temple. I’ve been reading about your studying classical literature, archaeology, and art history - how did you go from that to your involvement with the Temple?
Jex Blackmore: I self-identified as a Satanist in my later teens and was engaged in doing ritual performances with people. I had just moved back here and heard that the Satanic Temple (a then-new Satanic Organisation) was doing a talk at Harvard University. I was very curious and I had just started a blog I made called Raw Pussy – just about radical people throughout history and radical people currently working – and I wanted to meet up with Lucien, the founder, just to see what that was about. I flew to Boston and met up with him, and then we were talking and realised that we had very similar ideas on the way that Satanism should be used as an informal organisation. Because a lot of people identify as Satanists especially in the black metal scene and that sub-culture – it’s a very private practice.
The idea that Satanism as a philosophy is one of action and engaging in activism, and challenging corrupt systems of power, is something I firmly and strongly believe in, and so we saw eye to eye on that and started collaborating on ideas. They then asked me if I wanted to come on board, to join up, and be the public face and work with them, and so I agreed to do that.
“I think that the power of belonging to a Satanic organisation is that you’re really pushing the envelope, because that’s what it means to be a Satanist. It’s to challenge, to be an outsider and accept that, but also challenge these kinds of norms” – Jex Blackmore
Was all that interaction with the public informing your practice at the time?
Jex Blackmore: The first action I participated (in) with them was when we did the Black Mass at Harvard Square… an educational reenactment, and then a lecture from a Harvard professor, and then the Catholic Diocese in Boston just flipped out and they were calling for it to be shut-down, and the President of Harvard was like ‘Oh, well this Black Mass is Hate Speech!’ They weren’t taking anybody seriously or interviewing anyone seriously and so all our venues got shut-down because people were trying to threaten it.
The city was going to take away the liquor license for a bar that that was going to be hosting, and so on. We just went to Harvard square and nobody really knew what to do, and there was a lot of people there, and we had to rally for all the punks that were there. And I was like ‘Well, I’m going to get on this table, and get people excited, and figure out what to do!’ The media was paying attention, so this was now a spectacle and we are now able to open it up to say ‘Who gets to decide what religion is legitimate, who gets to decide what speech is permitted and where do we draw those lines?’
I wanted to ask you about one of your performances you did, in New York, The Sabbath Cycle?
Jex Blackmore: It was during the election cycle, where candidates were like ‘Well, we want to bring back this good Christian America’. I mean, the roots of Christian America are… awful, and just extremely oppressive and damaging to society, and racist and all these other things.
Each element of the ritual was part of a Satanic awakening in that you’re aware of the social construct that asks us to conform to certain norms that are harmful, and then freeing yourself from that – and dismantling it as a form of self-liberation.
We didn’t want it to be a party. We wanted it to be difficult, with certain elements that were challenging – people who attended would be forced to contend with their own insecurities and norms. We used a lot of nudity, nude men in particular because Satanism traditionally really goes overboard with naked beautiful women, and it’s a really tired trope to me.
You had two naked men in your latest performance here as well…
Jex Blackmore: I like using men! Or, not normal-bodied people – in LA, during the Sabbath Cycle Ritual we did this piece, it’s this ‘Milk Mother’ idea. I always try to recruit men 50+ over and about 200 to 250 lbs – it’s hard to get them to agree to be naked in front of a group of people. But I’ve done it twice now. Just the idea of walking into ,a space and seeing a bunch of nude, round men, rubbing milk all over their bodies, and one woman in the centre, who’s also large… It’s this erotic scene that’s non-normative, and also plays on representations of motherhood.
We are transforming and challenging what people feel comfortable with. Hopefully, when the ritual is over and we just let people party, we hope that space and environment stay with them. They’ll go home and think about that forever, and it will make them think.
So, do you think the controversial theatrics in your performances are employed so you can leave a mark on people – so they can reflect on those issues?
Jex Blackmore: I really believe that being comfortable is extremely dangerous. This idea that if you’re comfortable, you are already under attack. It’s a façade and it creates an environment where people can be apathetic and not engaged. I think it’s good for us to push the boundaries. And also to challenge people to consider how they think of certain issues. For example, when it comes to doing this stuff on the street about abortion – we think, well, what are the ways we can talk about this issue or challenge it, and how can we make that radical?
Let’s talk about the Unmother project, I’d like for you to explain your intent behind that and the level of transparency in it?
Jex Blackmore: My approach to everything is usually ‘What’s the problem? How could I resolve it? What’s my approach and how can I achieve that with the resources that I have?’… Which is basically no money and, well, relatively little power. One reason I do do a lot of performance art is that if you don’t have a lot of resources but you have a group of people and an idea – and you know how to put a press release out – then you can get people to pay attention to your issue.
So, with Unmother I had already been working on access to abortion and reproductive justice for a while, and when I found out I was pregnant, I thought, ‘Can I do something with this, if this is going to happen?’ I thought that if I just write for a couple of weeks about what it was like, without political argument, without saying whether abortion is right or wrong, then it was just like ‘This is what it’s like to experience this’. Especially in the time leading up to an abortion, because people talk about it like ‘my abortion was painful or it wasn’t painful’, but there is this whole other world that surrounds the procedure that you have to deal with. And it gets harder and harder, as the abortion regulations get stricter in regards to things like waiting periods.
It was really hard, because just waiting to get an abortion and being pregnant at the same time is difficult… It’s easier to forget that this is happening to your body or forget the struggle, but because I was writing about it I was focusing on it, deep into how I was feeling. I didn’t expect it to go viral or have a lot of people pay attention to it.
“You can’t say ‘Doing a Satanic ritual’ anywhere… Venues get calls from the city, people will threaten to burn the building down, it’s impossible! I have a harder time than neo-Nazis do getting a space” – Jex Blackmore
How was it received?
Jex Blackmore: I was really surprised that people wanted to write about it. I expected to receive a lot of hate mail, and I definitely did, I still get hate mail every Mother’s Day now. People are like ‘Happy Mother’s Day, Jex!’ – like, implying I should be sad every Mother’s Day?! But I didn’t expect this much positive feedback, and people were writing to me and talking about how validating it was hearing the process being written about. The publicity around the blog really served as a catalyst to create a community of people who are supporting each other through pretty difficult abortion experiences, and it made me feel really hopeful about the amount of people who are supportive and kind. Also, it was so tragic to hear about people’s experiences and how awful they had been. There were a couple of girls under the age of 20 who I corresponded with, and they were at a Catholic home, and they were trying to hide the abortion from their parents in the same house, and it was just so hard.
With regards to recent news with the current administration ‘gagging’ doctors, what are your thoughts on that?
Jex Blackmore: The ‘Southern Strategy’ was this thing in the 70s that was trying to get disaffected voters from the South – religious voters in particular, and evangelicals – to vote Republican (for Nixon). And they basically appealed to their racism. And it worked really well. All of a sudden, abortion became an issue for Republicans. Trump very strongly appealed to religious voters, and that’s why Pence was his running mate, and why he has taken a more conservative stand on things like abortion. It’s worked out extremely well for him.
It’s not really a surprise that women’s reproductive issues are tied to racism, and money, and power. These are just ideological pushes in order to further polarise the voting base at a great cost to women, and it should frankly be illegal because it’s not based in science or medicine – it’s based in religious philosophy, and religious dogma, and instead it’s becoming policy.
Would you feel comfortable talking about leaving the Satanic Temple of Detroit? How recent is this? A few weeks?
Jex Blackmore: Yeah, March-ish… The Satanic Temple had really changed since I joined. When I joined, there was, like, four of us doing everything, and I really wanted to find a way of bringing it to the streets and giving people power, so it’s not just us doing everything. I helped start the chapter system, and it grew really fast – and, as anything with organisations, they experience growing pains, and there are questions on how to manage that growth. There definitely were some disagreements of how to do that successfully in the group, and as the group had grown there was some concern that the political performance art I was engaging in, which I think inspired a lot of people to join the Temple, was potentially too extreme. It was potentially legally problematic, although I don’t agree with that fear, but I understand.
Was that when you would do your performance pieces in duality with the Temple?
Jex Blackmore: Yeah, I was doing my own performance art and ritual pieces in public, not under the Satanic Temple, just under my own name, and it made them more nervous. It was just too extreme…
I think that the power of belonging to a Satanic organisation is that you’re really pushing the envelope because that’s what it means to be a Satanist. It’s to challenge, to be an outsider and accept that, but also challenge these kinds of norms.
My frustration is that I still get hit up all the time by people, like ‘At my kid’s school, they’re forcing them to read bibles’… but you don’t have to reach out to me in order to do this! People have the power to challenge those institutions themselves, and they don’t need an institution like the Satanic Temple, or anyone else, to get work done. If you want to see change, it means that you have to get uncomfortable, and we have to really challenge ourselves in ways that maybe we are not used to.
Making people uncomfortable underpins most of your work. In regards to the performance you did in ‘Subversive Autonomous’ in an unknown location in Detroit, how did people get access? Thinking about making people uncomfortable, and bringing these concepts to people who don’t usually have access to it.
Jex Blackmore: It’s always a problem! It’s a problem because you can’t say ‘Doing a Satanic ritual’ anywhere, and even if you try and hide it from a legitimate venue, you can’t invite people publicly. They will get calls from the city, people will threaten to burn the building down, it’s impossible! I have a harder time than neo-Nazis do getting a space!
That’s terrifying and also probably very accurate.
Jex Blackmore: It’s a very real thing. It’s always a challenge to figure how to actually do this. We found a good space that was super open to the idea. They were even willing to accept there might be protesters if it got out, but we tried really hard not to (have that happen). There are different types of performances we do. One is knowing that protesters will show up and using that as a catalyst for the message – and others are just where we want to build community, and support people that we are around, with the youth community in particular. This was one of those.
We found a location that was already having a massive party, a Christmas tree-burning party. Hundreds of kids came out, it was outdoors and a very wild time. We did it in the warehouse next door. We wanted to promote it to people using flyers with a calling number, so we were able to release the address the day before to anyone who called in. So, basically, it’s just levels of filtering people, and how much effort they’re willing to put in to find out where it’s at. But also just doing it in a place where hundreds of people would already be, or young people partying.
It’s the idea of not doing a performance piece in a space where people know what they are going into, but going to where people are instead. Bringing them into your experience and sharing that with them. We want to find out where the community is and we want to go to them.