IO Society describes itself on Facebook as "communal welfare through forms of art not encouraged." What that means, exactly, is a bit obscure, but it has something to do with mining the outer reaches of artistic acceptability. The posts on the collective's timeline are just as cryptic, every single one of them an image, some more obscure than others, tagged with the question: "What is art?" The images include a book burned into a blackened spiral, Marcel Duchamp's 1817 porcelain urinal titled "Fountain," and a picture of three Barbie-style figurines watching G.I. Joe, holding guns behind their backs. The posts have a mystical and slightly unnerving quality to them, which is something the collective seems consistent about, even while its other philosophies and aesthetics are purposefully difficult to pin down.
IO Society's founders Julie Janj and Rashid Abdel Ghafur are known in the music and arts community for being provocateurs. Ghafur's avant garde black metal band, Zebulon Kosted, has featured a revolving cast of artists over its 17 years, including Janj. For a 2015 interview with the Indy, three band members wore black military-style uniforms and ski masks. They met the reporter outside the Golden Rose, where she was blindfolded and taken to a sauna, at which time she was allowed to address questions to members known only as One, Two and Three. "There are many of us, none of us are Zebulon Kosted," One told her, describing the band as a tool to "obscure and diminish empire and to bring forth the abstract."
It should come as no surprise then that IO Society's debut First Friday exhibit won't be the kind of gallery experience most Missoula art watchers are used to. It also won't be exactly what you might expect from Janj and Ghafur.
"I think we've been called fascist more than anything else by people who have never seen real fascists on the street," Ghafur says. "And we've yelled things in the microphones that have been considered hate speech when advocating for people who don't have a voice. I think you'll see some of that with artists in IO Society, but it probably won't be as confrontational."
The group exhibit features five artists who, with the exception of Ghafur, are not involved in Zebulon Kosted (as far as we know). An anonymous artist known only as A.F.H. (A Female Human) will present a multimedia exploration of legislation and menstruation called "Zygote > Woman." Matthew Sean Riley promises photographs "at the intersection of accident and intention, where no one is looking." There will be clothing from a new company called Moon Rush Designs, which makes a line of "space warrior wear for the resistance." And Troy Alexander Callihan will present an art piece made of Orgonite, a material comprising metal shavings, resin and quartz and that, according to proponents, transforms negative energy to positive energy.
"The artists we have coming in are not well known and they don't make art you'll see in coffee shops," Janj says. "They are all very different from each other and don't know each other."
Ghafur's work consists of swirling, amoeba-like pen-and-ink drawings.
- Rashid Ghafur’s drawings of interdimensional portals are part of a First Friday group exhibit created by the new art collective IO Society.
"It has to do with the insides of interdimensional portals," he says. "It's organic and alive and at the same time completely outside regular space and depth and time. It can be what people want it to be, but it isn't anything they understand."
"Typically cryptic answer," Janj adds.
As part of the First Friday show, Janj and Ghafur will also debut a new magazine called Olgoi-khorkhoi, named after the probably apocryphal Mongolian death worm (because why not?). It features abstract art and poetry, and Janj and Ghafur hope to encourage submissions for future issues.
The Ceretana has a history of showing art on the experimental and alternative side. It's on Missoula's Westside, by the railroad tracks, offset from any obvious downtown First Friday route. With Janj and Ghafur programming the gallery, Ceretana joins a few other art spaces in town that host experimental work, including Frontier Space (located in a downtown alley), VonCommon (a collective in a warehouse off Russell) and the ZACC (a Northside community center). IO Society's plan is to feature artists on the fringe, maybe even those who've never shown work before. They suspect that will require some extra digging, but they're pretty sure those artists are out there.
"We hope we can show things that put people on edge and get people upset a little bit," Ghafur says. "But there's a line, too. It's not like we want Neo-nazis coming in here showing genocide art or child pornographers coming in here and getting naked in front of kids. We're never going to go that far, but there are a lot of limits that need to be pushed. We don't want it to be, 'Oh, another First Friday, come and eat crackers and cheese and drink wine.' We want it to be wild."
IO Society is named after one of Jupiter's moons, and was also the title of Zebulon Kosted's first album.
"It's the strangest celestial body in the solar system and, in my opinion, the most artistically beautiful," Ghafur says. "It's a strange-looking place with volcanoes on top of volcanoes on top of volcanoes that shoot stuff 80 miles into space. It's constantly changing. It's just like art. It's always evolving into something else."
Recently, while making fliers for IO Society, Janj realized the name had a third meaning, a play on words that she only discovered when she said the name out loud.
"It's also like, 'I owe society,'" she says. "I thought that was really cool, too, because we do see this as a form of contribution in a different way. When it gets down to daily grind and people being dissatisfied with their health care and people being dissatisfied with their jobs and people being dissatisfied with their elected leaders, sometimes the only thing you can turn to is the art you make."
IO Society presents its inaugural First Friday exhibit Fri., June 2, at Ceretana Studios from 6 to 9 PM.