Camilla Ha
Camilla Ha Credit: John Sturdy

If you’ve been out to see underground experimental music in Chicago in the past ten years, odds are pretty good you’ve heard a manic laugh somewhere in the crowd, maybe followed by a scuffle—and if you have, odds are even better the source of both was Camilla Ha. An installation artist, stylist, costume designer, and former butoh dancer, Ha has been performing and recording as Magic Is Küntmaster since 2002, making electronic music that’s celestial like a black hole. Over the years she’s assumed a series of theatrical onstage personas, beginning as a menacing dead prostitute backed by naked female “ghosts,” then evolving into a sort of otherworldly chanteuse who’s a lot like Ha herself: elegant, unpredictable, witchy, deadpan. She can be just as strange and confrontational offstage, and many of her most memorable performances haven’t been part of any bill.

You get the feeling that something magical and terrible can happen to you just by hanging around her—and often it does. Her public demeanor is a volatile mix of blunt sincerity and discomfiting mischief that tends to throw off friends and strangers alike, resulting in wounded egos or even physical fights. She’s lived in Chicago since 1999, excepting a year in New York and New Jersey from ’05 to ’06, but she hasn’t had the easiest time building a network here to support her art. This fall she’s leaving for New York again, and though she doesn’t have a clear idea what she’ll do, she says she’ll be gone indefinitely this time. “My relationship with the city has been like—I’ve been in love with Chicago,” she says, “and I’m starting to realize it doesn’t feel the same way.”

Ha doesn’t want to leave bitter, though, so she’s throwing a party on her way out. Her multimedia installation The Cosmic Mind of Black Leather opens at Reversible Eye on Saturday, September 18, with a night of performances, and runs through October 22. According to Ha, it’s about transition and making peace with the dark and hidden parts of the self, among other things, and invites people to “start to acknowledge an inner world as real as the outer one.”

The first time I remember meeting Ha was at the Hideout in 2000. “Have you seen my belt?” she yelled in my face by way of introduction. “Somebody stole my belt!” I was afraid that if she found it, she’d beat me with it. Now I know her as a friend who comes to my parents’ house to play Wii bowling with my dad till past midnight.

We’d been set up on a blind date to be pals by a mutual friend, Patrick Hambrecht, who leads the Brooklyn band and arts collective Flaming Fire. He understands why people have trouble with Ha, but he thought I’d get her. “I once saw her tell a DJ, ‘I’d really love to DJ here sometime,'” he says, “and five minutes later, ‘I hate the music you play. It’s awful.’ She didn’t even think about it. Both statements were just true.” Ha’s “genius-crazy juice,” he says, “comes out of nowhere, like a bomb. There’s no warning. You’re talking to this smart, canny lady at a bar and then whammo! Suddenly Camilla’s shrieking about demons and ghosts and crawling around on the ceiling, shooting flames out of her mouth.”

Last winter Hambrecht invited Ha to New York to direct a monthlong installation, part of a bigger project he was masterminding with the help of arts presenter Issue Project Room and an organization called Art Assets, which works with the city to help people open pop-up galleries in spaces that would otherwise be too expensive. He describes Ha’s work, Temple of the Dying King, as a “beautiful, blue glowing space, a strange Jungian temple of angelic beings, Santa father gods, and demonic yuletide horror.” She supervised the construction, painted everything herself, and slept next to the boiler in the basement.

“I love the process of exhausting myself,” says Ha. “I like feeling spent, like I’ve really worked.” Strenuous projects and the violence they do to her body “make me feel like I’m paying tribute to my dark side.” When she was younger she didn’t understand or have an outlet for that part of herself, and as a result, she says, it was out of control.

Ha immigrated to the U.S. from Seoul with her parents and older brother in 1974, when she was two (a younger brother was born here). She spent most of her childhood in southern California, and her parents, both lay Franciscans, sometimes took the family to church at the first Spanish mission built in the state—a cavernous structure that she found “literally awesome.”

Her parents indulged her passion for drawing and painting, and conceded when she begged for piano lessons at age five. But when she hadn’t given up art by her teen years, they started to freak out. When she was 16, she says, “My mom took me into her room and started bawling, begging me not to go to art school because I had an uncle who was an artist and went crazy. He started painting with his toes up in trees.”

When she graduated from high school in 1990, her family moved to the small Texas town of Lake Jackson. After a semester of community college in Los Angeles, Ha joined them there, but she couldn’t stand it. “I was already partying at goth clubs on Sunset Boulevard,” she says. “I just wasn’t having it.”

It’s not usually called running away when you’re 18 and legally an adult, but in traditional Korean families like Ha’s, girls live at home until they’re married. When she took a one-way bus trip to San Francisco in early ’92—she’d saved up about $500 from her job at a fast-food deli—her parents quit talking to her for a year.

Her relationship with her family is strong now, but at the time she felt alone and estranged. Walking around the Bay Area she began noticing posters and flyers for butoh events, and though she had no idea what butoh was, the grotesque, beautiful faces on the posters spoke to her emotional state. She went to a workshop, where she saw “all these dancer-type people stretching. I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ But it completely saved my life.”

A form of dance that arose in Japan after World War II, butoh traffics in extremity, taboo, and existential horror. Dancers are typically nude or seminude and covered in rice powder, and their movements are often very slow; though there are nearly as many philosophies of butoh as practitioners, Ha says it’s about intense presence and the embodiment of the imagination, not any particular technique. She took every class she could, including one with the widow of Tatsumi Hijikata (a chief butoh progenitor) and a few more with two of his former students. In 1997 she started her own troupe, Hot Tub Butoh. “It gave me a ground and discipline that I was totally lacking,” she says, “and I loved that it was rigorous and physical. I need a lot of physical activity.”

Her only dance performance outside California was a solo show in Chicago, but it was a fateful one, setting in motion a chain of events that led to her move. In 1999 she enrolled in the School of the Art Institute on a merit scholarship awarded for her butoh work. She thought about starting a new troupe, but she missed the vibrant community in San Francisco, where a dance collective regularly flew in performers from Japan. “There was nothing like that in Chicago,” says Ha. “And I didn’t care for what the troupes here were doing.” She dropped out after a semester.

In early 2000 filmmaker Usama Alshaibi, best known for the Iraq documentary Nice Bombs, was casting for his first long-form movie, Soak, which he says is about “STDs, prostitutes, porn, phantoms, and travel.” He’d recently met Ha at the Rainbo Club in Ukrainian Village, where she was yelling at people to dance with her. Later he asked her if she’d be interested in a role for a “Korean woman who barely spoke English and was to be in some sort of sleazy porn video where she just gets beaten and fucked.” Naturally, Ha agreed.

“When we were ready to shoot, we barely talked beforehand,” says Alshaibi. “Camilla brought a kind of flirty violence to her role.”

It wouldn’t be Ha’s last film, but that winter music came back into her life. She was out at a bar “being really wild” with a friend when she met former Flying Luttenbachers guitarist Chuck Falzone, who immediately told her that she had to be the singer of his band Sorry. After she joined, they renamed themselves My Name Is Rar-Rar and developed a live show that combined bizarre costumes and seizure-inducing postpunk. They took an east-coast tour shortly after 9/11, selling CD-Rs of a demo recorded by Bobby Conn, but what Ha calls “weird interpersonal dynamics,” aggravated by conflict over her extreme onstage persona, nearly broke up the band. At the end of the tour she left, and in early 2002 she played her first show as Magic Is Küntmaster, opening for Flaming Fire at the Empty Bottle.

She performed a few epic, dark, ceremonial songs using not much more than a delay pedal and an old Roland drum machine with three broken pads. “Her outfit was beautiful,” says Hambrecht, “this crazy sequined thing that made her look like a demonic nun from outer space with a princess-ish bejeweled face. She did this 20-minute opera about being a dead prostitute whose head was floating down the river back to her 14-year-old pimp.”

Early Magic Is Küntmaster sets were pregnant with ritual, gore, and sexually improbable plot. Ha designed her own gorgeous, imperial costumes and makeup, which is how she started getting freelance styling work—in 2006, in fact, I asked her to do some for a Reader fashion issue. Her sets were “scaled-down 99-cent store versions of what I really wanted to do,” she says. Any movement was deliberate and minimal, unless Ha was suddenly stirred and decided to, say, start throwing chairs (which she insists she did only once). She met one of her current collaborators, Dutch artist and educator Jan van den Dobbelsteenwho last year invited her to do a residency in Nijmegen, where she produced an artist’s book of drawings in four days partner of Danielle Lemaire, who last year invited Ha to produce an artist’s book of drawings in four days at a residency in Nijmegen—when she rushed into the crowd and wrestled him.

Ha says it took her a few years to realize that she didn’t actually like being onstage. She’d drink to get over the fright, then go into a state that she says “wasn’t just about being drunk, but about opening up and going with whatever force was going to take over me. A lot of times that was a very angry, violent force that made for some amazing shows. Unfortunately, it started to bleed over into my day-to-day life. . . . I was aggressively confrontational and perversely getting off on upsetting or disturbing people.”

Jason Soliday, who helps run the experimental performance space Enemy and will perform in a duo with Ha on Saturday, says he thinks the rumors about her exceed the reality. “It’s amazing how few Camilla stories I have. I’ve known her for a long time,” he says. “The dirt side of things? I don’t really care. She’s fun to work with.”

Ha and Soliday are finishing a vocal-synth collaboration, which they plan to release on a split cassette with members of Telecult Powers and Lala Ryan from Excepter. Also on deck is a duo recording by Ha and metal guitarist Warren Hatfield (Golden Axe, Valient Thorr). She’s already put out three CDs as Magic Is Küntmaster—Nightsongs for Ugly Children, Virgin Ghost, and Wrath—one of which she paid for with one of the city’s Community Arts Assistance Program grants.

“What I appreciate about Camilla,” says Alshaibi, “is that she understands the complexity of light and dark and how to dig her hands deep into that, pull out the guts for the world to see and be in awe of.” This is one of the theses of The Cosmic Mind of Black Leather: incorporating the strange or ugly “other” within, instead of battling it.

The centerpiece of the installation is a sealed cavelike chamber that the viewer can only see into by climbing onto—I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but Ha says it’s inspired by “dreamwork, the nocturnal, and these archetypal myths we live inside our lives.” The outside of the chamber is covered with a colorful patchwork she made by cutting up what she guesses are half the clothes she owns—certainly one way to simplify a cross-country move. This, says Ha, touches on the show’s connection to “inner-outer stuff. My clothes are the way I represent myself to the world, and express personal style in a very literal way.”

The opening-night party includes performance art by Ryan Dunn, aka Instinct Control; DJ sets by Alex Valentine and Rand Sevilla; and readings by Gabriel Wallace (formerly of Mahjongg) and painter Gregory Jacobsen (of the defunct Lovely Little Girls). Ha and Soliday have taken inspiration for their set from early synth experimenter Ruth White and a bizarre sex-magic sci-fi album released in 1969 by Louise Huebner, briefly famous as the official witch of Los Angeles County. Ha is also finishing a book of related collages and illustrations, likewise called The Cosmic Mind of Black Leather, financed by another CAAP grant and due out this winter. It draws on the same collection of dream journals the installation does—ten volumes spanning 20 years.

When I stopped by to check out the Reversible Eye space midconstruction, on the floor I noticed a sparkly, grommeted-and-fringed fabric wristband. It was waiting for the scissors, perhaps, or some other way of being destroyed and integrated into the installation. Ha had made a lot of them in 2003, and at the time she’d given one to me. “This is a symbol of our friendship,” she told me then. I still have it, intact.