By Mike Romero
Since Mormon settlers first arrived in 1847, Utah counterculture has largely consisted of groups who set themselves in opposition to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its adherents. Whether it’s former members wrestling with anger towards a once-beloved institution or “gentiles” suddenly finding themselves a cultural minority in America for the first time, because the counterculture still has strong ties to Mormondom, it’s still just as weird as the predominant culture. It’s been this way for almost 200 years.
But now things are getting weirder.
As Mormonism has grown, its adherents have diversified ethnically, politically, and culturally. Members are having a harder and harder time living up to the perfect image of a faithful Latter-day Saint. What happens when you’re a believer, so you don’t fit in with the established counterculture – but you’re unorthodox, so you don’t fit in with the faithful? Enter LAZERos, a mysterious Mormon artist working on the fringes to redefine what it means to make art about one of the youngest global religions.
Laz is one of the co-founders of the ARCH-HIVE, a Utah art collective that specializes in Mormon cultural expression. His work has been featured in galleries and shows all over the state. I met with the anonymous artist for a rare interview.
I absolutely love your art. I know you work in other mediums, but your online work is like if the Space Jam website got baptized and started making Vaporwave edits. It’s fantastic. How did you first start exploring Mormon iconography in this context?
I believe I first got the idea for my online account in early 2016. I was enamored with Vaporwave and early 2010s net art and microgenres, even though the heyday of the scene was arguably over by then. I loved that people were establishing entire genres themselves before the art was even made. Usually genre is just something we apply after the fact with loose parameters. So I wanted to make my own genre out of whole cloth where I could have full control of the delivered aesthetic experience. The term “mormcore” was actually what I came up with for the genre before it became my handle. Once I had the idea for “Mormon Vaporwave,” the ideas came pretty easily. Swap palm trees for Joshua trees or cacti, swap coastal purples and cyans for burnt desert yellows and oranges, and change the foreign Japanese characters for the Deseret Alphabet. I also wanted to play with the nostalgia aspect, but for both personal memories of my childhood growing up in rural Utah, and for our shared memories of specific Mormon textures (before I even knew Textures of Mormonism existed!).
As you were getting your feet wet with this new genre, did you have any online artists you admired or wanted to emulate?
Matt Page was a big early influence. Not so much for mormcore, but for the entire idea that I had permission to play with the iconography. Before my collages, I first started making my alternate Deseret Alphabet album covers. Matt was definitely an inspiration there. We have similar music tastes that we have both riffed on in our art. My biggest visual influence on the Vaporwave side at the time was probably acidwinzip, an artist from Texas who I felt was really elevating Vaporwave art beyond the meme status.
The ARCH-HIVE was inspired by the Art and Belief Movement from the 1960’s. What about that movement inspired you?
Right after I got home from my mission in 2012, I did a little assisting on a documentary about the movement, directed by local artist Nathan Florence (it should be out by the time this is published. It’s called Bright Spark). I had never heard of the movement before then, but I found the entire story of the struggle for Mormon art incredibly inspiring as a creative person who felt like a bit of a misfit in church culture.
Did you always envision creating a movement/collective of some sort, or did that happen naturally? How does working with a scene compare to working alone?
I never anticipated starting a collective, at least not one that reflects what the ARCH-HIVE is now. That happened after I met Camilla Stark in person after chatting on Instagram for about 6 months. It’s hard to remember the exact series of conversations that led to the collective, but the important thing was our shared desire for quality and weirdness in Mormon art. Working with people has been awesome. I tend to be a loner and a control freak, so letting myself go in the service of the group has been important for my own growth.
So you and Camilla first met on Instagram?
Yes. I met Camilla on Instagram as part of my stealth campaign to grow my account.
I didn’t go to BYU and I wasn’t connected to the art world much, so I just started following people in Utah who seemed like they might like my stuff if they saw my page. Phase two was to offer a few fashionable people some free merch. Bribery works!
What set of skills does she bring to the table, and how has working with her improved your own capabilities as an artist?
Working with Camilla, particularly on branding and posters for the ARCH-HIVE, has been really important. She offers a different perspective and valuable feedback. If you saw some of the early versions of posters and shirts, they look amateur compared to the final design. But they were at points were I was ready to call them complete. Camilla would push things further than I thought they needed to go to great results.
I love that desire to push each other to be better. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the Provo music scene has hundreds of creative and talented minds making some really cool stuff. However, the majority of them are trying to do everything on their own. So you end up with hundreds of really talented individuals running in a million different directions. Do you notice this trend in the Utah art scene? If so, how has the ARCH-HIVE sought to counter this?
I have definitely noticed the chaos you describe, and I think one unfortunate reality is that so many creative people are just passing through Utah (and Provo in particular) during their creative years in their 20’s. Most creative people don’t really seem to see Utah as a permanent place to install themselves, let alone base their art on the culture here. It feels like a layover where people mingle until they get on their flights to wherever they imagine themselves existing creatively. Totally understandable, too. But I think we need more people who feel like pillars. If a countercultural like Ken Sanders could operate such a rad bookstore in Salt Lake for so many years, then you don’t really need to move to New York, do you? In my ego of egos, I sort of have imagined myself or the ARCH-HIVE as a Lawrence of Arabia for Mormon art, uniting the various factions towards a greater goal of a joint dynasty in Utah art. But in practice, we just find cool people and make friends with them or invite them to participate in shows. What comes next is still up to the individuals. We’re a free-flowing collective, not an institution.
What advice do you have for fostering an environment of support and collaboration?
I think regular communication is huge. Having an online server or forum, in person meet ups as circumstances allow, just time to chat and toss around ideas and make friends. I truly believe that most great art movements just started because a bunch of creative friends, peers, or even rivals just started making things to show primarily to each other. I also believe in just being consistent and kind in whatever you are trying to do, and that pays dividends in a group setting, no matter how niche it is.
Members of the ARCH-HIVE have made a number of Mormon-adjacent musical contributions. Alec Viera’s “Archkeeper” and “Botanica” from Cecil Smith, Ben Swisher, and Bly Wallentine come to mind. The latter was actually released as HIVE TAPE-001. How did these come to be? Were you involved at all?
I have always been invested in the idea of the truly indie music scene. As I mentioned before, mormcore was a microgenre concept and I very much intended to make some music at some point. Unfortunately, I am not musical in any way, but I still would love to learn eventually. In the meantime, HIVE TAPE was me fulfilling my desire to put out a well designed cassette, and the connection to “Botanica” by Gardener just happened to align through Camilla.
Do you have a vision for what Mormon-adjacent music can or should be?
I don’t really know what the parameters for Mormon music are (or for Mormon art in general), but I think we all know it when we see it – at least subjectively.
Do you have any favorite Utah bands or musicians?
The band that comes to mind immediately would be Choir Boy. Really cool work all around. There’s also Fief, who makes dungeon synth music out of Salt Lake. I have some of his records on vinyl. I would also have to cast my mind way back and shout out The Used as super foundational. While getting into punk and emo music as a rural teen, the idea that there was this relatively big band out of Orem was mind boggling when the world felt so small. We would pause the music videos to see the Angel Moroni they used to put on their amps. Along with that, I have to shout out the local emo band in our teeny community, Your Favorite Heartache. We were all friends and they got me into so much music. Finally, there’s Nick Simone, for whom I’ve designed two different pieces of cover art: for his old band ACIDCVLT, and his new solo project Arcangelo il Demoni.
What music inspires you personally?
I will always have a soft spot for the 80’s, both in terms of underground punk and alternative, and bigger pop and new wave stuff, but I really like a little bit of everything as cliche as that may be. I’m always trying to expand my boundaries because there’s nothing better to me than the hunt for a new thing that will click and fit into my own regular rotation. I am really inspired by music with strong, evocative lyrics in particular. I like stories painted in music.
What is your biggest dream for Utah art culture? Where do you hope Mormon-adjacent art will be in ten years? Twenty?
All I can say is that I hope people can find a way to make it work without feeling like they need to shed the local peculiarities. Not everything is for everyone, but I think there’s a lot more to be gained by leaning into things, even uncomfortable things, rather than writing around them.