Text-based Research May 2019

To go along with my image collection I usually create mind maps examining certain themes and ideas within the work.

I wrote a statement that I think sums up much of what goes on in the work:

Communication of otherworldly experience requires a symbolic language due to the ephemeral and unexplainable nature of the phenomena. Often this communication is through artwork, story and performance, where material representations, in the form of object, symbol and gesture, can be used as to communicate the incommunicable.

My workbook gets a bit confusing at times with all my diagrams and scribbles, but I always go back to re-reference them, even those I made several years ago. Here I’ve started picking apart my interest in the occult, or esoteric, and how it functions within my art practice both positively and negatively.

I’ve then gone on the look at the place of Space, Body and Object in esoteric practice.

SPACE

MODIFIED SPACE
– Buildings or rooms dedicated to ritual or sacred practice.
– Symbols, maps, written and visual language applied to floors, walls, ceilings, furnishings.
– Furnishings (objects!) for use within practice.

NATURAL SPACE
– Areas that are ‘fit for purpose’.
– Often natural environments imbued with ‘the sacred’; natural occurrence of an elemental nature like water, air, fire, earth or to do with animals, trees etc.

UNINTENTIONAL SPACE
– Spaces that have a ‘received specialness’. For example they may have a historical significance to do with previous events, previous owners, previous usage.
– Haunted spaces.

OTHERWORLD SPACE
– Spaces that do not exist within the material world; internal space, astral space, extra dimensional space etc.
– The collective unconscious, spaces that exist within myth.
-‘Other’ worlds eg. the Enochian aethyrs.

OBJECT

RITUAL / TALISMANIC OBJECTS
– A symbolic representation of a non-corporeal element.
– A way to contain/control/transport.
– A way to make the intangible physical.
– The language of objects; the interplay between objects.
– Allows connection with the ‘other’.
– We imbue objects with power (just looks at what we do with mobiles phones!)
– Furnishings for a ritual space.

WEARABLE / SMALL OBJECTS
– Method of communication.
– Can be concealed.
– Can have a special connection with the owner’s body.
– Can be passed from one person to another.

REPURPOSED OBJECTS
– Turning one thing into another = object alchemy.
– The history of an old object can be brought into a new form, the power and meaning of objects can be combined and amplified.
– Conversations between objects and materials.

MAPPING (ONTO OBJECTS)
– A symbolic pathway, a way through.
– May require a symbolic language to communicate or to decipher.
– An instruction, investigation, journey, discovery, unveiling.
– A visual plan or language.
– A path for the seeker, an instruction for an ordeal.

BODY

BODILY ATTRIBUTES
– Emphasis on body part eg eyes, teeth, hands, genitals.
– Emphasis on symbolism ascribed to that body part.
– Ritualised movement or pose of body part or full body eg mudras.
– Fetishising body parts, making them talismanic or sacred.
– Making the body monstrous, godlike or humorous through distortion of characteristics.

RITUAL MARKING OF THE BODY
– Permanent or transitory marking eg tattooing or scarification versus painting or make-up.
– Status or right of passage.
– A personal ordeal vs a communal event.
– Language of the body. Marking the body as a vessel, talisman or sacred object.
– Becoming more than human.

DRESS
– Enacting a character or archetype.
– Giving form to the incorporeal.
– Using dress as part of a symbolic language.
– Becoming ‘other’; an animal, a spirit, an idea.

MOVEMENT
– Creating a language through moving and shaping the body.
– Communication without words.
– Sacred / ritual dances.
– Moving between worlds.
– Combine with dress, markings, objects and space to create a powerful method of communication and experience.

I also took a delve into my personal interest in the occult; the whys, wherefores and the problematic aspects that go along with it. Something I’m looking into right now is correlation between interest in the esoteric in times that are particularly turbulent in a socio-political sense.

The issue of anything to do with the occult seeming laughable, absurd, embarrassing, cheesy (the list goes on) is something I work with constantly. I’ve thought about choosing to embrace that in my work, but it doesn’t sit right, so I continue to balance on the tightrope of earnestness! I’m fully aware of appearing ridiculous, but it’s an interesting space to exist in. What I need to keep pushing towards is finding the place where viewers find relevance and connection in the work. It’s not about me.

I’m also curious about the general public’s acceptance (and even the commercial exploitation) of some aspects of what is widely considered ‘occult’ versus the fear of other aspects such as mysticism and esotericism. Aside from residual superstition around devil worship and that sort of thing, I suspect is due to it’s very nature; being occult = being hidden. Science-minded twenty first century people might not be scared of demons, but they want to know things straight away and in bite-sized form, even extremely complex ideas shouldn’t take longer than a standard podcast to explain. I wonder if the very thing that has always drawn me to esotericism is what repels many others; everything is hidden under layers of symbolism that can only be revealed over time. It’s non-didactic – everything is found through questioning, testing, exploring and finding. It’s a SLOW process that requires patience and commitment which are in short supply right now due to the way we interact with technology – and that’s another aspect of the whole thing that is worth exploring.

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Visual research May 2019

I constantly collect images that interest me, then several times a year I go through them, sort them into rough groups, stick them in my workbook and write notes on why I chose them underneath. From there I’m able to pull out possible areas of interest, recurring themes or ideas I hadn’t recognised before. I try not to self-censor and I keep anything that catches my eye even if I worry that it’s a bit far from ‘art’ or my practice as such. Fashion, pop culture etc can all have useful take-outs.

Geometry under the rug

Just when I was getting into finding out about the contemporary Western relationship to esotericism and the occult, a friend sends me a selection of facebook screenshots he thought I might enjoy. I did enjoy it immensely, not just because peoples reactions are so great, but because it provided a nice little insight into exactly what I was curious about.

From digging around online I’ve come to the conclusion that a sort of vague ‘witchiness’ is very popular right now. As long as it’s got some connections to nature and you can indulge in some enjoyable consumerism in the form of sage smudge sticks or sliver pentacle necklaces, it seems reasonably acceptable by the (non-religious) western mainstream. I don’t think the same can be said for things that lean in a more ‘occult’ direction though.

What fascinates me is the fear induced by geometry; namely any geometry that appears in-situ within a building (one could almost say an installation). Ritual circles on the floor really get the blood pumping, then add a five-pointed star, or a hexagon, or similar and satan is on the loose! It’s quite wonderful that geometric shapes have so much power over otherwise jaded and skeptical adults. The excitement of finding a couple of circles under the carpet of an old house was so exhilarating that it migrated from facebook and onto the front page of the NZ Herald – I bet the owners didn’t expect that much curiosity! Is this the last real bastion of true superstitious fear in western culture?

I was thinking that you could perhaps chuck hauntings in there as well, but the reaction to ghosts vs floor-geometry does appear a bit different. Hauntings, as well as offering the exhilaration of fear, also offer answers; the possibility of an afterlife or existence in another place and the chance to connect with it. Occultism only puts forward questions. Find some fancy floor-geometry under your carpet and you’re just going to be left with more questions than you started with even if you can find someone to tell you what it is and who made it.

Just quietly, I suspect that either someone who lived in the house 30 years ago wanted spooky rooms for fun (bunch o goths) or there was someone who did some general non-specific ritual work and wanted a circle for it. There is certainly nothing in either of those circles that tells you much about what they might have been used for. I’ve included screenshots of the original post and some of my fave comments. These were shared on a public forum, but I have removed all names.

If anyone has any thought’s about contemporary western society’s relationship to the occult, please do leave me a comment as I’m very curious…

Hauntology; experienced through Burial’s ‘Untrue’

A sense of loss for a future that never was

Lately I’ve been revisiting some musical projects I enjoy and discovered that they fit into the genre of ‘hauntological music’. I’d previously been aware of hauntology existing as a cultural idea, but hadn’t thought about applying it to music, which is a bit remiss of me as music is the perfect conduit for hauntological experience.

The concept of hauntology was originally coined by the philosopher Jacques Derrida in his Spectres de Marx (1993) to reference the way in which the western world is haunted by the spectre of a post-communist existence where the possible promise of a future of equality, justice and fairness has been lost to neo-liberal capitalism and unfettered growth.

Derrida imbues our world with phantoms that shift in and out of our field of vision, making us aware of other possible futures and pasts. They exist within our emotional being rather than our intellectual mind and if you wanted to get very cliched about it then maybe these phantoms could be described as a kind of melancholy nostalgia.

“Derrida’s rehabilitation of ghosts as a respectable subject of enquiry has proved to be extraordinarily fertile. Hauntology supplants it’s near-homonym ontology, replacing the idea of being a presence with the figure of the ghost, as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive.
Davis, C. (2005) État Présent; Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms, Oxford University Press Society for French Studies. (bolding my own)

The screenshots below are from a little BBC documentary on hauntology.  Apart from the content of the text, what I really like about the image is the spirograph set.

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 4.24.57 PM

Growing up in the UK in the 70s/early 80s I had a spirograph set and seeing those objects gives a huge sense of strangeness. It’s a little tug on my brain that makes me feel sad and out of place even though it shouldn’t.

In an article for Film Quarterly (2012) What is Hauntology? Mark Fisher discusses the direction of electronic music and the impasse reached in the mid 2000s where music was no longer able to sound ‘futuristic’ without sounding anachronistic. The whole idea of futuristic music was now defined by a set of concepts, affects and associations formulated pre-2005, that could not be progressed beyond. Any purely electronic music with the usual ‘futuristic’ cues just sounded stale, so what comes next? It was the same for many creative pursuits, as if we had entered a situation where culture would not change but just continue on in much the same way, with much the same capitalist system and no vision for a future except for a haunting spectre of what might have been.

The particular album that I was listening to when I started looking into hauntology was Burial’s 2007 album “Untrue”.

‘Untrue’ sounds like cities late at night in the shifting time between sleep and waking where experience slows through syrup and you become enveloped in that ‘eternal moment’ that I’m so obsessed with through my own practice. Untrue is deeply moving; sorrowful, lost, smudged, echoing. The music itself has a thick, warm bass layered with clacky, staccato clicks and taps with flickering static like radios drifting between stations and giving time itself an audible presence.

There is such a depth of emotion to this album that is only enhanced by it’s cold emptiness. This might seem like a contradiction, but the more you immerse yourself in the music, the more the artist’s interests are slowly revealed. I’m captivated by the way he takes clips from schmaltzy RnB greats, then pitch-shifts them to unrecognisably deep sorrow. In the short documentary I have posted below, the narrator reveals that Burial created many of the percussive sounds using samples from the game ‘Metal Gear Solid’, including shell casings falling from the titular character’s gun. How many hours must he have spent playing late into the night, immersed in the echoes of the game?

Of Burial’s influences;
“The short-lived spate of interviews he did around Untrue teem with references to uncanny presences, subliminal hums, moments when you glance at the face of a friend or family member and catch something alien in their expression. Burial even enthused about his childhood love of the ghost stories of M.R. James, one of those gentlemen occultist writers who are touchstones for the UK hauntologists.”

…”Interviewed by the late British critic Mark Fisher, Burial spoke of creepy epiphanies he’d experienced walking through deserted night-time areas of London: “Sometimes you get that feeling like a ghost touched your heart, like someone walks with you.” Song titles like “Archangel” and “Feral Witchchild” suggest superstitious thinking, or at least an openness to the idea that there are supernatural dimensions, other realms that leak through into our reality in the form of visions or unsettling sensations.”
Link to article

Burial has talked about the importance of titles in instrumental electronic music to lead the listener through the abstract forms and emotional pathways. This reminds me so much of the joy of a well conceived title to really enhance an artwork. I know there is a place for ‘Untitled’ in leaving things open to the viewer, but an erudite title goes a long way. Burial has some truly inspired titles that give the listener a new layer of understanding of the work – Rival Dealer, South London Boroughs, Subtemple, Dog Shelter – these names conjure up emotions and situations that contextualise the soundscapes. If only I could be so poetic with my naming!

There is a track on Untrue called ‘In McDonalds’ which is particularly interesting to me. The music itself is fragile – not what you would at first associate with a fast food restaurant, although perhaps in the liminal hours when the other patrons have all gone home? Anthropologist Marc Augé coined the concept “non-place” for those spaces that have lost their identity in time and space; airports, international chain stores, data centres, any temple of capitalist globalisation. James Bridle also examines these spaces in his ‘New Dark Age’, which I wrote about previously, and it was he that initially made me aware of them. MacDonalds is, of course, the ultimate example of a non-place. Sitting in MacDonalds you could be at any time of day, in any country in the last 20-30 years; you are out of space and time being haunted by the potentiality of belonging

New Dark Age – James Bridle

Although my work hasn’t focussed on modern socio-political currents in any obvious way, these topics are something I read and think about a great deal on a day to day basis. I suppose in some way my rejection of the ‘everyday’ in my practice might be a reaction to the amount of time I spend thinking about contemporary issues. When I saw James Bridle’s “New Dark Age” pop up in a review on Brainpickings I immediately ordered it.

It’s hard to give a precis of what this book covers because it sprawls across a large and fascinating territory. I’ve described the book to a few people who I thought might appreciate it as an overview of the vast effect big data and computation is having on our culture.

“Over the last century, technological acceleration has transformed our planet, our societies, and ourselves, but it has failed to transform our understanding of these things… we ourselves are utterly enmeshed in technological systems, which shape in turn how we act and how we think. We cannot stand outside them; we cannot think without them.”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P2 (emphasis mine)

I’ve pondered extensively the changes brought about by the vast oceans of unmediated information available on the internet over the last few years. It’s impossible to ignore the gravitation in contemporary society toward extreme black and white thinking with no subtlety or ambiguity, to a distrust in academia and intellectualism, and to a distinct inability to engage in critical thinking. Talking to a number of secondary and tertiary teachers about the effects on education confirmed what I have suspected; knowledge is now wide but very, very shallow. There is also an inability to retain information due to the fact that its is constantly available at ones fingertips. This creates an environment where ideas and information cannot be readily contrasted and compared in the mind of the student because nothing is held there for long! There is also a propensity for students to use the first source they find without digging any deeper or questioning whether the source is reputable, resulting in conspiracy and debunked information being presented as fact.

While we may look at the internet as an amazing source of information which makes available knowledge we might not have been able to access in the age of the written word, it has no ‘filter’ on worthy or useless information, which leaves it up to us to learn to analyse what’s available. Unfortunately the easy access to information makes us lazy too and less likely to engage in critical thinking, preferring to just take what’s easily on offer and run with it.

Bridle talks extensively about the way that mining society for big data creates a culture that is, in turn, moulded by that very data; a self-referential feedback loop with little chance for escape.

“The danger of this emphasis on coproduction of physical and cultural space by computation is that it in turn occludes the vast inequalities of power that it both relies upon and reproduces. Computation does not merely augment, frame and shape culture; by operating beneath our everyday, casual awareness of it, it actually becomes culture. That which computation sets out to map and model it eventually takes over. Google set out to index all human knowledge: it became what people actually think. Facebook set out to map the connections between people… and became the platform for those connections, irrevocably reshaping societal relationships.”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P39 (emphasis mine)

We are interconnected, but also enmeshed. Enabled by the wealth of information, but also overwhelmed. The scope and volume of available data creates a society in which it’s unnecessary to think and we can sit back and let the machines do the processing for us. We are spoon fed by computational outcomes, made complacent and encouraged not to indulge in critical thinking or exploration by the very fact that information is so readily available. Unfortunately we are also blinded to what is occurring on a macro-scale by the small conveniences and joys of what we experience in our local systems. It might be nice to have access to social networking and online shopping, but what is happening at a grander scale and why can’t we see it?

Philosopher Timothy Morton uses the word ‘hyperobject’ to describe things like climate change, evolution and the internet that completely surround and envelop us, but that are too big for us to see. We can only perceive hyperobjects by their effect on other, more immediate things on a local level. Modelling a hyperobject so that we can perceive it requires vast amounts of computational power, and that vast data processing is a hyperobject in itself.  A phenomena like climate change acts in a physical way that can be compared to the actions of big data computation on our cultural landscape. Weather is perceived by us as a local phenomena but is no such thing as ‘local’ in a networked world, it is part of the greater global system known as climate. It is often hard for us to grasp that what might be seen as ‘good’ or ‘nice’ in our locals system is often indicative of something that is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ in the larger system – this is because we only can only perceive our small local system. Artist Roni Horn points out that “Weather is the key paradox of our time. Weather that is nice is often weather that is wrong. The nice is occurring in the immediate and individual, and the wrong is occurring system-wide.” p50

As a very concrete material example of this; we think we are ‘doing the right thing’ environmentally by trying to go paperless, but we are creating more and more data online that needs to be processed and stored. The virtual and perceivably unlimited nature of the storage facilities results in vastly unedited amounts of data. As of 2015 the worlds data centres consumed approx 3% of the worlds electricity (more than the entire UK) and accounts for 2% of the worlds global emissions (roughly the same carbon footprint as the global airline industry). This is in data storage alone.

Along with mass data processing comes mass surveillance; how else is the data to be gathered? Another example of a hyperobject, mass surveillance has become too big and too overwhelming for us to comprehend:
“Thinking about climate change spoils the weather, rendering it an existential threat even when it’s nice. Thinking about mass surveillance spoils phone calls, emails, cameras, and pillow talk… it’s easier to add it to the long list of things we agree not to think.” p179

“The operation of surveillance, and our complicity in it, is one of the most fundamental characteristics of the new dark age, because it insists on a kind of blind vision: everything is illuminated, but nothing is seen. We have become convinced that throwing light upon a subject is the same as thinking it, and thus having agency over it.” p185

This quote reminds me of the fashion for ‘raising awareness’ of a cause on social media. So what if we’ve shined a light on a problem? It’s illuminated, what now? Are we actually seeing it or just showing those watching us that we are pretending to care and putting a little flag in the ground to promptly forget.

Bridle appears to be very interested in hidden systems, and thats something that captures me as well. His work tracking the movement of unregistered aircraft and drones in the skies of England is both fascinating and disturbing. I chose the header image for this essay from his 2014 work Drone Shadow 007: The Lavender Hill Drone. It is a fine example of situationist philosopher Guy Debord ideas of ‘psychogeography’ or deliberate engagement with the hidden systems in our landscape. Perhaps this is a way to start to become aware of the larger processes at work by searching for how they interact with us on a local level?

“Debord was concerned with the increased spectacularisation of everyday life, and the ways in which our lives are increasingly shaped by commodification and mediation. The things we encounter in everyday life in spectacular societies are almost always a proxy for some deeper reality of which we are unaware, and our alienation from that deeper reality reduces our agency and quality of life. Psychogeography’s critical engagement with the urban landscape was one way of countering this alienation…” p103

On the other hand looking for hidden systems can result in conspiracy-thinking where criticality is abandoned through the very act of looking too hard. Bridle likens conspiracists to the haruspices of old; digging through the entrails of events looking for meaning and omens while potentially becoming sidelined and tricked by false truths and inconsequential avenues of thought. He comes to the conclusion many times that we are in a culture where even though we are looking at the same things we are getting very different outcomes and that we have built a system that reinforces this.

“Self-confirmed groups, from Targeted Individuals to Morgellons sufferers, and 9/11 truthers to Tea Partiers, seem to be a hallmark of the new dark age. What they reveal is what the chemtrailers show directly: that our ability to describe the world is a product of the tools at our disposal. We’re all looking at the same world and seeing radically different things. And we have built ourselves a system that reinforces that effect, an automated populism that gives people what they want, all of the time.” p211

There is so much to find of interest in this book – my copy is currently bristling with post-it notes. In this blog post I haven’t even begun to touch on the interesting chapters about manipulation by algorithm or the influence of Friedrich Hayek, father of neo-liberalism, on AI technology! I’ll leave with a quote from towards the end of the book where Bridle compares the insidious pollution of oil leaks to the pervasive power of a society driven by data:

“In the present, the extraction, refinement, and use of data/oil pollutes the ground and air. It spills. It leaches into everything. It gets into the ground water of our social relationships and it poisons them. It enforces computational thinking upon us, driving the deep divisions in society caused by misbegotten classification, fundamentalism and populism, and accelerating inequality. It sustains and nourishes uneven power relationships: in most of our interactions with power, data is not something that is freely given but forcibly extracted…”
Bridle, J (2018) New Dark Age. England: Verso. P247

Featured image: Bridle, J (2014) Drone Shadow 007: The Lavender Hill Drone

Perfume Alchemy

Last Saturday I attended a perfume workshop at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki taught by Samantha Copland of Perfume Playground

I’ve been using scent on and off in a my work to create an immersive environment, speaking to the kinds of all-encompassing environments creating in Ceremonial magick ritual practice. I find the effect of scent on our mood and memory to be fascinating. For myself – and I believe for many others – scent has a stronger memory link than that of sight, sound and touch combined. For example there is a smell of cooking that I first experienced on the street in Hong Kong at 8 years old that, if I happen to smell it on the street, will jolt me right back to that time and place even 36 years later. The smell of jasmine at night instantly transports me to my first few weeks in NZ when we were staying in a strange old dilapidated house in Remuera. I don’t think I’d ever smelled jasmine flowers before and this house had a huge rambling vine right outside the window that perfumed the whole house at night.

We were all working with a middle-note scent of cinnamon which meant we needed to choose a base-note scent and a top-note scent. I wanted to make something different to what I would usually choose and not pick my obvious favourite scents. I was trying to find scents that would work with the cinnamon to enhance it, but what I got in the end is most and reacts to my skin in a very strange way.

Firstly I should note that there is no alcohol or other solvents in the mix. I used
Top-notes:
Blood orange 1/28
Long Pepper 2/28
Middle-note:
Cinnamon 20/28
Bottom-note:
Tobacco Absolute 5/28

So it is very heavy on the cinnamon, which is what I wanted. Away from the skin it is VERY strong smelling and almost alcoholic. I even find it a bit unpleasant. But once it’s applied to my skin and it settles down and all the harsh aspects completely disappear and it becomes spicy and sweet.

The earlier versions I mixed with less cinnamon and more of the tobacco and pepper smelled very strange in the mixing containers, but when applied to my skin the whole fragrance just vanished!

Ingredients

I’ve been delving into the fragrance I chose to get some insight into their use and their symbolism:

Cinnamon is very much a solar fragrance in western esotericism and is a main component of ‘Oil of Abramelin’, a ceremonial oil blend with it’s roots the anointing oil described in the Hebrew Tanakh. It’s associations are with orange/red/gold, with Apollo and Ra, with Tiphereth, with Resh (the conscious mind/the front of the head), the sun and with Iron.
Cinnamon was highly prized in the ancient world, along with incenses such as frankincense and myrrh which are also derived from trees, but the sap rather than the bark. The Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon as part of the embalming process and the Romans would use it on the funeral pyres of the very wealthy.

Tobacco is attributed to Horus and Mars. It is also associated with orange and red colours, with iron, sulphur and ruby, with the element of fire and also, strangely, with gold. These are strong, martial attributes for a strong fragrance.
Indigenous American peoples extensively saw tobacco as a ceremonial plant for use in negotiations, treaties and as a means to carry ones prayers to the Creator. It is part of the nightshade family and originated in South America before spreading around the globe.

Pepper is another fiery red fragrance associated with Horus, Mars and Ares. It is also associated with Pe (the mouth) and the tarot trump ‘The Tower’. Long Pepper (also known as Pipli or Pippali) is a hotter variant of pepper than that used for culinary black/white/green pepper. It’s medicinal uses are described in Ayurvedic texts and was also used medicinally by the Greek ands Romans as early as the 5th or 6th Centuries BCE.

Blood Orange isn’t listed anywhere in western esoteric correspondences that I can find. Obviously, as it’s name would suggest, the flesh is a distinctive orangey red and it is apparently a natural mutation of the orange caused by anthocyanins. The fragrance is sweet and heady as the name implies.

Overall, looking at my findings, it seems clear that I have chosen a whole set of fiery, strong, orange/red fragrances without consciously intending to. The videos I currently have in the works are based on the alchemical ‘Rubedo’ process and will be shot entirely in red – it seems that this perfume I’ve created could work well as an accompaniment to the next show!

Now I have to finish putting together my fragrance for the Nigredo show in 1.5 weeks….

(Header photo from Perfume Playground instagram)

Following the matriarchal line

This isn’t too much to do with my art practice, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about. I’ve written and researched a great deal about the male relatives on my dad’s side of the family due to their eccentric characters and connections to the esoteric. After a death in my partner’s family I started thinking a lot about the women on my mum’s side. My mum’s matriarchal line have had to be very strong and resilient going back many generations due to the fact that they all lost their husbands at a young age and were left to support their families and bring up the children on their own. Often other women in the family were that most shameful of things – spinsters – so households were entirely female led and supported. My mum’s family are all from Forfar, near Dundee in eastern Scotland. When my Great Grandfather died I believe my Great Grandmother ended up working in the Forfar jute mill which was a huge employer for the town.

When I hear some extolling the virtues of the ‘traditional family’ where the women stay home, uneducated, to care for the children I wonder what world they are living in. This has never been a practical model, bread-winning men have always died leaving women to support their families, and in the past they have usually fallen into poverty at some level due to having little in the way of vocational skills.

Rings

I wear three rings on my left ring finger; my wedding ring (in the centre), my grandmother’s ring and my great grandmother’s ring. On the left is me as a little ginger with my granny Margaret. On the right is my granny as a girl, one of her brothers (David) and my great grandmother Majorie Cowie (nee Falconer).

Comparing the photo of Majorie with her sisters before her marriage and then after her husbands death it’s pretty obvious how much less well-off she is. Her clothing and that of the kids is worn and patched even though it must be their ‘best’, her hair isn’t styled and the only jewelry she has is her ring.

I’ve found it difficult to find out information about the women in my family due to the fact that women were very rarely recorded as being of any worth except as mothers to the next generation of sons. In respect to my mum’s family this is particularly frustrating as it was the women who held the families together.

 

The Ritual of the Mass & the difficulties of portraying esoteric ritual practice in contemporary art

Image: The main iconostasis in St Kazan Cathedral, St Petersburg, Russia.

I’ve been discussing the idea of filmed ritual with Josephine who has collaborated with me in my video work. We were wondering about how have to have a more active ritual aspect to the work and how this would translate. The main issues I see around filmed ritual are as follows:

  • Much ritual; western ceremonial magick in particular; just looks daft when viewed from ‘the outside’. It’s a participatory practice and rarely works as a spectator sport. Ritual is experiential in nature and there are few forms that can be viewed and appreciated without most of the active ingredients being completely lost.
  • It can look truly hokey. The trappings of ritual (again, especially western ceremonial) are so loaded with pre-existing cultural and pop-cultural meaning that use of them is very difficult unless it’s in a deliberately self-aware way, which lends itself more to the glib and ironic. Candles, incense, swords, robes? Pile all those together and you’ve got yourself a bad amateur horror movie.
  • Blatantly utilising the ritual language of cultures that are not my own for the sake of my art smacks of appropriation and the arrogant surface skimming of something I can’t truly understand. In a personal ritual setting experimentation with new practice is enriching, but for something like my video art I think it is gauche. The best way for me to work with non-western ritual language would be to collaborate with a practitioner who understands the deeper context and for me to take more of an ‘outsider’ position. This is something to consider for future works.

Ritual as a live performance piece is fraught with many of the same problems, especially the ‘cringe factor’ that comes with the cultural loading mentioned above. For both video and performance I’m inclined to remove most of the symbolic aspects that the audience is familiar with and, if I keep any (eg the kind of robed dress I’ve been using), angle it away from the ‘witchcraft and sorcery’ connotations. I’ve been leaning in the direction of historical art in gesture and form so that the work alludes to Renaissance or Baroque art which I hope lends it a different symbolic texture.

Looking again at Mikala Dwyer’s treatment of esoteric themes in her work I’ve been influenced by the way she has subverted and also utilised the loading of the forms she has used. Her robes and costumes for example still retain the connections to magical dress but they use fabrics and forms that have different connotations and so take the symbolism to a new place. Likewise her performance piece Goldene Ben’der (2013) which sees hooded participants robed in golden lamé attempt to defecate publicly into clear perspex seats which are later displayed. While this work may seemed to have a humorous aspect, it also captures both the seriousness and visual ridiculousness of ceremonial magick in one go. Very clever I think!

I spent some time pondering the kinds of rituals that are meant to be viewed as well as experienced and I came to the concept of the Mass. Aleister Crowley created a Gnostic Mass as a ceremonial ritual that I believe is the only example within his canon that is intended to be viewed by non-participants, although that’s an interesting point to play with as truly the congregation are also participants through the aspect of the Priest.
(Side note: he did also create his interpretation of the Rites of Eleusis, but to my mind they are theatre more than active ritual. Others might beg to differ.)

Crowley was hugely influenced by a Russian Orthodox Mass he witnessed, so while in St Petersburg I attempted to attend one to get a feel for what impressed him. I wasn’t able to attend a Mass, as I was not there on a Sunday, but I did attend a Russian Orthodox liturgy at Kazan Cathedral. Obviously I took no photos at the time of the service.

The cathedral has a central altar and 2 side altars, the Evening Liturgy was at one side and was cordoned off for worshippers. In order to be part of it I needed to wear a scarf over my head and I paid attention to everyone else to try and make sure I was doing the right thing. There is an awful lot of genuflecting, but apart from that it was actually quite relaxed with people coming and going.

Here are some interesting things that I noticed:

  • The altars are not visible to the congregation at all. There is a three part divider in front of each of the three altars called an iconostatis. Only the high clergy can go behind this to the altar and I believe it is only ever opened at Mass.
  • There are three clergy involved and they move around a lot; in and out of the 2 side doors in the iconostasis (but not the central door, they adored this but did not open it). There is a small altar within the congregation in front of the altar steps. This gives the chapel a three-point area of movement for the clergy: 1 behind the iconostatis (at the high altar), 2 in front of the iconostatis on the dais and 3 in the congregation on a lower level. One of the clergy takes incense around the whole perimeter of the chapel area and everyone turns towards him as he walks.
  • The congregation stand for the whole time. I had no idea how long the liturgies would go but I realised after an hour that they were actually looping round and it didn’t seem like they were going to stop any time soon. They genuflect a lot: head, base, right, left, touch the floor.
  • The loveliest part is the continual chanting and singing. The clergy chants the liturgies and an invisible choir up behind us sang in a call and response with the clergy. It’s worth having a listen to a Russian Orthodox service if you are interested because it truly is spine-tingling.

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Once again the viewer is still a part of the experience; you are THERE, you are not watching it play out on video. I find the placement of objects and people, plus the necessity to move through the area and be in certain places at certain times, to be a concept I could work with. I have created a diagram of the layout of a Russian Orthodox service versus Crowley’s Gnostic Mass. You can see the clear similarities between the too and the way movement through space would function in both rituals as the various clergy (or officers in the case of the Gnostic Mass) move around the chapel/temple. The 2 rituals above are very different but have strong similarities in movement, pacing and interactions. I feel that perhaps movement through space with gesture and interaction is intrinsic to a lot of ritual practice and could be included in my video while still allowing the work to remain free of the problems I outlined above. Something to think about further…

I find this whole quandary of portraying active ritual very interesting to think about. I find it very difficult but a great challenge. There are going to be some serious failures coming up, but a good ‘art fail’ is the best thing to point you in the right direction!

 

Saya Woolfalk and Psychedelic Shamanism

I came across Saya Woolfalk last year when I was looking at an article on the Artsy site about shamanism and contemporary art. I’ve thought about her work quite a bit since then and how to express my reaction to it, because that reaction is also deeply connected to how I feel about my own work. As different to hers as it is visually, there is an underlying similarity in intent I think and also in medium and execution.

I was initially drawn to a video loop on the header of the article showing a triple-blue-faced creature with multiple arms and white felt feathers floating through some kind of alien dreamscape.

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It brought up a lot of feelings and sensations for me – things I associate with the early 90s and attending the Goa-trance parties that were popular at the time. The quasi-shamanic costuming and facepaint, the ‘trippy’ computer graphic landscapes, the allusions to futuristic shamanic practices and the unabashed psychedelia. These dance parties were full of people painted with fluorescent paint, in wild costumes and immersive environments often created and elaborated on by the attendees themselves.

Saya Woolfolk describes much of her work as being woman-centric – She has created a virtual world inhabited by the Empathics, a race of hybrid futuristic women who are able to fuse with their environment. This also reminds me of these dance parties where people tended to ‘get in touch with their higher selves’ and men were able to express a more feminine aspect. She works with many people to create collaborative pieces: dancers, videographers, animators, and it appears that she allows them the freedom to add their own expression to the work rather than it being solely directed by the artist. Much of her work is multimedia multidimensional in not just the sense that she is exploring other dimensions but also in the sense that she works within multiple dimensions in the ‘material world’ too, allowing viewers to experience a fully immersive environment.

 

 

Saya Woolfalk, An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathetic Plant Alchemy (Jillian), 2011. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

Installation view of Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK Life Products Virtual Chimeric Space (Detail View), 2015, in Seattle Art Museum: “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.” Photo by Nathaniel Wilson. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

I wondered how Woolfalk examines cultural appropriation in her work in relation to the cultural shamanic cues she is using and their usage within the work of a Japanese-born New Yorker? She speaks of ‘cultural hybridity’ which I think is an interesting flip side to cultural appropriation; the coming together of cultures and creation of new culture rather than one taking from another. I know I personally get paralysed sometimes in my own work with worrying about the privilege of being a middle-class European in a developed country and whether I am appropriating culture that is not mine. Sometimes I stop making because I start to overthink the materials I’m using and the form it is taking. It’s probably more useful for me to just make the things THEN analyse how they fit within the cultural landscape rather than not making them at all!

In relation to my own work I’m also fascinated with what Woolfalk can ‘get away with’ when it comes to the otherworldly – probably not the best phrasing, but this is in relation to me and my practice rather than a critique of her work, as I’m really impressed with the passion and the gusto with which she executes her practice. Another learning from Woolfalk’s practice for me; it’s much more constructive to unapologetically embrace the work you want to make and look for it’s place within the current contemporary art landscape than to quash is out of nervousness of negative critique.

As ever when dealing with subject matter that is emotional, spiritual, non-ironic there is a line to be walked – fall too far in one direction and the work can become mawkish and kitsch. But if you don’t step over the line, then you don’t know where it is, so I think it’s perfectly ok to go there and then draw yourself back – as I have done on a number of occasions. There is a lot to learn from overstepping the mark and finding out where the boundaries are.

This brings me back to those Goa trance parties I used to go to. I think at their best these parties were living works of art; beautiful, full of life and raw creativity. At their most banal, they were the desperate posturing of modern kids wanting to take drugs and have some sort of empty spiritual epiphany. Art is at risk of being like that too.

(Top image: ChimaTEK Virtual Chimeric Space Seattle Art Museum)

 

 

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