As one of a group of artists, you are participating in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. Is psychedelic art still justified today? Has the inspiration for this movement changed over the past five decades?
I think this exhibition is just giving a gentle, friendly nod to the original 1969 festival. The psychedelic – if you go back to the etymology of creating an ‘image of the mind’ – is almost a tautology, all art being a vision of/through a mind. But even in the narrowest sense, the locus of Woodstock has always been exploring the edges of human experience, both outer and inner.
Speaking for my own work, I would not classify it as ‘psychedelic’ in the narrow historical sense, but I think the impulses are in harmony, and we will be very interested to see what people’s reactions are to the piece in this particular group setting, which equally draws on the local history and on the influence of, among others, Fluxus. This exhibition attempts to draw on that parallel but deeper lineage.
It should also be noted that the long exploration of the therapeutic effects of psychoactive substances which was associated with psychedelic art in the 1960s has been vindicated by its absorption into mainstream medicine in the last decade.
The exhibition commemorating the anniversary of the Woodstock Festival is called An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music. Do you believe that re-editions of festivals like Woodstock still have the same liberating influence as fifty years ago on people?
The exhibition’s actual title is – PSYCH OUT!!! which can be seen as both provocative and polemical; a call to wake up rather than fall into a dreamy sleep.
The village of Woodstock has been a haven for non-conformist artists since the very beginning of the 20th century (1902) – when a ‘utopian community’ based on the philosophies of John Ruskin and William Morris was set up by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead (this exhibition takes place on his original Byrdcliffe Colony) and Hervey White, whose 1905 breakaway Maverick Colony is well-known through its associations with John Cage, and particularly his world premiere performance of 4’33 by David Tudor. The place has been continually renewing itself, and continuously attracting artists and non-conformist thinkers ever since. By the 1960s, this mainly centered on rock and folk music, and the civil rights and sexual liberation movements, rather than being solely crafts and painting based, but the utopian strain was still central. By 1994 – for the 25th anniversary (which was also NOT held in Woodstock, and through a mixture of bad luck, bad planning and bad weather, unfortunately turned into somewhat of a shambles...) some of the local artists, led by the poet, musician and iconic counter-cultural activist (and friend) Ed Sanders - put on an ‘alternative alternative’ festival in the town, for free, to maintain a pure and non-commercial event. It is that ‘off- off-’ festival spirit which this re-edition also celebrates (indeed, Sanders’ 60s political rock band ‘The Fugs’ will be playing a reunion concert in August of this year).
Is this only a tribute to the original festival, or is the 2019 edition of the festival a manifestation of a rejection of mainstream culture?
In the very narrowest contemporary sense – and not only in the USA – one might even go so far as to say that contemporary mainstream life marginalizes the idea of artistic culture altogether, and in a very real sense, to create is automatically to step outside of the mainstream, so any act of community is in practice a form of rejection, or better, of resistance to mainstream culture.
The wider question is very difficult to answer, as on the one hand, the alternative (hippie?) culture of the 1960s which the name ‘Woodstock’ evokes has been well and truly commodified by now; but on the other hand, alternative cultural strands have continued to twist, change, and evolve - and are still very much alive and well, especially through activism in gender politics and environmental concerns, as well as in the arts.
Your installations are very sensual and intimate, with images of dripping or flowing water, or fire. You or fragments of your body often appear on screen. It is clear that there is unusual sensitivity in your works. Are you not afraid of such direct exposition towards the viewers?
Your question picks up on several essential elements of my practice.
One by one, I will try to address them, beginning with the most obvious aspect. Let’s do it by focusing on the question of ‘direct exposition’. I assume that what you mean here primarily is the act of baring the body, which is, of course, what first comes to mind when you view these video-performances.
But before I go into the specifics of that, I want to, perhaps perversely, make the point that the experience of exposing the body is the easiest part of the whole process. To further pervert the statement, or surprise even more, I would say that there is a sense of liberation in the act of baring as my body gets older. However, as a poet, which is my primary identity, I am constantly exposing my psyche. Or to use the phrase coined for the performance in which a small group of poets, including myself, collaborated with the video artist Gary Hill (Poland and Czech Republic, 2004), I put my “Mind on the Line”. Meaning, I risk opening its contents, and inner workings, for direct viewing. You can say that in our traditional understanding of poetry this happens in the medium of language, in which I include silence.
Back to the body. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be working within the fold of a specific tradition which I found, or maybe it found me, that is the stage of the New York Hudson Valley. An absolute pioneer of research into body, gender, and sexuality, the late Carolee Schneemann worked in the same body of land, as well as the same community of artists. The same vessels, if it were, both the physical and social landscape. Needless to say, Carolee was a friend who remains a huge, seminal influence. It is perhaps important to mention that while she herself had to withstand attacks from fellow visual artists, male and female alike, she was expelled from Bard College on the grounds of obscenity, by the male faculty members, for her nude self-portraits, while at the same time the same artists used her body to pose for their work. She was also rejected by the early feminists for ‘pandering to male tastes’. Carolee was always given support by the poets. The same poets who many years later became my friends and teachers in America. I refer specifically to Robert Kelly and Jerome Rothenberg, who in their early days identified their work as “Deep Image” poetry, a notion to which I will return in the next question.
Of course, I am also fortunate to work here and now. Had I remained in Poland instead of choosing to live and work in such major cities as Paris, or New York, my practice would have almost certainly have become the object of public scrutiny. I was reminded of this during my most recent visit to Wroclaw, with the events surrounding the decisions of the National Museum in Warsaw concerning the work of Natalia LL.
Body as a landscape. There is a short play I wrote last year for 2 women performers, “Yeux Sans Visage”, which opens with a metaphor of the pains and daily catastrophes in every woman’s life as freight trains: “the wagons that clatter across my face slicing it into bareness, becoming this bent light, with each curve sharper than the ground, fleeing the sun.” Becoming light as we age, stripping the face to its essential, defining features. Not only for a woman, this is an act of initiation. Into what? Into death, mortality, immortality. To acknowledge the change. Embrace its beauty. Take for instance the late photographic portraits of Samuel Beckett. Also, with every line of his writing Beckett projected a feeling that his body is the land from which he crawled out, and unto which he was to return.
There is a view which sharply rose into our awareness over the last few years, perhaps coincidentally with the #metoo movement, or the ‘body positivity’ movement that emphasized the correlation between the abuse of women and the ecological disaster resultant from the abuse of Mother Earth. With a hope that if we reexamine our individual relationships to the body, how we treat, or mistreat, our bodies in general (which includes individual and social pathologies, such as self-harm, sexual enslavement, etc.) and the ecology of our corporeal, tangible activity on earth, our interactions with the bodies of water, the way we manipulate substances and elemental forces at hand, we can reverse climate change.
In this sense, I consider that a large part of my poetic obsession with water, or fire, is influenced by something like the Extinction Rebellion. I haven’t yet poured gasoline over my body and set myself on fire (though I meditate on this image daily); the reason being that at this point I identify Time as the most dangerous ‘elemental substance’ in the processes of our self-destruction.
Another influential voice in point, and a friend of mine, is the poet Peter Lamborn Wilson, better known in Poland as Hakim Bey, the author of the anarchist bible “TAZ” (Temporary Autonomous Zone). Peter’s call for a return to small communities which organize their time according to a cyclical time, i.e. the time of nature, instead of aggregating around the concept of scientific progress in service of ever-expanding Capital, should be taken seriously.
To return to Carolee Schneemann, I want to emphasize that while she worked primarily in the field of visual arts, her preoccupation with the body of the individual in relation to social bodies remains relevant to my own poetic research.
There are always several different media involved in your works. Your primary tool - as it seems - is the word. The word written, spoken, sung. How much is this message transitory/affecting the emotions only at the time of perception?
Yes, the Word. Language conceived as a living organism that passes through us. The fugue of language (think: J.S. Bach’s music), poetry as the fusion of language & music, this ‘real music’ as something born from a sustained tone, tune, a continuous line written in the sky of our hearing, moving on, tone into tone, phoneme into phoneme. Transient yet at the same time unceasing. A flow.
To paraphrase Robert Kelly, the poetic language is a body of song, a literal incarnated body wanting to dance. My current obsession with speaking mouths began when I moved to America. I had already made the decision to write in the English language. I spoke English fluently, but for the first time I became self-conscious of my accent. There is an enormous variety of what you hear when people speak to you in New York alone. The personal inflections, the layers of geographical accents. While being attracted to certain modes of speaking I started paying attention to the physicality of language, the ways peoples’ facial muscles sculpt themselves while producing specific sounds, how their mouths and tongues move, and so on. For a while I tried to imitate, “I tried others on”, in order to assimilate. Only to discover that our individual language, which is made of phonemes we inherit from our parents and grandparents, or childhood companions, our speaking apparatus which includes the voice, is what gives us a specific time signature. A power-spot.
Our language is as incarnated as our mind is. For every poet there is a personal life-long alchemy involved in accessing this deeper voice, even if its transposition into a foreign language sounds odd. Poets are “strangers in a strange land.’
If you watch my mouth speaking a poem into a waterfall, articulating the lines with hundreds of cubic meters of water per minute pounding my face, consider the pain and deafening sound of the cascade, you may wonder, what’s the point? Endurance art? NO. I am interested in a relationship between my language and the language of the land. The ecology of the situation dictates that my words get flooded, washed away. The physical act of speaking turns into something of a struggle to breathe, to stay alive, not to drown. Yet at the same time the poem continues in my mind. The images emerge. Who is speaking? Is this a collaboration between the poet and the waterfall? The work is called “In Memory of Water”. We might return to the concept of the Deep Image. To some extent, you can think of such poetry as deeply informed by the Archetypal psychology of James Hillman, who revitalized the ego as an individual psyche, or soul, and the deepest patterns of its functioning, the archai. Hillman liked to refer to them as ‘the fundamental fantasies that animate all life’, but unlike Jung he acknowledged a multiplicity of individual archetypes, our personal myths.
How do these deep images resurface? In what process? In my practice I find the use of extreme situations and multimedia as an important feedback-loop which often allows me to register the poetic image in statu nascendi. As I read, recite, improvise on the text I know by heart, fresh images spring to mind. The combination of the incarnated poetry put to the test of the elements creates a primeval situation, almost a shamanic experience in which deeper awareness of language can be reached by proprioception. The camera eye, this objective viewer, registers the subtleties of the body/land interaction which might later concretize during the editing phase, and in their turn inform the poem. Each performance is an “Opening of the Field”, to use the term brought into the American poetics by Robert Duncan (the poet whose centennial we are celebrating in 2019). “WRITING IS FIRST A SEARCH in obedience” wrote Duncan in a seminal poem from 1956, referring to a poetic strategy in which the poet is led through the composition of a poem rather than leading himself.
What comes into play during the performance is also the issue of trust. I rely on my collaborators, chiefly my life partner, the filmmaker Russell Craig Richardson. I want to emphasize that this is not the interpersonal trust as perceived for instance in early performances by Marina Abramović & Ulay, although there are deceptive similarities. I am not interested in looking my partner in the eye, holding onto the intimacy of our relationship to maintain the connection. As I turn my back on him to enter the river into which Russell will continue to throw rocks, which land next to, or almost grazing my body, I become part of the landscape. I do not expect him to perform a ‘fake stoning’ of my person, but rather expect him to acknowledge my presence in the water as if I were a wading bird. A floating duck. In other terms, I simply do my part while retuning the ecology of the spot toward a possibility of ethical behavior. The same is true when I offered my poem for deconstruction by the composer Noah Creshevsky who made it his own.
To finish answering the question, I would like to tie it back to psychedelic problematics. I owe a huge debt to a whole generation of poets and visual artists who devoted their work to the examination of psychedelic substances. Among my close friends I would like to quote Gary Hill and his personal inquiry into LSD and ayahuasca, the poets George Quasha (“Somapoetics” and the quest of mushrooms), and Charles Stein, whose study of the Eleusinian Mysteries sheds new light onto the set of rites and experiences fueled by the kykeon, a psychedelic brew of an ultimately unknown recipe. Despite the fact that my personal experience of psychedelics is limited to a single accidental massive overdose of edible hashish, this occurrence had a profound effect on my creative process. After the initial poisoning, which left me in the neurology department of our local hospital, and susceptible to flashbacks for the next two months, the shock, nonetheless, opened the floodgates to altered states of sensitivity. During the first months following this episode, I kept a detailed poetic diary of perceptions, including a dream-log. I still go back to these pages to cross certain thresholds of ‘obeying an image’. I also suffer from a rare type of migraine, which despite its debilitating effects happens to be extremely productive in terms of generating psychedelic images. I was very struck when finding a similar account in Oliver Sachs’ book on “Hallucinations”. The famous neurologist reports one of his own important experiences which took the form of a visual migraine, the so called ‘aura’. His spontaneous revelation of the true indigo came after long months of obsessing on the meaning of the color, and futile attempts to gain access to the deep image with the help of various psychedelic substances. A migraine attack during a concert in the Metropolitan Museum solved the quest.
This gives me an opportunity to end on a few lines from my composition for three voices (inner/outer/piano), not so innocently called “Poppies”, which concludes with the following passage:
“Poppies I remember” as my individual signing of being (…) onto the fabric of this, this language, the immanence of sense, “a simple vocabulary of movement” roaming off in the arborescence of meaning / myself psychedelic, elided between “their frail shadows” / the folds articulated from there, on.”
Interview held exclusively for MAK Gallery by Michał Begiert.