February 13th, 2009


On shamanism

I recently had the strange experience of being interviewed by an ethnomusicologist about my relationship with, and use of, my neighborhood in Neukolln. The anthropologist was a musician herself -- she records under the name of Hilde Tropengold and will support Max Tundra on February 19th here in Berlin. When I told people I'd done the interview, they said "Oh, I thought ethnomusicologists only talked to people in Mali or Melanesia!" I guess the prefix "ethno-" makes people feel the interviewer and interviewee should be of different ethnicities and come from different cultures, but of course they don't have to.

I doubt I managed to be as interesting a subject as the shamans Swiss ethnographer Michael Oppitz captured in his amazing 1980 film Shamans of the Blind Country. This is classic anthropological field work amongst the Magar people of West Nepal, a pre-literate mountain tribe living in the vicinity of the Dhaulagiri range dividing India and Nepal. These people practice a shamanistic religion which Oppitz wants to preserve "the way the Iliad and the Odyssey have been preserved".

In Oppitz's brilliant, long film -- which has a slightly fictional feel thanks to a voice-over by William Burroughs -- the transhumance of sheep to new pastures becomes, in the Magar religion, the model for the departure to the netherworld of the soul of a dead man. Once the funeral rituals are completed, the young of the village engage in public sexual play, with the assumed approval of the dead man whose soul has just been sent out with the sheep.

In an interview with Swiss television, Oppitz explains the danger that the religions of preliterate cultures might be lost. Because these religions can't be summarised in a catechism or canon of texts, they rely on oral transmission from one shaman to his or her successor. Three things have threatened the Magar shamanic religion: colonialism, Christianisation and the pull of the big Indian cities.

I found it interesting to relate the rituals seen in this film to four things in my own life: the ethnomusicological interview I did, the performance art I'll do in New York later this year, the Shangri-La theme I wrote about in December, and a recent event in London, where flashmobbers disrupted Liverpool Street Station for a few minutes last week.

I guess the interview in which I became an ethno-musician linked to this particular area of Neukolln made me see something Oppitz talks about in his Swiss TV interview; that all forms of knowledge are linked to specific practices in specific places. If a Momus record is a "form of knowledge", it relies on Berlin to come into existence. Another city would create another sort of musical knowledge. This is a point about cultural relativism and rootedness; we cannot detach knowledge from location, which means that any "science" has a history tying it to the specific people and places where and for whom it's true.

The performance art thing relates to the influence of Joseph Beuys, who presented himself as a German shaman (in Beuys too we have this odd presentation of a Caucasian person as an "ethnic", a person ready to be investigated by anthropologists, a person with a system of fetishes, cures, spiritual knowledge). As the blurb for a recent Beuys show says, Beuys "integrated ancient cultural traditions and mythical imaginative worlds into modern-day scientific and epistemological thinking. His exhibits' mysterious-spiritual aura stems not least from the fact that 'fields of knowledge' on the point of disappearing such as shamanism, alchemy, magic, cosmology, animism, naturopathy and natural myths found their way into his artistic creations and were even an integrated part of his way of thinking and acting. In Beuys' comprehensive oeuvre we constantly encounter spiritual rituals and shamanic practices. According to Beuys it is only through the inclusion of these rituals that a process of spiritual renewal of the individual and society becomes possible."

I also recognised in the kinds of activities the shamans perform in the Oppitz film the sort of gestures Aki Sasamoto and I will be doing in our New York show in May. Aki, for instance, swings potatoes around on elastic or uses unusual cutlery to feed her partner. These are exactly the sort of things shamans do; they fire tiny bows and arrows in all directions, or make a representation of an animal out of baskets and plants. Their gestures are designed to meet the needs of an everyday situation; sickness, death, infertility. I like to think that performance art does the same thing. In Love is the End of Art, I hope the rituals we perform address some issues people are having with love and criticism.

The Shangri-La theme is to do with the fact that the Oppitz film provides a third film in the series we looked at in December. Lost Horizon and Black Narcissus, like Shamans of the Blind Country, are films about religious groups, set in the Himalayas. There's a recurrent theme, in all these films, of the rootedness or non-rootedness of the religions. The nunnery in Black Narcissus can't quite adapt to the local conditions. The foreigners who stumble on Shangri-La can't quite embrace its religion of moderation and contentment. Only in the Shamans film does the religion seem properly integrated, socially. But even this has a lost paradise sub-theme, because the shamanic religion is threatened by urbanisation, colonialisation, and evangelical religions.

As for the flashmobbing thing, I'm shocked by the negativity of the tone of this ILE thread about a recent flashmobbing event in London's Liverpool Street Station. Most posters describe the flashmobbers as "random attention-seeking fuckheads... smug annoying wankers who think they're being clever/outrageous/individual/edgy". Two Scandinavian posters -- Dagmar and Tuomas -- are the only voices speaking "for experimentation, for play, for the unconventional". They're quickly condemned and marginalised as "concern trolls". The majority opinion is both that flashmobbing is aggressive and inconsiderate, and that it's twee, timid, self-indulgent and self-regarding; not aggressive enough. The flashmobbers should be beaten up or machine-gunned against a wall.

The hivemind here demonstrates a normatively aggressive concern to see public order maintained at all costs, and wants ritual rigidly separated from public space. If we think of the flashmobbery as a modern sort of shamanism -- an attempt to integrate ritual into everyday life -- then what we see in this thread is that attempt being repudiated. The majority opinion that prevails here is that "art has less right to use (and thereby necessarily to disrupt) public space than almost any other form of human activity". I obviously side with Tuomas and Dagmar, and I think the hivemind represents the worst sort of "aggressive normality" -- the "cosmic toryism" of the idea that whatever is, is right.

Interestingly enough, it's some notion of inequality which makes people reject the flashmob "shamans". Someone says of their performance: "It reminds me of that part in The Wasteland where the narrator is shaking his head sadly at all the similarly-dressed businessmen crossing London Bridge, and how I always want to yell: "Hey they're people, they have histories and families and friends and they're all different etc. you just want them to be faceless etc so you can feel special."

It's this attitude, I think, which is at the core of the normative aggression which refuses the fusion of the everyday and the shamanic. There was flashmobbing during the Hide and Seek Festival last year, in which Hisae and I performed as "shamans" of a sort, alchemizing London into Tokyo via a ritual on the South Bank. We encountered our fair share of disgruntled security staff telling us we were "on private property" even on the esplanades of the South Bank. Our intervention no doubt inconvenienced a few people and annoyed others -- it was, after all, in public space. But I personally think such "disruptions" are extremely valuable. They bring shamanic practices back from the margins into the cultural mainstream. They devise new rituals and provide solutions to problems like boredom, alienation, the mechanical quality of everyday life in a big city.

Shamanic practices aren't meant to designate some people "faceless" and others "special". T.S. Eliot himself was a banker -- one who sometimes put on pale green makeup before heading to work, to emphasize his sense of the inner deadness work made him feel. He could see himself in the crowd that flowed over London Bridge, and also see the need within this crowd of "the dead" for something ancient and extraordinary and poetic to arise, and to re-integrate with everyday reality. It's something the Magar have, and we lack.