241 Things

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241 Things

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The Experts (fragment), 2014

A series of fragments from the multichannel video installation 'The Experts' that is part of the Damagomi Project by Floris Schönfeld. The work consists of a number of interviews with a group of experts on the subject of the possibility of a post-anthropocentric relationship with the natural world. The experts are; Pit River shaman Floyd Buckskin, audio ecologist Bernie Krause, biologist Rupert Sheldrake, anthropologist Ida Nicolaisen, philosopher Jacob Needleman, wizard and paganist Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and sociologist Fred Turner.

In March 2014 I met Rupert Sheldrake at his home in Hampstead, London. I had been trying to meet him for about a year and had written him a number of long and increasingly pressing emails. He finally granted me a 20 minute interview, more to get rid of me than anything else I was presuming. That morning, in his pleasantly eclectic study, he summarised his basic position on the role of science, consciousness, religion in relation to his own personal belief system. The overarching view which permeates his work is a particular variation of the idea of panpsychism. This is by no means a new idea, but it seems to have once more gained relevance as the once ‘simple’ problem of consciousness has proved deceptively difficult to explain within mechanistic science. In his book A New Science of Life (1981) Rupert Sheldrake proposes the theory of morphic resonance in which he explores the idea of a universal, extra-human sentience that is present in all living things. His theory states that "memory is inherent in nature" and that "natural systems, such as termite colonies, or pigeons, or orchid plants, or insulin molecules, or galaxies, inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind.”

My interview with Sheldrake was a part of a work called The Experts for which I interviewed a number of contemporary researchers and thinkers about the possibility of a non-anthropocentric relationship with the natural world. The video above includes a number of fragments from these interviews including the one with Rupert Sheldrake. The other ‘experts’ interviewed for the project were the Pit River shaman Floyd Buckskin, audio ecologist Bernie Krause, anthropologist Ida Nicolaisen, philosopher Jacob Needleman, wizard and paganist Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and sociologist Fred Turner some of whom also feature in the video fragment. The interviews were part of my project, The Damagomi Project, an ongoing archive that documents the history of the Damagomi Group; a group of spiritualists and academics that was active in Northern California in the 20th century. Through the project I am trying to create a new path which can be followed to address the idea of panpsychism. In this sense the archive represents a series of thought-experiments in physical form that try to approach the seemingly impossible task of stepping out of our own human perspective. More about the project here.

Floyd Buckskin is the last remaining shaman of the Pit River tribe of north-eastern California. I interviewed him in his bedroom that doubled as his music studio on the Pit River reservation to the east of Mount Shasta, California. In the interview he told me the word damagomi comes from the Achumawi language, a language still spoken by a small population of Pit River tribe. It translates roughly as ‘spirit guide which provides a channel of communication with the natural world’. The damagomi usually takes on the form of a particular animal and this animal will accompany an individual as long as their bond is honoured. When I asked him why the Pit River people searched for their damagomi Buckskin answered ‘We are trapped between spirit and animal. We aren’t one or the other, but both and because of this we need help.’

Towards the end of my interview with Rupert Sheldrake he mentions the idea that scientists (and I would add artists) are our modern answer to shamans; ‘members of the human community who are dealing with the natural world.’ In this sense they are instrumental in trying to bridge the gap between spirit and animal that shaman Floyd Buckskin describes. However the very language with which we have tried to describe nature with has come to define our view of it to such an extent that we are unable to see it at its most vital. When we look at the natural world through the lens of our scientific tradition we can only do so by breaking it into ever smaller pieces. The whole, as in the whole organism or being or galaxy, is often only considered through the sum of its parts. This is the metaphor of the machine which is essentially static and dead. In The Science Delusion, Sheldrake attacks this simplistic perception of the universe:

‘Science at its best is an open-minded method of inquiry, not a belief system; it has been successful because it has been open to new discoveries. By contrast, many people have made science into a kind of religion. They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a byproduct of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.’

According to mythologist Joseph Campbell the shaman should have the dualistic approach of understanding the world around her/him through mechanistic and empirical as well as the spiritual and holistic methods. I think the contemporary artist is perhaps somewhat better positioned to consider systems from the perspective of the living whole than the contemporary scientist. This is mainly due to the holistic nature of the creative process. The creative process requires a dialogue or push back from an other, alien influence. This can be through a concept, material or human collaborator(s). Without this push back the process remains static and you are not able to create anything new. In this sense the process must be ‘alive’ for anything of interest to happen. It must ride the line between defining the context of the artist and being defined by it.

I can imagine a kind of damagomi facilitating this exchange, providing the bandwidth that allows us to access the anima mundi. What are the repercussions of following this line of questioning and assuming an existing anima mundi contains our entire consciousness along with that of all living things? Or to follow Sheldrake’s way of putting it; is the act of making art merely the fusing of the morphic resonance of various beings and materials within the temporary morphogenetic field that is an art practice?

I think it might be time for a damagomi finding quest.

We hadn’t even finished our desserts when he asked it. It was a question that seemed to have come out of thin air. I couldn’t believe that this sentence rolled from his lips like any other sentence. I didn’t know what to reply. Instead, I posed my date the same question. ‘What is your top three of favourite animals?’ Without hesitation, he summed up his favourite animals. For me, it was clear. There would not be a second date.

Even though the proverbial spark between the man in question and I didn’t occur, he continued to resurface in my mind now and then because of this peculiar question. I was bothered that he so readily answered this question to which I had no reply. I started to bother others with the same question. Many reacted like I did, in exactly the same order: first surprise, then disbelief, and at last frustration because of their inability to answer. Do none of us have favourite animals in life?

Even if I look at it more generally, I hardly have favourites. No favourite band, colour, food or film. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I go through a phase of immense appreciation for a dish or musician, but for a while now I have been very careful in using the word ‘favourite’ in this context. The realisation that my preferences are temporary prevails.

The whole idea of a favourite seems to have disappeared out of sight. The word ‘disappeared’ is not randomly chosen, because as a child I seemed to know exactly what I found cool and what I found dumb. Exactly.

How could it be that I was formerly so apt at listing my top faves and am now so hesitant to call something ‘my favourite’? This probably has to do with the limited information that you have at your disposal as a kid, in comparison to what you learn and know about later in life. As a child, the world seems to be encompassed within everything you know – your reality is the only reality. At a young age, you’re unaware of the limitations of your knowledge. Precisely the limited knowledge and information enable everything that you know to be simply divided into good or bad. The world is still black and white. As you get older, newer colours are added. Knowledge is accumulated and slowly you learn that there are countless elements in the world that are preferred or despised. There is so much information available that it is hard to distil favourites. Moreover, you find out that preferences also change quickly.

Maybe I should not have written my date off as a weirdo, but seen him as someone who is closer to his inner child than I am.

The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima once wrote that he was scared of crabs. He said he could even faint just by looking at the Japanese character for crab: ‘蟹’ . The character’s form reminded him of the horrible appearance of crabs, so he could only read it in the Kana version: ‘カニ’. However, Mr. Mishima did enjoy having crab served as a delicious dish. It reminded me that I had almost exactly the same phobia, however, mine was for fish!

Whenever I tell friends for the first time that I’m scared of fish, besides the funny expression on their faces, the most frequent reaction I get is a big question mark: ‘Do you eat fish?’. For sure, I eat fish and I enjoy sashimi and sushi, I eat them raw, no kidding! I would also not go mad if I saw a dead fish floating above water, or tuna cut into pieces and frozen in the freezer. My favourite photographer Araki has a beautiful picture of a salmon head with a bunch of flowers in its mouth and I still like it. I like small goldfish, and those tiny little colourful creature like betta fish and guppies don't bother me much, in fact, I always kept them at home since I was little. Fancy male fighting fish, which are sold in separate cups, never constitute a risk to me.

Fish have cold eyes, and are covered with mirror-like silver scales which reflect fluorescent light, and they squeeze together in limited closed water spaces. They are too quiet, wandering inside the over decorated fish tanks, spinning around and around, killing their time.

There is ambivalence and ambiguity in my phobia because I am not against the whole concept of ‘fish’, I would describe it specifically as the fear of deep sea scenery and large-scale fish. The last time I had a panic attack was when I was browsing the websites of vintage hand-made botanical pictures, and I accidentally clicked on the category of ‘sea life’, each image had three fish drawn from different perspectives. Even though they were drawings for the study of ancient fish, I found it unbearable.

In Chinese supermarkets, live fish are kept in tanks to guarantee ultimate freshness. Just imagine the humming sounds from the filters and the ultraviolet lamps, the unusual blueness in the background that creates an unordinary spooky atmosphere.

Almost every supermarket has these fish tanks in the seafood aisle. And it's especially the city I spent my whole life in, Shenzhen, along the southern coast of China where seafood is a well-known specialty, that never ceases to bring me endless inspiration for my nightmare.

As I got older, my symptoms kept getting worse. After trying to analyse my phobia, I realised that instead of having an aversion to fish, I was afraid of aquatic scenes. At seventeen, I was still bothered by why I always dreamt of aquariums, so I read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, which said that the source of dreams lies in recent experiences and childhood memories.

Tracing this back to my childhood, I remembered I spent a whole summer vacation in which my little cousin and I were both obsessed with watching the sea life screensaver on my uncle’s computer. It was an odd situation in which we spent hours imitating the fish swimming up and down. At a certain point, while staring at the screensaver, I was suddenly overcome by a feeling of fear and isolation.

The worst of my dreams was of drowning in a closed tank filled with water, with my head stuck in the bottom of the narrow container. There were huge fish with their typical expressionless faces swimming up and down and surrounding me. They didn't even attack me, but the clock seemed to have stopped at that moment, and it felt like an eternity of desperation. When I woke up, the images overwhelmed my mind and the fear I felt lingered for the whole day!

I’ve looked my condition up on the Internet, and I was glad to find that I am not the only weirdo. There is term that is used to describe these specific symptoms, which is officially called ‘ichthyophobia’, usually caused by a traumatic past experience.

However, I never figured out what triggered my fear initially. I’ve tried to recall any severe tragedy concerning with aquatic situations, but I failed to dig up any origins. Last summer I was disappointed to find that I couldn't even take a look at a gold fish store in the distance, while two years ago I could stay inside one of these shops for ten minutes. I’ve tried to train myself to look at fish tanks when I pass the grocery store, and I keep on telling myself not to be afraid, but every time I see one I just close my eyes at once, take a long breath to slow down my racing heart and walk away to let the fear flow away.


I often cycle from Amsterdam to the polder and cut through the Bijlmer. Yes, for the simple reason of finding pleasure and enjoyment in the cycle ride.

In the area that connects these two regions, I spot a large empty parking lot in the distance. There, in a small strip at the side, three aluminium boxes are piled on top of each other onto a construction with legs. Sort of like a three tiered barbeque. Beside it, a car is parked next to which a man and a woman are preparing a cup of tea. I ask them what they’re doing. Pigeons. They’ve transported these homing pigeons from Zaandam to here, where they’re training the pigeons to fly both long and short distances. Since they’ve only just arrived, the pigeons need to acclimatise for a little while, otherwise their orientation skills may falter.

There are some 57 pigeons in the aluminium construction. Later on, they’ll be released and will have to find their way home. Their sense of direction is guided by the magnetic field.

“Disruptions in the magnetic field have meant that the pigeons are becoming more prone to getting lost than before’, the homing pigeon hobbyist explains. ‘The magnetic field is disrupted by mobile phones, by everything that is sent via airwaves’. ‘Is there no more room in the air?’

‘For example, if you pay attention, you’ll see many pigeons in the Dam with a ring around their leg. These are carrier pigeons that have lost their way. In fact, the other day a man from Krommenie called me to see if I could pick up my pigeon from him. Pigeons fly in groups, first in a circle around the area where they’ve been released, then they’ll pick up speed and fly away. But nowadays they seem to get lost quite often.’

‘It’s a wonderful hobby’, the man excitedly tells me. ‘`It’s so relaxing.’ He bares his perfectly white teeth in a broad smile. When he speaks, saliva sputters in all directions, but, oh well, that’s probably just because of his dentures

Then they release the pigeons and I watch as they circle around and fly away, and they’re as beautiful as a flock of sparrows.

Monkey's Feast

Ferdinand van Kessel

Roland Barthes
Monkey's Feast

Ferdinand van Kessel

I was standing in a corridor when a tall, young man walked briskly passed me. Moments later he was chased by a small brunette whose every step seemed to fall into the spaces left behind him. He marched on in anger and as she furiously followed, she hissed, ‘This will be the last time, it’s over, I swear to god I will just disappear.’

Watching them rush down the corridor, I thought about how many times I had seen this exact process of emotions in others, and of course experienced it myself. We all know this story, it is constantly repeated, or at least we are all familiar with this interpretation of the story: one threatening to cut the other off whilst running after them in bewildered warning, angrily and frantically begging them to stay whilst they move away. The strange and stylised emotional language we use in situations that we cannot or do not want to express, the reformations of our true purpose in order to avoid vulnerability, and yet through all our fictions and theatricalities, our intentions, although unpronounced, are understood.

If already just in this superficial layer, in all these given understandings of this situation we can see the magnitude and effect of our interpretation on the “reality” of things, at what point do we stop interpreting, what is the actual, the non-fictional?

So many aspects of my self were suddenly laid bare before me as stories I had told myself, interpretations of people’s actions in designed sequences. The way I saw, the way I was seen and in whatever light anything is shown, are all characteristics that are open to interpretation. If we dissect this situation to all its separate parts, we see that everything occurring only exists as one thing after another, events and actions in meaningless succession; it is we who give it meaning and chronology.

I stood in a corridor. Through this same corridor, a tall, young man walked, he moved quickly and dropped his feet heavily as he did so. A small brunette also walked through this corridor. As the small brunette walked, she spoke, her words were fast and rhythmic.

“Narrative is present at all times, in all places, in all societies; indeed narrative starts with the very history of mankind; there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative … Narrative is international, trans-historical, trans-cultural; it is there, like life.”- Roland Barthes”[1]

Seven of wands

Scènes de la vie privée et publique des animaux

Used in the design of tarot cards

J. Grandville


R. Barthes, ‘On Narrative and Narratives’, in: R. Barthes and L. Duisit, New Literary History, Vol. 6, No. 2, Baltimore, US: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975, pp. 237 -272