241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

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.

Tourist in Holy Mud, Chimayo, New Mexico,
Tourist in Holy Mud, Chimayo, New Mexico,

Mud flourishes where cold and warm meet. Travelling through the American Southwest state of New Mexico – in a time where adobe only referred to a local building technique involving sun dried clay – we arrived at El Santuario de Chimayo, a mud sanctuary. In a Spanish colonial church, Indians erected an altar behind a small, inscrutable hole: just lke Anish Kapoor’s hole at the Museum de Pont . But there’s one difference, the hole in Chimayo contained Holy Mud, as healing as the water of Lourdes. How this came to be? In 1810, a New Mexican friar discovered glowing earth on a hill.

He began to dig and found a crucifix that he brought the next village, Santa Cruz. But it disappeared from there three times, only to be found in the same old mud hole. The message was clear. The crucifix was to stay there. And thus, the chapel rose around it. It turned out that the mud was holy (not to be confused with Holy Mud, a Dutch chocolate mousse dessert) and healing. Crutches left abandoned at the wall of the church testify to the healing power of the sludge. On a miracle website I find a story of a girl who was cured of fifteen tumours in her leg after applying Holy Mud mixed with her own saliva. She’s now plays cello in a Philharmonic orchestra.

Elegguan, the mediator made from mud, vodou Santeria, Cuba.

Mud seems to be the catalyst of transformation. In Vodou rituals, packets of clay and earth are made to influence events (like putting your nemesis on the wrong track, for example.) Eleggua is an egg-shaped pointed head formed from clay, with shells for eyes. The evil Humpty Dumpty is part of the Carribbean pantheon of Santeria and acts as the guard at (muddy) crossovers and mediates between the upper- and underworld.

The Golem as a character in the first German expressionist 1920 film adaptation, by Carl Boese and Wegener Pauil.

Likewise, in other ancient tales of animism, an inferior being rises from the mud. A figure in the Jewish Kaballa is the Golem: a soulless, formless mass. During the 16th century, Rabbi Juda Löw ben Betsabel of Prague documented a number of Golem stories. Extremely holy persons in close proximity to God were given the wisdom and power to create life. But what they were able to create from mud remained a shadow of His Creation. After all, Golem, the mud figure, couldn’t speak. In later literary versions, the rabbi Rabbi Juda Löw is credited as having shaped Golem himself from the muddy banks of the Moldau. The creature would help the poor, similar to the robot that Karel Capek, also Czech, would later invent. Of course, his tale ended badly. This is where the Jewish idiom “olem golem” derives from: man is the golem, man is a machine. Or, in other words, the world is an evil place. In the latest postmodern, post-historical, post-religious incarnation, Golem is a malevolent turtle-like character in the Japanese game of Pokémon.

Sadhu´s, holy yogi´s covered with mud.

Katy Horan, When the Moon is Full, 2008


1836, in the countryside of Salento in Puglia, Italy. A farmer is found lying outstretched and pale-faced in the bushes after having eaten wild blackberries and falling into a delirium. It’s near the Dolmen of Caroppo, in the vicinity of Galatina. Her hands and feet are black. Musicians with tambourines immediately rush to her from the village. They assemble themselves around her and begin to play.

The woman, initially motionless, begins to move to the rhythm of the tambourine, her feet kicking and her body spasming. She dances for hours, overcome with ecstasy. Members of her family surround her and present her with colourful pieces of fabric. She picks the colour she hates the most.

Meanwhile, the priest has joined the congregation and offers her St. Bruno’s prayer cards. Deliriously dancing, she places them into her mouth and chews on them. She eats them.

Finally, after hours of mania, she vomits water through her nose and mouth into a well. Her face regains its colour and her sanity has returned. Her family takes her home to the village where she lives.

Where I come from, superstitious fascination for pagan ritual is interwoven with Catholic-Christian doctrine. Symbols overlap or are compounded; the Catholic Church has encapsulated pagan rituals and translated them into Catholic interpretations. This bizarre trans-religious scenario, further stimulated by changes in rural life and the modernisation of South Italy, has led to a need for spiritual transcendence. This renewed interest in the trance, in the voluntary loss of consciousness, is a reaction to, and perhaps compensation for, the loss of one’s role within society.

I’ve always wondered when the function of a symbol’s significance ceases, and I’ve noticed that significance is determined by an individual’s interpretation. The religious symbol emerges as exceptionally strong because it contains contradictions. I think an artwork functions in a similar manner, and is the engine for many different connotations. A quiet engine that harbours contradictions with in it is like a spinning wheel. It spins and spins until it transcends and exceeds itself. It dances to the rhythm of the cosmic drum, and the two polar opposites are reconciled on the axis of possibility.

A woman, a vagabond, repeats the same actions over and over. She falls in love with objects, she hates their colour. She asks if she could be dressed in mirrors. She lives near a landfill and sometimes she’s heard singing a mantra. She likes to repeat herself and remain absent, to miss herself for eternity. She lives in a large European city.

Her attempt to lose consciousness, to release material status, is a well-known technique applied in esoteric religions. With the necessary sacrifice, anyone can reach ecstasy. But in South Italy and elsewhere in Europe, reaching ecstasy becomes a shelter against social decline, the loss of traditional roles in society, the redemption of the minorities. It justifies the personal inadequacy to live up to a collective and productive model. To cease acting and become a living symbol, and if possible, one that others wish to see.

In a state of bliss, S. Giuseppe da Copertino, and more recently, Padre Pio, have both succeeded in flying and have appeared in two places simultaneously, like the electron... As real as double.

Our palms have been the subject of interest for thousands of years. Human handprints found in prehistoric caves show this fascination stretches as far back as the Stone Age. The study of the lines on our hands, known as palmistry or chiromancy, appears to have originated in China and India and came to the West with the Roma peoples. The practice is now found throughout the world, and remains a popular way of telling our fortune.

The practice of palmistry has itself experienced mixed fortunes over the years. The coloured illustration of a palm in this section has been taken from a book published in 1501 by Magnus Hundt the Elder, lecturer at the University of Leipzig. The fact that academics at this time were writing about palmistry gives a good indication of its reputation. However, things were to change with the advent of Pope Paul IV (r. 1555-59) and Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-90), both of whom issued papal edicts against the study of the divinatory sciences. Thus the practice of palmistry was widely discredited and forced underground.

Nowadays, the reading of palms is a much less dangerous endeavour.

The three principal lines used in palmistry are the life line (the large crease encircling the thumb joint, to predict future health and vigour), the heart line (the crease made by bending the fingers towards the palm, to predict emotional events) and the head line (starting between the thumb and the index finger and running horizontally across the palm, showing cognition). Diagrams of the hand highlighting these three lines can be seen in the 16th-century German printed book and the 17th/18th-century Turkish manuscript shown in this section. The separate origin of each image and the similarity to modern palmistry shows how pervasive this ancient art has been through time and culture.

Wellcome collection

Palmistry diagram by Wellcome Library / Wellcome Images is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales License .