Embodied Magick in a Disembodied Culture

Is magickal ritual performance art or is performance art magickal ritual? This is a question that was running through my head a few years ago during a skyclad zombie flashmob in a forest somewhere in the UK. Said flashmob had been roused and created to assist with the downfall of some noxious public figure, although the exact connections between cadaverous nudity, eating brains (in the form of mangled seitan lumps pulled apart like a Hermann Nitsch animal corpse) and punishing the rich was, in hindsight, unclear. However, the public figure concerned did get what was coming to him, so perhaps there is cosmic justice in between the cracks of random cultural jamming after all.

The strands of performance art are woven into recent (Western) magickal practice, perhaps because of its close proximity to the creative arts. Whether we consider Genesis P Orridge’s emergence from Coum Transmissions (all that cling film, vomit and bloodshed certainly gets one’s attention) or the NOKO collective’s recent “Conjuration to Beelzebub” which blends cinema, sound installation, ritual and invocation in a manner that Kenneth Anger would be proud of, it has to be admitted that most magicians like to put on a bit of a show.

Ritual acts

Ritual acts

Andrea Pagnes argues in his article “Body Issues in Performance Art: Between Theory and Praxis” (and stay with me, I’ll try to minimise any verbiage) that performance art is about producing meanings and that the body of the artist is also a comment on and reflection of the world it moves in. The very nature of performance is an engagement with that which is visible and invisible, that which is contingent/emergent and that which is biological, social-ecological and inter-psychic. He also writes:

“Nevertheless, there is something inside each one of us that seems to be still impossible to define in precise words, but it exists and acts: someone calls it mystery, some others psychic-spiritual experience…”

Isn’t this where magickal ritual steps in?

Pagnes draws upon Arabic concepts of the body listed as Gesem (the concrete body-body), Gesed (mind-body) and Beden (psyche-body) which all dynamically influence each other. In the same way, the body of the magician moving in ritual, virtual and actual space and between the bodies of others present, also generates many other bodies – whether they’re demons being bound, Lwa’s riding the back or cuts to the skin to facilitate gnosis. The magickal body transforms space, space transforms the magickal body. Pagnes then reflects on Italo Calvino‘s “Six Memos for the Next Millennium” – Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity and Consistency – to work towards a tentative metaphor of performance embedded in networked space. Rather conveniently these can be mapped onto a hexagram. The magickal ritual then, is another aspect of communicative flow through the body of the magician (or performance artist) in an unfolding meta-situation, rather than the action-oriented linear enactment of a limited “event” aimed at a particular outcome. It has a connection with complexity and open-source magick; one that utilises many possible options, kernels or distributions within the guiding source code of ritual, which I’ll write about another time.

A friend of mine, a graduate of the Joseph Beuys influenced Social Sculpture Research Unit performed “Democracy Outside” last summer in various public spaces in the UK: she described it as follows; “it’s part street theatre & part political action, it blurs the boundaries between ‘art’ and ‘activism’, it challenges apathy and the neutralising of public space.” It’s also an act of magick, working with intention, spatiality and the body to uncover or reclaim something which has been hidden. It is a formal experiment in spontaneity using props, language and the liminal place between public and private, individual and collective, belief and myth. It resists, transforms, overthrows and reconfigures space, place and culture, just like any effective work of magick.

“The term ‘social sculpture’ can be and is increasingly being used as a generic term to refer to any work that has an emphasis on imaginative, participatory practices; to relational or connective aesthetics; and to works that involve people in a transformative process and have a social dimension or focus…” – excerpt from Social Sculpture Research Unit website.

Magickal ritual then, is a form of social sculpture…

… Way before that, I’m in a lap dancing club called Club Demon: “Birmingham’s most discerning gentleman’s club” at a Bataille influenced event called ‘Visions of Excess.’ Here are the field notes:

“Matisse’s Blue Lady hangs on the wall between the toilets. Neo-classical vases and house plants reflect off of mirrored disco walls. On the video screen to the left, the closing scene of Jim Van Bebber‘s acid splattercore classic “My Sweet Satan” unfolds as Mr Bebber, playing junky serial murderer, Ricky Kasslin stomps on the skull of some poor unfortunate, turning it pulpy red and mushy. All around, on sumptuous, low slung cream leather sofas (which force you to spread your legs, and have presumably seen a lot of ejaculatory-g-string-gyratory action) slouching, stoned neo-punks photocopied from 1982, chain smoke and sup away. It’s all very wipe clean surface.

The lap dancers have been evacuated, instead on a small stage split in half with the ubiquitous pole, Marisa Carnesky plays with a hoover, it breaks down in the face of it’s own inbuilt contradiction: the commercially sexualised feminine and its domestic counterpart. The residual environment remains suggestive yet de-eroticised, and as any good Reichian knows, if you block up the sexual energy flows, then what results is anger, cruelty and despair.

Elsewhere in the same building, body artist/blood worker Ron Athey and radical opera singer Juliana Snapper generate violently, ecstatic schizophrenic syllables, in a brief glossolalian excerpt from The Judas Cradle, which possess and entrance the performers’ bodies. While Athey stares out at us, Ms Snapper lies on her back and arches upwards in the Wheel pose, legs splayed towards him.

Someone says “she has such a fantastic voice” and the reply is “yes, even when she’s hanging upside down” as Ms Snapper crab walks off of the edge of the stage, screaming at us. Eventually the performers burst into laughter.”

This alcoholic chaos magician is drunk and calling me all the cunts under the sun. I repel the words with solar flares and meditation. Time slips. Marina Abramovic jumps into the middle of a burning five-point star and passes out due to lack of oxygen. Meathooks enter the flesh of Stelarc as he hangs by his skin 30 metres above New York City streets, Judy Chicago arranges bloodied tampons in a bin in a museum. Objects are inserted into the body of a magician as s/he shapeshifts into something else during a Gnostic Mass. The spaces between performer and performance are blurred as are those between the real and the phantastic. The ritual energy is raised and the participants jump over flames. Orryelle takes estrogen. Eventually, the magicians burst into laughter.

It seems that what separates performance art out from magick is the symbolic systems they draw upon; performance art references art history whereas magick references occult history. However, what happens when both symbolic systems are being addressed simultaneously as in AA Bronson’s “School for Young Shamans?” What appears to emerge is a multiplicity of voices, languages and bodies – stronger magick, stronger art and a resultant intensification of performance(s).

Further Info

Lee Adams website has an extensive list of links to contemporary European and North American performance artists working in and around the limits of the body, gender and species.

The Tate website has a Performance Art 101 mini-site worth looking at too.

Sandy Stone’s site is a portal into technologies of the body and beyond, written by a transgender handmaiden of the antichrist, so you know you’re in good hands there…


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