Het-Bos, Antwerp, Belgium, STRANGELOVE Festival // 2 June 2017
Interlocuters: Manon la Décadence and Lu
After the performance at Het Bos in Antwerp, for the Strangelove festival, an audience member learned that I was from Australia I was asked “were you influenced by Aboriginal people?”. My immediate answer was “well, yes” as I thought of the indigenous teachers who influenced me as a much younger student, in particular Wayne Atkinson and Gary Foley, two activist/academics.
I still feel a strong debt to them both, for their generosity, in leading the student body, who were largely drawn from settler society, through the ways that colonisation decimated and continues to undermine the lives and social, cultural and economic structures that indigenous people in Australia rely on. Also, and of key importance to me as an artist, they gave us a glimpse of the richness of indigenous culture, both in the forms that existed before and at the moment of European invasion and that which evolves today, to a large degree shaped by survival.
Then I realised that the person was asking me whether the performance itself, in particular the dancing, was shaped by indigenous influences, which I found very flattering. I told them simply, “no”, because I didn’t have the language in my state of exhaustion to explain the near-impossible nature of the task: that a half-Jewish, middle class, “white”, male-bodied-cum-trans child of settler society could develop the deep engagement with the human beings, philosophies, cosmologies, histories, experiences, politics, not to mention the techniques and physical self-understandings that comprise the forms of dance people recognise as “Aboriginal”.
I never made the sacrifices that this would entail, I never built the deep connections either, rather, I left the country as quickly as I could. In any case, it might be that those who embody these cultural forms would still not be interested in sharing the knowledge of their dance with me – why would they, when my ancestors (whether they be ancestors of blood, or simply those who created the legal forms in which my privilege as a settler is contained, which my refugee grandfather acquired upon arriving in 1941 from his own genocidal apocalypse) took everything they wanted anyway in order to create the legal fiction of Australia?
Which brings me back to the question of magic. Our performance is a ritual. It is a practice of magic. Magic is deceptively invisible in this second decade of the 21st century. Yes, religious belief palpitates here and there, in the power of evangelicals in the United States, in forms of political Islam, in the New Age movements and so on. However a lot of people do not experience magic because they only associate magic with certain kinds of visibility – a satanic ritual, for instance, a bubbling cauldron, or wine turned to blood on an altar – and they are blind to the working of the miraculous in all the social forms around them. Propaganda, I consider, is a form of magic. Likewise, people are bewitched by the repetition of words, phrases and symbols that constitute advertising. So if people do not practice forms of magic which intend the kind of changes they want to enact in the world, then they leave themselves vulnerable to the forms of magic of the economically and politically powerful. I even wonder, sometimes, if those embedded in the magic of the powerful, those who produce it – say an advertising executive, or a developer working on the latest manipulative app at Google – whether they themselves are intending the magic, or if the magic is working on them and they are slaves to it.
I heard an historian on the radio describe as “miraculous” those acts through which the British Crown assumed legal ownership over the continent. In particular, he observed “a process of exuberant incantation” in the official proceedings for the establishment of British sovereignty:
“There is a customary ritual that takes place…. The flag is raised, the glasses are filled, cheers are raised for the King… it seems, if you just look at it clinically, it seems like this process of magic. It’s like, “well now that’s ours, we possess this country in law.” It seems strange to me now but it must have seemed even stranger to indigenous people….”
So how would one free oneself from a magic as powerful as that, a magic which created a nation-state, with volumes of law, a population of almost 24 million, a vast economic infrastructure, educational systems and not to mention the power to say who may live on the continent and who may not and in what way they make their lives?
Live performance remains one of the few secular ritualistic forms available to the relatively powerless. To be clear, I am not saying that I am powerless. I have economic means which others do not. I have a passport which allows for relatively free travel. And yet I am not News Corp. I am not Wall GmbH. I am not the High Court of Australia. I am not the NSA. Whether one is aware of it or not there is a magic in live performance. It might be the lead singer in lights, gyrating, reverberating, with all the eyes of the audience upon them. It is possible to inject into this context a conscious decision about the kinds of changes one might want for oneself or for the society in which one lives, and use this hour or so where a room fills with people with a common purpose, to be outside of themselves for a moment, outside of their everyday lives, to magnify the power of one’s own intention and desire. The individual and collective mind learns from this committed experience that this intention has value, that this intention should live in the world. We ask our audiences to think of that thing which is most important to them in the here and now – it might be “I live in a world without gender.” “I have no white privilege.” “My community is learning to live without violence.” And we move together. With music enveloping us, we synchronise certain acts, such as lying side by side on the ground, or taking a word in one’s mouth, at the same time as we also encourage radical autonomy for all those present, to move as they want to, or not at all; to touch, or to be touched or to not be touched, for consent is a precondition for the kind of magic we want to practice.
In Antwerp, I felt that the magic was present in the moment where my co-performers needed only to draw one or two people to lie on the ground with them, and the whole room followed – all the bodies in the room opening to the ground like a collective lotus flower. I felt it again, a little later, when we asked people at the height of the ritual “What do you want? What do you want? What do you want?” And people screamed out the changes that were of visceral importance to them, in words, and sometimes in extra-linguistic sounds. I felt, yes, we as artists and as audience, are as one, changing ourselves by changing in this moment how it is possible to be with others, in an ecstatic, joyful way, that preserves difference while finding unity. From this bodily-auditory-sensual joy with others, the power of magic works itself.
Of course, the magical space we establish by drawing a circle is banished at the end of the performance (we do this through manic laughter), and we find that the world is not entirely altered. Australia, that vast settler nightmare, still persists, no truly post-colonial form has yet arisen to replace it. But I am altered, and I feel that the people who join us are also.
If I focus for one hour on the intention “indigenous people are autonomous” and scream it aloud at the height of the ritual, then this commitment carries on into the actions I take, we take, in the world beyond and after that magical space, in the small and large decisions we make that relate to these fundamental questions – in what ways does my behaviour betray racism and how can I alter these behaviours? How can I support Aboriginal people and help restore to them what was taken? What comes after Australia?
Or in the European context if I scream “freedom of movement now”, I will find the compulsion to bear witness, to stand up to the juridical violence against those who move across borders without the right magical symbols on their identity papers.
This is the power of magic that transforms.