Embarrassment and the urban panopticon

It’s hard to be your witchy self when you’re always being watched.

I live deep in the suburbs, and while I appreciate the convenience of having useful amenities within walking distance, I can never truly relax surrounded by so many people. I struggle to commit fully to trances as even in my own home I could be and have been interrupted.

Some time ago, when walking home late one night I paused to enjoy the quiet and warm darkness.
I sat on the pavement with my back resting on a fence, legs tucked up and out of the way. The street was empty. Walking around the suburbs, I rarely see another human soul outside cars.
A man passing by stopped and asked if I was ok. I said I was fine but declined from further justifying my behavior; thinking him to be a responsible, concerned citizen. I did not wish to either lie or engage in a lengthy explanation.
In the moment that followed I realized it wasn’t compassion for my welfare that stopped him, but scorn. I was breaking a social norm; a cause for moral outrage.
‘It’s very weird. Sitting there in the dark. Very weird.’ I was at a loss for words at his tone and just dumbly agreed with a ‘Yep. Sure is.’
When I refused to engage further, he left in a huff. I wondered if he’d call the police.
It was a tiny microcosmic reflection of how much pushback I receive from society for merely existing. Much of the time I just wish to be invisible, but being an outsider removes my right to privacy and autonomy in the minds of many. The social panopticon of the suburbs leaves me feeling watched, scrutinised and judged. In the city I can sometimes disappear in a crowd, but suburbs are stark, territorial and judgemental; not a hive of blinkered workers but a landscape of tiny anxious kingdoms.

More recently pokemon go motivated me to walk to a place I was only fleetingly familiar with. An old racetrack converted to a park, with a man-made lake and vast lawns. It’s a friendly and engaging spot, raucous with birds. As I walked my thoughts turned to community, my own poverty and the private ownership of land.
Coming up a gentle hill on the return trip, I received a view of the shops I often visit from a different angle-how perspective changes things.

I paused looking at the remains of a dead tree; pondering how much science fiction idealistically divorces man from nature. An extension of the lie of endless, perfect suburbs. The total eradication of the wild, the untamed, in favour of wholly servile machines. Manufactured food and fake wood. It’s deeply troubling and unrealistic. I’ve never seen a farm on Star Trek.

Approaching the tree carefully, I touched it, gentle and loving. It was very tall, straight and old. I listened. It spoke. Dropping into a light trance I saw it was a native hardwood, uppermost branches kissed by the sun and whispering like ocean waves in the wind. It mourned the red-blooded creatures who had sheltered in its branches, who had died when it had been cut down.

The sound of a rustling plastic bag rudely snapped me back. A person had just passed me by, carrying their groceries home.
What they would have seen in me is a strange-looking person hugging a telephone pole.
It took a few minutes of self-talk to convince myself that even if they did see me (it was dark and I was wearing all black) that it doesn’t matter. I should not be embarrassed and ashamed. I have a right to exist, no matter how odd. The dangers of oppression are real but the walls are imaginary.

Nonetheless, snapping out of a trance state involuntarily leaves me jittery, disorientated and even woozy. The feeling that had caused me to shy away from trance work after one too many interruptions.
Like most people with PTSD I have a heightened startle response. The conversation with the tree was over, abrupt and jarring, like the lives of the creatures who had once sheltered in its embrace.

Advertisements

Kuda Lumping; intense trance, dance, ritual and spirit possession

This is a review/chronicle of my experiences at Kuda Lumping at Supersense Festival, feat. Padepokan Gunung Ukir.

Note on the date:

This post relates to something that happened last year, but due to a catastrophic tech failure I lost all the accompanying photos; it’s been kicking around in my drafts ever since.

Kuda-Lumping

Photograph by Tim Mummery

On the 7th August 2015 I attended the Arts Centre’s Supersense, which promised to be a ‘festival of the ecstatic’. Being a creature of liminal spaces, this tagline instantly caught my attention; I was not disappointed.
Upon arrival, the audience were ushered into the Arts Centre through mysteriously lit service corridors; pathways were created by a bath of coloured light; violet, teal and ochre-leading to the different colour-coded performance areas. Just by entering the building via these ordinarily off-limits routes, the audience was already traversing a boundary away from mundane reality.

Taking the teal path, I wandered onto the main stage of the State Theatre; a rare treat to look out over the theatre’s seating from the perspective of the stage itself, and a metaphor for Kuda Lumping’s difference from the usual Western notion of a strict audience/performer divide.
Situated at one side of the stage, across from a rope circle loosely partitioning the audience from the performers, was a stage platform covered in various musical instruments and offerings, including many bananas and coconuts. When I entered, a number of musicians were seated there, performing traditional Javanese music, surrounded by the intricate and lavish wooden platform which included a scaffold decorated in gold dragons holding up huge hide drums.
After a time, the man who appeared to be the master of the ceremony, who I assumed was the Dukan, the mystic Pak Ki Iswand, came forward to the centre of the circle to light incense and invoke the spirits. Unfortunately English is my sole language, and I’m unfamiliar with Javanese culture, so my interpretation of what was happening before me is heavily influenced by my own experiences with ecstatic ritual.
With a fantastic sense of showmanship, he began reciting prayers, negotiating with the spirit world and inviting magic into the space.

Large white stage curtains lit with the festival’s s signature creative use of coloured lighting descended downwards to just above head height, creating a border around us, and with them I could feel the energy in the space being raised-I’m normally not very energy sensitive, but this was hard to ignore. The magical ceremonies I’ve participated in generally don’t invite spectators, nor allow people to come and go freely; here however, people were casually milling about, coming and going already.

It was at this point I regretfully had to leave to go see Tao Dance Theater’s ‘5’, since several of the performances during the evening overlapped. The dancers had gracefully slid their bodies across one another to a contemporary ambient soundscape, appearing as one fluid, ever-shifting organism reminiscent to my mind of a sea anemone.

When I returned, the Kuda Lumping ceremony had increased dramatically in intensity. I found a comfortable spot on the floor near the edge of the rope circle and settled in to watch the rest. The musicians had increased the tempo, and the performance area was alive with a substantial number of people; both performers and those tasked with seeing to their welfare. Dancers were riding colourfully decorated woven bamboo horses with spectacular choreography, swirling around, seeming to reenact an important battle.

As the energy was raised by the music, dance and supervision from Pak Ki Iswand, the performers became more receptive to trance states. Once the ceremony had reached a fever pitch, it became easy to spot when and which of the performers had become possessed. The ritual lost it’s repetitive, twirling, rhythmic choreography as more and more succumbed.

When a spirit entered an individual (they appeared to my mind to be ancestral beings) the change was palpable. A fit young man, possessed by a child-like spirit fussed and demanded comfort, a demure young woman was possessed by a forceful warrior, her dancing movements whip-sharp and graceful. Another playfully offered to share bananas with audience members sitting by the rope border, insistent that they at least have a taste, using gesture to cross the language barrier. Another relished in impressing by chewing up and walking over an assortment of glass, seemingly immune to damage and fear.
Possessed individuals wandered about performing great feats of gymnastic athleticism, ate whole raw chilies, swallowed razor blades, chewed up glass fluorescent tube lights and ripped apart coconuts with their bare hands. All with an awe-inspiring ferocity and intensity, overseen by the mystic and his helpers, periodically cracking whips.

The performers were dressed in colourful traditional clothing, and sometimes large masks; the colour and motion and scent of incense alongside the music and skin-tingling energy created a powerful environment for all the senses.

When a spirit departed from it’s host, their body collapsed in exhaustion and they were quickly picked up and carried away out of sight, presumably to receive aftercare; they seemed to have been full black-out possessions and I doubt they remembered what had occurred.

Some of the musicians, who had been playing up to that moment, went limp with a loud crash and almost fell off the stage as spirits unexpectedly took hold of them; needing a moment to adjust to piloting their host bodies, stumbling an awkward for a short period.
At one point an audience member, an elderly Indonesian man suddenly joined the ceremony as a spirit leapt into him too.

It was spectacular, awe-inspiring and made me extraordinarily happy to see this ecstatic cultural tradition so very alive, contemporary and relevant.

The ceremony charged on in full force until there were few performers or helpers left, at which point it wound down fairly rapidly.

After it had closed, we were invited to stay and share a meal; my favourite method of grounding. An impressive, generous spread of traditional satays, curries, roasted chicken pieces, rice, salad and quite a few things I didn’t recognize were laid out on a mat of the woven horses on the floor.

I grabbed a plate of food and settled down out of the way on a lounge in the lobby, where I chatted briefly with an Indonesian woman about the experience. She asked if I found what I had seen confronting; I relayed that I simply felt extremely privileged to have seen what I did; not mentioning that as a pagan of many years the concept of possession was not especially shocking to me.

She related to me how this was the first time she had ever seen the ceremony performed from start to finish; back home she had watched it many times, but people usually wandered back and forth as the ritual is very long; taking place in a village setting amid people going about their daily business.

This made me feel better about having missed an hour or so to go see various other performances taking place simultaneously, as this was surely a once in a lifetime opportunity I’m not likely to have again.

I’m mildly allergic to ginger and I’m reasonably certain the food I ate was full of it. That evening and the following day I felt none of the usual adverse effects; if these powerful Indonesian spirits can shield their charges from harm when eating glass, I’m sure they can and did protect me from getting stomach cramps by sharing a meal with them.

A return

I enjoy walking as a form of simple, aimless meditation.
Last night I went for walk along an unfamiliar path, and got thoroughly lost deep in the suburbs.
After some time, I met a cat. A beautiful, muscular and trusting black and white feline, who meowed at me until I noticed it; I was listening to music and may have tripped over it otherwise.
The cat had a message for me.
After I dispensed a payment of ear-scratches, it wandered off.

I sat down on the ground and felt so overwhelmed with fatigue, slipping into a light trance was unavoidable.

In this trance state I was transported to a scene I recognized as one I had painted many years ago, when She was the subject of many of my artistic endeavours.
Lilith, with grey skin, pointed ears, silver hair, and a featureless face except for her large, solid red almond eyes.
In this instance, a long serpent-like tail coiled behind her instead of legs. The way she appeared to me when I was younger was not always consistent, but always easily recognizable.
Before her, She held a brass bowl, filled with blood. She was pouring it on the sand. The bowl never emptied. Behind us, in the distance was a silent, still sea.

I’ve got bad RSI pains in my hands at the moment from overindulging in PC use.
I put my hands under the blood flowing from her bowl, letting it wash over my hands, and the pain disappeared for as long as the blood covered them.

We had a conversation without words.
I don’t remember what happened to our relationship. We had been close when I was a teen. Perhaps I had drifted away from her, thinking I needed to, because of my gender transition. She put that notion aside, reminding me my body is filled with blood, plump with it.

My concentration slipped and the pain returned. I got up and after over an hour of listening for trains and main roads, managed to find my way back to my house.

Altered states, and defenestrating Cartesian dualism

I had a pretty unhappy youth.
Was this really all there was to reality? When it wasn’t busy being traumatizing, it was agonizingly dull.
For more insight into what this was like, I recommend giving a listen to this recording of Peggy Lee’s ‘is that all there is?’.
As a cynical young teen I began to feel the white, suburban world I lived in was culturally and spiritually bankrupt, with most people around me only paying half-hearted lipservice to Christianity. I was deeply unhappy, culturally disconnected and spiritually unfulfilled. I was also a bit of a teen-goth cliche.
This disenchantment was likely one of the things that pushed me towards a pagan path-particularly one that heavily uses shamanic techniques.

Being able to escape into stories, games, meditation, dancing or anything else resembling altered states wasn’t just a tool for survival, but something that has made my world much richer. I’ve never been a fan of recreational drug use as my perception of reality is weird enough already and I don’t want to endanger my tenuous mental stability.

As I matured I began to notice and appreciate parallels in the culture I was immersed in to those supposedly more magically inclined ones from the distant and romanticized past I’d only read about in books. AFL football could be conceptualized as ritualized battle between clans; contemporary dance a form of shapeshifter magic; BDSM play spaces a way of inducing altered states of consciousness. People I’ve encountered participating in the rave scene would often talk about transcendent experiences beyond what could be explained by recreational drug use. Many of us know a born storyteller, someone able to spin engrossing tales whenever they feel the inclination. Art of all forms often utilizes the power of bringing about altered states. Much of the art and media I have consumed, created or participated in has been powerfully transformative. I’ve read many books that have changed me forever.

A few years ago I attended an avant-garde theater performance with a group of friends. The audience awaited direction outside in the cool night air, at the corner of an inner city alley. At the appointed time, a Charon-like figure appeared to usher us to the nearby ‘secret’ location of the performance; a dimly lit and intimate bar.
The outcome of the story depended on the reaction and participation of the audience. The performers wandered about and mingled with the people in attendance. The lighting, mystery and anticipation quickly created a liminal space. There was magic afoot.
One of the performers, who had taken on the role of Lilith was particularly compelling; but there was something deeper at play here than dedicated and immersive acting. It was her. We all felt it.
Myself and my friends were all deeply emotionally/spiritually impacted by what transpired. It was on my mind for several weeks afterwards.

More recently, Friday night was a particularly special night for the LARP group I semi-regularly attend. The warband the Briarwolf Pact was disbanding, and this was honored with some role-play and ceremony.
Within the fantasy universe Swordcraft takes place in, the Briarwolves are ancestor revering, wild warriors whose tenets include the importance of balance, and of family. During the battle, we were lead by the ancestors themselves-members of the warband dressed with garlands of blue glowing lights as a representation of their otherworldly nature.
Somebody on the field on the opposing side was playing the bagpipes and people were beating their shields to the rhythm of war. I have just enough Scottish ancestry in my blood to love the sound of bagpipes. It was a thrilling experience and emotions ran high. I dare say, it was magical.

As an animist, my view of the world is one that makes no material distinction between the ‘mundane’ and the ‘spiritual’; it rejects Cartesian dualism. Daily life however, is a grind. Ennui and suffering make losing the childlike wonder at the beauty of the universe all too easy. Making time for structured magical ritual isn’t always possible.

But sometimes magic seeps through into any spaces which invoke liminality and cannot be ignored, no matter how secular; those of artistic or emotional expression especially.

If you look for it, you might find it in some unexpected places too.

Why I don’t work with dead babies

Skinning, dressing or otherwise prepping a once-living being is an intimate procedure. The body is not decontextualized, wrapped in plastic and lit with fluorescent lighting like the most common experience of meat in urban areas.

It’s not for everyone.

The infant mortality rate for many non-human animals is extremely high; finding that bodies are very young is a common experience among those who seek them out. Many people I’ve spoken with are dispassionate over, or unconcerned by working with baby animals. Some find the experience distressing, but persevere nonetheless.

It’s common in the Vulture Culture community to have no qualms about processing the bodies of infants or juveniles.
Newborn or foetal animals are often prized to be processed into wet specimens (a whole specimen preserved in fluid, sealed in a jar). Some anomalies such as cyclopic calves, attractive to collectors, rarely live beyond infancy, making it a necessity.

Preserving bodies of the young dead has its own set of challenges.
Baby birds don’t have feathers worth preserving, and the skin of smaller mammals is very thin and fragile.
The skulls of infants are not yet fully fused; this allows them to grow rapidly in life, but easily fall apart in death. They can be re-constructed later, but this requires patience, time and skill. Young bones are delicate, sometimes even almost spongy.

I don’t collect wet specimens because my interest in keeping remains is less scientifically motivated than some. I prefer the tactile experience of being able to hold my specimens-keeping dead things in jars is too clinical for my taste.
Less rationally, I’m also nervous they might get broken-like little unexploded biohazard grenades.

But I also have a more personal reason for passing over infant dead bodies when I find them.

Deceased babies may have stronger ties to the spirit world than this one; they haven’t inhabited their bodies for very long, after all. A newborn rat may or may not have as much knowledge of the fundamental state of Ratness, and what it is to be a rat, and live as a rat, than an older one.
Perhaps Rat, or any other Archetype Spirit progenitors are impartial towards the age of their children when they pass on. Perhaps not-I don’t claim to know.
But since I work with ‘skin spirits’, it makes sense to avoid ones who were badly mistreated in life (including violent deaths and fur farms), or infants.

An experience I had many years ago, early in my practice, solidified this rule. I found a baby bird that had fallen onto the ground and died. I hadn’t been collecting remains for long, so I was a little over-eager in processing things that I’d pass over today.
I went into a meditative journey/trance state to ask permission of the baby bird if I could take its body, and to perform my usual funerary rites when doing so.
The young bird was very wobbly, probably only a few days past hatching, but agreed that I could keep its bones.
The mother of the baby bird swooped me repeatedly, making frantic distress calls. She was upset and grieving, and I ended the meditation. I did not keep any of those remains, and the experience is one I’ll never forget. Consent and caring for the dead, and respecting their wishes are important aspects of spirit work. As animals all develop at different rates, I don’t have any strict guidelines for age, but it’s something to consider when bringing home a new specimen.

This experience set me on a path of a deeper  understanding of consent and the proper care of the dead; a simple yes/no answer is not sufficient. The circumstances that surround the question need to be delicately examined, and personal responsibility must be taken. After all, these are not simple objects and should not be treated as such; they deserve all the reverence and care one can provide.