On Shamanism and Queer Artmaking

Dancemakers Curator Emi Forster SAT DOWN with Buddies in Bad Times Artistic Director Brendan Healy to discuss the three themes from upcoming performance series, CAPITALISM, SEX, AND MAGIC.
 

Brendan Healy, award-winning director and Artistic Director of Buddies in Bad Times. Photo by Chris Teel.

Brendan Healy, award-winning director and Artistic Director of Buddies in Bad Times. Photo by Chris Teel.

EMI:  You're moderating a discussion at Dancemakers between CAPITALISM, SEX, AND MAGIC artists Eroca Nicols and Andrew Tay on Saturday, May 9th. What are you most interested to find out about from them?

BRENDAN:  Well, I guess the first thing that I want to know is how those three words intersect within their work.

EMI:  Do you think those three words are important for artists to be looking at right now?

BRENDAN:  Sure. Well, I mean art is usually about sex, magic (or the invisible) and/or social structures/ways that societies have organized themselves. But what I am curious about is why those three words together, or how they relate. Perhaps you can tell me why you named this series the way you did. What interests you in these themes as a curator?

EMI:  The series actually came out of Keith Hennessy's work. We identified all three themes in this work of his, and his larger practice. More broadly, we noticed growing conversations in the field, particularly in dance, about how artists fit in to a capitalist economy, and an interest in shamanism and ancient practices. Sex as a third theme came out again as something inescapable in our daily lives, and as a key part of these three artists' practices, both in terms of their areas of focus and their status as queer arts leaders. My personal interest in the three together is that I see a growing trend of artists who are juggling the different structures pertaining to social rituals in each area, and I think now is the time to focus on it.

BRENDAN:  Interesting. Keith's piece seems to be quite critical of the appropriation of shamanic culture that occurs in a lot of western art about shamans.

EMI:  I think Keith's work is incredibly critical about that — critiquing that practice through engaging in it himself. Which I think many artists who are working with those concepts are missing.

I think Keith’s work in particular sheds light on this trend of cultural (mis)appropriation.
— Emi Forster

BRENDAN:  Missing how?

EMI:  I see a lot of artists engaging in the practice of appropriating shamanistic ritual, and many who are associating shamanism and queerness. But while it can be an interesting vehicle through which to interrogate pop culture or modern society, what is missing is the thinking around the actual act of appropriating those ancient practices, how that is in fact the act of appropriating a culture that is not one's own. It's incredibly easy to appropriate culture without fully understanding it, and thereby misrepresenting it. That's what I think is missing from the conversation, and what we're hoping to raise as a conversation point with the triple bill. I think Keith's work in particular sheds light on this trend of cultural (mis)appropriation.

I'm curious — are you seeing/hearing things about an association between queerness and shamans?

BRENDAN:  Well, as gays have become more mainstream (i.e. an accepted consumer demographic) I think there is a desire in some pockets of the queer community to find a queer identity that is not some sort of consumeristic creation. So some folks turn to other cultures to discover ways that queerness has been handled, or attempt to create identities that resist consumerism.

Anyways, I think wanting to define queerness along lines that aren't simply consumer lines is totally laudable and good. However, it's a tricky thing to engage in.

Also I think that pop culture is FULL of ritual and magic — it's all ritual and magic. Not sure if you were claiming that it wasn't but something you said triggered that thought.

EMI:  I think it's a good thought!

Are you seeing this attempt to turn elsewhere for alternative definitions of queerness resonate in a big way through the art that's being made?

BRENDAN:  Within a certain group of artists yes — but not really to be honest.

I think that queer artists have really taken an interest in questions of class and race. I think there is a movement afoot that is quite politically motivated, that is very interested in social change and wants to break down the way that queerness has been separated from other social struggles.

My understanding of Keith's work places him more in line with that, but my understanding of him is very limited.

I strongly believe that queerness is a legitimate position to create from. It’s about a kind of questioning, a kind of curiosity, a kind of experience of the body — specifically, the body in states of pleasure — that is valid and necessary.
— Brendan Healy

EMI:  I would say that's true. There is a huge interest on his part in those kinds of social issues.

Just one last idea to wrap up, that has been jogged in my brain by this conversation. When I was in Australia at a dance festival I met a French presenter. It was after seeing a work that was by queer artists and very much focused on their lived experience. The presenter said to me that in France, he finds that queerness is generally not a widespread premise for making work, or in which to root artistic practice, which I found interesting. As the Artistic Director of Buddies in Bad Times, what is your reaction, and why is it important to have a place dedicated to queer artists?

BRENDAN:  Identity politics is something that is very North American. It's rooted in history, in the civil rights movement, in the class struggle — not something that is totally available to many Europeans who perhaps see these things as "reductive" or "limited," etc.

I also think that the "lived experience of the individual" for better or for worse is a very North American thing. We really experience our lives through the subjective in a way that may feel strange to other people.

Now — all that being said, I strongly believe that queerness is a legitimate position to create from. It's about a kind of questioning, a kind of curiosity, a kind of experience of the body — specifically, the body in states of pleasure — that is valid and necessary.

I also believe that social oppression is a real thing. That liberation is something worth pursuing. Queer culture is about that. A lot of art isn't necessarily about that.


You can catch Brendan Healy in conversation with Eroca Nicols and Andrew Tay as they talk about their practices, discuss the queer arts ecology, and debate the differences between the cities where they live and work. Rigorous thinkers and notable personalities, expect a fiery discussion about art, life and the universe. Register here for free tickets to the artist talk on Saturday, May 9th at 6:30pm in between the final performances of Capitalism, Sex, And Magic

Shamanism, false economies, and modern spiritual power come together in Dancemakers’ final presentation of the 2014-15 Season, CAPITALISM, SEX, AND MAGIC, running May 6-9. This queering, kaleidoscopic triple bill features internationally renowned, award-winning artist Keith Hennessy (BEAR/SKIN), local pioneer Eroca Nicols aka Lady Janitor (…TRUTHTELLER…), and Montreal avant-garde artist Andrew Tay (SUMMONING AESTHETICS) who are boldly on the forefront of dance today. GET TICKETS TO THE PERFORMANCES HERE.