Interview with Michael Dudeck Witchdoctor
You were recently in the Arctic preparing for your upcoming project…
Michael: I just spent seven weeks in the Canadian Arctic, in Nunavut, engaging in a plurality of conversations with Inuit about a shamanistic transition into Christianity. I was struck by the revelation that the Inuit transition to modern life only happened in the 1950s.
How does Christianity merge with animistic practices? It’s caught in the transition–right now–so I got to plunge into conversations with all kind of people about it and hear stories. I heard the story of a man who was an elder, in his 90s. He has a scar on either side of his neck [pointing to right and left side of neck]. Allegedly, when he was very young, he had a bloated neck [gesturing to area wider than width of jaw-line]; it was really bad. His mother brought him to the shaman. The shaman told the mother to go outside and pick an icicle. Then the icicle was inserted right through the neck. No blood, it went right in, the puss came out, and he was healed by it. He was five years old.
What’s so exciting to me in many ways, about the North and about the Inuit, is that it’s an untouched culture. As Westerners, from birth we were exposed to an Aristotelian method of story telling and theater, it’s a very scripted plot-structure. Inuit story-telling…it’s not been globalised; it has not been co-opted yet, so there is a very different pace to communication. If we were doing this up there, we would have had to secure 3-4 hours to have a conversation; it’s a totally different wavelength. So their narrative construction is completely new to me…like really good, non-linear video art that I love. They have this inherent, far more instinctual relationship to art-making. They just get to start from that place that we want to get to. I first watched Atanarjuat, then I was so absorbed by the second film in the trilogy, “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” that I made all my performers watch it, it really helped channel them into how I wanted them to perform and embody this narrative. It’s changed their physicality a little bit.
Can you say more about shamanism? What does it mean to perform as a shaman? Is there a difference?
M: The thing about shamanism is that it’s pre-religious…being a witch or being a shaman is not like being a rabbi or a priest. Rabbi or priest is akin to one particular tradition. Shamanism is made up of tons of different traditions. The whole thing began because I wanted to research the origin of the artist persona. I wasn’t entirely convinced that being an artist had meaning or benefitted society. Why would traditional people be selected to live a different life and be these mythic ambassadors? Why have we created positions for people that make meaning in our society? Why do [we] support it? So, I went back to shamanism.
The thing is, every community needs someone who is going to tell them who they are, and help them figure out who they are, and deal with their unconscious. I think of a shaman as someone whose job is to help the community understand that process. Anyone can be one; you don’t have to go to school to do it. I’m hesitant to use the word “shaman,” that’s why I use witch doctor. Shaman is a Siberian term and it’s a colonial term, witch doctor is also a colonial term, but it’s in English and it’s white people that were doing it.
When I perform, I am doing my own legitimate form of shamanistic ritual and trance. But the privilege of being a contemporary artist, as opposed to literal aspiring shaman, is that I have the opportunity to play around with that [identity] without ever literally saying, “This is exactly what I’m doing.” When you’re an artist, you have the freedom to not entirely know what you’re doing. The act of pretending to be or whatever, that masquerade, is part of the role of the shaman, which is to be the scared clown, the jester and the trickster. I’m marrying that more sort of logical, the righter side of me, and merging with this process that I’ve started already of intensive, trance based, ritual performance. Each performance is a moment of this narrative that I’m constructing, but I’m not revealing all the narrative yet. Almost as if you were a tourist in another country, stumbling across some circumcision ritual that you don’t know.
You’re a shaman–a role explicitly outside of western contemporary experience–and presenting in an art context. What are your thoughts on how people experience the work…What do you want them to know or not know beforehand?
M: I’m constantly struggling with whether to create a smooth, lubricated entrance or to allow those who want to enter to have to force their way in. Unfortunately and fortunately, I’ve been working with institutions [with] clear agendas to create those passageways for people. It’s happened differently for each exhibition, largely there’s been an introduction by the curator of the institution, informing the audience of the mythology, a little bit of information to place it and it’s taken the form of written material…I’m very committed to providing imagery and experiences that are beyond, easy, logical mapping and comprehension. Contemporary art is about that…[it] becomes neutralized when people immediately go and read the didactic information before looking at the work. I think it robs you of a process of struggle that is pretty important. So on one hand, I have this cause of pulling it away from entertainment. Or at least our accepted concept of entertainment, you know? And moving it into something more challenging. Yet, there is this obligation, it’s important to acknowledge that…you are not just doing it for yourself; you are doing it for the community. So I find it hard to marry, but my practice is a vocation. I don’t make any separation between the conversation I am having with you on Skype and literal performance. It’s all my work; everything I do is my work. Who I fuck is my work, how I fuck is my work…there’s no separation. I believe that I am in the service of society in that I’m accessible and available all the time to talk about and work with these ideas and concepts. I do healings and I involve other people in practices. I think that fulfills that end of community. But…maybe I need to grab people’s hands a bit more and take them into the performance. It’s a mandate I feel to be accessible to the world, but at the same time, I don’t want to simplify what is chaotic.
So at this point, is your artistic practice the same as your own spiritual practice?
M: I started looking into the moon cycle, and the thing with the moon cycle is if you follow it and you work with it, it keeps you on track. For creative people, it’s really important to be setting sort of regular goals and regular check-in points and keep you on track so you don’t drift. I had grown up with this idea of the Sabbath, on Friday night you stop working for the week and as soon as sundown, you do nothing for the next day. You’re not allowed to do anything, you’re just supposed to let your thoughts settle and contemplate your intention for the next week. I started doing that, so my life and my creative practice became really ritualized. Every new moon…I would set intentions for my own life: grants I wanted to get, or projects I wanted to do, or people I wanted to know or work with. At the same time, I would draw, I would do a non-logic based manifestation, where I just sort of draw abstract images that represented what I wanted to develop creatively and I would do a ritual, sometimes involving other people. I would make sure that I didn’t have plans for three or four days around the full moon and I would just work in the studio. It was amazing; I started to channel the energy. So now, it’s just regular, so every new moon I have it in my datebook and I have to start writing my vows and it’s really great for my practice and to keep track of myself.
Michael Dudeck Witch-doctor, http://www.michaeldudeck.com/, speaks with Isabella Bruno.
Share steps for a ritual or exercise that is part of your performance practice.
INITITATION : DRAWING
Morning : 7am. Wake. Drink Green Tea. SILENCE. No speaking.
Install a large white table, multiple tables. Lay out supplies : pens, pencils, ink, sinew, needle + thread, fluorescent orange duct tape and paper, bones, skulls, images of war and religion, passages from scriptures. Organize material into clean piles
Gather paper, vellum, hide, papyrus and photographs.
Draw. Do not attempt to comprehend the drawings. If you begin to assemble meaning out of them, put them away. Do this for 3 days.
The drawings become a script for the performance.
II. FASTING / SILENCE
Prepare the gallery for installation. Work with technicians to install the space. Ask the curator to be able to be in the space alone at the end of the day.
Burn sage, frankincense, cleansing herbs. Call upon the spirits of the space.
Call upon your helpers and all of the forces that work on your behalf.
Cast a circle around the space.
Begin fasting 1-3 days prior to performance after the temple has been satisfactorily installed.
Share one object.
What do you listen to when you are creating?
What is one space that influences your creative process?
Share something you are making/have made.
Center for Performance Research, 361 Manhattan Ave, Unit 1 Brooklyn, NY
May 2, 2011 7:30pm
curated by The Watermill Center as part of their New Voices in Live Performance Series