Uncle Very Thin
Walter Benjamin once said that a child’s first experience of the world is not his realization that “adults are stronger but rather that he cannot perform magic”. The statement was made under the influence of a twenty-milligram dose of mescaline, but that does not make it any less salient.1
It’s Saturday morning and I can’t wait for my little cousin to arrive (her mom takes care of us and the house, and she joins her on Saturdays) and share with her the incredible idea I had for the day (I admit that I will probably claim full authorship for it and won’t tell her that I got some inspiration from the last episode of Tom Sawyer). My favorite thing to do is climbing roofs (not sure if it’s hers too), but sometimes we also opt for trees, sneak out at night to go camping in a DIY tent (until the dogs start barking and we run back inside completely freaked out), we hide treasures in places never to be found again, find secret lakes, and so forth and so on. The difference is that my little cousin is not as wild as Tom Sawyer’s friend. She is more like his brother Cid and the story always ends up with her getting into some sort of place (with my help) which she can’t get out of (on her own) – I often go and ask for help to take her out of there, but sometimes help takes too long to arrive – she then starts screaming for her mother, snitching to the adults and blaming me for forcing her into it. I got the fame of being a very nasty child, who forces her poor cousin into dangerous situations. Still, every Saturday she keeps coming, willing to join me.
I always watch a version of Tom Sawyer that is dubbed in Portuguese, where they keep the original names. His friend has a very funny name, he is called “Uncle very thin” (I will only know him by his real name – Huckleberry Finn – 20 years later, as I’m telling this story to English-speaking friends in Rotterdam).
Our great adventures always end up in some sort of epic failure. But still, we do believe that magic exists and that we are capable of performing it.
(What I cannot tell you now is that you will spend the next 20 years of your life learning things, only to unlearn them later. What I cannot tell you now is that only when that happens, you will believe in magic again and learn how to fly. And what I cannot tell you now is that humanity has always been scared of women who fly: whether they are witches, whether they are free. When you grow up, it still will be – as I’m telling these words to myself, I’m also lightning a match, which all of a sudden breaks in two as it ignites, the upper part falling on my lap and burning my trousers. Shit! This was my best pair of trousers for work! – What I cannot tell you now is that life is a cycle, things come and go and nothing is as it appears).
Work is fine, just takes too much time.
Know all things to be like this:
A mirage, a cloud castle,
A dream, an apparition,
Without essence, but with qualities that can be seen.
Know all things to be like this:
As the moon in the bright sky
In some clear lake reflected,
Though to that lake the moon has never moved.
Know all things to be like this:
As an echo that derives
From music, sounds and weeping,
Yet in that echo is no melody.
Know all things to be like this:
As a magician makes illusions
Of horses, oxen, carts and other things,
Nothing is as it appears.2
Once in a workshop someone asked us to tell two sentences about ourselves: one real and one fictional. I said, “I’m a shape-shifter3. When I was a teenager, I used to sing in a rock band.” In the break, everyone came to ask me the name of my band. I’ve done many things in life, but singing was never one of them.
After many years of dedicating my daily hours to shape-shifting missions, I have a serious and real job (I still see it as part of my shape-shifting practice) which makes me feel like a grown-up. At my work, there is this man who has the most boring job in the world, but who, however, always has funny stories to tell about his adventurous vacations with his wife in their caravan. As he once said, “Work is fine, pays my bills. It just takes too much time” – I couldn’t agree more.
(It’s not until later, when you’ll be having a shower before bed, that you will have an epiphany and manage to finish the text. As the water runs, this sentence will keep popping up in your mind: “Shamans know how to make it rain, without being able to explain that water is made out of hydrogen and oxygen” – you will run out of the shower, go back to the computer and finish your text. )
Women who fly
At the still point of the turning world
there the dance is.
And without the point
that still point
there would be no dance
and there is only the dance.4
Spiraling from your center
I arrive at this place, people are still coming, everyone seems a bit anxious. The woman who flies in the red costume5 tells us that we are very brave for coming and her helper asks if he should bring the bucket, as people might need to vomit. That introduction scares me a bit. But I will go through it and repeat this experience many times after, until one day I will see myself stopped and the whole world whirling around me, I feel as if I’m going to faint, as I don’t see clearly anymore and the body is becoming lighter. It’s mind blowing since it brings me into some sort of trance by extreme presence. When I finally surrender to absolute disorientation, it feels as if I’m still and become an observer of the spinning world. In my whirling practice, I depart from the spiral of my own body. I can travel through space but normally prefer to remain in the same place and whirl around myself and within this movement, finding my stillness.
Navigating through space in a wave
I’m in this room with lots of people, his voice guiding us though the movement. We start in a circle, then oscillate from one side to another. The energy is contained inside the circle. We spread. Feel the breath, the feet touching the floor, the arms, hands, shoulders, spine, hips, knees… I have no control over the body, it becomes a series of shapes, which navigate organically from one form into another, effortlessly and in the most perfect harmony. Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness6. I don’t feel the rhythm, I am the rhythm, and that is all there is. I navigate through space, follow the wave of all the five rhythms until reaching stillness.
To the North, South, East, West
Before we enter, we fold some tobacco in a colored piece of fabric. Each color is related to one of the cardinal directions: North, South, East, West. As we enter, we all greet the space with the sentence: “To all my relations”. We then crawl inside, and choose a place. We’re about twelve women. The master of ceremonies asks for the fire women tobring the hot stones inside, one by one. All twenty-four of them. The opening is closed. It’s fully dark inside, only the hot stones are bright red. We set an intention. Moments of singing, moments of silence. Burning powders and magic words. It’s so hot that the skin sometimes burns. I feel like I’m in my mothers’ womb. Darkness and warmth is all there is. A wonderful smell, the sound of people breathing. Feeling deeply inside myself and at the same time a very safe feeling of absolute togetherness. In the Inipi7, stillness is literal. I’m inside a space, where I choose my direction. It seems that the world stops and I can find the still point inside.
In all the three practices, I feel as a child – rotating around myself at the beach until I fall in the sand, dancing freely in the intervals of classes and building up tree houses on my bare feet in a muddy ground – and at the same time, they do connect me to something which is beyond humanness. And that space, between childhood freedom and reaching some sort of divine energy, I call magic. Benjamin: maybe mescaline was not the best choice.
It’s the smallest of all birds and at first glance its body has not been made to fly. However, hummingbirds challenged the laws of physics by developing their own very unique ways of flying. Hummingbirds are able to fly backward and sideways, and can also hover, go forward, up or down. Even though they are very small, their migrations are often long journeys. In some shamanist traditions, the hummingbird is the archetype for the North direction, and it represents absolute bravery8.
When I decided to become an artist, what I was looking for was this holistic idea of connecting to the universe through my practice, of making sense of things I couldn’t understand, such as chaos. With time, my practice opened up and expressed itself in many different forms such as: visual arts, writing, performance, dance, but also: project management, production, community work, and more recently, teaching and coaching. I guess what I always aimed for was, what I call today quite simply magic. I am still interested in magic, which for me lays in the possibility of co-creating reality. Magic cannot exist in any place other than the utterly subjective and embodied experience of flowing through life with radical openness and detachment from all we know. Art being one possible manifestation of that force, but certainly not the only one. Sometimes I fly as a witch and sometimes as a hummingbird, the same way that sometimes I make things which people call “art” and sometimes I make other things which people call differently. For me there’s no “art and life”, there is only being. And this radical beingness is all there is (real).
1 Giorgio Agamben, “Profanations”.
2 Sogyal Rinpoche, “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”.
3 “In mythology, folklore and speculative fiction, shape-shifting is the ability of a being or creature to transform its physical form or shape. This is usually achieved through an inherent ability of a mythological creature, divine intervention or the use of magic.”
4T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”.
5 Technique developed by the artist and performer Valentina Lacmanovic. At first sight it looks like the Sufi dance, but while the Sufis develop their movement around the circle figure, within the spiral technique, movement comes from one’s natural body spiral. Valentina invites us to travel through trance-like states and learn how to tap into the creative flow. She defends that Spiraling movement is “at the core of our galaxy, our DNA, it is the force of nature in hurricanes and vortices”.
6 5Rhythms is a movement practice created by the choreographer Gabrielle Roth in the late 1970s. It combines different practices such as shamanistic, ecstatic, mystical and eastern philosophy. The practice is based on the idea that everything is energy, and moves in waves, patterns and rhythms.
7 Inipi is the Lakota term for sweat lodge, which means “to live again”. The ritual is also called: “The house of the breath”. The lodge is a dome constructed of young willow trees placed in a circle and covered with hides.
8 Alberto Villoldo, “Courageous Dreaming”.
Established in Rotterdam since 2009, Susana Pedrosa graduated from the Piet Zwart Institute in 2011 and works as a visual and performance artist, and more recently also as a movement teacher and coach. Her current research develops around performative practices evolving from conscious movement, shamanistic and ritual practices. In the past she has initiated and managed community projects such as Oblique International and Kiosk all u niek and worked as organiser and project manager for Open Set and m/other voices, amongst others. As a cultural producer, she is particularly interested in establishing collaborations and working in community projects operating within the public sphere. Susana is also part of the collective Wolphart1555. For the last two years she has been working as a Course Coordinator for the Piet Zwart Institute.