How do you combine research within your artistic practice?
My work is very informed by research, and research is an open term to me. Multiple sources are considered and explored for material, images, and meaning. Hidden histories, folklore, obscure archives, popular culture, mainstream media platforms, social media platforms, collective memories, underground information structures, and so forth. Appropriating, finding, or foraging images that »resonate« being a key feature of my process. The cut-up becomes a transformed thing capable of new meaning. Detournement and culture jamming are strategies that also find their way into the practice. For me, it is an intuitive process. Ultimately it allows for the pursuit of spiritual and existential meaning through knowledge and craft.
An example to explain a little more is a short experimental moving image work/installation I did a number of years ago called The Pit (2013). It uses approximately 20 seconds of original film footage from the black-and-white movie The Snake Pit (1948). The footage itself is picked, as it is a remembered dream sequence having watched the movie in my childhood. Later in adult life I wondered if I had dreamt this memory or if it were a film at all. This was an itch I had to scratch so I went about trying to find the movie, which I did. On rediscovering the dream sequence, I was compelled to work with it.
The sequence is one of the most visually compelling in the movie. It uses a long POV take. A God’s-eye view showing us what looks like a pit, reveals distant contorting figures, but gradually the camera zooms in to the face of the main character, Virginia, who, we then realise, is in a chaotic asylum ward surrounded by other distressed inmates. This POV shot is important as it moves from the omniscient God’s eye view to an intimate closeup.
Splitting the screen in two, I presented two iterations of the sequence. The left is the camera moving from the distant shot to the intimate closeup, as seen in the original clip, while the right-hand-side shows it in reverse, the camera moving from Virginia’s distressed closeup to eventually the omniscient view looking down upon the distressed inmates. The next manipulation is the timing of the footage and the muting of the sound. Whereas the appropriated film segment originally was 20 seconds, it was slowed so that the 20 seconds played out over two minutes. Finally, the two split-screen channels are looped into one final projection.
The cinematic sequence is selected for its psychological impact. Once doubled and manipulated in the manner it is, the left side plays forward while the right side plays simultaneously in reverse, creating a dizzying effect and the looping never brings it to closure. The simple and direct manipulations in editing the original footage creates an uneasy relationship between the self and the other. Or as my friend Dr. Jenny Keane suggested in earlier discourse on The Pit, that it »generates liminality between presence and dispossession.«
Do images can »dis-enchant« reality or personal perspective?
Now more than ever. With the undercurrent of disenchantment in the world there is a necessity to engage with the world of the imagination, paranormal ideas, the esoteric; and to visualise new inclusive realities, as in the western world, the old ways are inhabiting, declining, and corrupting. The last hundred years or so in the west have seen the development of new ways of thinking, expressions of spirituality, alternative philosophies, communities and modes of being, not allied to a state or established theologies. This activity has only accelerated in the beginning of the twenty-first century.
In your recent works you have a series of female »masked« Blue Dyke portraits. In cyanotype minimalistic form, you apply semi-anthropomorphic abstraction, which is reminiscent of Indigenous imagery in relation to magic. Who are these women, and what kind of change do they offer?
There is an ambivalence about these works and who these folk are. On one level, the masked appearances may remind us of old pagan or folk customs of mask-making and wearing that were pervasive across Ireland, Europe, and elsewhere. Masking has plenty of references in the Celtic or pagan past of Ireland, used as part of custom and celebration tied to the pagan calendar. Despite both British colonialism and Roman Catholicism, these folk customs have proved resilient over time. Some of these traditions have persisted into twenty-first century Ireland, through the activities of the Mummers, the Straw Boys, and other folk groups that engage in reenactments of these old folk traditions.
On another level these images are about the present. These are images that have been appropriated and accumulated from fashion images distributed and circulated online. Sourced from documentation detailing clothing collections from catwalk shows by Martin Margiela, amongst others, who have a reputation for deconstructing and queering fashion. These appropriations for me are presentations of selves that explore the non-binary, genderqueer and androgyny in an emancipatory manner. Identities are simultaneously sartorial and fabulously glamorous. These Blue Dyke characters are ambivalent and ambiguous identities.
Lastly, these images visualise a utopian future. Imaginings of female and queer personalities and collectives. Cyan sci-fi phantoms of the imminent future.
Cyan absorbs red light and as such is the complement of red. We can trick our mind into seeing cyan where it doesn’t exist by forcing the mind first to see everything as red.
I’ve heard it described as a borderline colour. It is the mixing of green and blue light. Sometimes the colour has a spectral, shadowy quality that allows one to move beyond the image. To me, I see these cyan images as ghosts. They’re ghosts of ghosts, sometimes three or four times removed through the copying and reproductive processes. I am interested in what finds its way into an artwork that was not intended and what does not find its way into an artwork that was intended.
When I think about my country, Poland, I see recent pro-choice struggles in borderline color. As Silvia Federici and others have suggested, we can also look at reproductive rights from the occult perspective. What do the witchy and wayward women of the past teach us in these truly substantive struggles for reproductive freedom?
Poland’s current government imposing bodily autonomy strictures on women and persons identifying as LGBTQI+ is state violence against women and queers. Looking back on our proclaimed independence from British rule, the Catholic church moved into the center of power, enabled by the new free state government at that time. Substantial power and even government portfolios, such as education and health, were given over to the church administration. This church and state entity imposed such strictures on Irish bodies for decades, all to maintain a church and state authority.
Remembering the »Repeal the Eighth« movement for the legalising of safe abortions in Ireland from 1983, the acceleration of organisations and representative groups in support of repealing the Eighth Amendment is notable. More than 15 years ago there would have been a handful of pro-abortion/Repeal the Eighth think tanks advocating and campaigning for change. More than 30 years of campaigning, activism, and protests by the feminist grassroots movements in Ireland eventually paid off. At the time of the referendum, there were approximately 66 such groups campaigning for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland. These groups were representative of communities, occupations such as Artists for Choice, Lawyers for Choice, Teachers for Choice, Doctors for Choice, Farmers for Choice, etc., or geographies such as Tipperary for Choice, Limerick for Choice, and so on. The two referendums, on marriage equality in 2015 and repealing the Eighth Amendment in 2018, were watershed moments in the recent history of this country.
Interestingly, after these referendums, the life of one of Ireland’s important saints, St. Brigid, seems to be reclaimed by the beneficiaries of both of these movements. Little-known aspects of her life, such as being a pagan Goddess, a healer, a mystic, an abortionist, and a lesbian have been spotlighted, much to the disgruntlement of pious Catholic church leaders and others. St Brigid’s legacy is at times obscure. Meave Brigid Callan, who is a professor of religion and medieval studies in Iowa in the United States, maintained in her scholarship that Brigid performed the first recorded abortion in Ireland in 650 AD. Here Callan maintains that Brigid was noted to have helped a »woman in a difficult situation.«
You grew up in Kilkenny, were there witches?
There was a curious case of Dame Alice Kytler, the Kilkenny witch who escaped being burned at the stake as she shape-shifted and escaped to England and was never heard from again. I grew up with this story, but the reality of her case was transformative to Irish history at that time.
This was medieval Ireland of 1324, and Alice was a woman of property and had been married four times and widowed. Children of one of the deceased husbands were disgruntled with their lack of inheritance and pressed for an investigation into Alice and her business dealings.
Eventually, accused of being witches and practicing witchcraft and sorcery, Alice and her maid Petronella De Meath were arrested and tried for heresy in front of an ecclesiastical court. They were also accused of worshipping the devil and fornicating with a demon, arguably the first record of devil worship being associated with witchcraft. Later, Alice escaped for a second time to England but her maid Petronella was arrested and burned at the stake outside what is the Tholsel in Kilkenny’s city center.
The aforementioned historian Maeve Brigid Callan discusses the story of Alice and Petronella in her book The Templars, the Witch and the Wild Irish. According to her this was not »real« heresy but »artificial« heresy, as these were fabricated charges against adversaries. She also presents an argument that this case also represented a type of transformation in the perception of Ireland having up to that point been seen as the island of »saints and scholars« to now being promoted by the Normans, the Roman Catholic church and the English, all settlers, as a land of »heathens and heretics.« Up to this point the Irish did not practice Christianity in the form of the Roman Catholic church. According to Callan, this story of Alice and Petronella reflected the »conflicting interests and shifting identities« on the island. Eventually this conflict was performed on the burning body of Petronella. This incident of burning a woman at the stake as a heretic and witch occurred well before the mass burning of witches across Europe in the fifteenth century. The context for these early trials were conflicts created around ethnic identity between the Irish, the Anglo-Irish, and the English.
Connecting to W.B. Yeats’s poem »The Second Coming,« do you think that pandemics gave Brexit an occult dimension?
Conflicts around ethnic identity are not uncommon in the histories of this island and our neighbors. In ways, art and magic have played their own roles in that history. An important writer/poet/magician who wrote about some of these conflicts was W.B. Yeats. I was always fascinated with Yeats’s life story, in particularly his engagement with practical magic, Celtic mysticism, the great wheel, and historical time. He was a high-ranking initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I loved reading about his psychic collaborations with George Hyde-Lees, whom he married in 1917. These activities included his translations of her automatic writing and automatic speech. Much of this activity led to the writing of a seminal text titled A Vision, written incorporating George’s automatic utterances and »scattered sentences« and contributions from etheric and higher spirits.
In 1919 during the Spanish flu pandemic, while a pregnant George was recovering from the flu, Yeats wrote what would become his most often quoted poem, »The Second Coming« (originally titled »The Second Birth«). Because of its vivid apocalyptic imagery, it has been quoted and referenced in twentieth and twenty-first century popular culture: television, film, music, and so on. In the poem he refers to history moving in 2,000-year cycles; »twenty centuries of stony sleep« coming to an end. A few years ago, the contemporary Irish journalist and writer Fintan O’Toole proposed a notion called the »Yeats test.« Here he maintained that the more Yeats was quoted in media and politics, »the worse things are.« Indeed it is obvious the political shenanigans of the past five years between Ireland, the UK, and the EU that change is afoot, Brexit being part of that change. For anyone observing domestic politics in Ireland during this Covid pandemic, change will come. Our current government is a Frankenstein monster, which presents quite the spectacle of the establishment clinging to power. And in doing so demonstrates in the words of Yeats that »the center cannot hold.«
Breda Lynch is a contemporary Irish artist born in Kilkenny and based in Limerick city, located in the west of Ireland, working in a variety of media, including drawing, photography, print, and digital media, video, and installation. She is a full-time lecturer in Fine Art at Limerick School of Art and Design. She engages with dialogues and discourses on queer feminisms, the western mystery tradition and occulture, appropriation, and the economy of the image.
Krzysztof Gutfrański is curator, editor, and researcher. His contextual research practice is pivots on issues of social engagement, alternative education, theory of value, and non-functional thinking in the era of systemic and technological transformations. Krzysztof was a fellow at the Akademie in 2020 and is co-editor-in-chief of this issue.