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An interview with curators Petra Poelzl and Sarah Reimann.

Under the quest of enchanting the space between the digital and the real, Hebbel am Ufer (HAU)’s ten-day festival Spirits, Jinns & Avatars will summon practices to inhabit the technological realm, led by a non-Eurocentric compass. We spoke with curators Petra Poelzl and Sarah Reimann to explore their curatorial choices and the magic rituals channeled by the festival’s participating artists.

To break the ice, when was the last time magic manifested to you?

Petra Poelzl: First of all, thanks a lot for all the great questions. We are delighted! 

One of the last times magic manifested to me was last month—on my holidays in the Alps with my beloved dog, Luka. We had several days in the snowy mountains: hiking without meeting anyone, diving into the mountainous landscape. 2,500 meters above sea level, there was quite a lot of magic unfolding around us. With regards to art, a memorable, magical manifestation happened to me at a Mazaher concert in Cairo last summer. (The ensemble will play the opening concert at HAU1 for the festival.)  Zār​​​​​​​ is a community healing ritual of singing, polyrhythmic drumming, and dancing, whose tradition is mainly carried by women, and whose main participants are also women (men have secondary roles)—but the magic that unfolds in the space where Mazaher performs cannot be put into words. We’re really excited that Tobias Schurig, the music curator of HAU, invited them to join the festival! 

Sarah Reimann: I’m also looking forward to finally seeing Mazaher. When I think of the last time magic manifested to me, I immediately think of seeing Lu Yang's DOKU the Self (2022) for the first time. We are showing the film, which offers a sort of multi-sensory intoxication, as part of the festival on our digital stage, HAU4. Lu Yang has created a non-binary avatar of himself, continuing his preoccupation with the digitalization of the human body and new subjectivities. The avatar bears the artist’s facial features and lives in a world strongly influenced by Buddhist ideas and symbols. At one point in the film, the scenery changes from a dystopian and dark city with an avatar whose movements are trapped in space, to a brightly-glowing natural landscape in which the avatar has become a light-footed being who can glide over the water. In just a few seconds, my own physical and emotional state changed completely. In a very impressive way, DOKU the Self made me experience the way in which the film’s shifting energy through images and sound is transferred from the screen to the body. That felt like magic manifesting through digitality.

Throughout history, the wielder of magical powers is always an extraordinary individual, someone who is feared or anointed by their community. How do spirits, Jinns, and avatars foster a diffused and community-based understanding of magic?

PP: Indeed, magical powers have been strongly individualized historically, as is evident in the historic political campaign to eradicate magic—the witch hunt. Ultimately, the collective turned against a large number of individuals. At the time, resisting the maxim of rationalizations was seen as rebellious by the church and the state. Resisting capitalist isolation, in which everyone competes, rather than cooperates, is similarly subversive today. With that in mind, magic can be found in the arts; in each well-made stage production that creates a collective experience and a feeling of togetherness. We hope that Spirits, Jinns & Avatars will achieve that. 

According to tradition, magical powers are always channeled by technical objects, which also become objects of power. How does Spirits, Jinns & Avatars articulate the relationship between contemporary technological milieus and magic in terms of the redistribution of these powers?

SR: Here, we can cite Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley's work Pirating Blackness / BLACKTRANSSEA.COM (2021)—an installation on display at HAU2. The immersive computer game reconstructs the lost history of Black trans people in the Atlantic slave ship crossings. Visitors embark on an ancestral journey in a commemorative ritual to find out what their roles would be in the alternative present day. Interactive gaming, storytelling, and hardware allow one to imagine another history, and thus, other futures. Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley combines the old tradition of fabulation with contemporary narrative forms based on digital technology. The installation transforms the physical exhibition space into an ocean where participants use themselves as currency to play the game. This, as well as that the game asks at the very beginning if you belong to “those that were carried across the sea” or to the “colonizers,” makes the reference to your own identity and body very evident. This creates an intense experience, which allows for a deep narrative in the form of a game. The work is then distinguished from a very enforced strategy that started in industry, but has reached many areas of our lives: a form of gamification, which often comes along with rendering historical and political backgrounds banal. Here, it is exactly the opposite.

PP: While we’re talking about technical objects holding magical power, we shouldn’t forget Philippe Quesne's Fantasmagoria. Quesne created a play without actors, in which “magically” animated machines take on a life of their own. I'm looking forward to this a lot! 



The festival presents a broad array of cultures which have traditions of magical thinking. How can participants reappropriate the structure of technology to organize new rituals of worldmaking beyond their backgrounds?

PP: Yes, indeed—the festival presents a broad range of cultures in which magical thinking plays a role, and it follows paths beyond Eurocentric thinking and storytelling. Paul Maheke's show Sènsa (2019), which he created in collaboration with Nkisi (aka Melika Ngombe Kolongo) and Ariel Efraim Ashbel, is a good example. In this show, the “classical” understanding of the audience/performer relationship is fractured. The audience becomes part of a ritual that oscillates between movement, sound, and light while exploring diasporic imaginations and ancestral knowledge. Thereby, Sènsa is a Bantu term that translates as “to become visible,” or “to appear from a distance.” Nkisi’s music  alternates between atmospheric waves and haunting twitches; ghostly shadows will emerge, and murmured words that sound like spells.

SR: Another work that comes to my mind is the artwork Data Death by Nadezhda Bey. Here, the public dives into a digital environment with an iconostasis and ceremonial monument surrounded by data representations. Data Death combines religious icons with icons of internet culture, like emojis and the experience of being in a 3D space. Bey develops new farewell rituals that combine bodily presence with digital environments. The viewer also listens to an “in memoriam” data chorus. I think this search for models of saying goodbye, which is reminiscent of a funeral, can be likened to several farewell rituals. Moreover, devotional ceremonies, in this case for data, is also transferable to different areas in our lives. For example, the person we bury also becomes an immaterial form for us. Or another example: the HAU twice did a project  entitled Unacknowledged Loss, in which rituals are created for moments in which such ceremonies are missing or do not exist; for example, a mastectomy. 

What spaces can be (re)opened by a postcolonial and anti-capitalist reference to the magical? 

PP: Creating small gatherings on certain evenings is close to my heart as a curator in general, but particularly so within this festival. The program is densely-built and multi-layered. From this variety of sensorial and historical threads, we can escape usual thought patterns, experience magical moments, and fuel up our minds and souls. Maybe we can even think of it as a form of resistance? 

Not only in the formats but clearly also in content, the invited productions are opening up postcolonial and anti-capitalist spaces by transgressing boundaries and looking at collective practices. For example, TARAB by Ulduz Ahmadzadeh / عطش ATASH عطش contemporary dance company, or the aforementioned work by Paul Maheke, enact this transgression. On the other hand, the visual artist Karin Ferrari, as well as the dancer and choreographer Nuria Giui Sagarra, both look at the commodification of spirituality and magic.  

Through the Spirits, Jinns & Avatars program, technology is framed as a tool for reappropriating oppressed historical narratives. Can you speak more about how participants will amplify marginalized forms of narration?

PP: This is a good moment to speak about Macho Dancer (2013) by Eisa Jocson. Macho Dancer is now a decade old, and is still exactly as topical today. Eisa Jocson takes up the topic of gender roles, looking at the marginalized histories of sex workers in the Philippines. Her ritualistic performance of a hyper-stylized form of masculinity is emphasized with power ballads and soft rock. After the second show on March 10, Eisa will be speaking to Renan Laru-an, who is the new director of SAVVY Contemporary. They will dive into Eisa's artistic practice, but also speak about her latest research on Aswang: shape-shifting creatures in Filipino folklore, such as vampires, ghouls, witches, viscera suckers, and transforming human-beast hybrids. 

Which re-enchanted space do you hope visitors will bring home after visiting the festival?

SR: With the festival program, we are asking: How does the hybrid present affect collective sensory experiences and rituals? We hope that visitors will be able to connect with digital devices and virtual worlds in a new way, realizing that the interfaces between the devices of our daily life and our bodies need to be designed, played, and tried out. This is very important for our HAU4 research on the connection between digital technology and people. The collective dgtl fmnsm, which advised the HAU4 festival program, put it as follows: “Despite all the criticism of the digitalization, monopolization, and technologisation of everyday life, we plead for the exploration of the emancipatory potential of tech – by rethinking, hacking and queering it.” In the framework of this festival, we would like to create an experiential environment for viewers, one that demonstrates that being online not only allows activities like addicted scrolling, trivial communication, and consumption, but also pleasurable and politically subversive experiences. In general, for HAU4, we are looking for works that subvert corporate offerings or show alternative visions, enabling non-commercial forms of narration, interaction, and participation, as well as platforming diverse communities. Perhaps it is possible that, through the collective experience, we can perceive our realities as being as complex as they are. Through artistic experiences, the magical can be seen as a political force for social change. This means that we can add a multidimensional view of our lives to the material, achievement-based society we live in.

PP: I would like to take a closer look at the word “re-enchanted.” Adham Hafez, an artist who lives between Cairo, Berlin, and New York, was working with us as a curatorial advisor on the festival. We had so many profound discussions on the topic! When I was looking into Silvia Federici’s Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, he immediately pointed out that the idea of “re-enchanting” is  very Western. The focus lies on the “re,”, as there are worlds that do not necessarily need to be re-enchanted, so to speak. He also mentioned Deborah Kapchan, a professor who  wrote the book Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa and Music in the Global Marketplace after moving from Morocco to the United States, and posed the question, “Where is the Djinn?” That said, Max Weber also comes to mind. In 1917, Weber delivered a speech called “The dis-enchantment of the world.” In it, he argues that, in Western society, scientific understanding is more highly valued than belief, and processes are oriented toward rational goals. He juxtaposes that with traditional society, in which “the world remains a great enchanted garden.”  Maybe humankind needs to allow one other to cultivate their power of imagination. Imagination is a magical practice; it is a form that can take place in the human mind, as well as through the creation of virtual worlds, every day and anywhere. 



Spirits, Jinns & Avatars will be running from 2 to 12 March, 2023 at HAU1, HAU2, HAU3, HAU4, Berlin.

For more info, see HERE.


    Pictures by Dana Kanin.



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