Interview with interdisciplinary artist Agnes Momirski
A Way to Optimisation
In her creative practice Rotterdam-based artist Agnes Momirski aims to investigate some of the most fundamental questions of human existence; our mental and physical abilities as well as the relationship with other entities that surround us. Her interdisciplinary works, spanning from performance, video installation, music and writing, are deeply rooted in voice and language, explore arcane, healing and ritual methods through a post-humanist lens. The artist uses her own appearance and voice to question human condition in the period when technology is being ever more merged with the human body. Furthermore, she opposes the artificial divide between nature and culture, which has been appropriated in the period of scientific and technological development of modern era, and resorts to connect the ideas from pre-modern and hyper-modern contexts. Her works refer to practices such as ancient Greek rhetoric, word magic, ritual poetry, as well as contemporary cognitive science. The artist tends to impact the audience directly by conducting group meditations, chanting rituals and spellbound in order to enable immersive experience. In the beginning of the year (2020), Momirski was invited to attend the artist-in-residence programme at MGLC Švicarija in Ljubljana, and was commissioned to produce a new piece in order to further explore her ongoing practice. In less than two months the siXren (verbum medicinae) project was developed and showcased at MGLC Švicarija (until 2 August 2020). The interview took place during her dwelling at the residency at Švicarija, amidst the development her new piece which has been presented as a one-off performance and as a spatial video installation.
A very common topic of your work is the connection between the body and the soul, which you say has been gradually divided after the scientific revolution. Why is this topic significant to you now, in this particular day and age?
The world today is focused on human progress, enhancement, and scaling up the human and technological abilities. In the Informational Age, I believe that the key to conscious human progress are methods of inner work and embodiment practices. They are instrumental in gaining insights into the human nature. Therefore, I advocate for magical thinking and embodiment practices as methods to further human evolution. Many of alternative healing methods are gaining popularity now, as a response to healthcare system failures, seeing the rise of the DIY healthcare, and mental health awareness. These social/cultural changes are also embodied in a critical post-humanism which is about reaching beyond the rational subject and the Cartesian dualism; and despite the fact that we are constantly experiencing new scientific breakthroughs, the relationship between the mind, body and soul is just beginning to be properly unravelled.
Cartesian split started occurring around the era of enlightenment in late the 18th century when thinkers and scientists openly turned against the religious dogmas for the first time, and statistically the humankind lives better as the result of rational thought. Do you think humankind has now, in Anthropocene, gone too far?
In his book Reenchantment of the World Morris Berman writes about the scientific revolution and Isaac Newton, a scientist with a secret alchemist/occultist practice. In medieval times, humanity would perceive all animate and inanimate beings connected as one consciousness, also called the participating consciousness. However, Newtonian rationality caused the human world-view to shift and one thought prevailed: “I am not part of this system, I am a rational subject.” According to Berman this severely affected humanity, by demonising human inner nature and bodily knowledge up to this day and age. This dynamic was funnily enough reflected in Newtons psychological make-up – he was schizophrenically split between his secret life (alchemical thinking) and his science (rational thinking). Today, the aim of reviving the alchemical thought and magical thinking is not about turning back and idealising the past. It is about reviving the participating consciousness within our multilayered environment in order to embrace and not alienate the human nature. Today we have come to a point where human experiences have become increasingly more multidimensional and complex, and leave us no choice but to embrace contradictions, between human rational and irrational sides, mind and heart, and rediscover the relational human consciousness.
You are mentioning the split that came with Newton. Do you think in the middle ages, for instance, there was an equilibrium between the body and the soul?
At that time, the nature of the self was definitely more connected with nature cycles. But I think that we are closer to an equilibrium today, as we are beginning to address human nature and experience with wider awareness within open cultural, social, spiritual atmospheres. For example, today cyber reality is one of the major triggers for our concept of the self to shift. We began perceiving human as multidimensional again, and this new world view can act as a catalyst to break down the Cartesian construct. It feels we are now addressing the topic of human nature with much more detachment and finally without religious dogma, and are able to explore the science of mind, spirit, and body on equal terms.
In medieval Europe there was a dictatorship of (one particular) religion – Christianity – and alchemists were commonly prosecuted by religious authorities.
Religious institutions banished alchemical thinking, paganism and indigenous cultures, and everyone who embraced the participatory consciousness. That is when spirituality became less about connecting with the divine and more about social control, and practices such as alchemy, witchcraft, shamanism became a secret and part of the “counter culture”. Often the sacred sites were used by both alchemists, or Celtic and pagan shamans, as well as the established religion common to the area. The common religion also adopted many methods, prayer techniques and formulas from the pagan practices, which is especially recognisable in their official rituals.
For lack of written sources we don’t know much about pagan world but some traditions are still persistently alive. Have you also explored pagan traditions as part of your research?
Currently I am researching oral storytelling across different ancient practices and spiritual traditions. It is fascinating how the ritual poetry formulas, be it in the America, Europe, Asia or Siberia, are very similar in structure, and also in symbolic content. Slavic traditions, for instance, especially in Russia and the Balkan area, were strongly rooted in shamanic practices; and variations of such practices are present around the world. In the Balkans, these rituals were carried out by “vještice”. In Slovenia, this knowledge is somehow lost – there are no records and not much evidence about shamanic or pagan rituals. All ancient traditions, including the pagan, were based in a poetic world view and melodic co-existence, which is so beautifully described in David Abram’s books The Spell of the Sensuous, and Becoming Animal, where I found one of my favourite quotes: “Every language is a singing of the world.”
In your work you often address the (artificial) divide between culture and nature, and point out that technology is a result of both, not only culture. In what way do you think technology will develop and entwine with our bodies in the future?
The technologies are already intertwined with our bodies – our electronic devices are memory extensions, our fitness is a result of unprecedented amount of supplements, and our genetic destinies can be altered due to medical and pharmaceutical technology. Nowadays human optimisation became a norm. Personally, I am a devoted inner work practitioner, always looking to push the boundaries of the body and the mind. In my experience it is necessary to understand both, the biological function (brain and body chemistry), and the psycho-spiritual dynamics, to know how to keep yourself at optimum functioning (with exercise, meditation, diet). Humans and technology coexist in an entangled symbiosis, where the human self is also a side product of technologies. However, I perceive the term technology in its wider sense – not only as gadgets and devices, but also as tools, like cognitive science. Understanding ancient ritual practices and the participating consciousness can help towards merging of modern and pre-modern technologies, and towards further understanding of the mind-body relationship.
General concerns seem to be related to human cognitive and mnemonic functions due to storing information in our devices.
Humanity has always been inventing memory technologies. In the past, there were no devices, but there were tools such as mnemotechnics (used by Ancient Greeks); a technique used to store information in one’s mental space. By picturing a temple in the mind’s eye, the information is stored and retrieved by simply walking through the different spaces of the temple. Poetry was another method to memorise information, and ancient communities would come together in reviving knowledge through songs. The poem structure and its rhythm served in a guiding capacity, informing a singer how to move through a landscape, where to plant and dig. Writing is also a memory technology, serving to record one’s thoughts, and has entirely changed the course of humanity and the construct of self as delineated in Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind.
Your practice and research on conducting rituals is expressed within the artistic context. Why do you think art is an appropriate medium for that?
I think art, for better or worse, has the capacity to host and expand critical thinking. In art, there is space to extend the imaginary, through layering multiple contexts, while staying critically engaged in socially relevant dialogues. I aim to extend my research on multiple levels: on one hand through my writing practice in magazines; and on the other hand through my interdisciplinary performance / art practice, which is experiential and engages the audience by flirting with more popular (music, visual) genres. The self is a shifting construct, and in these posthuman times we are seeing altered biologies, breaking down the boundaries between organic and inorganic. This is a time to reconnect with the inner human nature, using models such as ritualised action, ceremonial participation, as well as poetic metaphors, and ancient knowledge. Fields of digital culture and technologies, are where these models can be used to reflect on the post-human, postdigital, and decentralisation ideals, which are all about liminality, freedom and the fluidity of self.
In the past your art practice was mainly based on moving image, but in the past two years it seems you have switched to a more performative expression, a kind of live art. What initiated this transition?
My art practice shifted after I discovered embodiment and inner work practices, and began working in the realm of breath, body, movement and voice. Within the last two years, my practice shifted from the visual realm, into the invisible realm of language, sound and voice, where I found a new (artistic and personal) freedom. Working and exploring my own voice, it’s complexities, and use in a variety of storytelling and music genres, has been a means for me to reflect on the changing construct of self. However, I think about our corporeal existence and embodiment within the frames of the posthuman age. Despite our extended existence online, we are bound to this corporal reality that we are in, and yet, we are always changing and transitioning. The digital realm offers a great depiction of the transient human nature. I love Instagram AR filters ever since the AR creator tools became accessible in 2019, for they are such a great example of how our corporeality is a fluid construct, bound to change and shift. Technology is merging all realities, and by working with the bodily existence and connecting with our inner human nature, we can extend this awareness onto planes such as the digital.
What exactly are embodiment and inner work practices?
Embodiment practices actively engage with healing the human mind-body connection. They centralise body awareness as a primary healing agent (also in psychotherapy). This practice allows you to focus on unwinding the stories held within the body, and getting in touch with bodily knowledge, intuition, and inner being, to balance your rational and analytical mind. These practices speak of the importance of our embodied knowledge, and encourage us to continuously check in with the body, to release what is being blocked and held in, for we are beings focused on verbal processing and cognitive meaning making. Inner work is diving deep into your inner self for the purposes of self-exploration, self-understanding, healing, and transformation, as well as purging, healing, and awakening of hidden feelings, memories, thoughts, beliefs, prejudices, wounds, shadows, and other mental/emotional conditions that influence your ability to transform and feel. By reaching heart/mind/soul coherence, one can become our authentic self, whole at a core level, and reach our highest potential for the benefit of all humanity.
In what way do you use voice in your recent performances?
I first started exploring human voice as a subject in the project Vala (2017-2018), where I explored the effect of voice on human consciousness. I started researching voice AIs and virtual assistants, and replacing their voices with those of pop singers and wellness instructors. Voice carries a lot of information, and I am interested in how it indicates the merging of all human realities within the digital context. Simultaneously, I began creating performances where I would use mindfulness and guided meditation techniques in a performative way, making people more susceptible to suggestion. Later on, I began exploring the intertwining of meditation methods and various music genres, in combination with ritualised action and electronic music. With the project siXren (verbum medicinae), which I am developing here at the residency programme at MGLC Švicarija, I am exploring the voice and language as medicinal agent, from an ancient and the cognitive science perspective.
Meditation seems to be more about the sound itself, the repetition, and not so much about the narrative. How do you combine storytelling and meditation?
In meditation sessions as well as in ritual ceremonies, the aim is to reach a state of trance, state when one becomes suggestible, a state of ego-dissolution. Meditation uses guided imagery, a narrative, that induces a state of relaxation. This method allows one to surpass the neocortex, the analytical mind, and move into limbic brain, influencing the subconscious mind with positive suggestions. Generally, it is the repetition of sonic, verbal and linguistic patterns, within a storytelling structure, that affects the mind in such ways. While meditation narratives are very straight forward, ritual storytelling is poetic, metaphorical and lyrical.
The voice or the sound can be a tool for relaxation. The cats’ purring is suggested to be a way of self-healing. Does that work with humans as well?
Our biology is constantly affected by frequencies and vibrations around us. We are made of rhythm and sound, the heartbeat pulsates through our body. A human way of purring would be chanting, producing healing vibrations with our voices. We are way more susceptible to vibrations than we think, some research indicates that noise pollution affects us in worse ways than air pollution for example.
At the residency programme in Ljubljana you have been working on a new piece siXren (verbum medicinae) which is a spatial video installation and a performative piece. What are you exploring with this new material?
siXren (verbum medicinae) is an ambient installation, where one can immerse him- or herself in the sonic environment, watching a narration video, and rest on comfortable pillows. The project is based on my research into ancient verbal storytelling and the notion of words as medicinal agents (as considered in Greek rhetoric, word magic and today cognitive science). Storytelling and language have been considered as healing agents for centuries, and the exhibition explores the healing power of verbal formulas and imagines them integrated into our our sensory and sonic environments. Arcane knowledge becomes the means for self-optimisation, growth, personal development, and human enhancement.
siXren is an experiment in creating a new sensory territory where popular culture, healing, science and ancient knowledge merge into a posthuman imaginary landscape. Technology essentially brings all these layers of our lives together. During the making of the piece, the work took place on so many levels: creating the tech-wear costume, lyric writing, voice work, composing the soundtrack, the video script, editing and postproduction with digital tools. It is made in collaboration with beepblip (sound) and Brina Vidic (visual and costume design). The ritual performance is a live jam with beepblip, noise musician, with whom we combine vocal and sound formulas with noise music, Earth frequencies, and healing vibrations. The ritual uses a storytelling technique (used in verbal charms) that sets the intent to diminish the problems that worry us. I adapt medicinal words into a lyrical context of contemporary sound, and affect my voice live through an effect machine. This is an attempt to create the sensibility for ritualised and arcane action in our understanding of sound, music, and popular and digital culture.
What about the texts that you perform? Do you invent them or appropriate them?
In the making of siXren I extracted medicinal words and formulas from a number of sources, and appropriated them into lyrical, musical context, while replacing the ancient symbolism with references that one can immediately understand. In my other performative lectures, I use guided imagery, meditation and cognitive methods layered with informative content, and often also lyrical references.
Nowadays, humankind seem to be pretty careless about our entire environment; it seems like a competition with other species. In the age of Anthropocene it turns out that the humankind has been, for thousands of years, the most invasive among species. The question is do we need to be more optimised because we are already almost untouchable?
That may be true, but we are still far from understanding human nature. Educational systems disregard our emotional, spiritual reality, and instead promote productivity and competitiveness. No one teaches us how to regulate our emotions, how to have fulfilling relationships, how to steer through cultural conditioning, genetic destinies and generational trauma. There’s a very thin line between what is called personal development and what we call human enhancement or optimisation. We certainly need to dig deeper, and develop a new sensibility for human and more-than-human world. We are certainly not untouchable; every human being suffers in one way or another, however, in spiritual terms, we all come here with the same goal – to learn compassion and solidarity.
We use enhancement for ourselves, individually, but the question is how do we relate to the others? In the past forty years it became clear that we, the humankind, are damaging our own environment to the point of no return. We changed the world according to our expectations.
In this coming era of post-humanity the notions of the other and otherness, non-human and more-than-human are going to change inevitably. We are experiencing the collapse of boundaries between culture and nature, between organic and inorganic. We used to perceive technology as mechanical, industrial, and inhumane, but it simply became an integral part of us, and the future will see an even further breakdown of barriers between human and technology.
Can we learn empathy? Would that be one of the results of human optimisation?
What the cybernetic and networked world has showed us, is that we are in relationship with everything around us. By reviving the sensibility for ancient arcane traditions, we are seeking for new models of participation in the collective unconscious, and a new relationship with nature, inner and outer. In Japanese culture all animate or inanimate beings are perceived as having a soul. For this reason, the Japanese have a close relationship with robots, which is often unfathomable for Westerners. I think that through a new perception of technologies, bridging science- and intuition-based practices, thinking in trans-disciplinary ways, implementing decentralised and posthuman ideals, we will begin to understand our inherent relational participating consciousness. I certainly believe that increased empathy and inter-connectedness should be the result of human optimisation.
Agnes Momirski is an interdisciplinary artist, graduated with an MA from Royal College of Art in London in 2014, and with a BA from WDKA in Rotterdam in 2012.
Her practice is deeply rooted in voice and language, exploring the human relationship with (inner) nature in the coming era of posthumanity. Agnes uses different artistic means such as performance, music/sound, installation, and film. Together with her close collaborator Georgia Kareola she is the founder of the Specter platform. Her work has recently been shown at MGLC Ljubljana 2020; Impakt festival 2019; Motel Mozaique 2019; Kiblix 2017; Art Rotterdam 2018; Tent Rotterdam, De Pont Museum, Museo Alicante, and others. Agnes won the Liquid award by Motel Mozaique 2019, was a recipient of Young talent award by Mondriaan funds in 2016, Squeeze online award 2016.
text: Miha Colner