Images credit: Ergot : the story of a parasitic fungus. Wellcome Collection. Ergot fungus infection in wheat. Anna Gordon, Fernan Federici & Jim Haseloff. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In Conversation: Tai Shani, Untitled Hieroglyphs

Back to Earth artist Tai Shani discusses the research behind the project, Untitled Hieroglyphs with Serpentine’s Curator of General Ecology, Lucia Pietroiusti. Published in collaboration with Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters, a project by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.

Untitled Hieroglyphs, 2021
Editor: Lori E Allen
Composer: Maxwell Sterling
Footage: Ergot : the story of a parasitic fungus. Wellcome Collection. Ergot fungus infection in wheat. Anna Gordon, Fernan Federici & Jim Haseloff. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Lucia Pietroiusti: All right, so we can just jump straight in, I think. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me.

Tai Shani: I’m excited.

LP: Me too. So I suppose the origin of how we came to speak together about this project, though not the origin of the project itself, was through talking about the various instances of Ergot consumption on the island of Alicudi, just off the coast of Italy. I wonder whether you could talk about the origins of the research leading you through this project, and to explain the how island of Alicudi figures within this?

TS: Yes, absolutely. I was at the end of completing this big work DC: Productions (2019), which was a project that took me five years to explore and to reach a point of feeling ready to move on from it. And I didn’t really think I was going to embark on another ‘holding pattern’ type of methodology again, in which there’s a body of research I draw from, and different works emanating from within that. But I was shortlisted for an award, and I had to put forward a kind of proposal with quite a kind of quick turnover – so I was trying to crystallize the things I still felt excited about exploring and that I wanted to take forward from that project. I also wanted to move away from the more direct, declarative politics of the previous work and their focus on utopian world-making – I just wanted to explore a different territory. The prize I was shortlisted for was an Italian prize, and I’d spent a lot of time in Italy when I was young as my dad lived there for many years, so there were many things I was interested in looking at – one of which was the origins of the use of psychedelics in Italy. And I remembered there was a very interesting, all-female commune in the suburbs near Rome, that someone I knew had made a film about. I was trying to remember the name of this commune, or the group of women involved, and I somehow came across the island of Alicudi. It really embodies the kind of historical narrative I’m drawn to, which is one that sits between myth and reality. The story is that in Alicudi there was a continuous outbreak of Ergot that lasted for four hundred and fifty years, because the only kind of source of grain available on the island during that time was an Ergot-infested rye which had been milled into bread, and that subsequently people were tripping for four hundred and fifty years. But the thing is of course that this would be impossible. The conditions for Ergot are quite specific, in order for the fungus to emerge – it’s not as common as one might think, so I really don’t think it can have lasted all that time. But those are exactly the kind of histories I’m interested in; ones that are a little bit contested, and that have this sense of flight or excessiveness within them. So I was immediately really drawn to that. And I was also interested in a mythology specific to the Aeolian islands (of which Alicudi is a part), emerging from a character called the ‘maiara’, which is a kind of flying witch woman. It’s one of the rarer descriptions of a benevolent witch in European history – many of these maiara would paint a kind of ointment on their bodies which enabled them fly to the mainland, and they would bring back riches and food to make banquets on the beach. I was interested to see there was a little bit of a socialist dimension to this particular conception of the witch, in a way – one that protects and helps and is able to use her powers for a collective good. That sense of collectivity was the main thing I wanted to explore, and Ergot just seemed like a very interesting conduit for me to address how the more metaphysical questions, or the immaterial mysticism, or the fantastical dimensions of our lived experience or culture can be put to use in a more direct, social-materialist way.

Images credit: Ergot : the story of a parasitic fungus. Wellcome Collection. Ergot fungus infection in wheat. Anna Gordon, Fernan Federici & Jim Haseloff. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

LP: So it really started with the island of Alicudi itself, actually.

TS: Yeah, absolutely. It’s interesting because a few years ago this small village in the north of Italy, I forget the name of the place, had decided to re-stage the trial of the last witch that had been executed there. I think her name was Bertolino. And they wanted to re-stage the trial and to put it to rights in a way, in order to think about the shifts in the perception of femininity and so on. I did try and get permission to visit and document that trial, though in the end it never actually happened – but it was a similar thing. It was like this little story I found on CNN or somewhere like that, being told and retold in slightly different ways across various other news outlets, about ‘LSD Island’, they called it.

LP: And Ergot, I mean – being that you’ve just brought LSD into the conversations, Ergot has that history.

TS: Yes LSD has that kind of chemical process –, though obviously in the chemical extraction some of the more fatal side effects have been taken out, because the consumption of Ergot is very dangerous – it’s a poison that can create gangrene as well as being a hallucinogenic agent. Ergotism is a disease through which people lost limbs, so it forms a very interesting history because the treatment of Ergot was central to the order of St. Anthony, and to the Anthonites. There were all these people in the Middle Ages suffering from this and losing limbs through huge outbreaks of the disease. So they needed care – so it’s also a history of disease, and though I’m less interested in that aspect it also holds many other medicinal qualities, including its use in the treatment of migraines, which is still in use today in certain countries. It was also used as an abortive substance. So it’s got this kind of interesting history of being both something that can heal and also something that can be fatal.

LP: And the the work that you’re now presenting in the context of the Manchester International Festival is these nine vignettes, as it were, from within this history, of something speaking – a voice that could be Ergot, but that also felt to me like it moved into and out of both human and more-than-human characters. So that in a sense there’s a kind of identification, or some kind of a porousness, between Ergot and a voice that could perhaps be a witch, or one of the maiara. Does that sound right to you too?

TS: I think one has to be careful with how one attributes and links Ergot outbreaks to witchcraft, because undeniably witch hunting and the persecution of women was an industrial scale persecution, in which 70,000 women died across Europe. It was an absolute aberration, and it was ideologically motivated. So one has to be careful when one talks about Ergot outbreaks and witchcraft. But there are claims drawing connections between the Salem witch trials and the Ergot contamination that precipitated them. For example if you think about how in many indigenous cultures hallucinogenics are used as a kind of conduit to talk about a divine, one can imagine that the medieval imagination would have been very fertile for thinking about the divine when under the influence of a substance with hallucinogenic properties. And the kind of experiences that people had of consuming Ergot are de facto psychedelic experiences, really. Of course one does have to be careful, because if you say “these women (and a small amount of men) who were accused of witchcraft and subsequently burned to death were under the influence of Ergot”, it diminishes the accountability of a society that was mainly interested in disenfranchising and eradicating older women reliant on charity to survive. But even that narrative tension itself speaks to the kind of questions I’m interested in, in which a very concrete social reality and this other immaterial, subjective reality meet. I think the figure of the witch, particularly the persecuted witch, is very close to that, because it was often attributed to often who were older, poorer, with no resources – no access to kind of survival really, and were therefore completely reliant on begging to survive. And it just made them very vulnerable to being labelled witches and being executed.

Images credit: Ergot : the story of a parasitic fungus. Wellcome Collection. Ergot fungus infection in wheat. Anna Gordon, Fernan Federici & Jim Haseloff. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

LP: I also wonder about what happens when visionary experience – any visionary experience which is caused by forms of mystical body-practice, including the use of psychedelics – is dismissed as “nonsense” by neuro-science, and whether this holds something particularly interesting here. It seems there’s a sense of a body of knowledge trying to protect itself, often violently, against a very seditious kind of knowledge. I think this is partly what brings things into focus for me. One of the reasons it made so much sense for one to cite this project in the context of an environmental or ecological thematic – and one of the things characteristic of so many accounts of mystical, psychedelic shamanistic experiences – is a sense of becoming incredibly connected to, rather than disconnected from, the sense of the planetary, and the infinite complexity of mutual dependency. And therefore to some sense of obligation in relation to that mutual dependency as humans – all of which very swiftly becomes an incredibly dangerous and threatening form of knowledge for a fundamentally extractive society. Right?

TS: Yes, that’s exactly it. I don’t have firsthand experience of independently achieving the same kind of state that I have reached with the help of a psychedelic agent, but I’m sure there are people who can achieve that. And it’s a spectrum, isn’t it? I think there are incredibly powerful experiences of connectivity that take place after consuming psychedelics, that also happen in less intense ways during everyday life – moments of intensity whereby subjectivity is suspended. One does have access to a sense of connectivity – this cosmic scale of time and space, that does happen, albeit often very fleetingly. I guess what is incredible about – and again, I’m not advocating for everyone to take psychedelics – but in my experience the most moving part is being able to experience that sensation over a much longer duration. It’s not a fleeting second of feeling completely in the present, it tends to last for a few hours – and that’s quite an incredible thing to be immersed in for thinking about one’s place within things, and how we relate to one another. There’s an idea of a solidarity that can extend from this, not just within our time, but also into the past and in the future. I think that process of recovery is very important. Particularly in relation to suffering – not allowing suffering to ever become abstract, not allowing the suffering of those very far away, geographically or temporally, or spatially, to become abstract. I think that’s a really important part of the project for and thinking of feminism too in fact. There are things about the history of Ergot that could be approached in a very similar way – as Europeans, our history could have been a history of Ergot as well. It was only phased out of daily lives through industrial milling – before that it was a very common occurrence. The last documented occurrence was in 1951 in Pont-St-Esprit in France, during an outbreak from the town’s bakery. What’s also really interesting about it is that it’s weirdly viral as well, which kind of relates to the moment – it was a very rare thing by this time for people to be poisoned by Ergot, and they were frantically attempting to trace where it might have come from. The story is that a village baker ran out of flour, so he used this old bag of rye that had been contaminated. People began hallucinating, and of course when the first person hallucinates it’s understood that they’ve fallen ill mentally – but then another person follows soon after, and then they begin to trace what they have in common. So it’s a process of tracing where the outbreak originates, it’s quite an interesting parallel. A lot of the written material was asking where has this come from? How can this household have it when the next doesn’t have it? It’s strange to imagine that like a whole village would become sick, that they’d all fall under the influence. And some people don’t recover from it as well, like depending on their constitution. There are videos of the people from that village and there’s this incredible clip in which this very patriarchal father ventriloquises his daughter’s experiences, the creatures she saw – and there are patterns that emerge when you begin mapping out accounts of psychedelic experience. You start coming across this shared visual language, and one that is shared even by quite contrasting forms of experience, across for example Ergot, mushrooms, and the use of Ayahuasca. You know, they all have this similar blueprint somewhere within them.

Images credit: Ergot : the story of a parasitic fungus. Wellcome Collection. Ergot fungus infection in wheat. Anna Gordon, Fernan Federici & Jim Haseloff. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

LP: It’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about the outbreaks. Things that are thought of or referred to in viral terms include for example: viruses and virus outbreaks, as we know very well, but also cultural phenomena, or psychic phenomena, and I was thinking about the baker in France and this being conceived of as an outbreak, whereas technically it’s a fungus-to-human transmission, as it were, or a fungus-to-human infiltration. Yet it’s perceived as a form of contagious psychosis, to a certain extent. And this return to what we spoke about before – what is so scary to an established, extractive capitalist present, or recent present, about the shamanistic spiritual, mystical or psychedelic experience, that it needs to repress it quite so virulently? And then it occurred to me that the countercultural movements in which LSD played such a huge part in the mid to late twentieth century were also discussed as a kind of ‘societal outbreak’. There was a sense of an outbreak of the refusal of authority and an outbreak of anti-war feeling, an outbreak of civil rights. So to a certain extent the system in place experiences these occurrences as a kind of viral meme.

TS: Absolutely, although I grew up with LSD evangelists and I am definitely not taking that position myself, partly because I think that actually there’s a capitalistic extraction of the potentials of psychedelics underway at the moment. You know it’s very Silicon Valley to microdose. I know of an organisation that takes corporate groups to do Ayahuasca on an island, and so on. I don’t understand what they’re interested in but it could be many things – productivity being one of them. I think that there’s very little that can avoid being contaminated by capitalism, or cannibalized by it. Unfortunately, I don’t think the shamanistic or the psychedelic experience can withstand it. If you think about the countercultural legacy there are so many direct lines between neoliberal politics and the countercultural kind of use of psychedelics, that have been really well documented – people like Eric Davis talk about this a lot – he really clarifies what that genealogy consists of. The legacy of countercultural movement isn’t one of resistance, it’s one of assimilation in a weird way. Not all of it, and I think that where it intersects with feminism or intersects with race it’s a different legacy. But in terms of it being a humanistic project, its legacy is pretty terrible. So for me it’s about thinking on how one can actually bridge those worlds, as opposed to thinking of the psychedelic dimension as one to be colonized by capitalism. How might one create passage between a Marxist project of a future anarcho-communism, and psychedelics as one of the tools that can facilitate something within that. That’s what I find interesting about psychedelics as opposed to let’s say the imaginary or the utopian – because utopian and speculative thinking have been very central to feminist politics, and to all kinds of political projects. But there’s something interesting to me about psychedelics, both in the ways that we’ve spoken about here, and in the sense that it’s a material – i.e. you are ingesting something material, you are eating mushrooms, drinking a tea – whatever it is, you are taking something. So it’s not really wholly subjective. It’s not just opinion – you can give acid to anyone and they will have a trip. It’s not driven by faith or by belief. And that’s why I think there’s something within there that can be useful.

Images credit: Ergot : the story of a parasitic fungus. Wellcome Collection. Ergot fungus infection in wheat. Anna Gordon, Fernan Federici & Jim Haseloff. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

LP: You mentioned in a past conversation something like an ‘agnostic spiritualism’. I feel like what you’ve just described is within that vein?

TS: Yes that’s it – I mean I am completely a citizen, I am completely aware, and learning, and I want to understand more how the systems around us are constructed and how they can be dismantled. But I also am a person who thinks about the metaphysical world – I think that where it intersects with secularity it is an interesting place, and one that isn’t being developed very much at the moment. Having grown up around those many different forms of knowledge, for me it’s more than just being a decision to pursue a certain practice. I think we talked about Doris Lessing as an example of this last time.

LP: Yes in fact I ordered the book after our conversation, I just received it.

TS: It’s very much of it’s time, and I think she’s quite essentialist or heteronormative – it’s quite an essentialist idea of masculinity and femininity. But when I read that book as a child, I remember being really struck by the image of a world separated into zones from the most, let’s say, spiritual, to the most basic. In the highest zone of them all there are no people whatsoever, it’s just energetic entities, and in the lowest people still have bodies, or these energetic fields are still contained within perishable bodies. But they’re very advanced; they’re polyamorous, they can all communicate with animals, and so on. It’s a very beautiful idea, full of speculation as to what a civilization could be if it were really very harmonious and caring. The first thing they do when a child is born is to take it to the window and they show it the stars, so that the conception of distance, the impossible distance of the stars, is present in their relationship with the world. And in the zone below everything is about hierarchy and war and conquest – and they put these helmets on children’s heads with rocks on, so that they never look up. It’s a very simple way of talking about what like an agnostic spirituality could be because, you know – the stars are there. Not consistently in every landscape of course, but they are there. And just thinking about these distances triggers a way of thinking about the world which is not completely earthbound – it’s a sequence of thoughts that can be much more expanded than our daily lives are. But the possibility for that kind of contemplative thinking is contingent on privilege, and on not having to think about survival in the most immediate form all the time. So an ‘agnostic spirituality’ encompasses these things – the word ‘spirituality’ automatically puts itself in a realm of antagonism, but you could for example also think about it psychoanalytically: a framework of thought addressing love, Eros, death. It’s all just semantic fields trying to pinpoint what it is, really.

LP: That’s funny that you should mention Eros, love and death, because we’re having this conversation in the context of the archaeological site of Pompeii, which is the site of classical antiquity. And the vastness of the mythology – of classical antiquity – which for so long seems to have been read through a very humanistic and anthropocentric lens identifying different gods in human form. Then monotheism brings those different aspects of divinity into a kind of one-person God, as it were, a human-shaped God. Whereas thinking of classical antiquities, myths and imagination as being more connected, perhaps to animism, yields an enormous amount of more actual earth-knowledge; knowledge about the planet, knowledge about what has been learned by observing the weather or the stars for tens of thousands of years, and so on. It brings with it an enormous amount of interconnected knowledge, as opposed to being the kind of prehistory of a failed single god.

TS: Yes. Animism is probably the closest organized thought system I can relate to. There are other manifestations of what we call animism that happen in different traditions, for example in cabalistic practices there’s this belief that everything has a kind of angel – so that it can also be thought of as something close to a form of animation as well. What’s funny about organized religion is that if you look at it in a pure way all these texts advocate for compassion, love, care, kindness, togetherness, selflessness. But of course they’re completely wrecked by civilization.

Images credit: Ergot : the story of a parasitic fungus. Wellcome Collection. Ergot fungus infection in wheat. Anna Gordon, Fernan Federici & Jim Haseloff. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

LP: I really want to return to the idea of shared visions, because love is one of those, but these shared visions are wrecked by immaturity in civilizational terms. We’ve spoken about this before, that the currently dominant set of civilizational coordinates disguising itself as being contemporary and therefore “adult” or “grown-up” – in relative time is in fact incredibly young, and vastly immature. I wonder if even things like the late capitalist appropriation and consumption of the counterculture, for example, and other things like this are not just small fires. We’re in an adolescent civilizational period that has not – or might not ever, because we’re on such a destructive path that it might never happen – grown into a different kind of wisdom as it relates to the consciousness of other living beings, and yes, this is ‘mutual interdependence’.

TS: There was a really good graph circulating on social media a couple of years ago about human time, putting it in context in terms of how long humans have been around – this kind of epic planetary scale, let’s say. You’re absolutely right. Another Ergot story, to bring it back in, is that during Eleusinian Mysteries people would consume a drink called kykeon. This is undisputed but again, it’s this interesting, slippery area between history and mythology, because nobody knows what happened during this period. You were not allowed to repeat what happened during the rituals of this time for fear of being eternally damned by the gods. So it’s just not documented at all. Some of the artefacts are documented, for example a strand of kykeon that was prepared with barley, which is the grain most vulnerable to Ergot. There is a theory – let’s say the most believable theory, that kykeon did have a psychoactive agent in it. Then a less believable theory, but one slightly more probable, is that it was magic mushrooms. And then the least probable of all, but perhaps the most fun, is the theory that it was Ergot in the drink. But these rituals were performed for 2000 years consecutively, and obviously it wouldn’t be possible for there to be grains contaminated by Ergot continuously. You see what I mean? But just to consider the scale for a moment – imagine a ritual that is performed every year, twice, since the birth of Christ. You know, that’s kind of wild. Our lives are very short and we cannot be blamed for wanting a lot to happen in that short time, because ultimately we are all expanding ourselves really towards the building of something we will never see. So it’s completely understandable that we want to come as close as possible to seeing it. There were other examples like canopic jars, which were vials that held people’s organs when they were mummified in Ancient Egypt, which were preserved for passage into the underworld – and that was a practice that was continuous for 2800 years.

LP: Funny, you just reminded me of something that may or may not have anything to do with this conversation, but for a while I’ve been trying to think about this hypothesis that art, in a really wide sense – like abstraction, metaphor, myth certain kinds of practice, ritual abstraction in a general sense – is the most resilient holder of memory, and thusly technology, that we’ve ever come up with as a species. And that explains why it persists so obstinately across time, deep time, civilizations and spaces, and so on. But that is a form knowledge-holding about practical, embodied, material relationships with the planet. Or about our place as a species within the planet. And the other day, as with all things that feel very profound, but when you try to articulate them they actually end up quite cheesy! – but I had a sort of semi trance moment, where I realized that something like a classical antiquity myth that emerges from the cycle of planting of a particular plant, or a season, or something quite earthly, lives for a small period of time in the realm of abstraction before germination begins. And then ultimately it returns to the ground again, within a circular process, and it returns to the ground in part because we die. So there’s actually an exchange between the abstraction and the material that happens over and over and over again. Within which the abstraction is just a fleeting and temporary state within a bigger, circular system.

TS: Yeah, it’s a moment of animation, really.

LP: And it’s there only for a small amount of time. The reason why I was reminded of this as you were talking – and the reason why I find the combination between what you were saying about the brevity of one life, and this very tiny moment of state-change so moving – is, I would guess, why you and I and so many people are so dependant on living ‘with’ and around art, too.

TS: I think that ties really nicely too with one of the first things that I started looking into when I was researching this project, which we touched on earlier, which is this kind of shared visual language. Why is it that we all see these geometric patterns – why do so many of us see these translucent neon hieroglyphs? During one of the earlier trips I took I remember being very overwhelmed during it and closing my eyes. There was like a group of young people, I think my mom was away for a weekend or something, and it was at her house. And I remember closing my eyes and seeing this thing coming towards me, a hallucination, but in darkness – so it wasn’t a pattern – it was a completely altered genetic image; a weird kind of creature that had many eyes, wings and fire. And years later, when I was working at the horse hospital as a programmer, we showed this work by this person who’d recently passed away – a box of drawings someone had found all focused on this cosmic event that was supposed to happen at some point in the future. There were all these seraphim in it, and not the sort of seraphim and cherubim imagery we might be familiar with – they were very scary creatures with loads of eyes and six wings and fire. And I recognized it from my trip. And this person had mental health issues, and these drawings were completed as he hallucinated them through his illness. But I had also seen them when I was tripping without knowing what they were, and it was only 20 years later I recognized them. So that’s really quite interesting to me; these synchronicities that happen around visual language and psychedelics. When I started researching painters – not much Hilma Af Klint, because I think she represents a spiritual dimension, but someone like Ethell Le Rossignol or Georgiana Houghton, I found something similar. The skin of the characters in the Ethell Le Rossignol paintings are all like a patterned, weird tapestry – very similar to psychedelic surfaces or for example when those Google Deep Dream images were released, I couldn’t believe it. That kind of droopiness, and one thing kind of melding into another. That happens through a process of pattern recognition – software being given a surface and trying to find a pattern that it recognises as a face or an animal or eyes. So I decided to look at that kind of commonality and why it exists – I don’t have the answer, by the way – but there was something that felt very important to me there. But again it’s true of ‘floaters’ and the visual phenomena that happen within the eye, behind the eyelid. There is a theory that the very early cave drawings and markings are representations of what your eye is seeing in the dark, those same squiggles and zigzags, so there’s something also there. The idea of the first record being a record of a completely interior phenomena is quite remarkable to me. But again, I’m not a specialist in any of these things – I’m an artist who uses this as a kind of like a holding pattern to make work from, you know. I’m sure someone could disprove completely that Ergot was used in kykeon for example, but I choose to believe that it was.

Tai Shani, The Neon Hieroglyph (2020)

LP: Well to a certain extent, the thought experiment still stands regardless. Yes, we’re not materialist scientists, so we don’t have those kinds of obligations, but that’s kind of the fun of it, too. I was thinking too of how the subject of the ‘divine feminine’ is a whole other box that might take us another hour to unpack – but that’s another conversation I would really love to have with you soon.

TS: Yes for sure. Articulating the feminist politics of the work is important, and of course they are there – in as much as I believe the only routes, or the only path that we have now, to imagine a kind of green, horizontal, anarcho-communism, is through the feminist project. That’s the only way you can think about it, because the aims of feminism are still to dismantle the systems that would otherwise prevent that from happening. And when I say feminism, I mean that in the broadest intersectional kind of way – I don’t mean like some girl boss feminism, I mean like the real thing. Which wants to tear down the system and start again.

LP: But I think it’s like a queer multi-womanism type of feminism

TS: Exactly. I mean the language is so restrictive isn’t it. But the voices that emerged from that project talk about many different sexualities at the same time, and how those are dismantled – it thinks about race and about class and ecology and economy and all those things together, really. So I think that’s the only line of communication that we have with the future now. Or the only line of communication we have with the future that I think is desirable.

LP: And what is the place of the ‘spiritual’ in that political project, taking account of its limitations as a term? I mean, it’s really strong in your work; you’ve worked a great deal with feminist utopias and with female mystics. So it feels to me very strongly this project reconciles those things in a very specific and purposeful way.

TS: I’m still working through all of this and I wanted to think in a different way about this, I guess. At the end of that project, I definitely felt that the main issue I had with myself and my work was that I felt that I was not as educated about things as I am now, let’s say. And the kind of urgency of inscribing my experiences of femininity into the world felt really, really urgent at the time, but by the end of it, I felt there were activists who were doing a much, much better job. I do believe in the code for collectivity, but it has to be clear what that call is for, and is not just a call to come to an arts institution, which is of course a very rarified space. I don’t think art is ‘not good’, by the way. I think art can be incredibly transformative and can talk to mysticism in the way that I understand and experience it. But it needs to be more accessible. The problems with art have a good deal to do with where it’s placed within our social structure; it’s not about art itself. So the need for my voice to be heard in that context suddenly didn’t feel as urgent as other voices. It’s not that I think I’ve got nothing to contribute, or that white women have nothing to contribute. But what’s interesting is that when I think back on that project and what I think was successful within it or what were its aims – I don’t think it reflected those original aims. Its aim was to be this incredibly political thing, which it certainly was, but in very different ways than I anticipated. It’s political in the way that it talks about trauma, and gender trauma and sexualized trauma – that is political because that needs to be talked about, but it wasn’t envisioned in the earliest stages of the project. I don’t think that diminishes it, by the way, or dismisses it. I just think that what it produced was a kind of place where deeply personal things could be talked about. It offered a possibility to talk about profoundly personal, autobiographical, but also common, and the typical gendered violence that many people experience in different degrees. It was a way to talk about that collectively and personally at the same time, and I think it proposed that as a methodology and as a way of asking what happens to those affects? How can they be metabolised, what can they be transformed into? But I felt that I underwent an education by researching my subject through making – making is the process I undertake for conducting research. And through that making, I realized that I had many naiveties about my political position and my political voice. So I wanted to address that in this project and to speak from a place that made sense to me, where I feel I’m speaking from the right place. And I want to support and amplify voices that I think are doing more crucial work in terms of declarative.

LP: That makes sense. So in a way, it’s a work that is more self-aware and self-consciously personal. But we know that the personal and the political are the same!

TS: Yes although this is true of both projects. I think about growing up in the 90s or 80s, what was socially acceptable in terms of misogyny was just wild – you know even just the jokes kids would tell at school; I can’t even repeat them they were so disgusting, you know? There was a need to address that particular history. I don’t think that shouldn’t have happened – I think that there was a need for that, but we have to go beyond that as well. I mean nothing is a destination.

LP: But it’s also interesting because there’s something a little bit more-than-human about this work, maybe, that is more amplified than in the past work. So rather than saying that one of them was political and the other one personal, knowing full well that is a false dichotomy, we can think of a kind of a more-than humanisation of these practices. As kind of a radical category of unlearning. Because these terms are very violent, very specific, very limited to anthropos of anthropocentrism.

TS: Absolutely and it’s also an acknowledgement of this idea that we’re all guests here, like none of this belongs to any of us. And the question of whether one wants to leave – and I don’t mean in the sense of posterity – but whether one wants to contribute. I’d like to contribute to a world in which people aren’t born into conditions that they have no control over, conditions that put them in peril throughout their lives. It’s part of understanding exactly where and how you can contribute as well. Right now it’s a moment to think about things in a more material way. I think that’s the main point I’m trying to articulate. It’s not that I think that the speculative isn’t interesting or political. I think it is, but I think it’s time for material reality, because the material reality we live in is devastating. You could argue for example that communism is science fiction; that it’s some kind of utopian project. There are structures of thought within that that examine how we organise ourselves, and there is an address to material that I think is really necessary right now. I don’t know if the work is achieving that, but there are lines within the writing of this piece that talk much more directly about fascism for example. I think that before things were located ‘elsewhere’, and maybe this is also a kind of elsewhere, but it’s one pinned to specific historical moments – and I think it does try to talk about this current moment too. When I look back at the text, I do think it’s all about fascism, really.

LP: But it’s interesting because it also makes me think again about the interior landscape when you close your eyes. Of course, you and I are in a very specific condition, which is a privileged condition of being forced to be inside for a period of time but being able to do that safely and comfortably. There are other things that actually distinguish our experience in relation to artist’s precarious positions and so on – I’m not disavowing any of that. But there is something about being inside the house, that is almost like closing your eyelids and having the vision – somehow an awareness that all these images behind the eyelids are shared – so it’s both bigger than, and more internal than, the polis space. I don’t know why, but it feels clear to me somehow that a work that is simultaneously more about fascism and material conditions – and somehow more directly spiritual could be a contradiction in terms.

TS: But it shouldn’t be, and that’s the point that the piece is trying to make – that those things can and should co-exist. Eros for example in the most generous definition is spiritual – it’s a love that goes beyond the self, or a love that allows for wonder and for immersion and for all these kinds of states. So that’s exactly it: it’s a false dichotomy, one that is perhaps necessary, because spirituality has been historically and traditionally so tightly ideologically packaged and reproduced – but I don’t think it has to be totalising or final. I wrote this phrase into one of the talks I gave recently that I’m ‘brimming with unassigned faith’. And I think maybe that’s all it is – maybe it has to remain unassigned.

LP: Wow, this has been so beautiful, thank you.


The film series The Neon Hieroglyph is commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival. The project is also commissioned by The British Art Show, and is developed in collaboration with Serpentine’s Back to Earth project.
Pompeii Commitment was conceived by Massimo Osanna and Andrea Viliani, who maintains it with Stella Bottai (Curator) and Laura Mariano (Project Manager).
Want to hear more about our ecology programme and attend our latest talks streamed for free?
Join our email newsletter here.


Discover over 50 years of the Serpentine

From the architectural Pavilion and digital commissions to the ideas Marathons and research-led initiatives, explore our past projects and exhibitions.

View archive