An Interview with Elena Bajo by Maia Lee
Elena Bajo’s process-oriented exhibition, With Entheogenic Intent: Burn the Witch, was on view from January 13 to March 28, 2014 at the 18th Street Arts Center. Bajo’s work, which “refuses the binary distinction between art and politics,” examines the layers of culture that culminate in the collective consciousness we inhabit and seek to interrogate us as artists. Bajo engaged professional labor and the constructs of Hollywood in this project, in which “human invention intersects with the trajectories of capital.” She describes the performance aspect of her work as “sculpture in motion,” movements to trigger different images and touch on the more painful hidden depths of the sociopolitical framework as experienced through the body.
Maia Lee: You are an international artist working in Los Angeles, culling inspiration from local histories and discourses. What brought you here and why do these sites intrigue you?
Elena Bajo: I’m a native of Madrid, Spain. I moved to New York in the late 90s following a desire to experience a different culture. I wanted to see if American movies reflect the real American culture; I wanted to experience this culture firsthand without mediation. The United States and capitalism were leading the world and I thought I had to be at the source of this happening, in terms of time and space. What I was experiencing in Spain was secondhand, same as in Europe—European governments were following capital, and the maximum exponent of capitalism was the U.S.
I was a New Yorker for years. Then the next step was to explore the West Coast—Los Angeles and the myths around it, the Hollywood film industry, the history of American art in Los Angeles, 60s psychedelia. I wanted to learn about the future of the world by doing research in Los Angeles, but also I wanted to get deeper into the past of the world. I became very interested in the origins of the psychedelic movement for example, and this led me to investigate drugs with hallucinatory properties, which crossed over into my own research on histories of indigenous tribes, women, power and anarchism. There are elements of the same power and spirit in the 60’s movements: the Situationists, the “refusal of work,” the anti-materialism and anti-system, the Paris student riots, the Black Panthers—all of these shared elements with shamanistic practices and witchcraft.
ML: In the closing performance for With Entheogenic Intent, you had three female performers move through the space. What figures did they represent and what was their purpose in the context of the performance?
EB: The performers have different roles or lines of action. First they are themselves, but they are also sculptures in motion. Texts are encoded into scripts for the creation of a performance and musical scores that are the structures for choreographies. The performers/artists interpret text in a direct way; they create their own script and/or choreography and manifest their interpretations in their “solos.” These solo interpretations establish a platform for discussion within the project and an open dialogue emerges in the creation of the final choreography.
Part of the choreography is rehearsed and planned (the solos) but part of it happens for the first time in public (the interaction among the performers). The performers are given an anarchist manifesto to which new content related to LA’s histories and mythologies—such as that of the native Tongva people—has been added. They interpret different parts of the Tongva mythology, notably the part about how the Tongva (“people of the earth”) believe the world was created: first one god, Quaoar, emerged from chaos and created two other gods, Weywot (sky) and Chehooit (earth), who then created the world.
The performers also embody the energy of one famous revolutionary indigenous woman in the history of Los Angeles, Toypurina, who belonged to the Tongva tribe. She was a shaman and a brave woman, and led the most important revolt against the Spanish mission, although it failed. In addition, the performers embody the energy of witches, women, and the persecution of women accused of practicing witchcraft. In the book Caliban and the Witch, the scholar Silvia Federici connects this persecution to the birth of capitalism and its enlistment of women’s bodies for social reproduction.
At the same time, the sculptures in the exhibition space become activated by the energy of the performance. The energy of the movement mimics the movement of finding the materials, finding the sacred soil from the Tongva burial site, mixing this sacred soil with the clay to be fired and made into funerary jars, objects that in the shamanic tradition were used in rituals. These materials or objects were called power objects, and through the ritual of the performance around the displacement and placement of the ceramic funerary jars, the materials in the exhibition also become power objects.
When I talk about the “sculptural anarchive,” I am referring to this: my work as an archive of the intangible, a collection of objects or elements that contain all of the ideas we’ve discussed.
M: Is there an element of community activism in your work?
E: Yes, if we understand activism as the possibility or the effort directed to doing something that can produce change. I believe that activism starts with the individual. Krishnamurti would say the most important revolution happens first inside of us, and art has the capacity to change how we look at the world. This is essential to my work: anarchists, witches and artists share the desire for change.