During Cycle Festival last month, performance artist Johannes Paul Raether introduced one of his avataras—a WorldWideWitch called ‘Protekto.x.x’— to lead visitors on a ‘psychorealist’ mission through the Peninsula of Reykjanes, in southwestern Iceland. On a bus from the Natural History Museum of Kopavogur, the tour traveled to an aluminium smelting factory just outside Reykjavik, where they were greeted by the Public Relations Officer Olafur Teitur Guðnason of Rio Tinto Alcan Aluminium, who guided them through the production process of the aluminium smelter. Raether played a series of witches’ songs, commenting on aluminum production.
Next, the tour took on the—unnamed by Raether—Blue Lagoon, which he referred to as a wastewater hotpot pool. According to Raether, the lagoon is an artificial wastewater of a geothermal power plant, with a lot of silica diatoms in it. At the site, the audience was treated to a few more witch songs, transferred through audio guide travelling systems that speculated on the possibility of silicon life forms multiplying without the rule of oxygen. A live infiltration spontaneously ended the piece and the audience returned to Reykjavik. In the wake of this performance, we spoke to Raether about his practice as a unique mode of social critique.
Berlin Art Link: Can you tell us about some of your different drag avatars that you take on in your performance practice and, within that, what is the significance of the various avatar versions?
Johannes Paul Raether: I call this system ‘Identitecture’: an architecture of alter-identities referred to as ‘SelfSisters’ or ‘avataras’, which is opposed to avatars because I’m taking the sanskrit term ‘avatara’ and I want to refer to the sanskrit notion of incorporating an idea, imprinting an idea into a body, or embodiment. I find that fascinating for a practice that is really interested in working through artistic research as an embodied form, which means these different avataras all have a different specific research program.
In the performance ‘Protekto.x.x’, we saw the lifeline of WorldWideWitches, who all research humankind’s obsession with mobile phones. The witches go as far as to say that they are possessions: we are possessed by our smartphones. That has been going on since 2010 and I’ve updated or actualized these versions of different witches that keep talking about the same thing, at different sites such as mountains, a stone circle in Scotland, New York’s Times Square, but also here in the aluminium smelter and the Blue Lagoon. It’s a life line of witches, which started with version 5.0—basically the 5th avatar I’ve created—followed by 5.1 that’s the first witch and then 5.2, 5.3, 5.4. 5.5 and then it branched off into a new version.
I work with the term ‘forking’, derived from open source software where you have forks of different software lines and if you create a line that is entirely new, you make a new life line. In open source software there is an interesting take on evolutionary biology, where there are these genealogical trees that branch off versions of each other. I’m trying to recreate that with embodiments through the avataras: in my artistic practice they all run along these life lines and they folk to create new versions of themselves.
BAL: Do you feel that, through this research, knowledge evolves with each version?
JPR: Yes. The other line that I have been performing since 2009 is a series or different versions of surrogate mothers. They are really motherly alien figures that research reproduction technologies, biotechnologies in the field of procreation. In that cycle, in that life line, one of the latest versions that infiltrated an IKEA was a new version of themselves, but had on their chest a strap with 3D printed holders where there was a mini computer installed that sent out wifi to transport years of research, manifestos, diagrams onto the devices of the audience. With that embodiment, I try to embody the knowledge of this research cycle into every appearance, every performance.
BAL: With the WorldWideWitches, for example, you employ different invented rituals to exorcise contemporary culture and with Transformallae you interrogate questions of technological reproduction. What would you say are some of the political and social critiques behind your performances?
JPR: I think that these life lines have very different approaches to what critique is, in general. If we stay with this performance and the life line of the WorldWideWitches, what is a potential question within this work is to formulate a different social relation through performance, which is done with these audio guides that work in my terminology as a ‘witch machine’. With the audio guides I can disperse people around me or I can compress people around me to form a group or we could form different individuals that couldn’t be related as an audience. That is a very ritualistic practice in itself. I want to invigorate that practice of forming a community with the life line of witches.
The smartphone for me is something that Hitchcock would call a ‘MacGuffin’: it’s really just a tool to appropriate technology as a community-making device. Through that I am going through different rituals, through processions and forms of community that are a feature of society. I’ll try and relate that back to how we work through technology and how there are relations to really old rituals, such as possession rituals in voodoo or melting rituals, there is no direct example of melting rituals but I draw from ritualistic culture and the melting together of substances. If you look at other lifelines of avataras, it would a totally different social critique that is embodied.
BAL: How did Protekto.x.x avatar make use of the Cycle Festival this year and what rituals were created for this unique setting?
JPR: It was really varied. First of all, the ritual of the journey, the passage through the peninsula, was one of the really important features. It’s interesting how it relates to the tourist culture that I find very prominent here in Iceland. When I was researching, the infrastructure of coaches that transport people to glaciers and to mountain tops and to waterfalls became a super important feature of Icelandic tourist culture. I wanted to take that on and appropriate it so that is the first site: a travelling site.
The second one was a bit more complicated and I might need to deviate a bit because the aluminium smelter came to my research through the memory and practice of Protekto.x.x as a fictional or ‘psychoreal’ avatara. This witch infiltrated an Apple Store in Berlin and had with her metal of gallium. Gallium, I see as an antagonizer of aluminium. It’s no coincidence that most of the Apple appliances are made from aluminium, whereas the gallium is deeply buried inside the mobile phones. So we extracted that material and brought it to the Apple store and that created a melt down of two different forms of reality. Thinking through what I had to do afterwards, what to do with this witch who now can’t go back to the Apple store because of the attention it received: we go to the production of aluminum. We go to the other side, in a way, to the mining of aluminium, in sites where these base metals are produced. The aluminium smelter would be a great site to expand the witches’ research on how humans use metals in their smartphones and gadgets.
The Blue Lagoon came through an interest in the touristic infrastructure. For me it was striking how they managed to make a business out of geothermal power, which is a tech industry, energy production, combined with the realm of health and spa culture, which is usually so separate. They managed to merge the production of energy and health products into one very profitable tourist trap business. I was very interested in how that was a mine too, mining profit and certain substances that supposedly treat your skin well. This site came to me though the idea of geothermal energy production and how health spa tourism relate to each other.
BAL: Why do you choose to do this with participants as opposed to making a video piece?
JPR: That is something I am working on. How my work relates to making video or film. I sometimes think of it as making film for a live audience, in a way. As if to reverse that relation that we have in film history, to bring the production apparatus into the frame. I’m trying to bring the film audience into the frame. It’s clearly an open question, if that is in any way possible, for how long or what scale, what size of audience: these are questions that are very open for me because I have to limit the audience at places and I can only do it once because I don’t ask for permission, I don’t necessarily collaborate with the sites I’m performing in.
It seems like an exclusive practice but I like to think of it as very specific attention to the scale of my audience and since a bus only has 50 people and aluminium smelter can only take 30, I am happy to accept that limitation. In relation to video, I’m not sure that this way of working could be transferred into a video piece. I personally find that it does not because it needs to entail the moment of being there and making that passage through the island. I don’t think that film time and performance time have anything to do with each other. That’s how I decided on performance time and live presence. But, still, it’s very cinematic.