Laura Ķeniņš

Performance “Witch Nation: Directive from the Ministry of Information” and show of works by the artist collective FASTWÜRMS
The “Survival Kit 5” International Contemporary Arts Festival,
Lāčplēša Street 60, Riga
September 7, 16.00

Working together since 1979, Canadian art collective FASTWÜRMS (Kim Kozzi and Dai Skuse) take an ironic and irreverent approach to their practice, at the same time constructing their own world within it. The pair works in multiple media, from installation to sculpture to video. In the semiotics of FASTWÜRMS’ work, we find recurrent characters of witches and cats, occult symbolism, owls, found objects and fragments of pop culture.

FASTWÜRMS’ installation projects combine images – often tattoo and poster-style art – with accumulations of objects: sculptures, found objects, random but intentional, and always colourful. In the late 1990s and 2000s, FASTWÜRMS created a series of window installations along Toronto’s gallery street Queen St. West, later reassembled as a touring gallery exhibition. Their practice may be best described as a cultural mashup: videos combining witches, cats and hockey, exhibitions combining sculptural installation and haircutting. Appearing in public dressed as witches, the witch figure is central to FASTWÜRMS’ iconography, suggesting a sort of anarchistic disco occult. Their aesthetic is accessible and kitschy, but never appearing amateurish or lazy.

The FASTWÜRMS have also worked together with and alongside other Canadian artists and collectives using a similar multidisciplinary approach and love of found objects: the Toronto collective Instant Coffee, known for bright and often garish installations and happenings like a disco camping trailer, is a frequent collaborator, as is Allyson Mitchell, a founder of the Feminist Art Gallery in Toronto and creator of giant-sized fake fur ‘lady sasquatches.’ With their long history and continued community involvement, the collective are well-known and highly respected figures in the Canadian art scene.

An interest in collective work, working outside normal art world structures and working with queer and feminist art practices is key in FASTWÜRMS’ work. The two are a rare “teaching collective”: they have taught university fine arts courses together since the early 1990s. They have worked with the Feminist Art Gallery in Toronto to bring feminist work to the city and frequently participate in exhibitions and dialogues on queer art. The witch personas, which will appear in performance at the Survival Kit program for the White Night art festival on September 7,  are a part of this, a figure that exists outside regular systems, looking to break taboos.

But what do witches have to do with revolution, the theme of this year’s Survival Kit festival? In FASTWÜRMS’ interpretation, plenty! The witch is a symbol of dissent: in the manifesto “Witch Nation,” FASTWÜRMS call witchcraft “an old resistance and liberation theology.” Through witchcraft, we can perhaps find a new/old method of resistance and tool for surviving contemporary life.

“The Witch national anthem is a song about individual freedom and the price of universal liberty: ‘Do what you will, harm none.’

In Witch culture personal freedom is a participation and positivity economy: enhance the liberty of Others and you prosper, constrain free will and you will suffer.”

You are performing at the White Night festival on September 7. What can audiences expect from your performance?

It’s set up like a series of presentations. We’re showing some of our videos that people may have never seen, because if they go on the internet they’re always banned, because we sample from commercial.

We were programmed as a presentation date, so we’ll talk about some cultural projects with some images that relate to the politics of how things can change in different ways. That’s kind of our forte, that’s what we do anyway. And a small demonstration project: a frontline report from the war on drugs in North America. Some of our concerns: Monsanto and seeds, because we live in a farming area; medical cannabis is really of interest to us, as is access to it. We’re in the demographic where many of our friends and acquaintances have cancers and Big Pharma is really not helping them very much. We’re very interested in accessing and creating the lines of distribution and communication for people who are in those situations, who didn’t really imagine they would be in that situation because no one ever does.

There’s a change happening in the US where four states have legalized marijuana, which no one thought would ever happen. But it fits into something we’ve been doing for 30 years, which is herbal medicine: how can you use plants instead of spending $40 on medication? That’s witchcraft to some people. We’ve lived off the medical grid pretty much our whole lives: only recently did we get a doctor: we went once and now we’re back to using plants.

Whenever we do talks, we always just improvise. We’re part of a whole lineup of different people presenting. Also we’re presenting in English, so maybe we need to simplify a little: we tend to be very fast talkers, and we speak back and forth, which confuses people. We’re a shared authorship, so that concept is sometimes difficult for people to understand.

We have a pretty long history, so if someone asks us to talk about our work, usually it’s better to start at the beginning and then you get a sense of how our issues…of the social consciousness, how we respond to site and different political situations, obviously, over the years; we’ll go from colonial discourse and post-colonial discourse throughout the ’80s, and that will shift into sexual politics and hybridize and become complicated. So we complicate things, in some ways, but then we also bring things to form, so we’re creating installations and performances and videos. So it can be very confusing, but we trust that people will take the meaning that’s intended and run with it, so to speak. It’s kind of a privilege for us to be here and do that and show videos at the same time.

Cannibal Nympho Witch by FASTWÜRMS at Paul Petro Contemporary Art (Toronto), 2012 

What is the significance of the witch figure in your work?

We are both witches. That’s of interest to people only because there’s kind of a long-standing issue in Christian Europe; there’s a whole fantasy world built up around witches and the politics of Christianity, which you think people would have gotten over. Because of the rise of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, we’re joking about this at the university [University of Guelph, in Guelph, Ontario, where they have been teaching for over ten years - L.Ķ.] that we get more respect from undergraduates because I [Dai - L.Ķ.] have long white hair and I’m a witch – that’s like a fantasy figure come to life.

Students who have grown up with Harry Potter, they expect that someday they might have a professor who’s a magician or something.

The worst part is that it does raise expectations of what witches do, because we don’t have [computer graphics - L.Ķ.], we have plants, we live up north, we tend what we can, we’re custodians of land and cats and more cats and birds.

And that’s the surprise for people: that witchcraft is boring. Yeah: it’s just a nature religion, we just do what people did before Christianity existed, which is look at plants and look at animals.

Red of Tooth and Kaw (2001)

The rules of reciprocity say that you can’t accept money for anything that you do, as a witch in particular. So it means it’s not lucrative, it’s not a profession, per se. It doesn’t fit into capitalism, except in certain forms. Like art. Or intellectual property.

But I imagine in Latvia there are people who live in the country who’ve just stayed with sort of pagan practices forever and it’s not big news to them; people grow their own plants and make their own medicine, other social things, or there are different things you do with animals if you come from a pagan background instead of a Christian background.

Definitely: Latvians are into herbal teas, foraging for mushrooms and berries...

We live in an area where the rain falls on a particular day, that’s mushroom time. But that’s the kind of thing that comes as a shock to people in the city, and they say, “But witches aren’t real, they can’t possibly exist.” And you go, “Well, yeah. Because you’re thinking about the witches that Christians created from their fantasies.” We’re not those witches.

Telepathcat by FASTWÜRMS 

You’re associated with queer culture and the queer community in Toronto. Can you talk a bit about that?

DIY is really important to us. Art infrastructure is pretentious and involves a lot of class dynamics and DIY just undercuts that. In Toronto we organize and we work with people who know how to do different things and have different skill sets and we do it ourselves, and then people start to pay attention.

It’s the same thing [with queer communities - L.Ķ.] in Toronto, because before queer culture was acceptable, it was always done underground, and that’s our forte too: doing things in garages that are more fun than doing it at a museum. Sooner or later people notice that you’re having more fun.

The nice thing about the LGBT community in Toronto is that it’s really strong and it supports itself and it supports other communities. It’s a big crafting community as well, queer and lesbian, everyone gets together and when they’re together they’re politically charged, they’re making posters, they’re creating art, they’re making music, and they’re, you know, knitting, making crazy shit and entertaining each other. As a community it’s really rather exciting to be affiliated with it.

And the politics are obvious, because the same kind of people who want to put gay men in prison want to put witches in prison. Historically, it’s been the same battle. It’s that old thing: “We’re friends because we have the same enemies.”

People ask us what’s our affinity: well, we come out of punk, we come out of an action environment. All the tools are the same.