performingborders (Alessandra Cianetti): Joseph, in September you have curated and presented the first F U T U R E R I T U A L public programme in London. From your words, F U T U R E R I T U A L is a ‘performance and research project considering the place, use and function of ritual within contemporary queer and performance cultures’. Can you tell us a bit more about your journey to and throughout F U T U R E R I T U A L?
Joseph Morgan Schofield: In the dying days of 2017, I dreamed up F U T U R E R I T U A L as a way of bringing together artists whose practices drew on ideas of ritual, myth, or magick. The first event took place at SPACE Studios at the invitation of the artist Thomas Yeomans, who was undertaking a residency looking at the instrumentalisation of occultist practices by the online communities of the Far Right. The project was a way of contesting this appropriation, by holding space for queer artists to carry out ritual action live and in the flesh – with the aim of imagining, conjuring or manifesting alternative versions of, or vectors to, the future.
It became clear that there was a hunger for this kind of work, or a space that was doing these things, so with the support of ]performance s p a c e[, we held a further five events around England in 2018. I made work for each F U T U R E R I T U A L and invited four or five other artists to work in the space also.
F U T U R E R I T U A L is intended as an intervention in the performance art scene in the UK. I want to hold space for difficult or challenging practices which act as the antithesis of much of the kinds of work which seem fashionable now. Transformation, however speculative, tentative, or gestural is the function of ritual. Body-based performance art has offered some of the most powerfully affective and transformative experiences of my life, and yet it seems to be experiencing a moment of re-marginalisation – so I feel strongly about platforming this kind of work. I also was impatient to have more contexts for my work and the work of my peers, so rather than waiting for institutional support or recognition, I wanted to crack on and make something new.
After the tour in 2018, and Thomas’ departure from the project, I wanted to take stock of what we had done and what we could do next. One possible trajectory was to grow the project into another artist-run performance platform. I think there is a real urgency for this, as it feels like opportunities for performance artists to present their work in the UK are more limited than when I first got involved in this scene five years ago. I suppose in some ways, F U T U R E R I T U A L might be one new context to help grow the scene but I’m not interested in this being its focus. Instead I have reframed and conceived of the project very much as a performance and research project, where the research is done through the doing, watching, and reflecting on performance.
The three-day programme we (project coordinator Mele Couvreur and myself) presented in September 2019 was the first iteration of this second phase. Supported by Kunstraum, the Live Art Development Agency and the Arts Council, we were interested to bring together artists working across a multitude of disciplines, forms and aesthetics to continue to explore these questions of queerness, ritual and futurity. I don’t anticipate or desire that we ever solve these questions – rather the work and research opens up new territories or possibilities – new coordinates for the future, and ritual strategies of accessing them.
performingborders (Alessandra): Many brilliant artists have been their work presented as part of the F U T U R E R I T U A L rich programme this September – thinking here of Martin O’Brien, Sheree Rose, Nwando Ebizie, Jon John, Kelvin Atmadibrata, Charlie Ashwell, Sandra Stanionyte, Leman Daricioğlu, Radage ▽ Hardaker, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, and Augusto Cascales. As the curator of the programme, what were the perspectives and aesthetics you wanted to bring together and present to the audience?
Joseph: To my mind, at the heart of ritual process is encounter – the sharing of time and space in order to make a place for processing, communing, desiring, or mourning. In order to consider how kinship and communion might emerge through ritualistic performance, I was particularly interested to foreground artists working collaboratively with (semi or fully) improvisational practices.
To this end, we screened documentation of Sanctuary Ring, a 2016 performance by the artists Martin O’Brien and Sheree Rose, whose solo practices and intergenerational collaboration consider mortality, memory, pain and submission through endurance and BDSM practices. We supported dance artist Charlie Ashwell’s new work spells with a micro-commission and residency at Kunstraum. In collaboration with Es Morgan, and drawing on their shared sustained tarot practice, Charlie’s work utilised language and improvisational dance in order to experiment with the technical potential of performance to produce alternative orientations to the world. Radage ▽ Hardaker are an established actionist duo concerned with care and violence and their queer bodies. Their work grows from their trust in and commitment to one another. In different ways, these performances all speculate on or interrogate relationships, intimacy and kinship, demonstrating ritual action as a potent space for working through intention and desire together.
In curating this programme, I am conscious of the ways in which some artists have historically misappropriated traditions and cultural forms, particularly within the trope of ritual, and that F U T U R E R I T U A L is not the space to advance a primitivist discourse or for white artists to fetishise the cultural traditions of others.
The project does represent an attempt to map particularly cultural histories. This isn’t intended as an attempt to advance some understanding of ritual action as a form, genre, or sub-set of performance, but to demonstrate the myriad ways in which artists have used all kinds of ritualistic action and practices of magick (meaning, in the traditional sense, any mundane or metaphysical actions, enacted through ritual, towards an ultimate ‘will’ or fate – lots of essentialising to unpick, too little space to do it) and magickal thinking to interrogate contemporary culture and the question of the future through a queer lens.
The Film Night which took place at the Live Art Development Agency was an opportunity to demonstrate some of those recent histories, and call attention to practices which I find particularly potent and relevant to the research concerns of F U T U R E R I T U A L. We screened the aforementioned work by Martin and Sheree, which is also of personal significance as I assisted on the performance, and it formed one of my first professional engagements with performance art. We showed a series of excerpts of various works by Nwando Ebizie, whose practice is rooted in a highly individual Afrofuturism, which provides a lens through which Nwando interrogates neurodivergency, diaspora and the future. Martin and Nwando were present at the Film Night, providing commentary on their documentation, and fielding questions following the screening. Finally, we showed two films by Jon John, an utterly brilliant artist who utilised bloodletting, hook suspensions, dancing on thorns and DIY surgery in uniquely sentimental ways, to think through love, sex and death. Jon John died aged 33 in 2017 and this screening was a way of remembering his wonderful practice, and remembering him.
The question of aesthetics (or of aesthetics leading to form) is interesting. I definitely have formal preoccupations, which tend towards actionism – and body-based performance practices which foreground difficult, painful or explicit action. These kinds of work (and I am doing some generalising and conflating here, in order to be brief) by artists such as Martin and Sheree, Jon John, Radage ▽ Hardaker, Leman Daricioğlu, Kelvin Atmadibrata and Sandra Stanionyte, which often seem to put artists and audiences in alternate emotional and somatic spaces, have clear parallels or synchronicities with ritualistic practice, so will always be at the heart of F U T U R E R I T U A L programming.
That being said, at the heart of the project is a desire to work with ARTISTS, to think about THE FUTURE rather than to be overly invested in FORMS. So I sought to invite artists whose practices spoke to, or produced visions of alternate futures, such as Nwando Ebizie, Augusto Cascales and Danielle Brathwaite-shirley. Danielle’s practice of world building, mourning and black trans archival construction, performed with live singing, vocal manipulation in front of animation, insists upon the necessity of tearing down racist transphobic structures, whilst calling the audience to account for their complicity in these systems. They further imagine the creation of new digital and physical worlds, and coral the crowd into manifesting them. Calling various forms into proximity, also revealed, to me, all kinds of synchronicities between ways of doing – I could totally read Charlie and Es’ dance work, as a kind of actionist performance, translated through a different kind of embodied language.
Lastly, I’m also invested in the idea that the act of coming together and making or viewing the performance is the ritual. So whilst each performance may or may not be clearly legible as a self-contained ritual action, the experience of spending three or four hours in the space with those works can lead to experiences of transformation, temporary or otherwise, in those present.
performingborders (Alessandra): As you mention in your presentation of the programme’s Film Night , the project is a lab for yourself and invited artists to explore approaches to magical thinking, witchcraft, spiritualities, and rituals in order to talk about queerness and notions of futurity. As both a research project and a programme of public events that seats at the very centre of a surge in interest around those topics, what do you think F U T U R E R I T U A L brings into the discussion and which borders does it address (if any!)? Why do you think rituals are so central in our contemporary thinking around performance? And finally, what ideas have you formed on how rituals will look in the future?
Joseph: I think that you’re totally correct in identifying a contemporary surge of interest in magickal thinking, witchcraft, ritual. We might speculate that some of the reasons for this surge have to do with the way that the internet has opened up access to subculture; with the way that people seek out alternative belief systems in times of unrest; with the way that capitalism totally exists, to my mind, as a practice of magickal thinking. One could also draw some parallels between this post-truth/post-rational/post-proof era, and this investment in intuition, feeling, suspicion etc. ‘Post-truth’ is often talked about – rightly – in disparaging or concerning terms, but maybe it is useful to identify, if we can, some of its productive potentials. In similar ways, we might tentatively understand the methodologies of Tarot and Astrology, and intention-setting Magick, as a kind of mutation of psychoanalysis and psychiatry outside of medicalised models.
Having said all that, it’s also essential to remember that when we talk about a contemporary surge of interest, that we are often re-enacting a white/Western/cis/heterosexual/middle-class surprise. For those of other cultures and backgrounds, similar systems of knowledge and lived practices have always existed at the forefront of culture. This is most clearly true of indigenous peoples – but it’s important also to consider the folklore or ritual traditions of the places we are from – for example, the British Isles are full of hyper-localised myths which are ripe for re-encounter. There’s always a concern that this kind of national folklore could be subsumed into some reinvigoration of an essential ‘Englishness’, but doesn’t have to be that way. One thing F U T U R E R I T U A L does is to provide space to contest who gets to claim these practices, and contest whose vision of the past/future they are put in service of.
Extending from this F U T U R E R I T U A L presents a space through which to witness or encounter or participate in the myriad ways that a queered ritual, spiritual, or magickal practice might operate. It reveals or speaks to the long links between these kinds of practices and queer histories. It demonstrates that there is no universal or dogmatic way of doing things – contesting representations of these practices as fusty, or performative (in the least interesting sense of that word). It allows for an encounter with the unusual or unexpected. These encounters might be challenging or difficult – and I think challenge and difficulty are useful things to feel, they might be affirming, and they may be transformational, offering a way of processing, mourning, communing etc.
In relation your question of borders, I suppose that lots of the artists who have been involved in the project have practices which cross or blur or confuse any sort of demarcation of performance//life, or complicate what art//not art might be. I don’t believe being an artist makes one special (at least not any more special than anyone else) but I do believe that there is something sacred about it. Through what we might be term ‘the pedagogical-industrial complex’, and the commodification and hyper-commercialisation of artistic practice, art and artists can be seen to have been drawn or torn from their communal (sacred) functions. Ritualistic action becomes a potential site of (re)connection – of staking a claim to what art could or should be for.
I’m generally quite suspicious of digital mediation and the ways in which it flattens embodied experience and so presenting these acts live and, in the flesh, has always felt crucial. In this way, F U T U R E R I T U A L is a space where an archaic technology (ritual) is put to work thinking and feeling through our contemporary drives – hunger, thirst, desire, fear, worship. I don’t think we are necessarily unique in this regard – it’s just that the constellation of these practices we gather might be particularly potent for this work. Following the artist Ron Athey (following Bataille in turn) – the death of God couldn’t or shouldn’t mean the death of mysticism. Rather the work is to invent new rituals for our disaffected and alienated society.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m resistant to drawing conclusions from the work, preferring instead to understand the performances as acts of mythopoesis – the imagining or fictioning of other states of being, of other possible worlds, which draw on memory and contemporary culture in order to offer coordinates and contours of the future. To my mind, ritual is the technology through which these acts of transformation and imagination are enacted, and transformation seems to be a key concept. This means that rather than simply bearing witness or representing something, ritual practice in the future may be about the conscious attempt to manifest some kind of personal//collective transformation. Here are some of the coordinates and contours I’ve been able to perceive in F U T U R E R I T U A L.
a queer ritual might be a ritual where rites and traditions are queered, or re-discovered, or enacted by queers for queers – it is likely engaged in the conscious rejection of heterosexual societal norms – they likely resist and critique the politics of assimilation and celebrate, instead, subversion, indecency, aberrance, and difference
reveling in the instability and chance of desire
falling and falling and then choosing not to fall
telling a secret to an egg and burying it in the ground
language de-territorialised and communication enacted through abstraction
a queer ritual might be a strategy for survival, for effecting social and political change, for taking on the world and for making it through the damn day
constructing realms where you are valued
dancing in the dust of time
moving together and apart trusting that something will come
mourning publicly loudly insistently
holding not the weight of the world but the weight of water acknowledging its preciousness
a queer ritual might involve dancing, sigil crafting, dragging up, singing, bleeding, mourning, celebrating, loving, shouting, or something else entirely
fingers touch forming a bridge for the transference of particles of skin
the extension of citizenship to molluscs
kinship found beyond the boundaries of the known
playing disco on the accordion
returning stones to the land from which they have been ripped
home done with other people in other places
Documentation – written and photographic – of F U T U R E R I T U A L activity may be found here: www.josephmorganschofield.com/future-ritual.
F U T U R E R I T U A L will return in 2020. Follow the project on Facebook and Instagram: (@futureritual)
Further writing by Joseph Morgan Schofield about F U T U R E R I T U A L may be found in hereafter, a collection of artistic perspectives on the future, edited by Es Morgan and Charlie Ashwell. Available on Unbound: https://www.thisisunbound.co.uk/products/hereafter
Joseph Morgan Schofield (b. 1993, Rochdale, UK) is the lead artist of F U T U R E R I T U A L, a performance and research project considering ritual and queer futurity. Joseph co-facilitates move close, with Es Morgan and Sara Sassanelli.
Joseph has performed throughout the UK and internationally. They make solo work, and work collaboratively with artists including Es Morgan, John King, Kate Stonestreet, and Nat Norland.
I understand performance and action as a site of encounter, between identities, bodies and ideas. These encounters are charged with the potential for transformation.
I work with ritual action and mythic forms, reassembling old stories and fashioning new ones to form a queer mythos of desire, memory and endurance for the age of the anthropocene.
My performances are acts of mythopoesis – embodying other ways of being, in other possible worlds. Ritualistic performance is the technology through which this transformation is attempted.
These rituals involve difficulty, duress and actions make visible the tensions and complexities inherent in human experience, such as that between violence and desire.
I do not ask you to be a witness. My work foregrounds the immediacy of the sweating, nude, bleeding body before you, but through this body I hope that you may process, desire, mourn or commune.
Featured image credits: DIGGING FOR BLACK TRANS LIFE, Danielle Brathwaite-shirley, F U T U R E R I T U A L, Kunstraum, 2019. Image by Julia Sterre Schmitz