by IZABELLA SCOTT
South African artist Linda Stupart’s writing and performance combine feminism and witchcraft to make visible and to critique patriarchy. Stupart studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. One of Stupart’s first solo shows, Who’s Abject Now Bitch? (2009) at YOUNGBLACKMAN, was a scathing critique of the Cape Town art scene and its casual gender bias. “Oh, wow, you’re letting me into your gallery!” their exhibition text begins. “That’s amazing! And you want me to do something slick that doesn’t interrupt your space?”
In their (Stupart goes by non-gendered pronouns) writing, sculpture and performance, Stupart finds kinship between queerness and magic. Coven, a residency at the Transmission Gallery, Glasgow, in 2016, in collaboration with black trans femme performance artist Travis Alabanza and writer, witch and healer Katrina Zaat, brought together charm workshops, spell performances and neo-pagan rituals to create a protective space for women, queer and non-binary folk. A solo show at Arcadia Missa, London, A dead writer exists in words and language as a type of Virus (2016), included the performance of a spell, To Bind All-Male Conference Panels, spoken from inside a ritual salt circle. Many of Stupart’s spells were compiled in their sci-fi novella, Virus (2016), published by Arcadia Missa. In the book, these charms are interspersed with their experimental writings on Ana Mendieta, Kathy Acker and The X-Files bit-part character Invisigoth, to name but a few. Throughout the book, Stupart envisions the virus as a force that can corrode and break down power structures that ensure that the idea of “male genius” artists, philosophers and theorists continues to dominate university syllabuses. Personifying the virus, Stupart writes: “Every time a white man born a man cites a man born a man cites a man, every time a translucent male artist or academic or scientist references another pallid male academic, artist or scientist – in this most sterile shallow procreative model, she proliferates.”
I meet Stupart at their studio in Bermondsey, south-east London. The room is clean and bare; a series of pencil drawings are tacked to the walls, some featuring crystal formations, others icebergs. On a worktop at the centre of the room is a ring of red stones, held together by superglue and decorated with small pink beads – a work in progress. Over the ring of jasper, we discuss witchcraft, cyborgs and the perils of optimism.
Izabella Scott: Have you always been into crystals?
Linda Stupart: Not really. I’ve got into crystals in an accelerated way. I carry a black tourmaline stone around with me, which has a very strong protection charm. Mainly, I’ve been thinking about stones and crystals in relation to protection, which is just tapping into knowledge that’s been around for centuries. Tourmaline is protective; jasper is grounding. I’m making a charm bag for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, and this ring of jasper is a sculpture that will form a ring around a room, like a salt circle, to form a protective space. I love thinking about objects that have their own agency, and this is why I starting working with crystals. Sometimes, I leave them to charge under a full moon, to activate them before use.
IS: During your residency at Transmission, you held a series of workshops for witches, with meditation guides and spell-casting sessions, giving out charm bags at the end. Who came to the workshops?
LS: It was an interesting combination of art-people and witch-people. It’s quite a generous thing to cast a spell in a space, because you have to really care. And magic is a form of care. The spells I’ve written and cast are all protection spells and my novel Virus is, on some level, a guidebook for witches. There’s a spell to bind [American minimalist sculptor] Richard Serra, but binding spells don’t send out negative energy. They are not hexes, and there’s a difference between binding and doing harm.
A Spell to Bind Straight Cis White Artists from Profiting off of Appropriating Queer Aesthetics and Feminine Abjection, 2016. Performance at Transmission, London, 2016.
IS: To bind someone is to hold them back, to restrain them from entering your zone. Is magic, then, a means of creating safe space?
LS: Before I started working with magic and spells, I was thinking a lot about safe spaces. I began to cast salt circles before I had done much research into magic and witchcraft. I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed on TV and saw the film The Craft, and all my knowledge initially came from them. I cast a salt circle as a way to create my own space. I get anxious when people get too close to me, and the salt circle was in a sense pragmatic. I simply wanted the space for myself. And when I cast a circle, nobody walked into it. It’s just salt on the ground, but people stay out. In other words, the magic works. I began to think about how I might develop it. Refusal is an important part of magic. The American writer and film-maker Chris Kraus talks about refusal as an “active stance” in her book Aliens and Anorexia. I also love something that sociologist Sarah Franklin refers to, “the wench in the works”, which is a sex-worker or a difficult female body who stops the cogs, who gets in the way of capitalism. It’s something that’s really carried with me: this idea of stopping the flow, breaking the chain. It’s the opposite of accelerationist theory: rather than go faster, it says slow it down to break it.
IS: Where did your research into witchcraft begin?
LS: Years ago I read Malleus Maleficarum (the Witch Hammer), first published in 1486, which is a manual for identifying and witches and putting them on trial. Recently, I also became interested in Wicca, a pagan religious movement that became very popular in the 1960s. But what I mainly did was hang out with witches, who helped me with spell writing and taught me so much about witchcraft.
A Spell to Bind All Male Conference Panels, 2016 (performance documentation).
IS: The 17th-century witch-hunts have been understood by feminism as the pandemic fear of female healers working outside the male medical establishment – unsanctioned midwives and abortionists. Is this your reading?
LS: A lot of witches persecuted in the witch-hunts were helping other women to control reproduction. “Potions” were herbal contraceptives. So the history of witchcraft is, in a sense, about women trying to control their bodies, and control them as they want to outside of a patriarchal context. Another part of the witch-hunts was the fear of female sexual magic – a paranoia around male impotence, or the stealing of the penis. I recently read about a number of witches who were women accused of, and tried for, collecting penises and carrying them around in baskets.
IS: In your novel, there are different ways to “charm” objects for a spell. One is masturbation. It puts such a positive spin on sexual magic. Do you think of female pleasure as an intrinsic part of witchcraft?
LS: I’m interested in female pleasure that doesn’t include men – such as masturbation, or women collecting penises, which are like early prosthetics. I’m also interested in thinking about a world without men. Parthenogenesis [asexual reproduction] is a sci-fi trope, and there’s a book by Suzy McKee Charnas, Motherlines (1975) about women who manage to live in a lesbian separatist society and reproduce via sex with horses. It poses the question: what would happen if you didn’t need men at all? What if men were obsolete? I read a lot of feminist utopian sci-fi, writers such as Joanna Russ, Ursula K Le Guin, Octavia Butler, even Samuel Delany. I’m interested in the way sci-fi creates a nonlinear relationships with the past. This is its task, and it becomes a tool to write queer time and imagine queer futures.
IS: Elizabeth Freeman, in her book Time Binds, writes about “chrononormativity”, and “queer time” is one of her answers to combating linear time: to use art or sci-fi to make queer spaces in history, sometimes where there are none. It’s the opposite of the avant-garde drive, in that it is concerned with looking backwards.
LS: I chose to write sci-fi because it allowed me to do so many things: to make holes in the past, but also to rupture the present. Sci-fi calls to the present, but also to new worlds and new possibilities. That’s how Virus happened: I was trying to think about possible futures. But the novel is also, equally, a handbook, and I’m very pleased if people used it as a manual. In our culture, there is such a hatred of didactic art. That’s one of the worst things somebody can say about your work – that it’s didactic. It needs to be mysterious and open to all sorts of interpretations. I really like things that are didactic. It’s about taking a position and, in some ways, it’s a very generous thing to do.
IS: In your artist biography, you call yourself an “artist and educator”. It’s an unusual statement. Is it hard to be both?
LS: I really like teaching, and education has always been part of my practice, from university teaching at the University of Reading, Camberwell, and the school education projects I’ve run at Tate. I think of the Tate research resources that I’ve made – pamphlets such as A for Alien, C for Cyborg – as part of my art practice. Because Virus is about sex and violence, I did wonder if it would prevent me from working with kids, if I’d have to divide up those two elements of my practice – but it’s been OK so far.
IS: Themes of masturbation run through Virus, and there is a graphic chapter on tentacle sex. Do you find yourself in dialogue with pornography? Is this inevitable?
LS: Pornography is a currency of images and I find the idea of always being in dialogue with pornography as something productive. My PhD was about objectification as having an emancipatory potential – to be the wench in the works, say. Hito Steyerl says that you have a potential to break things as an object in a way that as a subject you never do. Her essay A Thing Like You and Me (2010) is about becoming an object, becoming a thing – and the power in that. I’m interested in things that sit on the border of subject and object or human and machine, inhabiting a queer space between categories – like bio queens [female drag queens] or Lepht Anonym, a biohacker who appears in Virus. Lepht performs surgeries on its own body and nobody had any idea about Lepht’s gender until recently, when images of Lepht’s surgeries led to people assuming Lepht is feminine.
IS: Donna Haraway’s 1985 Cyborg Manifesto is all about dissolving the binaries of subject/object or animal/machine. Have you been very influenced by the essay?
LS: That essay is so amazing. What Haraway gives is a more complex idea about gender, one that got picked up and popularised by cyberfeminism in the 1990s. When you go back to that essay, it’s so queer. There is so much to take from the cyberfeminists, whose work is drawn from a powerful concoction of rage and optimism. But it’s often rooted in what seems like an inherent womanhood or femininity, and I’m interested in harnessing those forces and putting them through a queer and gender-queer prism. Cyberfeminist theorists such as Sadie Plant did a lot of work to show that the history of computing or 3D modelling, which today are dominated today by men, were female fields. You begin to realise that, like with anything, 3D modelling or coding gets taken over by men …
IS: Men are always interrupting. Is the salt circle, or creating a safe space, a way to stop that?
LS: The first salt circle I cast was for a show with Joseph Noonan-Ganley and Sam Keogh called Something to be Scared Of (2015) at AM London. We took the title from a chapter in Julia Kristeva’s book, Powers of Horror, about abjection. I talked about self-harm in the work, and one thing I’m cross about is the way it’s almost always men who get the platform on the subject. Young female students often try to talk about self-harm, but they’re told not to: it’s too emotional. But when male artists do it, it’s somehow heroic. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve acknowledged they actually have a body, and people say: that’s so brave, so avant garde, so amazing. Women are already too much body, so it’s not allowed; they are already too much.
IS: In her novel Cool for You, Eileen Myles wonders if it would be possible to have a female Christ-figure. But female suffering doesn’t have the cultural currency of male suffering. It’s just too ordinary. It has to be hidden away. She writes: “It’s a man’s world and a girl on a cross would be like seeing an animal in a trap. We like to eat them, or see them stuffed, we even like to wear them, but watch them suffer? Hear them wail?”
LS: Eileen Myles is so good. It’s almost something that Chris Kraus talks about – female abjection. Kraus is so good at putting her failure to use, and her failed film, Gravity and Grace, becomes the subject of a book. I saw that film for the first time a few years ago, and it felt like a prop in a book that you don’t expect to be real coming to life. I feel like Kraus is that, too – a real person who is exactly the same as the person in a book. I’ve written and talked a lot about her and also about Kathy Acker.
IS: Is that where the title Virus come from? Acker says that language is a virus …
LS: The title of my Arcadia Missa show, A dead writer exists in words and language as a type of Virus (2016), was inspired by her, and the novel came out of that. In Virus, Acker is a zombie figure that comes back from the dead. What I love about Acker is the way she treats language as material. When she’s writing about violence, the writing is violent; she treats other texts as objects among other objects – which I try to do as well. I’m reading her version of Don Quixote alongside the original version as part of a reading group project. I love the way she works into classic texts, interrupting and rupturing them. One of my favourite essays is Dead Doll Humility (1990), which is about how she came to write, first going to poetry school and being told to find her own voice – but she didn’t want to. So she began to think about what would happen if you took other people’s voices and put them together. At one point, she got sued for plagiarism – which is crazy, because appropriation is part of her practice.
IS: As Acker takes from different sources, there is something of the Frankenstein about her work – sewing up different parts in a kind of patchwork text.
LS: I like the idea of her text as a kind of Frankenstein – that violence in text becomes visible, like stitches. Adrian Rifkin talks about parataxis, which he describes as bits of theory/ideas/things that are placed next to each other without explaining why – and it’s the vibrancy between those two things that generates meaning. Parataxis was a grammatical term originally, used to describe a sentence that doesn’t have a main subordinate clause. The missing subordinate clause messes with traditional knowledge production and at the same time, collapses hierarchies within a sentence. Phrases are balanced side by side without an established power relation between them. This is something Acker does a lot.
IS: Grammar can have a world-building quality – the sense that if you could figure out how two individuals work on the level of pronouns, then it might become the unit for building larger social structures. Do you think Acker gets you there?
LS: Yes, I do. When I came to London from Cape Town, I got involved in the art writing course at Goldsmiths, University of London – a short-lived course, but a very good one. Working as a teaching assistant, I was thrown into this particular writing space that considers what it means to write as an art practice. For a long time, that was my main practice: writing and speaking. I find the tension between different types of legibility very interesting, and it’s something I think about it in Virus. In the novel, I move between a list of instructions, and something that is more confusing in the way it experiments with grammar. There’s a tension of wanting to be clear, but believing that language is a real, important object, and that changing language can change the rest of the world. I think of clarity as a transitional demand as we move towards a point when it will be possible to break language up.
IS: In Virus, one of the characters is called Invisigoth, and you abbreviate her in the text as “I”. It means that, grammatically at least, she signifies both her and you. The ambiguity is so productive in thinking about identity. Are these the moments that you reach for?
LS: I’m proud of that passage. Invisigoth is actually a character from The X-Files, and that section is almost fan fiction. There are two episodes of The X-Files written by William Gibson – which are amazing – and Invisigoth is a minor character in one of them. I’m really interested in fan fiction as a practice, and as a way of doing an intimate reading or intimate critique of a text. There is a sexual streak in fan fiction – of really loving a character, of thinking she’s really hot. That’s how I felt about Invisigoth. It was through watching The X-Files in the 90s and my feelings towards characters such as Invisigoth that I began to wonder if I was queer or bi.
IS: One of your first shows was the 2009 Who’s Abject Now Bitch?, which staged the murder of two Cape Town gallerists. What was going on here?
LS: There was a gallery called YOUNGBLACKMAN in Cape Town run by two white guys, Ed Young and Matthew Blackman. They thought it was clever to open a space called “young black man”. I got embroiled in the Cape Town scene, and my anger detonated there. With distance, I can see that I was trying to get power from men who had power. It was a negative cycle.
IS: Did the work create a genuine rupture? Or did the gallerists love the critique, put it in their archive?
LS: This is exactly the problem with critique today: institutional critique is institutional. What was good about the show? The guys were angry because it ruined their gallery. Fake blood everywhere – that was good. But you know, I wouldn’t make the work now. After the show, somebody came up to me and said: “I left the room looking like that once. From being stabbed.” Soon after that show, I had an experience like that myself. I’m much more conscious of triggers and creating safe spaces for people to enter.
IS: Trigger warnings have become a tenet of education today, particularly at universities – alerting students to potentially distressing content, such as the rape scene in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Has this language been helpful to you?
LS: I made another fake-blood work some years ago – a bleeding gallery wall, where blood comes out of a slit. It was my way of thinking through self-harm, excess and excessive gestures, but, at the same time, to make fun of modernist institutional critique – ie take a [Lucio] Fontana and make blood pour out of it. When I made this work, the language around trigger warnings didn’t exist, and, like the Cape Town show, I’m not sure I’d make the work again. The paradox is that, on one level, it’s so important to make things such as self-harm visible; but, at the same time, there are moments when the desire for visibility goes too far. I’ve always been obsessed by Ana Mendieta’s Rape Scene (1973). As a teenager, I felt that work did everything. It was so unambiguous. It was also very difficult for the friends who discovered Mendieta, who weren’t warned in advance.
IS: Virus is corrosive and angry as it attacks a male canon of artists and writers. Is the virus connected to cyberfeminism? After all, in The Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (1991) by VNS Matrix, it says: “We are the virus of the new world disorder.”
LS: I’m wary of writing from a cyberfeminist or techno-utopian position that often doesn’t think deeply enough about inequality, that does not remember that not all are born equal. I have a strange relationship with optimism. It can be an incredibly important tool to open up possibility – in relation to prison abolition, for example, or any anarchist future; to believe in a future that doesn’t have incarceration is to believe in a future where people can look after themselves. It’s fundamentally optimistic. The problem with optimism is that it gets co-opted by the happiness industry. The drive to optimism is awful, and that’s what Radical Negativity came out of, finding power in abjection.
IS: That’s why I like your optimism/anger cocktail – it gets around the cult of happiness without falling into cynicism’s sinkhole. Rage and optimism suggest a tendency towards action and activism. To turn back to magic, or the charming of objects – is this about activating works of art in the world? Is using witchcraft necessarily being an activist?
LS: I would never call myself an artist-activist, but I think the politics of art exists not just in the action of making, but in objects themselves. In her critique of art, Kathy Acker said: “All art is political in that its job is to maintain the status quo.” She’s saying that art just reproduces and that it’s not innately radical. So I don’t think just by doing art that you’re being political. You have to make it political. It’s similar to the notion that if you’re not against the ruling power, you’re with them. It’s the same with art: if you don’t activate it, then it’s in service of the status quo. It’s also true with academia. Sara Ahmed’s new book, Living A Feminist Life (2017) is amazing because it doesn’t cite a single man. I love this as a practice. Ahmed said it was very hard and that you have to do a lot more work – but it’s absolutely possible.