In August 2021, the Witch Institute convened witches, activists, artists, filmmakers, curators, historians, scholars, feminists, healers, and more to explore the radical possibilities and dangers under Western capitalist colonialism of witchy ways of knowing, being, caring, and healing. Collaborator Allison Morehead offers a glimpse of the series.
Events, mostly online, ranged from performance art to divinatory work to screenings to conversations with artists and filmmakers to more traditional academic sessions and talks, including a keynote lecture by autonomist feminist Marxist scholar Silvia Federici, author of the essential Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Participants limned contemporary and historical activities and representations of witches, attentive to the emergences and submergences of the witch as political symbol, marginalized figure, and potential site for reclaiming power from Western colonial hegemonies. Many of the events centred care and healing, particularly of those marginalized and harmed by the white, cis, hetero, ableist structures of colonial patriarchy, including Black, Brown, Indigenous, 2SLGBTQIAP+, women, chronically ill, neurodiverse, and/or disabled folks.
This Circle is a Mercle
The Institute began with an in-person gathering, This Circle is a Mercle, “a one day interdisciplinary performance/event conjuring the values, practicalities and materialities of permaculture from the perspective of queer, feminist witch imaginaries.” Hosted by artists Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue, in collaboration with Syrus Marcus Ware, Tracy Tidgwell, and FASTWÜRMS, the event took place on 64 acres of Indigenous lands long subject to settler colonialist occupation in what is now called Canada. The land has recently become the site of the Feminist Art Residency (FAR) run by Mitchell and Logue as a continuation of their Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) project, formerly housed in a backyard garage in Tkaronto/Toronto.
The event began with a circle, grounding meditation, and land acknowledgements offered by Mitchell and Logue as well as Emelie Chhangur, director of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Katarokwi/Kingston. Punctuated by calls from Indigenous curators and artists present to take the land back, assertions that decolonization must not be metaphorical, but rather must restore Indigenous stewardship over land and resources (Tuck and Yang 2012), the welcome was openly awkward, explicitly pointing to violent pasts and presents, while evoking future possibilities. For many of those participating, myself included, this was the first in-person meeting of a group of colleagues, friends, and strangers (about 40 in total), since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The awkwardness and potential discomfort of meeting in person again and after some time promised a new kind of space for acknowledging the ongoing and necessary discomfort and challenges that come with unsettling the traumatic realities of white-body supremacy. I use the term ‘white-body supremacy’ following Resmaa Menakem, to point to how ‘white supremacy’ can all too easily be deployed as a disembodied abstraction and to argue, as Menakem does, that the traumas of white-body supremacy need to be addressed somatically (Menakem 2017).
A Future Garden of Blackness
Following the welcome, the activist, artist, and scholar Syrus Marcus Ware, the first artist to participate in the Feminist Art Residency and core-team member of Black Lives Matter Toronto, led the group over to a heart-shaped flower bed covered in what looked like black cedar mulch, a Future Garden of Blackness prepared in anticipation of planting black flower bulbs as well as the seeds of other black plants and vegetables. Standing at the bottom of the flower bed, the artist read a poem as an “invocation of a future, [a] promise towards a spring that will look different for Black Lives,” and then led the group in a call and response incantation offering collective energy into the soil.
Participants then made their way to a higher part of the land, where artists Tracy Tidgwell, Allyson Mitchell, and Deirdre Logue had been working together to mow a pentagram for a work called The Wander Over Yonder. The artists invited participants to perform an individual or collective walking meditation, making their way through the pentagram however they wanted, while sowing seeds of Indigenous plants in the hopes of regenerating the long-tilled and overcultivated soil. At each of the five points of the pentagram, participants encountered small altars dedicated to ‘love’, ‘connection’, ‘grief’, ‘accountability’ and ‘healing’. Together these altars inferred that the care and healing necessitated by the traumas of colonialist white-body supremacy will not come about through or provoke positive affect alone. Space must be made, these altars suggested, for collective negative affect: for grief, depression, anxiety, and ambivalence as modes of resistance in a world that commodifies emotions and overvalues especially ‘cruel’ pursuits of positivity and happiness (Illouz 2007; Berlant 2011; Cvetkovich 2012).
An anti-chrononormative day
The day was slow, unstructured, anti-chrononormative, and anti-ableist, a set of loosely organized happenings that unfurled gently and without always announcing themselves. Golf cart transportation, seating, and accessible facilities were available and pointed out. The last ‘event’ was a high-temperature Raku firing performed by FASTWÜRMS. As the sun started going down, clay skulls, frogs, and snakes were carefully lifted, glowing orange, from the DIY kiln. They were placed on prepared beds of sand, twigs, and leaves, sprinkled with more twigs, herbs, and sand, and doused with water and, yes, beer, before being covered by buckets to cool down and finally be revealed. Flames shot from ceramic eye holes while participants ooh-ed and aah-ed over the spectacle, made jokes, clapped in appreciation, and filmed with their mobile phones.
FASTWÜRMS described the ritual, entitled #FYR3_W04D, as contributing to the day’s ‘awkward optimism’, a queer communal way of being that embraced failing in public (such as when one of the snake heads was dropped and broke) as part of a ‘long game’ towards a different world. Again, care and healing in this instance rejected the modes of ‘cruel optimism’ that Lauren Berlant identified as supposedly efficient paths to the putatively good life, paths that are ultimately harmful, especially to marginalized folks, in favour of embracing the necessary awkwardness that comes from trying to be together otherwise.
Witchcare roundtable discussion
Aiming to connect the themes of The Witch Institute to work in arts-led critical medical humanities, I organized a roundtable discussion entitled Witchcare. This explored themes similar to those explored in Jenn E Norton, Emily Pelstring, and Edie Soleil’s remediation of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Witch of Malleghem, a remediation in turn inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English’s classic 1975 feminist text, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers.
In our roundtable, Lena Chen discussed her artwork, We Lived in The Gaps Between the Stories, a collective celebration and commemoration of abortion workers. Chen’s project connects these workers’ stories with the long histories of healing, care, and persecution of witch practitioners, whose use of plant medicine and knowledge of abortifacients made them the target of capitalist colonial regimes seeking to control reproductive bodies. Karisa Senavitis, co-founder of design studio Will Work for Good and a researcher on DIY medical devices, presented the short film ~ data feels ~ across, a meditation on practices of collective care at a distance, melding meditative imagery of plants, lichen, weaving, and digitalization. The work is informed by Senavitis’s moderating of a listserv for women, femmes, and gender non-conforming people with autoimmune and other chronic conditions. Margeaux Feldman, a writer, educator, and community builder, shared writing on “Trauma Witchery: Healing Ourselves and Our World”, part of their book manuscript, Touch Me, I’m Sick, which deploys ‘sick theories’ and speaks from the lived experience of somatic therapy to address patriarchal and colonialist trauma. Renée Monchalin, an Assistant Professor of public health and policy at the University of Victoria, spoke on the histories of reproductive violence towards Indigenous peoples in what is now called Canada, weaving personal experiences with her work in public health focused on improving access to culturally safe abortion care.
‘Witchy’ in form, content and community creation
Throughout The Witch Institute, which included many more events that might be of interest to Polyphony readers, the voice in my head often spoke the opening lines of Holly Pester’s 2016 poem Voice in my Head Calling for Witchy Methodology:
The ALIEN LORE of witches’ prophecies allows me to revision what counts as seeing and knowing in methods of research….I must start estranged from the imperial pursuit of knowledge that sees research divinely agented to scholarship>>>I’ll open up comprehension to weirded intelligences.
The Witch Institute was not simply about witches, their history and their representation: it was witchy in form, content, and the way it aimed to create community, including the way it centred witchy ways of care and healing.
I had been meaning to write this short text for The Polyphony in September, invoking myself to capturing the event while it was fresh in my bodymind. But other things happened, and I write it almost six months later in the midst of a deep freeze and a thick blanket of snow that feels the exact opposite of that hot week in August 2021. Syrus Marcus Ware’s Future Garden of Blackness is at its most dormant, but spring is coming. It strikes me that this ‘delay’ is not so much a delay, as resistance to the normative timelines we are all forced to reckon with, including in academia, and just one instance of what artist-scholar, author, and ‘shamanic hacker’ Chiron Armand divined for The Witch Institute, that it could only go on.
Dr Allison Morehead is a white settler art historian based at Queen’s University, Katarowki, Canada, a specialist in modern European art, the history of the psy-sciences, and the medicalization of modern life. Along with Dr Fiona Johnstone and Dr Imogen Wiltshire, Morehead co-directs Confabulations: Art Practice, Art History, Critical Medical Humanities. Twitter: @_allisonmorehea
The Witch Institute was organized by Tamara de Szegheo Lang, Emily Pelstring, and Dan Vena, with a team of collaborators, including Dr Morehead, many of whom work at or are affiliated with Queen’s University in Katarowki/Kingston, Ontario, Canada. The Institute was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and, at Queen’s, by the Department of Film and Media, the Cultural Studies Graduate Program, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the Faculty of Arts and Science Conference Fund, the Integrated Learning Fund, the George Taylor Richardson Memorial Fund, and the Chancellor Dunning Trust Lectureship. Donations were accepted with the view to enabling many of the events, all of which were free, to continue to be available online as recordings.
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Cvetkovich, Ann. 2012. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.
Illouz, Eva. 2007. Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity.
Menakem, Resmaa. 2017. My Grandmother’s Hands. Las Vegas: Central Recovery Press.
Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1: 1–40.