Interview by Katya Yakubov

Peruvian artist Mariana Tschudi whose work, Sometimes I Feel Like Nationalizing Snake, is being screened at this year’s VAEFF festival, was able to chat with me about her new film. Originally an art project that groups together 13 video-art segments, each two-minute long segment mirrors a vision that a person under the influence of the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca can experience. Three of these vision-segments will be shown at the festival.

Let’s start with your background. You’re a Peruvian artist. Can you talk about where you were educated and what you studied?

I started my studies in Lima, in an art school here, but then I transferred to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), and I graduated there as an illustrator. Then I came back to Peru, I was working here and in 2010 I did my masters degree in Digital Arts at Camberwell College of Arts in London until last year, but it was an online program.

I know Peru has an emerging art scene right now, but you still felt you wanted to go abroad to study?

The art scene, I think, is getting big right now but not when I was studying at RISD in 2001.

Image from Tschudi’s “Sometimes I Feel Like Nationalizing Snake”

But you plan to stay in Peru, especially as so much of your film, and your work in general, stems and explores the culture of South America? That’s your inspiration?

Totally, yes. I am very pulled to investigating sacred plants, like ayahuasca, about which I made Sometimes I Feel Like Nationalizing Snake. But right now I’m working on a different plant and I think Perú is a very good place to study those plants and connect to them through art.

Having such a strong interest in these themes, can you talk about the events leading up to your research of ayahuasca, and what caused you to make the film?

I’ve been attracted to ayahuasca my whole life, but it’s a very big thing to get into, it can be scary, and I thought I had to be emotionally in a  good place so I was avoiding it. Then I said to myself, I’m going to do a masters degree on this theme so I’m going to be very focused so there’s no way around it. And it was a very intense process. I’ve been in ceremonies for the past two years very often, interviewing people, and traveling to the jungle.

It’s interesting that although you have almost an academic approach studying ayahuasca, you still feel that your focus is bringing it through the medium of film and video. You’re not trying to use the information you have gathered to write a book or do an anthropological study. Did you always know that you were going to use this to make a film?

Yes, what I feel is that I would like to make a communication process between plants and humans. And one way to do that is through science and investigation by writing a book or something like that. But I think art relates more to the way the plants speak, because plants give you visions, and it’s very organic. So trying to put it in a scientific context is a way to do it, but I feel more comfortable trying to do it the way plants do it in your brain.

It’s definitely a very visual experience, and a film can be a great medium for presenting these visions. But even with filmmaking, you could instead make a documentary, document ceremonies and interview people, but you still choose to work in this visionary, first-person perspective. You see someone’s experience on ayahuasca, rather than an objective document.

The thing about filming the ceremonies, and I was asked this a lot, is that you are in total darkness, and you don’t see anything, and besides, everything is happening inside yourself. Even if I filmed your face, there is nothing to see there.

Image from Tschudi’s “Sometimes I Feel Like Nationalizing Snake”

Or it’s not something others in the ceremonies would even experience because they are all experiencing their own visions.

Yes, you are only seeing someone sitting down with their eyes closed.

You worked with bio medical engineer Juan Manuel Benavides to read the spectator’s brainwaves in order to choose the sequencing of each segment so that it is more aligned with the viewer’s state of mind on this drug. Can you talk more about your collaboration with Benavides, and the particular examples of brain states to some of the video segments?

When you are on an ayahuasca trip, it depends a lot on your state of mind what vision and experience you’re going to have. I wanted to create something similar during the exhibition. So Juan Manuel is my husband, we’ve been working together very closely through the process. The idea was that we read someone’s brain waves, and if that person was in a very excited mode for example, she or he would see a vision that had a higher value, and the values were taken from a previous calibration. But if you were more calmed down, relaxed, then a different vision will come.

The way we did it was in this order:  I finished editing and animating the 13 visions first. Then we invited a lot of people to our house to come and watch the 13 visions while we were measuring their brainwaves. At the end, we put together all the data gathered from everyone while watching video #1 and made and average, so vision #1 had a certain value, and we did the same for the 13 videos. At the end every video/vision had a different value. It is difficult to measure brainwaves because we are measuring different types of waves, and it’s very complicated. So all of this is just an approximation.

But you did this process because there’s still very much an arc to the ayahuasca visions, and you wanted that arc to transcend in the 13 pieces?

Something like that. The concept behind it was that when you are in an ayahuasca ceremony you don’t decide what you’ll experience, but it will definitely be connected to your state of mind, so we wanted to imitate that.  What was very interesting was that when people started seeing the videos/visions they were very excited to see that it correlated a lot with what they were feeling. Maybe it was just coincidences, but most of them said that it was amazing, that the vision they saw was exactly how they felt. It’s like this: Someone comes to the gallery, and we read their brainwaves for twenty seconds while they were watching a looped video. Juan Manuel had designed a system that would take an average of the brain activity, and with that data gathered, the system would play the video or vision that was more aligned with the viewer’s state of mind. And while the viewer is watching that video the system kept reading his brainwaves and kept making an average to send him or her the next vision sh/e should see. So the machine decides that the next vision will be number nine, for example, because your brainwaves went down to a level 20, and segment nine fits that value.

So you are anticipating what they will feel next.

It’s an organic process, more than anticipating I am measuring their state of mind and the system chooses what comes next based on the viewer’s input.

Moving along to your Vimeo page, you have a lot of interviews up on the site of people explaining their experience on ayahuasca. Di you use these interview to come up with the imagery in the film segments?

Yes. I interviewed a lot of people before because I didn’t want to put my own experiences in the film. I’ve done ayahuasca lots of times, but I’m not the kind of person who has many visions. I feel things, I have an intuitive perception, but I don’t have clear visions. So I was researching and interviewing people. And from all the people that talked to me, I took the visions that were more exciting, and I could imagine how to actually make them, because some of them were just impossible to re-create. So sometimes if you see the 13 videos, and you see the interviews, you’ll notice, this video comes from this interview, you’ll notice the relation.

Do you have any plans to do anything with these interviews? They were just for you to research, just as backdrop?

Yes, just for research and for the blog.

I wanted to ask you about the blog. You have quite an extensive documentation of the project through WordPress. It’s very academic in that you post papers you come across, sources of inspiration, progression of the film, etc. So for someone interested in both the project and the topic, they are able to have a full experience with you through the blog. Why that was an important part of the project for you?

That was because of the college, because I did my masters degree with this project, and the teachers needed me to write everything on the blog because I did it as an online course. That’s the way they can see my process. We met every week, and they critique and gave feedback. But I got really into it, and for my next project, I want to do the same thing because it enriches your process a lot.

Yes, it must have been very helpful. Was there any one particular piece of research that stood out to you and was inspiring, outside your direct research with first-hand experiences?

Yes, there are lots of books and papers about the subject that have blown my mind. Actually there is one called La Serpiente Cosmica or The Cosmic Snake by Jeremy Narby. He thinks, because 97 percent of people that have visions see snakes in their visions, Jeremy Narby wonders if what they are actually seeing is their own DNA. People become so sensitive during an ayahuasca ceremony that they could be able to see their own DNA which has the shape of an intertwined snake. That was fascinating for me and that is why the snake is present in most of the videos I have done. But there are lots of books and papers that also have deeply affected the process.

Image from Tschudi’s “Sometimes I Feel Like Nationalizing Snake”

You use a lot of animation in your project. Was there a reason you wanted to incorporate this, did it add aesthetically to the visions that people saw?

Well it’s impossible to recreate visions without some animation. You have to use it because you cannot just film what people see in their visions. At first I wanted to only do charcoal animation, but through the process, I did lots of different kinds of animation, using AfterEffects and any kind of effect came in handy.

Was this the first time you had tinkered with animation?

I have done it before, but not as extensive as this one.

Image from Tschudi’s “Sometimes I Feel Like Nationalizing Snake”

Your website is very creatively constructed in that it is interactive with the viewer, who is able to click on different parts of a tree to choose which part of the vision to watch and experience. Can you talk a little about this idea, how the work doesn’t need to be a linear video, that you can choose parts of your experience? And can you talk about the internet as a platform in which you have creative control over how to showcase your work?

Yes. The thing is that I wanted to have the same intuitive way to pick the scenes or videos that I had in the gallery. Because in the gallery, the spectator would put on the mindset, and depending on the brainwaves, the videos would follow. So to follow the same intuitive criteria on the website, I created the tree with icons on it (each icon represents one video), so the viewer can click on any icon of the image that grabs his attention and that icon will take them to a certain video/vision. And then I wanted to keep the website pretty simple, aside from that.

About the internet platform, before deciding to create a show in a gallery with this project, I was debating if I should do everything online and create an online experience. I think the internet has a huge potential to develop virtual worlds someone can immerse in, I even wrote a paper researching two examples of interactive artistic online projects like 3 Dreams of Black by Chris Milk and Out of My Window by Catherine Cisek. But even though that was a very attractive alternative for me, I was also drawn to have a personal interaction with people, so I ended up doing a show.

When you’re talking about the gallery, are you talking about your participation in Miami’s SCOPE art fair?

No, the first time I exhibited the project was in Lima, and that’s when I did the brainwave component. That show lasted for a couple of weeks. Then I went to London for the final show of the MA degree at the college, and I did the brainwaves there too. But it’s very complicated to do this, so when I went to Miami, I just went with the videos, without the mindset thing because it was such a big event, full of so many people, that I didn’t want to complicate things.

So at SCOPE did you show the 26 minute long piece as a loop?

Yes.

At SCOPE, I read that you used an oval milky acrylic material as a screen, using a transparent nylon so the oval piece seems to be floating in the air. Was that part of the charm of displaying your work in a gallery space, and do you plan to always be playful with how you screen your work? 

Yes, I think that’s very important for the piece. It’s not just a video you can see in a rectangular box. For example that was also very important, that it should not be in a rectangular frame, because the ayahuasca experience is not contained in a rigid format like that. It is more like a circular pattern that moves around. So for me it was very important to have an oval screen. As you can see, the project varies depending on the space. In Miami I had to travel with the screen inside my suitcase, so the screen had to be small enough to fit inside. In that sense, I have to adapt to wherever I go.

Having your work screened as an installation at a gallery and a major art fair, and then having it be screened at the VAEFF in a black box theater, where the film has a beginning middle and end, a duration an audience can experience linearly, how do you feel that the work will change in this different context and what do you think a festival presentation brings to the piece?

First of all it is a big screen. And that’s the first time I will see it on a big screen, so that’s great. But it will also have the oval frame, so it will be consistently oval.

Do you mean that you will have a mask on the video when you export it in Final Cut?

Yes, that’s right. At the festival, they aren’t showing the whole project, but I think with the few segments being screened, you can still feel the presence of the plant, and I think that will open the curiosity of certain people that want to investigate it, and that’s good enough.

So one of your hopes is you want to get people aware of the plant, aware of its properties, and interested in learning and exploring it in the future?

Yes in general what I want is to make people more aware of plants. Plants have intelligence, have many things to teach, and some of them are master plants like ayahuasca. We’ve only been using plants to eat or cure ourselves physically. But we are not using them to go further into life and to learn more subtle things: to connect to nature, to be in harmony. That’s what we need to learn now from plants, I think. That’s the next step that we as human beings should take. That’s a little door I want to open. I think it’s already happening. In Peru for example, there is a big massive tourism that come only for ayahuasca.

That’s a crazy concept, that you could capitalize on something like that. Almost a little sad.

Yes, I know and it’s dangerous too, you have to be very careful. There’s a lot of people that say they are shamans, but they are not. It’s terrible. But it’s the same in everything, there are good psychologists and bad ones, good doctors and bad ones.

I saw on your Vimeo page you had a webisode series about Peruvian superstitions. Can you talk a little about the project, and if you have plans to continue it, or to continue making films about other aspects of Peruvian culture?

That was a project I did in 2008. It was a fun project, a comedy. But it was very hard for me to find the financial support to continue it because it had a lot of actors, was narrative in nature, and that is expensive. You need sponsors, and I didn’t want to search for that. I’m much more driven to go into plants and nature in general. Right now I’m doing a project that is called Pacificum that is about the Pacific ocean surrounding Peru. Part of the documentary focuses on the first civilizations that existed in Peru. In these antique cultures they were using a cactus known as San Pedro or wachuma to guide the civilizations. So I’m also investigating that plant on the coast.

That’s so exciting! So I wanted to say that with the aim of the VAEFF to bridge the avant-garde filmmaking world with the fine art tradition, screening films like yours that could either be installed in a space but also screened in a theater, and screen them along more traditional, single channel works, I’m curious if you feel that you are drawn more to gallery installations? What is your interest in film and how do you want to approach future work – as a single channel film, or as an interactive loop?

I’m not sure, I’m always debating. The project that I’m going to do now, the Pacificum project, is a linear project, it’s a documentary film. But also, I want to take pieces of that to create a project that can work in a gallery, like video art. So I’m in the middle, I can do both. For me, for example, the Pacificum project is a project that is financed by different companies, so I have a salary, and it’s a more formal project, so I can live on that. But on the side, I can do my own projects that will never be sold or give me any money (laughs) so I have to balance it that way.

That’s great that you can re-work your projects to be a shorter or longer piece, like with Nationalizing Snake, cutting it down to screen at the VAEFF festival, yet also being able to display it as a longer loop, and the ability to go back and forth and re-shape the project. I think it is something that is unique to our time, working in video in particular, and it’s great. The work lives in different spaces, in different durations; it’s dynamic, and lovely.

Thank you, that’s exactly how I see the film too.

Well thank you so much, and you will be at the festival, so we are happy to have you be part of the event and participate in Q&A after the screening.

Thank you, see you then!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*