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Issue 148

The (Im)possibility of Healing: On Lauryn Youden
by Lauren Fournier

Lauryn Youden’s survival and self-care strategies span a range of epistemic modes—be they witchcraft, spirituality and mysticism, medicine and alchemy, art and theory—each enormously loaded with internal plurality and complex, overlapping histories that have been distorted by such obfuscating forces as colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. Some methods are affirmed by Western science and others by some of the many different frameworks and systems of knowledge that exceed it, including tarot, divination runes, and herbalism. Each item on display in her most recent exhibition, Visionary of Knives at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, is selected based on both embodied evidence of what works for Youden and those with whom she is in relation, in a way that is guided by cultural sensitivity. Is there a way to engage with multiple sources of cultural knowledge respectfully, and through that engagement perhaps even dismantle structures of white supremacy? What can a white chronically ill or Crip person in an ableist world adopt to ease their pain and bring healing— without fearing social retribution for looking outside the confines of Western biomedicine? These are fraught questions, but important ones, and ones that this Berlin-based, Canadian artist strives to address.

  • Lauryn Youden, to offer you something, to bring relief, 2020, 378 cm × 100 cm × 32 cm; installation view from Visionary of Knives, 2020, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin PHOTO: TIMO OHLER; COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Acknowledging the integral role of learning and unlearning in community, care, and healing, the exhibition is structured around the sharing of sources — books, herbs, medicines, dried flowers, candles, and ritual-based objects—referencing the discourses, ideas, and practices of a great many others in a consensual, considerate way. While Youden is grounded, ancestralLy and geographically, in European traditions, she also includes BIPOC practices, though only when and as they have been introduced to her via her queer family bonds. In the brochure that meticulously documents every object and text in the show, Youden includes a description of each item, as well as who gifted the object to her, where relevant.

Youden’s active involvement with the Sickness Affinity Group (SAG) and the Golden Dome School, among others, informs the grounding of this introspective exhibition on healing in a close community of ongoing negotiation and trust. Visionary of Knives was first intended to be a place for the queer Crip community in Berlin to physically gather. The SAG is a transnational collective of artists, activists, and theorists who are chronically ill and disabled, as well as their allies. They convene as a monthly support group, with conversational check-ins to see what people need and how they might get it. Before the pandemic hit, the group was getting too big for its current meeting space, and so Youden decided she’d open up the studio she’d have access to throughout her residency at the Künstlerhaus as the new gathering place. The loss of intimacy that comes with meeting online, now, has been trying; in response, Youden has constructed the architecture of this exhibition to honour that intimacy and help revive it by creating a space that feels as safe as someone’s (ideal) home, where people’s needs, at least those most immediate ones, are met and where their bodies are safe.1 The central space of the gallery forms a resting space with large cushions for people to gather and share in conversation (it fits seven to 10 people without COVID regulations, two with); it was important to have a focus on rest in this exhibition, since it is the most important part of Youden’s daily practice of decreasing her chronic pain. The physical curation of the exhibition demarcates an absence, a sharp pathos for what was meant to be an area of physical enmeshment and embodied support. Of course, that our bodies are always already _enmeshed_—through the breath and its movement out of one person’s body and, through that shared space of the air between us, into another’s—is one of the more consequential revelations at the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the language of “droplets,” we’re reminded that the boundary between where my body/microbiome ends and your body/microbiome begins is not so clear.

Mugwort is featured throughout this exhibition, a quintessentially “witchy” plant, as understood from a largely white, Western perspective: stalks of mugwort are clumped into big bouquets. “Mugwort grows like a weed here,” Youden says in conversation with me, of her neighbourhood in Berlin. “You can go to parks and gather it.” She goes on to describe a philosophy of ruderal ecology: “The plants that grow as weeds are the plants we need—they’re growing there for a reason, and are there to be used.” The exhibition is a space to display the alchemical commingling of research and reading with other embodied practices like making and ingesting medicine from plants. If and when people could physically gather together, Youden, who came of age as a performance artist and continues to work in live performance, served mugwort tea while reading an illness narrative/historical essay she wrote on lucid dreaming as a form of addressing trauma and then healing.2 This move recalls a tendency in work by contemporaneous artists invested in the critical politics of care and transformation, like the Brooklyn-based, Black Canadian new media artist Ashley Jane Lewis, who fed her sourdough starter while reading excerpts of Octavia E. Butler aloud as part of her Bio-Art work- shop “Fermenting a Revolution” at Vector Festival in Toronto (2020), or Korean American artist, astrologer, and musician Johanna Hedva’s body of writings that entwine auto-theoretical spoken word readings with other performances and sound in their ongoing This Earth, Our Hospital (2016–present).

Many books are on view, including but not limited to Barbara Ann Brennan’s Hands of Light: A Guide to Healing Through the Human Energy Field (1987), which speculatively invokes the wisdom of body work; books on botany and ecology like The Secret Life of Plants (1973); poetry like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009); books of historical fiction and speculative fiction like Jamaican- Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads (2003); and books of feminist theory like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Care Work (2018) and bell hooks’s The Will to Change (2004). The books, like the other objects on these altars, cannot be touched or read in the space itself. Instead, the books function more as semiotic sculptures, reference points for further reading—this, for COVID safety reasons.3 An exception is the literature referenced as hand-stitched words on pillows: poetry by CAConrad and fiction by Larissa Lai. The artist’s collection of writings and zines by other Crip queer and allied artists and healers is also on display, including texts by Carolyn Lazard, Clementine Morrigan, and Taraneh Fazeli.

In her altar for the moon, which the artist created as a reparative gesture in response to a nihilistic hex that a group of TikTok witches put on the moon earlier in 2020,4 Youden includes a list of fibromyalgia treatments from the pain centre she attends, such as “progressive muscle exercises, Tai Chi or Yoga, and walking 30 minutes 3 times per week.” In one of our conversations, she said that she finds the list to be laughable— this comically simplified physiotherapist version of the narrative of Western medicine incorporating Eastern influence, familiar to a West Coast kid like Youden who was raised as a settler in Vancouver, as well as of the ongoing latent assumptions by doctors that her symptoms are psychosomatic (“Have you tried yoga?”). The history of violences toward BIPOC people and women by Western medicine is another part of the context of this work, with the political, intersectional question of who receives the care that they need and whose embodied word is taken seriously in the face of colonial, patriarchal, structurally racist power and understanding. The work of healing in this exhibition comes from a completely sincere place, yet Youden can find space to laugh—a space for some levity and release.

The artist lives and works where the Malleus Maleficarum, a Catholic treatise against witchcraft from 1487, was written and where, resultantly, some of the largest witch hunts in history took place. This aspect of the land Youden lives on serves as a haunting presence. Through research, she has come to learn that some of the drive behind witch hunts might have been a fundamental misunderstanding of illness, mental health, and neurodivergence (an argument suggested in the 1922 film Häxan, based on director Benjamin Christensen’s study of the Malleus Maleficarum). The Marxist Italian feminist Silvia Federici’s work is an important contextual marker in Youden’s ongoing art practice, too, which discusses the history of violence against women’s bodies as part and parcel of the development of capitalism, and how the loss of women’s autonomy, beyond reproductive activities, is integral to how their bodies relate to the Western medical industrial complex to- day (which if you have polycystic ovarian syndrome, like I do, you can attest to, as you’ll only be given a cure or plan of treatment when you decide you “want to get pregnant”). In Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women (2018), Federici makes the case that “[t]he witch was the communist and terrorist of her time, which required a ‘civilizing’ drive to produce the new ‘subjectivity’ and sexual division of labor on which the capitalist work discipline would rely.”5

Early on in the quarantine, which coincided with the unprecedented surge of, and mainstream support for, the Black Lives Matter movement, Black and Brown occultist and witch Paulette a.k.a. Bad Mamma Jama (@bad.mamma.jama), whom Youden follows on Instagram, posted a protection spell for Black people. Youden printed out the spell and posted it in her studio—an invocation and a material reminder for anyone who enters, as well as a political statement of her own support of #BLM. Youden posted a reproduction of this spell at the entry to the exhibition too, citing the witch and her original ritual as the source; in the comments section of the witch’s original post, white witches asked whether they could use this spell, to which Paulette responded that it “is for everyone to use.” There is a politics here of widely and indiscriminately invoking a spell for protection of Black lives at risk. In anticipation of including the spell in her exhibition, Youden sent Paulette a DM asking how she could pay her for the use of it; Paulette was pleasantly surprised—this was the first time, apparently, that someone had offered to pay. The act raises the question of who gets paid for their work in the creative fields that intersect with medicine and healing, and what forms of remuneration and exchange are best suited for these times. While the issue of monetary exchange requires a consideration of cultural context around remuneration and gifting, most people have rent to pay, and the urgent politics of precarity and material support adds another key layer to an exhibition that tries to home in on what it means to have transformative, collective healing across communities that are living, and dying, in pain.

On one altar, a serpentine sculpture made of black wood spans the better part of the length, framing an assortment of objects: a six-piece Jugendstil Vallerysthal Toiletry set made of purple pressed glass, with one container hold- ing a smudge stick, a gift from Bri Luna, and two sticks of licorice root from Côte d’Azur. In another container: a pale purple rose; a Kashmiri copper serpent teapot; a black candelabrum with 10 white candles from Coyoacán Market in Mexico City; a bowl made of air-dry clay containing a set of divination runes made from quartz crystal with gold engraving—a gift from the artist’s mother, Cheri Youden; and six books that focus on serpents, spells, and herbs, including Jeremy Narby’s The Cosmic Serpent (1998), gifted to Youden by Jasper Circus, and Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás’s Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry (2018), a gift from Romily Alice Walden. Above this quite gorgeous arrangement of objects hangs a sobering text-based poster from the For The Record series by fierce pussy—an art and activist collective comprised of queer women, formed in 1991—produced for Visual AIDS. In bold black text turning to red, it reads, “if she were alive today she’d still be living with AIDS.” As a queer person living with chronic illness, Youden places herself and this work in allyship with queers living with HIV/ AIDS and their complex relationships to health and healing. Sandor Katz comes to mind, the famed gay American “fermentation revivalist” who did a deep dive into fermentation traditions from hundreds of traditions around the world when he received his HIV+ diagnosis in the early ’90s, which he continues to learn about, compile, and teach in dialogue with fermenters across cultures; at the beginning of his book Wild Fermentation (2003), he emphasizes the role that fermented food has played in his own journey of staying well with HIV/AIDS, also noting that he is not purporting any curative function, necessarily.

In thinking about Youden’s work, I’m reminded of the Métis artist, curator, and critical writer David Garneau’s nuanced perspectives on cultural appropriation— specifically, his distinguishing of “misappropriation,” as in the misuse and abuse of an object or material, from “appropriation.”6 Garneau posits that one can appropriate in the sense of taking for one’s own use without _mis_appropriating, _mis_using.7 Close friendship and familial connection play a role throughout the exhibition’s sourcing. This process of receipt could potentially be an approach to address the issue of misappropriation, with the assumption that the artist gives gifts back in a reciprocal process of exchange, and that she has been given per- mission to use these objects in her life and therefore—for the many living artists in- vested in histories of feminisms and queer ways of working, who concomitantly bridge theory and practice, life and art—it might follow, by certain logics: her art/work.

The larger question remains, though, as to who can and should be able to make use of healing objects and materials in their life and their art. Ought one to have a cultural or ancestral tie to a substance in order to use it for a spiritual or medicinal purpose? Recently, the answer, at least in Canada, seems to be “yes,” and for good reason—the history of cultural appropriation has been violent and disempowering to those for whom colonial structures are most oppressive, including Indigenous and Black communities. However, the question may not be as straightforward as it seems, in this time of mixed ancestry following complex histories of immigration, convoluted and forced assimilation, and intergenerational trauma that leave many artists, both BIPOC and white (and those in-between), estranged from their traditions. That the objects and texts in Visionary of Knives were shared with Youden through ongoing relationships of open dialogue, negotiation, and trust, seems to push at the limits of the conversation. Where do we, as a contemporary art community in Canada, now stand on cultural sharing versus appropriation? Can the appropriate ties be made via friendship? Via family? Via queer family? Is this question always contextual?

Youden acknowledges that without keen attention to community and dialogue, as well as a close consideration of the materials, their origins, and sourcing, the work risks coming across as just about “witchiness”—especially given her unironic use of language like “altars” to describe her display practices. When her work comes across as some form of “yoga art” or “hippie stoner art”—which might be considered a kind of shorthand for white people’s aestheticized handling of cultures not their own—Youden is, reason- ably, concerned. Literacy, context, and citation are her strategies for honouring the sources of these healing traditions in hopes of both avoiding a straightforward “culturally appropriative” read and having a more generative conversation about the relationships between personal and collective healing. While the exhibition marks an exciting development in Youden’s practice, with a level of rigour and thoughtfulness that shows a conceptual maturation for this emerging artist, it does not avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls.

Making the question of cultural sharing, and using gifts in one’s artwork, even more complicated is what happens once the materials are placed on display. Youden’s goal was to find a way of incorporating the key influences of a wide array of people in her life and work, to decentre herself as the author of this knowledge, cognizant however that putting them on display ran the risk of replicating the exploitative, colonial curatorial act of placing materials, practices, and traditions not concomitant with one’s own ancestry in a decontextualized space. And yet, while not her intent, it is one of the results; this gets at the very limitations of anti-hierarchical ways of working, desirable as they may be in theory for some artists invested in the work of anti-oppression. The exhibition title came from the Metamorphic Tarot, a deck created by the painter Ebb Bayley and gifted to Youden at a point when she was struggling with the work: Youden pulled the card “Visionary of Knives,” which describes one who “holds deep wisdom born of pain.” Bayley describes the tarot deck as non-binary and non-hierarchical. But in the so- called absence of hierarchy, what structure or ordering principles result? Who goes first, and who goes last? What book is placed on top of another? What gets a passing glance, and what comes into focus? Which cultural object can or can’t be placed next to another? Who makes decisions in the non-hierarchical collective? And who gets blamed when the decision turns out to be the wrong one? When these questions are considered in-depth, and with historical and cultural context, the impossibility of such speculative negations—rejecting hierarchy outright, without replacing it with something else—is revealed. Since Youden is organizing objects with cultural contexts in space, on the altars, there is a sense of mixing-together that, if read with a view to hierarchization, can come across as lacking care, even if the intent was, paradoxically, to dismantle problematic power through a queer feminist Crip practice of caring. While the work’s display practice is tied to the artist’s philosophy as expressed in collectives like SAG, it is revealed to have its own limitations when, like so many manifestos and theories, it is put into practice. For these reasons, I imagine that people from different subject positions will gauge the exhibition’s success differently.

For an upcoming show at the The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Youden has been making a new body of work in resonance with the life and work of Emma Kunz, a Swiss outsider artist and healer who is part of a constellation of mystic feminist European artists like Hilma af Klint. During the run of Visionary of Knives, Youden visited a grotto in Switzerland that Kunz supposedly discovered and spent a lot of time in. Said to have healing properties, it symbolizes a place between death and life that is tied, for Youden, to the state of being chronically ill. She recorded electro- magnetic energy in the grotto, which she will transmit back as sublime, soothing sounds visitors can bask in as they rest—extending the logic of the sound bath, with the effects that vibrational waves have on the body. In May 2021, Youden will return to the grotto to give a live performance on the anniversary of Kunz’s death. One way of respectfully accessing this sacred space is through divination, following from the fact that Kunz found the grotto (which was formerly a quarry) using a pendulum. For accessibility reasons, Youden chose the divination practice of scrying8 with black ink or mirrors (in her case, due to site protocol, black Plexiglas), a common practice for accessing sacred spaces, and liminal or transitional spaces (sometimes referred to as spaces of “dark water”).

Questions came up for her including whether employing this method without explicitly acknowledging the many related ones, in the work itself, would constitute an act of erasure. The focus of the work is primarily on the specific site of the Kunz grotto and Youden’s experience of chronically-ill embodiment and concomitant brain fog; with that in mind, Youden’s material and ritual-based decisions seem to resonate conceptually, even as questions remain about how best to go about cultural sharing and citation within one’s trans-cultural art-making. As she sees it, a white artist— especially one who is making work about religious practices and sacred places—cannot pretend to exist in a white vacuum, as if BIPOC practices and lives are not integral to histories of medicine, healing, and land. This conviction is continuous with her insistence on featuring objects that refer to the knowledge of many members of her community, and clearly begs another set of questions that reveals cultural borrowing to be the aporia that it is: does it make sense for a white artist, working with the work of another white artist in Switzerland, to incorporate traditions that are not indigenous to that land, and which likely wouldn’t give back to those whose traditions are being referenced? Is incorporation for inclusion’s sake productive to the artist’s aims? Might this conception of “erasure” be overly simplistic, and thus open up new terrain for trouble? Would it be better if practices indigenous solely to that region were used, without attention to the larger, transnational global world?

Youden tests out questions around sharing in present- day communities, asking what is possible for healing and how we might work ethically around topics as semantically contentious as healing and witchcraft. She asks how we can be in collaboration and solidarity with each other across a range of difference, taking care of ourselves and others in ways that are responsible, reciprocal, and not selfish. The placing of objects and substances on display on the altars is a conceptual attempt at transparency and citation that, due to her structural desire for anti-hierarchism, risks having a decontextualizing and disempowering effect. It’s notable that even one who is aware of potential pitfalls and earnestly attempts to remedy them can come up short. Youden’s work marks one entry, then, toward a possible way forward, where artists who want to actively uphold values of anti-racism, anti-ableism, and anti-sexism might work on disentangling questions around “healing” in a transcultural way. There is much work left to be done.

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