Over the summer I delved into a most wonderful conversation with Vincent Moon, who weaves together the sacred threads of music and of the invisible through his collection of Petites Planètes films. First known to indie music lovers for launching a fresh take on music videos via La Blogothèque‘s Take Away Shows, Vincent’s approach to film-making is both independent and generous – all of his work is published under a Creative Commons licence. Turning in recent years to an exploration of the sounds and rituals of spirituality, his art is that of birthing the invisible. By transcending the camera tool and simplistic definitions of what is traditionally accepted as sacred, he creates a new language, one of flickering intimate connections. Bringing together ancestral wisdom and ultra-modernity, he gives way to an overarching spirituality where all paths are possible. We speak here about the poetic relationship to the invisible he has been cultivating via Hibridos, the transmedia ethnographic project on the religious cults of Brazil he has been developing for the past two years with photographer, writer, and traveller Priscilla Telmon. He also shares a collective interpretation of a live cine-trance session experienced last October at the Michelberger Festival in Berlin. (What follows is my translation of our original conversation, in French).
Can you introduce yourself to those who don’t know you?
I don’t really like that kind of thing; you can introduce me, if you like… Definitions tend to limit things.
What is creativity?
It’s a way of being poetic day by day, of responding poetically to a given situation, at a given moment, and with a given set of people. Something that relates to the invisible…
Yes – when I first approached you about this conversation, you immediately focused the theme of our talk on “the invisible.” What is the invisible? Where does your fascination for it come from?
I think everyone has it – in any case, everyone should. I grew up in a cultural environment that was very French, very rational. With regard to reality in all its glory, this new century has a very narrow vision… As I traveled, I became more interested in understanding reality as something that is a lot more complex and beautiful, a kind of game between two levels of reality: a material level, and the level we could call spiritual, or invisible. It’s something that we don’t see, or don’t feel physically at times, but which exists nonetheless. Modern Western science has always struggled with this concept, and continues to quarrel bitterly over it to this day – which is actually quite exciting to see.
Quantum physics has begun to push open that door… Beyond this navel-gazing scientific approach which is also an attempt to spread its wings, what especially interests me is encountering other ways of understanding reality through tribal peoples across the world, through other cultures. Understanding the richness of reality from all angles.
The invisible is the total integration of what reality can be. It’s the Yin and the Yang – they go hand in hand. There is a great deal of talk today about society’s crisis, whether it be economic, political, or social, but I think it’s essentially a spiritual crisis, caused by its denial of the invisible. We’ve turned our backs on the invisible for far too long; we’ve become disassociated from an integration of the great All. That’s what a genuine spiritual experience is – understanding that everything is part of everything else, that everything is constantly interlinked. Overcoming our physical limitation is actually fairly simple.
What was your first experience of the invisible?
The first time I came across a trance ritual. I was just a Parisian who for years, had flitted from concert to concert, from play to dance creation, from exhibition to street art, and who wanted to know everything about everything, and I found myself by chance one night in a forgotten dark alley of Cairo. I had been led there by someone saying, “You’re about to see something amazing, something that is forbidden here.”
It was a Zār ritual, a healing trance ritual specifically created by women, for women. The chanting was marvelous; it opened up a whole new dimension of music, integrating the invisible by working with spirits. Leading patients into a trance state is a very ancient form of treatment.
I was in complete shock in the face of music whose sole purpose was not just being listened to or appreciated; I was transported to another dimension. Had I been interested in the sacred, I could have had that experience with music in my own culture, but it has been so overlooked and dragged through the mud in some aspects of Western culture, that I had to go to Egypt to really be hit with it. I pondered this for a long time; my path was really enriched by the experience.
My musical research started to gravitate around the question of where music comes from. What if music were more than a bunch of musicians on a stage playing for a beer-drinking audience that claps at the end of each song? I became interested in the relationship that permeates music and the thread it has always woven with the invisible. In music as a response to the invisible, as a way of dealing with spirits. Since time immemorial, music has originated from this.
What I’m interested in today, is getting back to that ritualistic relationship, especially to the healing relationship. Music as a healing art – in other words, as the actual healing effect of sound – it’s in every wisdom tradition.
You’ve said, “We are all artists, we’re all shamans.” What does that mean, on a personal level and on a broader perspective, for society? Is your work a form of activism, a socio-spiritual invitation to be more connected and experience this sacred dimension?
I’ve been living in Brazil for two years with my sweetheart, who is also French, and who has developed a much stronger connection to spirituality and a much older connection to healing than me. I feel a bit like a total novice; my only aspiration stems from an amateur’s curiosity. This curiosity has taken the shape of a tool, the camera, which I approach as a pretext for taking an interest in others, to shed light on and translate the invisible differently.
Above: “This digital trance is the result of a diverse collaboration interweaving films taken over the past five years by Vincent Moon all around the world, mixed by him in a new form of live cinema, combined with the experimental body sounds of performer Marco Donnarumma, filmed by the amazing Priscilla Telmon and reinterpreted into a new form of transcendental oneness by Ramin Krause. It points to a place where nothing is separated, where we are all one, where the invisible floods our being, where we have left the physical world to merge into one with the spirits, with mother earth.”
I’ve been struck by how Brazil is a country that is one of the great world economies while maintaining an incredible connection with the invisible, especially via Spiritism. It’s baffling to think that we have reached a point in humanity where, when we say that a person is rich or poor, we are only speaking from an economic point of view. Having traveled quite a bit, I realized that the “richest” countries are the poorest culturally, that very often, the economy and culture strike a diabolical balance…
Mediumship is not just the gift or the good fortune of a few. Quite the contrary, it’s a possibility that can be developed by anyone. I became very interested in the role of the pineal gland, which has long been underestimated by Western science, despite being the key to the invisible and to different levels of reality. In Brazil, a major part of the population has developed their pineal gland, much more so than elsewhere, through mediumship, a form of meditation and of connecting to your brain which – it’s almost funny – is grounded in the French theories of Allan Kardec, who has totally disappeared from European history.
Brazil is the only country to have totally integrated and developed Allan Kardec’s ideas. Throughout Brazil, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of spiritism centers, which follow a very precise healing method mainly via the invisible, and also by developing one’s own capabilities as a medium to create bridges between various ways of apprehending reality.
My work has only been that of a curious seeker, to see how far I could get in this form of evolution using my own body, by coming in contact with cultures who were theoretically very removed from that in which I had grown up. I realized that all this is just for show, and that the main issue today is how our individual identities are evolving – it’s fascinating. Identity is something that is much more flexible and changeable than it was only twenty years ago, especially due to the impact of new technologies, and to a new way of relating to others.
My work involves investigating how we can live together. When you asked me if I could define myself – I don’t want to, because words significantly limit possibilities and our apprehension of reality. It’s something you learn when you come into contact with indigenous populations. Very often, the majority of Brazilian tribes don’t have the same relationship to language as Western civilization. They elude language because things cannot always be explained.
Cacique Bira Yawanawa shared a beautiful anecdote. He is a very well educated man who has a foot in both worlds. He has always defended the tribe in which he was born, and he traveled the world. Upon his return, he applied a method which he felt was the best way of maintaining his identity while building it around his relationship to others. He said, “In our culture, we are very caring, we welcome the anthropologists and scholars who come to study our ways. Filled with good will, they come and stay with us for two, three, six months. They ask many questions, and write many things. After some time, they send us their findings in the form of 100, 200, 500-page books or theses. And I tell them, well done, this is amazing work, but it has nothing to do with our vision of the world, since our vision of the world cannot be written down.”
So the time has come to build a bridge to this other reality, which cannot really be approached through words. But it’s a mission that can be claimed by cinematic language.
You mentioned Allan Kardec – do you use his teachings to access other states of consciousness? Is this a tool you use in your work, and how does it influence your work?
I have kept a very intuitive outlook in that regard, I haven’t really taken the time to delve more deeply into those books. Kardecism has many forms of practice in Brazil, it isn’t just applied Western style, in the sense of “spirit,” but in applications that are more sensory-based, in Umbanda centers. Umbanda is a religious encounter – a type of spirituality, a very open doctrine which arose from Afro-Brazilian Candomblé worship and Kardec’s spiritism, shaping it into something that is absolutely fascinating, as it integrates elements from indigenous cosmologies. It’s the great spirituality of Brazil, which is extremely open, and in constant evolution.
I have never belonged to any kind of center. It’s part of my need to escape from any doctrine – everyone needs to invent their own way in life.
When you are filming, do you access an altered state? You don’t seem to just be an observer, but a participant, when you are filming trances…
Of course… What’s interesting is that certain rituals and plants open up a rather direct access to the invisible and to other levels of reality. They act like easy shortcuts, which is why there is such a forceful return to psychoactive plants today, namely ayahuasca. Its dissemination across the world stems from the fact that it’s an incredible shortcut, which has its dangers, of course.
Trance states give rise to a lot of fantasizing and fascination. This revived interest in trances is one of the most fascinating subjects of our generation, because it manifests a willingness to escape from a type of intellectualism that has shown its limitations. Our renewed interest in wild and unknown territories is extremely beneficial to humanity. What we call “trance” – where does it begin? How far can it go? It can take very different forms.
In Brazilian Candomblé spirituality, trances can be incredibly intense, they are akin to African rituals in which there is a loss of consciousness. In Umbanda, a more complex, interesting balance is found: it’s not always obvious that a person is in a trance. It’s like downloading knowledge and entities, by way of connecting to a general level of consciousness that’s floating about.
Is consciousness within us or outside of us? It’s a huge, wonderful question. I’m convinced that consciousness resides outside of us, and that we can connect to it via various methods. Brazil is fascinating because it presents a range of relationships to the invisible and to entranced bodies which push us to our limits via altered states of consciousness that are constantly accessible at different levels. There is no distinct rupture – there isn’t a person in a trance and one who isn’t. There are only rising vibrations, which can become incredibly intense, to the point that a person experiences a loss of consciousness, is totally possessed. There are many more interesting stages in between, intermediary stages where you are in a state of pure reception to outer energies that are modifying your way of being, while being utterly conscious.
This is what I’m interested in filming and in conveying. I’m working on this form of “live cinema” as a way of returning to the intuition I experience when I’m filming. That’s why I’ve never wanted to write my films. The few films that I tried to think through beforehand turned out to be dreadful cans of worms, full of preconceptions about what was going to happen. I’ve always steered clear of projections, of the brain getting ahead of the body, of applying an idea that the body will try to follow.
Humanity is totally stuck in a very warped relationship to time. I really don’t think that time is how it was explained to us at school, that it’s limited to past-present-future. In a way, the past and the future don’t exist; they coexist in the present moment. Eastern indigenous ways of apprehending the present help us set aside preconceptions and return to a more flowing relationship to time that is totally connected to the present.
It’s a way of being that I first discovered through making films without any preconception. These ideas came to me much later, after I had made many films. It was through the films that I understood why I was making them. [Laughter] It’s as though they were saying, let me tell you why you created me.
So the power game is totally defused, because I’m not a “director.” This very Anglo-Saxon vision of life has shown its limitations. I’ve never been able to direct anything. It’s about being in the flow, being a conveyor, a bridge. Being penetrated by these energies, and translating them with the help of a tool. Everyone has a part to play. I’ve never been able to tell others what to do – do whatever you like! I’ll react to your desires, and my way of reacting with my camera, as I dance, will in turn influence your way of being, and vice-versa.
The whole debate between the camera’s objectivity and subjectivity is totally ridiculous, we should really let that go. There is ONLY a subjective relationship to reality. Everything else is a mental construct that doesn’t generate anything interesting for our society. What’s interesting is the sensory, organic relationship, that is generated when you rub up against entities, rituals and trances that bring us back to the present moment. Because that’s the only time that exists.
During your performance, and even before, it’s obvious that you are totally in the moment…
On the Sunday of the Michelberger festival in Berlin, one thing led to the next in a completely awesome way, especially during our last show, with Senyawa, Rabih Beaini, Priscilla Telmon, and Shara Nova. It was absolutely cosmic. We let everything go, in a complete improvisation. [Laughter] The most powerful moments I’ve experienced in my “creative” life have been the most improvised ones, when the brain is very removed, totally overwhelmed by sensory inputs. We reach something together that runs right through us, reaching something akin to a collective trance state. Our own identity merges with others’, reaching an incredible collective creation.
It gives meaning to Mircea Eliade’s beautiful sentence, that the shamanic experience is the dissolution of the ego. It’s an ecstatic dissolution in the moment, in joy, in sheer pleasure. You’re no longer rooted in beliefs. Often, people ask, “So, you believe in the invisible? You believe in spirits?” My personal experience hasn’t led me to believe in them, but to know. I don’t believe in something that someone has told me about, I have lived that experience, I am able to interpret it in my own way. Everyone should have their own experience. There is a division between religion and spirituality: religion is mediated spirituality, it is diluted by someone who claims to be the only one in contact with the invisible, with gods…
But be careful – this spiritual renewal can also cause a great deal of damage, because it leads to a culture that is totally doped, where the use of psychoactive substances is all over the place… And where do we go from there?
Yes, and you can get stuck in unsavoury planes…
Of course, it’s essential to be very cautious around this. And I’m not at all in a conservative stance when it comes to this sort of thing. I’m not saying that you can only go take such and such plant in a forest with a shaman. It’s important to experiment, because life is always a remix of itself. You just have to figure out how to be a good remixer. [Laughter] How to be a good DJ of life! To be your own alchemist – in other words, fair, subtle, connected with the elements that surround us… It’s something you learn on a personal level, through your own experiences.
You’re offering the world a chance to remove the division between the self and the invisible, between artists and their audience… Like a bridge…
I have never theorized or wanted to conceptualize all that. People sometimes say to me, after seeing one of my films, “I was right there, I could really feel things, I was no longer watching a film, I was in the present moment…” That’s fantastic, because that reaction connects with my desire to break distances.
Several months ago, I was confronted by an anthropologist who has a certain knowledge of Brazilian spirituality. I had emailed him my work, and quite rapidly felt that he was very uncomfortable. He said, “I really don’t like what you do.” I really appreciate sincerity. So let’s talk about it, why don’t you like it? What disturbs you? And he managed to say, “It doesn’t include enough distance.” [Laughter]
That’s a very French reaction…
It certainly is! Because my work is about breaking down distances, because there is no such thing as distance! It’s a mental construct. The difference between cultures is incredibly easy to overcome. Becoming someone else is now easier than ever. I want to integrate my camera, the act of filming into moments that are ritualized, ceremonial, sacred.
I’m not always entirely sure what is going on in some of the forms of worship that I film. I gravitate in a kind of nebula of research; I read a lot of things online, without ever going all the way. It’s a bit like opening a book, reading several pages, getting all excited, and then immediately closing it again because you’ve found what you need. You don’t reach the conclusion, because that’s not the interesting bit – what’s interesting is the input that you receive, and how you’re going to interpret that.
Without holding all the keys to understanding them, I’ve filmed traditional cultures, shamanic rituals, Sufi rituals in Chechnya. It opened up a much more sensory door, because I didn’t give myself any limitations on my way of filming and being. I was totally anchored in my body, and absolutely not in the idea of interpreting what I was seeing.
The idea is to leave behind any preconceptions so as to connect completely with the moment, with bodies. That’s why I was so welcome and accepted in these forms of worship. People approached me as an amateur, as someone who loves what he’s doing and who loves others. I’m generally not interested in working with film professionals, because they are often guided by loads of preconceptions. They’ve been applying certain ways of working for so long that some of them fall into a kind of comfort zone in their way of relating to others. It’s very difficult to change that. Without a specific work method, you are like tumbleweed, doing loads of things all the time; you’re able to adapt much more easily.
And what is time, actually? An anthropological relationship to time would postulate that the more time [you devote to something], the deeper you go. But I believe that the longer you stay, and the greater the risk of creating your own mental barriers and developing a detachment that wasn’t there originally.
Of course, I’m simplifying. Consider the work of Bruce Albert, an amazing French researcher in anthropology who spent thirty years with the Yanomami, North of Brazil and South of Venezuela, and who co-authored a book called The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman with Davi Kopenawa, the spokesman for the Yanomami, Davi Kopenawa, one of the great indigenous leaders. Through his desire to translate their viewpoint, Bruce Albert became a Yanomami to such an extent that over a ten-year period, he was able to create a 900-page first-person account on behalf of Davi Kopenawa, who paints a vision of the world that is radically different from ours.
My work has a a lot to do with a certain fleetingness of time, and is very attached to the body. Bodies are incredibly malleable, it’s totally possible to become someone other than oneself. It’s the work I do on a personal level, to try and escape a form of intellectual rigidity, without necessarily sending it packing, because I also really enjoy thinking about these topics. I’ve always wanted to hold onto a fresh outlook in how I approach the world and in my work.
When you experience something as intense as this, how do you integrate balance? How do you feel, the next day? How do you integrate timeless moments into everyday ones?
Well, how do you integrate timelessness all the time? [Laughter] I see it as a continuum… Of course, anyone with any kind of connection to spirituality will tell you that the transition from one reality to the next is very tricky. You need to learn to navigate those waters, because the aftershock can be rough. You can go too far… Last Sunday, at the Michelberger festival, I participated in eight concerts, with eight different people in a row. At one point in the afternoon, I very nearly exploded. I was in a very unpleasant trance state; I wasn’t feeling well at all at the end of one of the concerts. It was much too strong, as though I had opened too many channels and could no longer speak – I was totally jittery. I called too many spirits, too many things came through us.
I tend to experience ‘live cinema’ sessions very intensely. Afterwards, you need to find your balance again, but at the same time, you feel like completely letting go, like going all the way and seeing where it will take you. These performances can be incredibly intense, and they disturb a lot of people – which is a good thing!
It’s the whole point, isn’t it?
Yes, of course… I’m interested in playing with night and day, black and white. All-consuming love comes with all-consuming hatred. We can’t be made of only love, we need to deal with our darkness, too. As a result, my performances tend to delve into a certain level of violence, in experimental music noise. You have to explore that in order to collect something that is ultimately much richer. Neo-festivals that cultivate a kind of blissed-out state are far from being constructive. When there is such a desire to escape from darkness, which stems from a benevolent relationship to “good will” inherited from North-American culture, it boils down to exploring what we already know. If you don’t work on your darkness, you won’t get anywhere.
Afro-Brazilian cultures and rituals are very powerful, because they are constantly dealing with their darkness, especially via the figure of Exu, who is the most complex orisha (spirit) of all the Brazilian spirits. In Umbanda worship, the figure of Exu is extremely present – simplifying a great deal, he’s the figure whom ultra-conservative Protestants associate with the devil. But Exu is actually not the devil, he represents complexity, encompassing both good and evil. The first spirit to be invoked in Umbanda rituals is Exu, because he opens pathways. By calling forth the darkest figure, you establish respect. You say, okay, we need you as well, otherwise we won’t manage to build anything. As a result, our humble live cinema rendition often tends to take people to uncomfortable places.
It brings to mind Kali-Durga or Shiva… whose aspects need to be integrated, rather than denied.
Exactly, we live in a ridiculously Manichean society that totally denies our dark side. It has created a division that is splitting our society apart. It’s also present in Brazil, it’s awful. The country is in utter chaos; it’s discouraging because it has all the ingredients for possibility, yet people indulge in simplifications. I want to fight against the dumbing down of our world in its simplification of reality. Reality is always much more complex than what words can ever express.
You don’t stand for a soppy kind of spirituality…
Of course, it’s to be avoided at all costs! I’m incredibly radical, I’m a real pain for that sort of thing. And I don’t always make friends… You can’t just make friends, it’s also really important to make good enemies! [Laughter]
They force us to work on ourselves…
They really do push us along. And maybe we can find common ground again later. It’s important to be radical, direct with this sort of thing – sentimentality is just the worst. It’s akin to status quo.
I know you’re not a big fan of definitions, but what is sacred, for you?
Everything. Everything is sacred. It isn’t about a specific place. How you see the world, how you position yourself in relation to these things is what you infuse with respect – because everything is worthy of respect. Everything is alive. It’s an integration of everything. Understanding that every single tree is communicating with every single plant or mushroom, that we’re part of this great loop of life… The separation between the sacred and the secular is totally artificial, it does a lot more harm than good to our culture.
After Brazil, you’re heading for Japan – will you be focusing on similar projects?
I don’t know. My work will be on a narrower scale. We stayed in Brazil for too long, working on an insane project – we need to catch our breath. What fascinates us about Japan is the very interesting balance it strikes between hyper-modernity and the best part of primitivism, between its relationship to ancestors and noise. Japanese experimental music has always fascinated me.
They are remarkable modern shamans. I’m thinking more specifically of Yamantaka Eye, the leader of the Boredoms. It’s extraordinary – a new ritualistic form for a new era. They are very advanced, because under their ultra-modern appearance, they are intrinsically connected to nature.
I want to develop projects with a much more concentrated scope, occurring over a week or two. We should also be playing at the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music in May, putting together a specific creation a week beforehand. We would film Sufi rituals on site, and reinterpret them on stage by playing back images and sounds and inviting Sufis to play over them, creating layers of connection that would give way to new ritual forms. I feel like weaving all this together.
When these explorations fit into this type of dialog, everyone benefits from it. Of course, many people are afraid that this would impoverish and simplify these cultures. But nothing disappears, everything is transformed. We just need to support the transformation and reach a balance. Some elements will be lost, but others will be created in the process.
We’ve reached a wonderful time in humanity in terms of artistic creation. Musically, it’s by far the most exciting period I have ever experienced. I hear new sounds every day. A new kind of fusion is opening incredible fields of experience, and therefore, new identities. We are literally reformulating the world. Experimentation is crucial.
What is the intention behind the work with Priscilla Telmon? Do you see yourselves working on an individual or a collaborative level? Are both aspects linked?
It’s not necessarily something that we’ve put into words. We have strong sensibilities which have come together through our work on the invisible. Our overarching motivation is to celebrate what’s happening right now! [Laughter]
Important bridges must be drawn. A lot of doors are being opened. A few months ago, I set up film installations on three screens at the CTM Berlin, which is a kind of temple to technological and electronic ultra-intellectualism. Not everyone is going to like what you’re doing, especially when you’re talking about spirituality – some people won’t be able to go there. But we’re trying to loosen things up a bit.
In the end, one of the best gateways is for shamans and hackers to meet, because they cultivate the same relationship to the code of life. Shamans are playing on the spiritual code of life, whereas hackers are playing on the digital code of life. You quickly come to understand that digital and spiritual fields overlap – it’s amazing.
The integration of the digital sphere into our society is a spiritual rebirth. We are entering into a different kind of relationship with reality, in which things are no longer limited to their matter. That’s exactly what spirituality is about – there are no limits, time doesn’t exist. And there’s no space, either – everything co-exists simultaneously. We are broadening and inventing new realities, making them more sophisticated. It’s incredibly complex and dangerous, but it’s also fascinating. The massive arrival of virtual reality will necessarily add another layer to this.
The spiritual renewal that stems from entheogens is occurring just as virtual realities are starting to develop. They’re very interesting notions, which should be combined.
We’re also mature enough for this, socially, we’re ready to experience this sort of thing…
Yes… Spirit guides us; spirits know what they’re doing. There’s Albert Hofmann‘s famous story – he discovered LSD in the middle of the Second World War because it needed to be discovered at that moment.
We need to let ourselves experiment. And most importantly, not retreat into ourselves. We live in a society where we’re being eaten alive by fear, it’s the antithesis of life.
Some of your films, for instance the Senyawa performance, can be frightening… How do you react when someone recoils and tells you they’re afraid? You can’t force people…
Of course, we won’t convince the whole world, but little by little, lines are shifting. Some people need to be reassured at different levels. Many turn to western science as a religion, without even being aware of it. When science says that something is true, people go for it. Many things are being tried in the field of quantum physics. As western science progresses and people become more aware of the invisible, our approach to reality also broadens. Maybe scientists need to put their stamp on the invisible and on energy to tell us that they exist, for everyone to say, great, we can let loose now! It will take time, but we’ll get there [laughter].
Would you like to add something?
There are so many things we didn’t talk about, Gabrielle, but we talked well! [Laughter] Let’s stop words here.
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