Shamans of the Blind Country
1980, 16 mm, 223 min.
361 Stagg Street, Suite 407, Brooklyn, New York
Those of today at Galerie Buchholz for Singers of Ten Thousand Lines, the exhibition of my photographs, and those of tomorrow at Light Industry for the screening of my film Shamans of the Blind Country. Due to a sudden illness, I cannot be with you in person; I have instead prepared a short welcome note. By way of introduction, I thought I would tell you what I remember of the film’s world premiere over 40 years ago, just across Central Park at the American Museum of Natural History, on October 15, 1980. For an author, rather used to bookworms, this screening was an event of a special kind, as I was able to participate in the collective reaction to the pictures on the screen. Many attendees also wanted to show their gratitude and approval for the work they had seen or anticipated - by a gift or gesture of some kind.
Among the premiere gifts I received was one I remember especially well: a live chicken, brought to the screening by the artist Jack Smith, a friend of my sound technician Barbara Becker. It was intended, I assume, to be sacrificed on the museum screen. Since I did not have the courage to carry out this act, a friend and I took our precious gift into the NY traffic after the show and subsequent long discussions about Himalayan rituals, hoping to find a place where we could set the chicken free. As we could not find such a place - Central Park did not come to mind - we transported the chicken to a loft on Franklin Street that I was renting from an artist who was away in Europe on a scholarship. For a few days, the animal lived happily behind a painting that had been left leaning against the loft wall - until I realized that it might do serious damage to the artwork.
Something needed to be done. I considered bringing the chicken to Teiji & Cherel Ito’s home on Bedford Street. This couple had also attended the premiere at the AMNH; and my film, after all, was dedicated to Maya Deren, whom Teiji accompanied to Haiti in the 50s as her sound technician and life companion. The chicken would have found a place on their NY Voodoo altar, near a skull, presumably Maya’s. In the end, I found this idea slightly too macabre - and I rejected it. A different plan was concocted: I went to a butcher in my quarter and asked him if he could cut up the chicken for me. Horrified, he answered: “I have never killed an animal in my life. Buy a knife and do it yourself.” In the end, I chose a chance-based solution: the chicken should be offered anonymously. To this end, we carried the chicken to a public tennis court in Harlem, from which it disappeared in less than an hour.
Of the many screenings of the film that followed, one holds a special meaning for me: the first screening in the Himalayan mountains. It happened half a year after the one in NY - in the remote village where the film had been shot. It took a 10 day walk along mountain trails to bring this event there. Everything had to be transported on our shoulders: projectors, generators, sound equipment, the screen, the film. It was the first picture show in history there. No one in the region had ever seen a film before. The show was thrilling entertainment, accompanied by the head shaman’s comments spoken in the wind - about events that everyone attending knew from real life, as nothing can be stranger than the reality around you.
Berlin, 27 January 2023