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Dark Art(s), Coven Berlin, and the Queer Erotic Occult

Shana Moulton. Swisspering, 2013. Still. Courtesy © Shana Moulton.

Shana Moulton. Swisspering, 2013. Still. Courtesy © Shana Moulton.

It seems, lately, that the term witch is enjoying a reprieve from the tired twentieth-century trope of a humpbacked, single-lady cartoon. Instead, the term currently evokes a kind of giddy mysticism, with art space and apothecary occasionally merging into a “cauldron” (sorry) of self-styled spirituality. Aleister Crowley worship has long been popular among quasi-literate male punks who aspire to their own unique “magick,” but this new interest in the occult stems from a place that seems more collective and less ego-driven.

I recently saw Swisspering, a work by the artist Shana Moulton at EVBG in Berlin. The video starred Moulton’s alter-ego Cynthia, who exemplifies a sort of bright, Southwestern mysticism. Cynthia seeks to quell her feminine anxiety through New Age paraphernalia, and viewers watch as her mundane tasks become psychedelic rituals that allow her to travel to a pastel-colored world of self-betterment.

The idea of an esoteric self, along with an interest in occult queer sexuality, led me to Coven Berlin, a sex-positive, cyber-feminist collective founded in 2013 by Lorena Juan Gutierrez and Judy Mièl. Coven Berlin was originally conceived as an online magazine in which women could challenge inherited gender taboos by sharing first-person accounts, like “Vaginal Discharge and Other Mysteries” or “40 Wonderful Uses of Period Blood.

Installation view, I’d Rather be a Goddess than a Cyborg, 2015. Courtesy Coven Berlin. © Coven Berlin.

But instead of demystifying these processes, the essays re-mystified them, imbuing them with humor and bodily power. Coven Berlin’s website even categorizes its content with terms of fluids; articles fall under the headings Bile, Blood, Lymph, Milk, Sweat, and Tears. With this kind of cheeky medieval showmanship, the language of queer theory and gender studies becomes less…dry (wink).

Coven Berlin was born from Gutierrez’s discontent with the Tumblrs and blogs she frequently browsed while working an unfulfilling job at a video-game company. However, she was hesitant to start her own queer feminist site until Mièl added an aesthetic dimension to the project. Together they built an online platform that would eventually extend into the realm of the real, evolving into a fleshy artists’ collective that regularly hosts events featuring “black-magic massage” and “tentacle porn.”

One member, Lo-Fi Cherry, produces pornography derived from the Japanese genre, “feminist tentacle porn.” Her film Space Labia features female monsters with tentacles, five-headed balloon clitorises, and spitting vulvas. The film is a moodily lit psychodrama (à la Kenneth Anger) and a celebration of nonnormative bodies. Dissident (often nonhuman) sexuality is a consistent theme for Coven Berlin. Their recent queer festival, titled “I’d Rather Be A Goddess Than a Cyborg,” celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Donna Haraway’s essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” and explored mechanized bodies and transhumanism through a series of community-based events.

Lo-Fi Cherry. Space Labia Trading Cards, 2015. Courtesy Lo-Fi Cherry Productions. © Lo-Fi Cherry Productions.

Gutierrez states that it’s important for the community surrounding Coven Berlin “to create a discourse of its own, which is not embedded in patriarchal systems.”[1] She describes her interest in occultism and witchcraft “as a strategy for resistance” but claims that despite the name, Coven Berlin is less about spirituality and more about creating an open cultural space “where validation doesn’t come through the male gaze.”

But spirituality and its resurgence in queer circles interest Amir Naaman, the co-owner and curator of Topics, a new Berlin bookstore and coworking space specializing in books that are considered forbidden. Naaman is proud to display books that provoke strong reactions, like one about the Process Church of the Final Judgment, whose adherents worship both Satan and Christ. Like Aleister Crowley, Naaman believes that censorship is the real evil and that questioning dominant power structures through difficult books can be an enlightening and spiritual experience.

Installation view, Topics Bookstore, 2015. Courtesy Topics Bookstore, Berlin.

The bookstore itself has been queered, as Naaman eschews conventional orders like genre and alphabet. Instead, he sorts books among cubes labeled with topics like Fatherless Childhood, Time Machines, Books Written In Prison, S&M, and Forbidden Love. Naaman and the store’s co-owner, Doron Hamburger, devise new canons along personal and semi-mystical lines.

Topics also hosts monthly lectures on the occult. A recent talk on the Weimar-era antics of Crowley, who was known as “The Beast,” attracted more than a thousand people. Other lectures have dealt with Jungian psychic phenomena, shifting perceptions of truth and storytelling, and the Fraternitas Saturni, Berlin’s original occult society.

In the flourishing days of German Romanticism, during the Weimar era, and most recently in West Berlin in the 1960s, Berlin has been fertile ground for esoteric thought. But much of this historical mysticism goes unacknowledged because of its unsavory links to National Socialism, better known as Nazism; according to Naaman, this “semi-religious blood cult” was highly influenced by early Aryan occultists. Although Adolf Hitler rose to prominence with seemingly supernatural ideas of blood, land, and nationhood, Naaman said that Heinrich Himmler, not Hitler, was the real mystic.

Andujar Courtney. Pizza Witch Fortune-Telling Cards, 2015. Courtesy Courtney Andujar. © Courtney Andujar.

Naaman has also noted a revival of occultism in queer circles. He states that there is a kind of “magical zone” in queer recreational spaces, like Berlin’s infamous club Berghain, that echo the celebratory mode of bacchanals. Artists and queers in the city seem to embrace magical thinking and a more pluralistic sense of morality rather than the pragmatic atheism of Northern Europe. In a new video, the Berlin-based musical and performance artist Peaches (whose book was launched at Topics in July 2015) leads a gothic sex ritual, using typical black-magic symbolism and beastly S&M to explore the dark feelings surrounding a breakup.

In May 2015, Topics hosted a week-long exhibition that featured hand-drawn tarot decks, products of a longstanding practice among artists and mystics. Using my just-purchased Pizza Witch fortune-telling cards—described by their creator, the artist and book designer Courtney Andujar, as “a modern non-heteronormative take on divination”—I conjured a future full of self-styled mysticism, magical encounters, and witchy imaginings.

[1] All quotes by Gutierrez are from a conversation with the author, Jan 30, 2016.

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