Walking into the Company Gallery on the Lower East Side feels like stepping inside a Tumblr. Photographs of painted people, tinted by sunlight flooding in through colorful tissue paper, are interspersed with delicate ferns and towering bamboo sticks. A lithium drone within the gallery’s white walls is broken up by Night Soil – Fake Paradise, an experimental documentary film by Melanie Bonajo in which women from Brooklyn candidly discussion their deeply personal experiences with ayahuasca. Some of the revelations are blissful and mystic while others turn completely horrifying, melting the psyche down into utterly submissive goo — Bonajo’s way of reminding us of the immeasurable power of psychedelic substances.
The documentary film, which has one foot in the art world and another in the film festival circuit, is the central focus of Bonajo’s solo exhibition, Nocturnal Gardening, and came about as a way for the artist to explore the potential healing capabilities of ayahuasca within an urban, Western context. This isn’t the first film we’ve seen about ayahuasca, and we’re guessing it won’t be the last, thanks in part to Bushwick’s very own ayahuasquero (traditionally an Amazonian shaman who administers the psychedelic tea to spiritual journey seekers and guides them on their trip). But Night Soil is the first to explore the paradox of the ayahuasca experience within an urbanized, commercialized society that is increasingly connected to and defined by the internet.
Though she’s been dubbed “the high priestess of the anti-selfie,” Bonajo doesn’t simply dismiss the internet as a vapid wasteland, a desert for real human emotion. Rather she sees it as a technology with remarkable potential for living out a spiritual life that is normally hampered by our physical existence. That is, if we use it with care.
After coming across ayahuasca as a potential medicine to treat an illness of her own, Bonajo became interested in the challenges of adapting the psychedelic substance for widespread use as a kind of therapy (a possibility that has reentered the minds of scientists, therapists, and doctors). But are shamans, visions, and complete ego loss compatible with living in a place like Brooklyn?
We spoke with Bonajo over the phone about Night Soil, her own experiences with ayahuasca, and the internet’s potential for hosting transcendental experiences.
Yes, the inspiration really came from the effect it had on my life. Our massively-used medications are suppressors. They make you not engage with your trouble, or numb you out, like Ritalin and Adderall and Prozac.
Our societal framework doesn’t really have the language to incorporate ayahuasca into our system, and that’s something I’m interested in. Can something from an indigenous community that’s been used for thousands and thousands of years as a medicine on multiple levels: physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual be introduced into our society? How would that work? How would that translate?
No, for me it was in Europe. But I also did extensive research into different ceremonies in Brooklyn just to see how people set up and translate these ceremonies and how they form a ritual. In a way this is also an artistic thing to do. Practicing a ritual is like doing a performance. You have to set up your own symbols, and how much those were New Age hybrids or no-ritual, or overly-ritual and really indigenous copies — this is kind of my field of expertise.
I’m really interested in how culture travels and how culture clashes and transforms into new cultures and how it’s this living organism. How much is this sincerity? And how empty is the symbolism? And how strictly are they guided? Are they completely open and loose? I was really like an anthropologist going to all kinds of different ceremonies in and around the city.
For me it’s a medication, I have a certain view of how it should be used. And the rituals, in my opinion, I dunno. Some of them were good, some of them were less so. They weren’t my school, let’s say. But it’s very interesting to see how people set it up and if they believe in it, or if there’s something else behind it. But it’s something that’s expanding still, and that’s very interesting.
Another theme in the film is this contrast between these experiences with ayahuasca and an urban environment. It’s so striking. You see these people moving through these city spaces and having this insane, mystical experience and it seems so incompatible.
Yeah, I know. This is our life, we are living in an urban space. So how are we going to deal with our urge for nature and stay connected to the fact that we are nature? This conflict, this dilemma is the big thing in my work, that’s what it’s all about. And also the confusion that brings along, you reach for something you remember as if in a dream but it always seems so unattainable and far away.
I believe in ayahuasca as a medicine, but not as a miracle. In itself, I think it’s pretty miraculous but once you start to integrate it into our system, you have to deal with a whole arena of problems. And how are you going to do that? Because people can also exploit it. And what if it ends up in the wrong places? Or maybe there’s not enough after care and people get into a psychological trap because they don’t know what they were confronted with.
So in that sense, it becomes political because of course you can have all these ceremonies and they can maybe become recreational as well– but that’s exactly where I believe it shouldn’t go– and people can exploit it because you have to pay a lot of money to have this mystical experience. And then it’s part of that whole thing again. It’s hard to keep things pure, even though I believe the plant itself has all this potential to give this pure experience. But it’s not like you drink it and la-la-la Disneyland. And that’s what the whole work is about, how are we gonna do it?
There’s also the issue with urban shamanism, there’s a tension between ayahuasca as this indigenous, traditional ritual and the other side of ayahuasca as a substance administered by the urban shaman and somehow adapted to Western culture.
If you want to bring this to the people, you have to really be a master in this landscape. It is a landscape through which you can navigate and it’s good if you have some decent training in the jungle. I’m talking about an investment of 10, 15 years and not just a summer. I don’t know if that’s always happening, to be honest.
I think in the best cases there’s a combination of indigenous ritual experience with Western psychology, because ultimately that’s what we feel comfortable in. We are this culture that talks. We need to form our reality through language. And this is actually not about language. And just to deal with the experience afterwards is, I feel, that would be the appropriate aftercare, a hybrid combination.
What would it look like if it were accepted in an institutionalized setting? Now it’s getting more popular, but before it reached people who were already kind of out of it, because it’s illegal and underground. So the people who find it are already sort of outside the system. But what if the average suburban person goes there? What will happen then? I think it needs a little bit more care.
I tried to really make a point out of that just to bring forward the female experience. I also wonder why in psychedelic research there are too little women talking about or writing books about psychedelics. I thought it was interesting to bring that forward although I don’t really have a specific answer as to why. But if you want to open a discussion about psychedelics as a medicine, it’s important to vocalize women’s experiences.
LSD was so revolutionary in the ‘60s and so massively used in so many fields, but it kind of lost its impact because there is no structure to deal with that kind of experience in our society because we are living in a secular, mechanical, consumer-based society. It became redundant. It lost its power in recreational use, what I believe isn’t the place for psychedelics because they have this tremendous transformative potential that you can actually really use to explore your inner psyche.
It’s also a shortcut. But because we’re so busy all the time, we don’t have time, or we don’t have energy, we don’t really get to explore our potential as human beings. But psychedelics just rip off the surface in a very direct way. That’s why they also can be potentially dangerous if you’re not prepared for it.
Of course there are many slow roads that can lead you directly to this point. You can sit eight years in a cave and have the same experience or you can go into therapy for ten years. But the ayahuasca breaks down the model through which you experience reality in, like, eight hours.
I think it depends. You can choose it like any other spiritual school. People choose yoga, they devote their lives to it. If you do it every day, you cannot go back to the person you were. And like with other spiritual schools, you can use it like that, and be in service of that school. That’s not my road.
I go out on this ayahuasca experience and I feel reprogrammed, centered, like I’ve had a major detox. I feel really clean and in balance. But then of course you step out and see an H&M commercial with a 14-year-old girl who is starving herself to death and wearing clothes that are made in Bangladesh by children, and you are completely confronted again with this other mode of reality.
That’s what influences me to reset myself. Because I don’t live in nature where I can keep up this purity of being. I’m engaged with a system that has very different values than the ethics of this plant, let’s say. For me, how it works, is I need to return and keep reprogramming myself, keep connecting myself to the true values of living a happy human life. And those things are for free, mostly.
I also see it as an anti-capitalist medication. It brings you back to really basic values of nature, it’s really this plant-oriented, hunter-gatherer kind of reality that you’re brought back to, which we are so far from now.
There’s one scene that’s so striking in the film and so disturbing: these women have face paint on and it kind of looks like they’re tripping, but they’re checking their text messages and their emails and posting selfies at the same time. What’s going on there?
Yeah, that’s the noise. That’s why I need to go back to ayahuasca. This scene symbolizes that. You’re in this world of technological noise and you feel like you’re all of a sudden connected. But what really is this connection and what are the values of this technological world? They’re based on this superficial ego kick, this very short dopamine shot you get when you post something or text something. It has nothing to do with really turning over the soil and working on the foundation. That scene symbolizes that.
The non-physical presence that we have so much these days of our identity in cyberspace and this idea of a non-physical identity in a transcendental space, they are actually so similar. But the values of cyberspace are so different from religious values. It’s interesting that we’re actually moving into this body-less space. And we have all these options of making that space so beautiful because we don’t have any physical limitations there. But it’s really up to us now. Are we also going to bring these same capitalist values into that space? Or are we going to build a transcendental space?
Throughout most of your work there’s this thin line between art and activism. The documentary is very different than any other documentaries I’ve seen, particularly activist ones. But what do you think your roll as an artist is in this whole conversation?
The film itself, it’s a hybrid. It’s not like the usual info-mentary, but it does want to open up a larger discussion but mainly within the art context. Within the art world there are so few people who know about ayahuasca. Well, if you cross the bridge to Brooklyn, everybody knows about it. So this also demonstrated for me the distance between the institutionalized, market-oriented art club and the outsiders, the creators who are moving independently from that system.
But on a broader level, for me it’s important that even though the work is very colorful and rich in its aesthetic, it does deal with political issues and it wants to engage in this discussion in a kind of playful way. It’s not putting in more dogmas, it’s just its own language.
Melanie Bonajo’s solo exhibition, Nocturnal Gardening, is on view at Company Gallery, 88 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side from now until June 15. Viewing hours are Wednesday through Sunday 12 to 6 pm.