Ethnography Issue ❸ ↓ Feature
Autoethnography, Art Practice and the Participation of Other-Than-Humans
Five different types of India ink,
White gum erasers,
My ancestor spirits,
A diverse selection of cheap paintbrushes,
My human body,
Endless triple soy lattes,
A few loud songs on infinite loop,
We made a thing.
My professional training as an illustrator; my years of collaboration with plants, animals, garbage bins, the energetic current of intuitive witchcraft, and my training in cultural and ethnographic theory.
We come together and we make.
One of the things we have made is a graphic novel called Witchbody. The book depicts the urban landscapes of contemporary witchcraft: littered with dandelions and heaps of city trash on garbage night; endless skyscrapers; manicured downtown parks. It asks, “What can it mean to find spirituality and folklore in the city, in these places?”
The work first appeared to me as tendrils of thought and daydream. It emerged almost of its own accord, and by force. I wanted to let something flow forth from my bones, unabashed: like a breath, an exhale, excess saliva spit on the sidewalk, a blessing and anointment, a part of me merging with the earth. For me this project and illustration in general is nothing if not personal, and I wanted these drawings to read like a peek into my brain, my flesh, my soul, rather than a bunch of words strung together citation upon citation, trite, cold.
Illustration is unique because it makes material what is immaterial. Illustration renders something that can otherwise just be a moment, a noticing of place, clear and visible—here and then gone, like a dream. Spiritual experience moves from the mind’s eye to the printed page.
But in studying magic it is not enough to simply read and write: one must create. Magic, after all, is time and time again referred to as an art form. Like illustration, magic manifests, makes visible, creates with intention, is collaborative and productive.
So what is this ‘magic?’ How does magic shape those who practice it, and what relevance does this have to landscape? I want to talk about a witchcraft and magic for whom ‘witch’ is not an evocative romantic title; for whom ‘magic’ is not mere metaphor for the ‘unexplainable,’ the ‘spooky,’ the ‘sublime’, ‘wondrous’, or ‘mysterious.’ This magic and witchcraft is not just intriguing and quaint ‘folklore’ or ‘myth’ held at a distance, but is instead a lived and vital aspect of everyday life and relationship with environment, a process as intrinsic to bodily functioning as the intake of water and sustenance. What does magical illustration mean, when magic is not pawn-shop curio but embodied curiosity and cultivation of a different way of being-with; when ‘doing witchcraft’ is an acknowledgement of the inseparability of human and landscape? How can illustration as autoethnography render this reality more intelligible?
Magic always comes from somewhere.
It is birthed from a strong relationship to place, to self.
Change according to will is done by uniting many wills—that of an embroidered robe, beeswax candle, cedar incense stick, bear claw, greasy pizza box, the house you live in, or your favourite tree in the park down the road. All of these beings are bodies with agency: they act and are acted on, they influence each other and are entangled in the co-production of each other, of new beings, new happenings, new moments. The continued co-performance of magic is an act of collaborative labor toward shifting knowingness about what different bodies are and can do. Whether their movement is faster than human or slower than human, whether they have ‘lives’ in the human sense, they are recruited into magic as equals, as actors working together to create, destroy, change.
This intentional, manifested change wouldn’t be possible without relating.
In magic, humans seek the consent of nonhumans.
A key word to remember here is respect. There is an implicit curricula within magical practice, especially within connections between the performance of magical ritual and the performance of daily life. Magic is a way of being.
Magic exposes anything material as co-produced. By making room for an understanding of the role other-than-humans have in the production of our material world, magic gives rise to a form of listening—giving attention to other-than-humans as they speak. It disrupts human-centric storytelling and, with it, the structuring of power relations between humans and other-than-humans in these stories. It shifts the frame to allow for new speakers and listeners—new actors in the stories we hear. Magical practice draws attention to the ways in which humans are both audience and stage; it recognizes other-than-humans as leading actors, whether or not we humans notice and acknowledge them. ‘Relating’ is reframed. Different ways of seeing the world emerge, as do public spheres. These can be magical public spheres, trans-human in scope, discourse, and address.
The ‘artifact’ that is created by this reframing is a differing worldview, at once a departure and a reinvigorated presence. When ‘magical’ bodies like incense and candles become as familiar as a mug or towel, a shift in how the practitioner sees the discourse, experience, and agency of mugs and towels occurs. We begin to see unknowable alienness in the familiar. We begin to see magic.
“Magical” bodies can seep outside of ritual and into everyday life—and stay there. “Nature” is noticed anew and is thus broken down. Politically, the understanding of oneself as existing through and with other beings is a radical change in how we perceive ourselves. We become collaborators with the things that surround us. Our collaborators aren’t means to an end. They are friends, family, peers, ancestors. Magic is like asking a friend, human or other-than-human, for a favour, and, when it’s needed or wanted—or, maybe just because—offering a helping hand in return. Magic is—literally—in the doing.
So, what did I do?
Well, I made a thing.
Together, we do philosophy in the city. I do my magic and my muscles remember how to move. I draw. I write. Animated by the collaborative force I feel, I channel. I mediate.
Medium—what is a medium? Magic is an art form, and so, of course, is illustration. I find it so compelling that art making materials like pens, paint, and paper are called mediums; the same name as one who can open their body to let spirits use their voice. What materials are used to channel? Human bodies, india ink? Who is the channel for whom? Who is using whom to speak? This mediumship is, I believe, mutual; and like magical practice, the work of illustrators makes this visible.
Our materials shape us, we shape them.
The work we do together is mutually created, in tandem: a conversation. Each of us makes a landscape of the other and collaborates in making maps of my feeling, my noticing, my relationship to place. I hope the place can speak through me, its spirits loud and clear found in city streets.
I feel things, and I draw.
My academic work as an artist and illustrator is inseparable from my magical practice. Whatever the context, I view my collaborators in much the same way, and invite them to create with me. Consent is sometimes revoked, of course—a spilled cup of coffee all over a recently finished painting; Stonehenge substrate may have absorbed so much moisture from the dank summer heat that any attempt at a wash looks like total shit. Shit fuck clean it all up, start again. Fuck.
Sure, magic is about control—it’s about directing a collective of wills to enact an intended result, repeatedly. But relinquishing control is also intrinsic to the practice. Letting go, becoming, allowing and unfurling are all parts of this process—your magic may not manifest quite the way you imagine it will. You’re not the only one making it. Ever. And so while it is controlled it is also only as strong as your weakest relationship.
Doing or making is philosophical engagement—the nails and wood of magical carpentry are various aspects of a practitioner’s body and other-than-human bodies with whom one co-acts.
With this in mind, magical practice is productive theory and rhetoric. In its collaborative creativity, magical performance teaches. Exterior becomes interior. Worlds expose themselves, fleshy and sensate. I would say the same is true of illustration: making the theoretical engagement in the works I collaborate doubly exposed and doubly accountable to the wills enmeshed in its creation.
Like words, pictures create worlds; an atlas of what we have felt and where we’ve been, through our eyes bodies flesh, on a page or two or three.
Witchbody depicts a landscape of relationships: the most mundane things I do, a simple life steeped in magic; my view, my landscape, channeled through my flesh heart soul and drawn flat, in hopes that senses will be tickled in the retelling. In this work I give testimony, I witness, I reproduce that ecstatic space where there is no time and yet that time is every day, in a drawing, in many drawings, page to page, many pages, inky fresh, wax relief, salt stained, soaked with incense. There is a power in witnessing, in letting experience with landscape move through the body and onto the page, drip dropping down our paintbrushes.
Each original copy of Witchbody is an original print, a collaboration between artist, printer, ink, and machine. It is printed with risograph ink, which is unique in that it never really dries. While it will never get on your clothes, after extended reading you may find your fingers stained just slightly, and on each creamy page, if you look closely, you’ll be able to see fingerprints (inky, yours): barely noticeable. It will show you your relationship to it, where you have touched it and where you have been, and where you have not. It will draw your attention to the marks you are always making. It will show you that it is always marking you, too. I shows you how you have become part of the collaboration. Over time, fingerprints become darker, images and words smear. This printing technique is meant to highlight the dialogue of touch in the landscapes of objects and humans and bodies in between—exposing our relationships to each other, over time, as the path becomes trod again and again, a footpath revealed. A relationship is made visible, a map rendered over time. A manifestation continued with new collaborators.
It is of the utmost importance that I centre objects in this work. Environment, ecology, landscape—and our view(s) of it. This should not, cannot, be singular.
So many beings shape us; they may be ‘landscape’ but they are not backdrop. They are here, with us, existing. They push back on our bodies. We merge, enmeshed, entangled. They cultivate our forms, curate our creations. I invite you to think about how you co-act with other bodies, how you co-produce with beings whose agency you have likely left unnoticed. And yet still, they act alongside you, and within you.
I hope you’ll accept my invitation. ●
 The first four printings of WITCHBODY (2400 copies) were printed in Risograph, and self-published. It was picked up by Weiser Books, printed in offset, and received worldwide release in March 2019.
Sabrina Scott is working on their PhD in the Philosophy of Science with a focus on the contemporary spiritual wellness industry. Most of her time is spent in client-facing work, with an emphasis on providing tarot readings, spiritual mentorship, and ritual consultations. You can find Sabrina online at http://instagram.com/sabrinamscott