Above: Adept, Dah GBEDJINON and Genesis © Bight Of The Twin, LLC
It doesn’t take much to dig a little deeper, to move past the click-through and experience something for ourselves – but it’s an effort that evades the vast majority of us a heck of a lot. This was brought to light for Hazel Hill McCarthy III this year when the LA artist took a sliver of information and turned it into one of the biggest projects yet, journeying with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge to Ouidah, West Africa (a coastal city in Benin and home to the highest twin birth rate in the world) to trace the origins of Vodun and unravel the origins of the Twin Fetish.
P-Orridge and McCarthy aren’t new to collaborating: since meeting at a Throbbing Gristle gig in 2008 they’ve trekked Kathmandu and worked plenty: Hazel designed Thee Psychic Bible, and her video direction includes Thee Psychick Bible of early Psychic TV and TOPY (Temple ov Psychick Youth) videos from the P-Orridge archives, as well as a joint artwork titled Breaking Sex >< X (Sigil). With Bight Of The Twin, the pair are shedding light on a subject that has previously hummed beneath mainstream consciousness. It’s been a particularly personal journey for P-Orridge, involving spiritually reconnecting with h/er late partner Lady Jaye, who passed away in 2007.
Right now, Hazel and her husband Douglas J. McCarthy (of Chelmsford legends Nitzer Ebb, Fixmer/McCarthy, DJMREX) are faced with a daunting expanse of footage to edit, a soundtrack to craft (that’s Douglas), and an Indiegogo campaign to support the post-production costs involved. In advance of the campaign’s end this coming weekend, the duo emerged from their editing cave, beer in hand, to retrace a story that keeps on unravelling.
Tempe Nakiska: How did you first come across Vodun?
Hazel Hill McCarthy III: It was an article about it that I read in The Guardian in 2010. For some reason I clicked through and it was a gallery of images from a Vodun ceremony in Benin, of these spirits wearing these very ornately embroidered costumes, covered in sequins and shells and colour. They were taken at the annual Vodun festival, which takes place every year on the 10th January in Ouidah, Benin. I showed the article to Genesis and said, “This is something we really need to explore.”
Douglas J. McCarthy: You’d just finished working on Thee Psychick Bible, and as a gift to one another you’d both gone to Kathmandu. Genesis had fallen quite ill…
HHMCCIII: Yes and we ended up in the emergency ward of this hospital. It was a touch and go time. At the same time, Douglas was in the UK dealing with the death of his father. It was a lot. Anyway, I gave Gen this pep talk and said once we got through it we would go to Ouidah.
TN: Had you ever been to Africa previously?
HHMCCIII: Neither of us had. It was a stab in the dark, really. But I knew that of all people on this planet, Genesis would be the lightning rod of discovery, of expecting the unexpected, on this trip.
DJMC: I remember you also saying you saw similarities between the Vodun performances and Genesis with Psychic TV, and with Throbbing Gristle, first and foremost. You were saying that because of that recognition in your mind you wanted to see if there was validity to what you saw in these images on The Guardian.
TN: Why would you say Vodun hasn’t been extensively documented before?
HHMCCIII: I would say it’s one part complacency. And another we’ve talked about is that the film is asking the viewer to look into different things, yes. But ultimately it’s a representation of what you can do if you put in the effort. I think it’s easy for us to upload an image, or click through to one, but to actually go to a place and witness something for yourself is entirely different.
TN: You were also heavily inspired by the research you did before the trip, yes?
HHMCCIII: I read what academics have completed in terms of extensive studies of Vodun. Specifically, research by Professor Suzanne Preston Blier at Harvard University. I have also had great feedback from Darcy Greene at Michigan State University. Professor Christiaan Monden at Oxford University assisted me heavily with the project. He’s about to publish another paper on the biological patterns of West Africa, and specifically Ouidah, of birth rates and the phenomenon of exponential twin birthrates in the area.
DJMC: Ouidah has the highest rate of twins per birth in the world. And there is no known medical or scientific reason for it. The fact that these academics, of all people, cannot comprehend the reason as to these numbers is what fascinated me so much from the start, and what got Genesis into it from there. And it’s what is intriguing the academics themselves!
TN: So you filmed in two rounds. Can you describe the process, and how your goals changed all the way?
HHMCCIII: Well the first round was about really a broader exploration of the culture, the community and the people in Ouidah. That was when we discovered the ‘Twin Fetish’, which is a sect in the Vodun belief system that honours and venerates twins.
DJMC: The indigenous language in Ouidah is Fongbe (Fon), and outside of that there is a whole different dialect spoken by the community surrounding the ‘Twin Fetish’ – by the twins. Vodun is a series of ‘fetishes’, a fetish being a person, a ceremony, a sacrifice, a physical object; one of many things. It’s a very powerful and all binding tool that’s used in the community as part of the religion. This is where the discovery happened in being there with Gen. In Vodun, there is one God: Mawu Lissa, the male/female God. Everything is organised around this concept of the male-female twin. It aligns with what Genesis has been developing since the passing of h/er partner Lady Jaye is this concept of ‘oneness’, of pandrogyne.
TN: What kind of journey was this for Genesis?
HHMCCIII: Well, on the second night of the first trip Genesis was initiated into the Twin Fetish and bonded with Lady Jaye, through ‘joumeaux’ which is a tiny wooden doll. When a twin passes away, they never say that they have dies, but that they have gone to the woods to look for wood. These little dolls are made out of really ancien Baoboa trees. They are supposed to have a likeness to the twin who has passed away and it’s your duty as the twin who is still alive to do an invocation in a Vodun ceremony.
DJMC: Genesis being as Genesis is – in this state of pandrogyne – nobody questioned it. The fact that Lady Jaye was Gen’s wife and not h/er twin in the traditional sense – nobody questioned it. Because it’s a completely mental state.
TN: It’s really complex isn’t it!
DJMC: Try making a bloody film about it! [Laughs]
HHMCCIII: It’s just layer upon layer! We have over 240 hours of footage and God knows how much additional sound. Trying to fit essentially what we’ve just explained into… 90 minutes! But you don’t want to blow the pants off people, you know?
TN: How about the religion element of this subject, how are you approaching it?
DJMC: Hazel and myself are atheists. But we both have a great interests in how humans operate within the structure of religion. The first thing we did after we returned from the second trip was nut out how we would deal with all this religion, hundreds of hours of religion! We’ve been able to deconstruct, in a positive and negative way, both Genesis’ view of the religion of Psychic TV or the Psychic Church which were manifestations of a caricature of religion, and parallel them with an ancient tradition – with what followers of Vodun believe is the original, the first religion.
TN: And that’s where the storyline came from – surrounding this idea of belief and existence…
DJMC: Yes. Of how human beings tell the story of their own existence and meaning for it.
TN: I wanted to ask about the soundtrack, because your background Douglas is of course music. Where have you taken it?
DJMC: My background involves a lot of synths, so there’s a lot of electronic elements involved. Although we met so many incredible percussionists and vocalists while we were in Ouidah, it’s easy to feel a horrible combination of Paul Simon and Sting when reworking that kind of music as a soundtrack. So we are instead trying to create a separation between what the viewer is seeing and hearing. With Gen’s background we’ve got the Brion Gysin cut-up method which is pretty prevalent in Gen’s work. We’re not going quite as brutal as that but we’re trying to displace people’s views of what they’re experiencing between the sound and visual elements.
TN: From the two trips, was there a moment or an experience that has been difficult to approach from a filmmaking perspective?
DJMC: You can’t kill a chicken on screen!
HHMCCIII: Actually that was probably the most difficult thing yes. How do you tell the story of Vodun without necessarily showing the viewer those explicit details – because that is quite a sacred thing. That’s where sound and imagery come in…
There will also be a fundraiser held this Sunday, 23rd November held at Complex, Glendale CA – “a night of throbbing music to beckon the vodun and the python within” featuring performances from Douglas J. McCarthy, Silent Servant, and drumcell amongst others. Details at the event page, here.