Melanie Bonajo, NIGHT SOIL: Fake Paradise (Pt 1), 2014. HD video, color, sound, 36 minutes.


Melanie Bonajo is a New York–based artist whose work explores issues of alienation and individual identity in relationship to technological progress and commodity pleasures. Her most recent work is the video NIGHT SOIL: Fake Paradise (Pt 1), 2014, which is on view in “When Elephants Come Marching In” at the De Appel Arts Centre in Amsterdam until January 11, 2015.

THIS VIDEO is about ayahuasca, a plant-based psychedelic brew that originates in the Amazon, where it has been used for thousands of years. Recently it’s been expanding into the Western world, but it is still kind of niche, not mainstream. In New York, specifically, it’s been interesting to see how people are trying to translate a tradition from such a different geographic place into a metropolitan environment through practices like “urban shamanism.” I come from a religious studies background, and I’m interested in the formation of ritual and how people fuse different cultures. What are they taking and what are they leaving behind? Can the ayahuasca be respected within this new situation or does it turn into something else, for recreational rather than spiritual use?

I went to many different ceremonies, some in cities and others in nature, conducted by men and conducted by women. One was with a branch of the Santo Daime church in the Netherlands, which combines Christianity with traditional Amazonian shamanism. Every ritual is so different and it’s interesting to see how you can combine two totally diverse philosophies into one religion. But ayahuasca is not just a philosophy—it is a plant, and it has a chemical substance that your body responds to. The knowledge and power to cure come directly from a conversation with the plant.

In current psychedelic research—both in pop culture and in scientific discourses—there are many interesting theories, yet there is a lack of female voices. I interviewed women who are using psychedelics as a mental, physical, and spiritual medicine. During the video we discussed their personal philosophies, alternative community building, the concept of divinity, the ethics of cyber versus spiritual landscape, relational eco-approaches, sexuality, non-Western health systems, psychopathologies of capitalism, the future shape of the earth, and feminist perspectives on the Anthropocene.

I wanted to show a confusion between the ethical system of the plant and the ethical system of our daily lives, and moreover to ask, How do you integrate the two? I also wanted to draw a parallel between the digital age, which is so bodiless, and the psychedelic world, where you have out-of-body experiences. With the latter, there is some part of you that is always present in a nonphysical dimension; similarly, in the digital world—wherein you make posts online and people respond—it has nothing to do with being inside your body. I went into making this work believing that I was a very open person, and immediately what came through was how stuck I am in my own views about the world. I’m not an expert on ayahuasca, but what I have learned is that the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural are not as fixed as my culture has implied.

— As told to Courtney Yoshimura