Ancestral Archaeology is more than the title of Nina Pixel’s new double-album. It’s an urgent practice at a moment of crisis for Slovakia and the world, taking a critical and scientific approach to folklore’s legacy, rather than a fetishistic one.
Nina talks to us on the eve of a healing installation at Berlin’s Signals Festival (actually literally from a train between Slovakia and Czechia). Signals helped support this interview.
And you’ll want to cue up Ancestral Archeology, for sure:
The Slovak-born, Berlin-based artist also brings this message at a vital time. Europe is reeling as it faces Russia’s war on Ukraine, an upswing of right-wing politics, environmental and energy catastrophes, and ongoing impacts of COVID-19. Her native Slovakia is facing its own reckoning, including outcry over homophobic violence.
Let’s turn musically to Ancestral Archaeology. How did this project begin?
It had multiple impulses. One of them was a release of Liptov for Punctum Tapes [Prague-based label] – rethinking the original 1982s “Liptov – A Panorama of Folk Song and Music Culture”. The original collection sought to preserve the musical and cultural heritage of the region, while the “Liptov” compilation mapped the current spectrum of the electronic scene of both countries.
Another one was a deep feeling I carried inside me, and I wanted to get it out. Some sort of foggy, mossy-like feeling, full of rotten leaves and smell of decomposed soil, mixed with a question of how was the life of people living in the region of Slovakia was like in the past. How did they feel? What did they do? What were their daily struggles? How can I find out? I thought that songs and myths, fairy tales could be a good “Instagram feed” of the past. What would they post about their lives? Also, there were a few other elements.
My neighbor gave me a book – a collection of Slovak folklore songs collected and described by Sona Burlasova – showing the meaning and listing the titles of many folk songs. I was stunned at how much sex, rape, and violence against women and their rights one can find in such expression.
After I got materials from the Punctum remix, I had a bit of insight into the music, and I had several tracks we did not use for the release. Adrian Kriska came to the equation with his project about reimagining folklore in the visual segment of art. I supplied him with my music for his video, and I was stunned again by how close his visual expression was to the inner pictures I imagined when composing and feeling those sounds.
Corona hit, concert venues closed and the boom of streaming came with a kind invitation from the Iklectik platform in London. I did not see much-added value in streaming myself turning knobs while looking at gear, so I combined Adrian’s video and some of my old footage, and the first Ancestral Archeology video was born. Since then I played, explored, shaped, edited, and reworked all the material and finally arrived at the stage where you can put the needle on the piece of plastic and look at the beautiful artwork made by Andrej & Andrej out of material by Adrian Kriska. Five years later! [laughs]
I know the programmatic elements have expanded. What are the texts we’re hearing mixed through the album? The titles? (Especially as of course some of us may be a bit rusty on our Slovak!)
The double vinyl is dedicated to the cycle of the four parts of the year. Sides A and B represent the times of the year with more light (the vinyl is transparent) and sides C & D are on black vinyl representing the dark time of the year with less light – in nature and potentially in the habits of people. People used to dedicate a lot of activity all over the year’s cycle to worship, beliefs, and supernatural forces to ensure food, health, love, and possibly wealth. Songs on the release are divided into those four parts also in terms of meaning. So lyrics connected to the spring rituals are on side A (Beltine), for example, and rituals or “magic” formulas used during winter social activities are in the songs on side D (Imbolc). I named tracks either according to the meaning inside the song I reworked, or I searched for inspiration in terms used in pagan contexts – like names for the segments of the year.
Some texts I translated into English – mostly recipes from various books collecting native beliefs or lyrics from songs I have found in the song index from Burlasova. Some lyrics I wrote by myself.
What was that journey like for you into neo-paganism? It strikes me that it’s not so sentimental, the music – this is still very technological music, still rhythms for our present ear, still techno-influenced. Did you find some new influences though, in that material?
I think it somehow fits into it partially, but for me those classifications are secondary – even ‘octadary,’ haha – you know, not interesting, not important. I just do what I feel is important to create. Regardless -isms: it’s sometimes a problem and I see a big connection between human identities and pronouns and gender discrimination. I do not feel I belong to any binary or predefined box production-wise. I am. I create, and it is not my business to fit anywhere. So often, I hear “we do not know where to put this” – my agent heard it from festivals building their name on the idea of presenting experimental music. Do we all have to fit somewhere?
Tools I use give shape to the message I want to say. Tapes, drum machines, microphones, field recordings, my voice, and texts. How much is loving to touch moss and a drum machine neo-paganism – I do not know.
I use sounds from instruments like gongs, metal bowls, water, and anything recordable – mostly from nature – trees, animals, rivers, sand, stones .. mostly connected to someplace – that might be one element of archaeological research. Then I used tuning forks, and [at a sleepover event in Prague] I used a few metal objects as resonance amplifiers for forks or a surface for stones and some objects found around the venue. I like to work with the soil as an instrument – in this case as a carrier of the vibration.
I like to record my voice on tapes and change the speed. Some of my tape recorders are so old and “not perfect” that they add a great randomness element – cut, glitch or transpose my voice – lovely little beings.
I use cello, fujara, trombita, overtone flutes, and some family-owned objects like bells for sheep from my grand-grandparents. By the way, these instruments were not played much by women – at least I have not seen it much in the documentation and the media representations.
Did you know that my grand-grandfather lived with his wife in the forest, went several times to New York in the 30s to work, and then came back to his forest house where he had a one-room “studio” shared with animals on the other side of the house? He owned a mill for making flour and some land to grow food. What kind of life did they have? What were Katarina’s – his wife’s identity and rights as a woman? I will never find out, but this was my main question while working on the album. And how bizarre that the daughter of their grandson now works on some conceptual deconstructed cultural criticism and invests a big chunk of her time in the virtual world happening on the internet. Also has voting rights and owns a virtual representation of money which helps her to survive far from the real forest.
There’s a lot of sophisticated work on form and rhythm in this double-album, too. How did you go about forming it? Were these performative in some ways, or how much editing / tweaking did you do to arrive at the final compositions?
Some rhythms were based on rhythms in the original folklore songs – we have a lot of simple 4/4s, but also I worked with the tribal element and stacked more patterns than just the basics.
The final sound went through heavy editing. I used a lot of material recorded during live sessions where I worked more with samples and elements representing the idea, but not being much listener-friendly – long soundscapes can be exhausting. I wanted to deliver something sharper and easier to digest on the album. Also, vinyl has a time limit – you have to think whether you slap people with 2 long tracks or you want to say some more. I wanted to say a lot, so I had to be sharp.
Andreas Bonkowski, who mixed and mastered the album, was a huge help in this process. We spent weeks in the studio cutting my overwhelming chaotic compositions and searching for some structure in them. That might also be a scientific approach if you want – to search for patterns in something you have discovered and collected. Trying to make sense of the data you see. He was a great help – he comes from the pop and indie – songwriting and producing background – so he knows how to build a good hit :). In this case, it was mainly helpful to follow the restriction of approx. three minutes – I had to express myself in a restricted space.
Also, working with mathematics and geometry in composition and the element of satisfaction from fulfilled expectation – you know, when the beat comes when it feels good when you expect it – helped to make it more listenable. Or when you announce a new element with another element. Like, hey, something new is coming! At the same time, I think when you offer a simple structure, which is expected, you can go wild with other elements so it is not too chaotic and it feels like you know what is happening. I guess humans like the structure also in the music.
Can you describe a bit what has happened recently in Slovakia? (Turning to international press, or that of the international queer perspective – recent protests in Slovakia followed the killing of two men outside a Bratislava gay bar, murders that may be treated as terrorist attacks.)
Uff — tough and important.
Did you know that our far-right followers and old fascist culture used folklore as a symbol of tradition and purity which they believe in? Nationalists are using folklore as something that belongs to the land or the nation. The myths always used to encourage ethno-national identity are always indigenous European myths and legends that originate in the land of the folk themselves. European pagan mythos and symbolism are always drawn on to revitalize our folk spirit. Indeed, the European nationalist parties and movements with the greatest momentum today are still using ancient European runic symbols and imagery.
Christian culture, nationalism, fascists – all that is using traditions and values like family or life rights to manipulate people. Use folklore to build images of the nation. Folklore, as is especially visible in folkloric performance, identifies the content of national identity, asserts dominant values, constructs relations with other nations, and defines boundaries for including social groups within the nation and excluding them from it.
Empty hashtag phrases representing values are being raped, like women in the songs I researched. Recently there have been local elections in Slovakia – for the local districts. I was in my hometown the other day, reading the local press, and I felt deep nausea from seeing those advertisements.
Many random pop-up candidates use posters taken from some stock picture bank and text somewhere from a political slogan generator. It feels like they are all bots. Then you have those looking forward to earning a lot of money with EU funding or their own family business jumping on the expensive “open” calls delivering non-existing projects for the city or looking forward to selling everything they can.
Support from Russia? Yes, that’s also a big thing in Slovakia – they know that funding small local politicians hungry for a few Euros and fake power is the way to infiltrate and control. Many businessmen and their family members are willing to spread their arms and bottoms toward Russia. All in the name of family values, nation, and experience. Oh. and let’s not forget only white heterosexual couples at a productive age will be considered to be supported by the city.
Long-term hate towards people different from “the normal” – white hetero living on the grid, reflected not just in the behavior but also in the political structures and legal documents, erupted into this protest. I hope we can continue erupting. But people are tired. What happened after this protest? Nothing. After one week of thinking about legalizing people living together as partners (registered partnership), regardless of their sexual orientation and gender, nothing happened. It is not even about weddings!! What are their arguments? Kids again. That kid will have a bad example. Of what? Parents loving each other and legalizing their partnership? “No that far we can not go because of children – we would send a wrong signal to them.” Are they really afraid that you can catch “gayness’?
So when two women or men or anyone who loves their significant other wants to visit them in the hospital or get important information about their health, or many other bureaucratic activities, or just celebrate their love for each other (and I am not talking about people wanting to live with more than one person), they are not worth enough to do so. All people out of hetero pattern are less in front of our legal system – isn’t it against basic human rights having people divided like this? I feel so angry and frustrated writing this – every time I start thinking about it I am close to eruption. And I am now on the train leaving Slovakia. How angry and desperate must the people who live there be?
Church or politicians using Christian propaganda and patriarchal values are abusing people and controlling their rights to gain more for themselves. Mafia practices, fraud of human rights and cultural rape. That’s how I feel about recent vibes in Slovakia.
Also, we had several more attacks on people kissing in public or wearing the rainbow tag. Even the police are reinforcing the idea of oppression. Two men kissed in a local bar – they were slapped by someone in the bar, called the police and the police said it was too weak a slap so they could not file the complaint. The barkeeper said that they should not kiss – what did they expect? It is like you would say that it is the fault of the raped person because they wore a too-short skirt or the woman had hair or skin, which provoked the rapist.
Politicians support the fascist white hetero values, and many people feel frustrated.
Matovič, a former businessman currently serving as the minister of Finance of Slovakia. He served as prime minister from March 2020 to April 2021! Posted on Facebook a few days after the terrorist attack in the bar: “I AM HETERO, I am a man, and I feel like a man. 23 years ago I promised loyalty to Pavlínka in front of the altar, and I am still fulfilling my promise, and I do not plan to stop until death. I am also convinced that children should be instilled in the family and school with respect for ideals to have a set compass in their lives. Excuse me.”
It is hard to live in a country where some people are missing their basic human rights.
How would you connect this to what’s happening elsewhere in the world – whether that’s homophobic attacks in Tbilisi or Orlando, Florida, to name two?
The murderer said in his letter that he was inspired by the world happenings – rather 4chan community, Breivik, ..and several older attacks. I am not sure, social media plays a big role in mobilizing hate. Look at other believers like flat Earthers, hollow this or flat that, anti wax. So many people connect across the globe, bathing in confusion and fear-induced blood baths, prepared to protect their bubble. Missing compassion and kindness, hope for understanding the other instead of exploiting them. Same with the planet. Curiosity, kindness, love, care, connection, diversity … we need you!
Some of these same concerns have come up talking to artists trying to connect with their folk heritage in Georgia and Armenia, to name two. How do you reclaim that culture? (I guess this is queering neo-paganism, returning to indigenous decolonial identities, and embracing racial minorities instead of excluding them?)
How weird, isn’t it? Because what is folklore originally? Something that is being created by humans, not belonging to anyone. Open source, shared, celebrated, and remixed generation after generation. Something fluid, constantly changing and reflecting the current state. What the fuck happened that it is being used as a symbol of something totally opposite, belonging to someone or something and untouchable, unchangeable.
We wanted to show the missing segments. Not all but mainly the one about missing identities. We can look at it in at least two ways. To the past – as a strategy to deal with the trauma – replacing the old traumatic memory with a new one. The old version of folklore software is full of binary patterns and predefined roles for only 2 genders with clear distinction. Men ought to do one thing and women something else. “Weird” and unusual or neuro-diverse (in contrast to neurotypical) people used to be hidden from sight. Also in the literature or songs, you do not find ideas celebrating diversity.
Like a new patch, a new update of old software – we made those videos with Adrian to offer a missing memory to people. That this could be a new way of remembering traditions. In our way – free from limiting patterns, enjoying nature and the presence of others based on a friendly, rave environment.
Also, what is the folklore of the present? We dance together – in a club culture holding space for non-judgment and safe expression (in theory). That’s connected to the future aspect – what is the culture we want to create and offer to our kids and kids of our friends and anyone who is here now and will come later? What is the new line of code we have the chance to write now? I imagine our ancestors as software developers writing the code of our program – culture, everyone wrote something, then their kids inherited some sort of combo of it, and wrote their own. And there you go we are here with new gear that allows us to rewrite it, not just copy-paste. This is an offer you should not say no to.
That’s connected to the future aspect – what is the culture we want to create and offer to our kids and kids of our friends and anyone who is here now and will come later? What is the new line of code we have the chance to write now?
“Queering neo-paganism, returning to indigenous decolonial identities, and embracing racial minorities instead of excluding them?” — yes! Look, a new and self-help spiritual movement growing recently is one way of starting from yourself – but that is not enough. We can not stop in self-oriented ego-healing masturbations, yoga retreats, and psychedelic-induced introspections, bypassing what is happening on the planet. Closing inside is not the solution. We have to connect and support those who do not have the resources for such inner team building. We have to act for people who do not have access to the resources we do. Otherwise, we are ignoring our social responsibility. We must look behind our comfort zones and support everything you mentioned as a society. It is not a sickness of individuals; this is a sickness of us as humanity – and that’s the way IMHO to go.
So how do we reclaim the story around our collective future? Via connection to the community. For example, Paula, my Slovak friend and a powerful goddess, smart female warrior, event production guru and cofounder of SPFM Agency, told me about the power of those protests against racism and evil attacks in Slovakia. How important they are for people who are first time on the streets, who might be very young and soon to share that they are queer. They need this, they need older / other people to believe in them and show respect and care. Because nationalists do too (just not towards queer teenagers). They show care towards young people who are seeking a feeling of belonging and “tribe”, many times forgotten by their families, angry and confused, not knowing what love means, and disconnected from their own emotional potential. Those nationalist and extremist organizations are actively seeking (young) members, so they can grow and spread their agenda and hate.
Pohoda, Organization behind Pohoda Festival, made this as a reaction to the situation – to collect a signature and represent the statement of support: https://www.slovenskateplaren.sk/ People can download the poster and share the support visually:
They are organizing a festival from 12-27. November to celebrate the love between human beings and mainly to push the change of legislation towards human rights for all people, including LGBTQI+ minorities. All clubs and bars can take part in the initiative.
It is not just a topic of the old generation as it could look like several years ago. Some young ‘white people’ see the injustice of the liberal attacks on whites, as they many times mention, but lack the awareness of their own history, heritage, and culture before two or three generations ago minimum.
It is exhausting to react constantly to something. That’s why I think it is important to build on values of kindness, support, empowerment, and diversity reinforcement with programs, findings, and activities. To grow and support each other, so we can finally put our attention into the planet and nature and try to do the shit better. This sounds like an impossible mission. But look how much evil can happen when people want it. So how much good could happen when people would re-connect? I guess the problem is in those terms – what is “good” and “bad” is so fluid. Everyone can fill it in with their own beliefs, so everyone is in the end the good activist saving the world from evil forces. The bad guy is the other one.
I’m curious how you feel about the rave as contemporary ritual. It’s still very commercial in a way that might conflict with the ritualistic in some way, no? Is there some way we need to evolve the rave to fill what it might be missing from ancient rituals – or our own present ritual needs?
I work with the idea of rave as a free culture – a spontaneous need to dance on rhythmical sound, creating something together. Beer or any other modification of senses is probably included. If you think of Slovakia, we have Slivovica as an old-time tool to modify perception. If we look at the element of ritual dancing – we encounter psychedelics in other cultures, or even in Europe, people usually used mushrooms to induce altered states of consciousness. Cold Heineken is just a different form. Or, plus, a social object connected to socialization as a tool – holding something in your palm calms you down when you have to act outside of your comfort zone.
Concerning rituals – sonically, bilateral beat functions as a tool to calm the nervous system – so when you feel stressed, cross your hands on your chest and tap rhythmically with your right palm on your left chest side and left palm on your right side…tap, tap, tap, tap – you can use several similar techniques to reset your vagus nerve – relax and allow many processes in your brain to flow again. Learning something new, for example, stops when we are stressed. How powerful it is to be inside of the beat. Soothing, but maybe also powerful for our connection to others, tuning our bodies into shared frequency as one object. One organism, pulsating together. How good is that for reconnecting purposes and establishing unity? It is good. Unfortunately, I see many times people disconnected from this potential.
When I worked with the idea of folklore, I deliberately ignored the folklore we are being offered by mass media. Although it is not possible to ignore it, one has to work with it as a part of the culture as well. I am interested in events and rituals people did as part of their daily life, not as an empty performative act of learned choreography, ritualized and stripped from its purpose. So what is the main purpose of people dancing together?
By the way, I love the classification of the difference between the two versions of the word Archeology:
Archaeology vs. archeology [Grammarist]
Archaeology is the standard spelling throughout the English-speaking world, even in American English, where the a is dropped from many words traditionally containing ae (or æ, as it used to be rendered). Archeology is a somewhat common variant. It is about two centuries old and is common enough to have earned its way into many of the major dictionaries, but it hasn’t gained much traction in edited writing. The traditional spelling remains the safer choice. – isn’t it a great metaphor?
Also, the rumours say that for some archaeologists, the two spellings symbolize competing aspects of the field. The supposedly antiquated spelling with the “ae” is supposed to connote classically or humanist-oriented archaeology. At the same time, the supposedly modern “e” is thought to suggest anthropological or social science-oriented practice.
You’re working with diverse elements sonically – saw this most recently at this show we shared in Praha. What are some of those raw materials? Where are you collecting field recordings, for instance? How does that relate to the archaeological element?
To close, from A-5: on hope.
5 Zmrzlí —————— frozen men – Pankrác, Servác and Bonifac, which are associated mainly with the weather. They are associated with annual cooling, they arrive mostly around the days on which frozen males celebrate their name day.
Dúfajúc, že čary fungujú, kto sa okúpe v potoku pri splne a trikrát sa pokropí mesačnou vodou, do roka a do dňa sa stane svojou budúcnosťou.
Zrodená z vody mesačnej, panna nečistá, dúfa, že ju zachráni povera.
Namočená v nádeji.
Kto tvoju krv vypije, poblázni sa.
Nohy zviazané reťazami.
Tečúci vosk pomaly formuje tvoju budúcnosť.
Šeptáš pravdu z odrazu plameňa.
Čo si praješ?
Koľko nám ešte zostáva času?
Dotýkaš sa slov v jemnom prameni života.
Syr škrípajúci medzi zubami.
Vždy sa nájde niečo čomu chcem veriť.
Pod každým stromom sa skrýva zázrak.
Magické. Každý má nárok na magické.
Zázrak zapečený do kúska nádeje.
Keď sa v noci prvomájovej okúpeš v krvi mesačnej, do roka sa vydáš s do roka zomrieš.
Trikrát sa pomodli, povoľ, prežehnaj.
Kedy to skončí?
Hoping that the charms work, whoever bathes in the stream on a full moon and sprinkles himself with moon water three times will become his future within a year and a day.
Born from moon water, an impure virgin, she hopes to be saved by superstition.
Soaked in hope.
The energy of faith.
Whoever drinks your blood will go mad.
Legs bound with chains.
Flowing wax slowly shapes your future.
You whisper the truth from the reflection of the flame.
What do you wish?
How much time do we have left?
You touch the words in the fine spring of life.
Cheese crunching between teeth.
There is always something I want to believe.
A miracle is hidden under every tree.
Magical. Everyone is entitled to magic.
A miracle baked into a piece of hope.
If you bathe in the blood of the moon on the night of May Day, you will be married within a year and you will die within a year.
Pray three times, allow, bless.
When will it end?