Johanna Hedva is a Korean-American writer, artist, musician, and astrologer, who was raised in Los Angeles by a family of witches, and now lives in LA and Berlin. Hedva’s practice cooks magic, necromancy, and divination together with mystical states of fury and ecstasy. They are devoted to doom as a liberatory condition, deviant forms of knowledge, and the way in which a voice can unmake the world. Hedva’s work, no matter the genre, is different kinds of writing, whether it’s words on a page, screaming in a room, or dragging a hand through water. Their latest album, Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House, was released on crystalline morphologies and Sming Sming on January 1, 2021. Hedva is also the author of two books, the novel On Hell (2018) and a collection of poems, performances, and essays, Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain (2020).
Apparently you were raised in Los Angeles by a family of witches, and now live between LA and Berlin. Can you talk about your background?
It was just the climate of the world I grew up in. My mother and my aunt weren’t part of a particular tradition or coven or anything—I don’t think it’s that rare for people in LA to be into witchcraft, like, every LA bitch I know has an astrologer or tarot reader or reiki shaman someone. With my mom and aunt, who are working-class white women, I think it gave them a sense of purpose and power that they couldn’t get from society. In our house, there were rituals around the cycles of the moon and planets, and there was a pervasive sense that everything had a will of its own, that there were no inert objects. Both of them kept specific objects in specific configurations around the house—altars, in a word—and these were not to be touched. These objects had a kind of unspeakable power, they were working their magic, even if it was something like a shell or a bottle cap, things that weren’t otherwise considered to have value.
On my father’s side, there’s a tradition of Korean fortunetelling in the family, and as an adult I’ve studied and worked with Korean shamanism in an intentional way. That has felt really important, to feed that ancestral link. But, more than there being some kind of family grimoire I learned from, all of this was a perspective on how to make sense of the world, particularly when it comes to things that are immeasurable, mysterious, outside of the dominant strictures that try to contain and define reality.
Besides music and art, you’re also an astrologer. What interests you in this field? Are there any elements from astrology you are able to apply in your art?
Mainly, astrology has the most robust language I’ve ever found for talking about what’s difficult and painful about life. Like: pain, suffering, misfortune, misery, bane, toil, sudden death, slow illness—astrology has a million lovely ways to account for all the specificities of that shit, and I find that hella useful.
When you practice astrology, you’re practicing a language that subverts and complicates ideas of causality, of cause and effect. It gets right into the guts of the tension between fate and free will and shows that these things are actually not antipodes but deeply enmeshed with each other.
What I like most about astrology is that it gives time a quality, not just a quantity; it wonders how night is different than day, how September is different than October, this year different than the last. And it’s cyclical time, not linear time—it’s everything in terms of cycles that are interwoven and repeating in different arrangements and iterations.
The thing is that time used to be perceived this way for millennia. It’s only been the last few hundred years that have stripped down our understanding of time to only a quantitative measurement—and obviously this was done for and because of capitalism. When time has no quality, no differences, it becomes simply a means to measure labor that can go on and on without consequence. It’s no coincidence that as capitalism began to take root, a regime of colonial exploitation started to run amok, de-enchanting the world. If the world is seen as a lifeless resource, it can be mined without compunction. If the only thing capable of consciousness is the human, then a relationship with our environment will always be hierarchical and extractive, with us on top. I guess what I like about the kind of astrology I practice (which is mostly informed by Hellenistic astrology, the kind practiced by the Ancient Greeks) is that it really de-emphasizes the human as the totality of purpose and reason. Instead, it’s an approach that looks at all the many ways in which natural, social, political, economic, psychological, spiritual, and metaphysical forces can converge and diverge, and how any one person is simply part of that greater network.
You are also the author of two books: the novel On Hell (2018) and a collection of poems, performances, and essays, Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain (2020). Can you talk about your literary work?
On Hell is a novel that reads as a kind of tirade manifesto from a former child genius hacker who, after being released from prison, is trying to literally escape gravity. He’s maniacally hacking into his body, into his flesh, to install wings. The voice of that book is supposed to sound like the internet, this punctuation-less screed of rage and righteousness. Sometimes I think it’s the best thing I’ll ever write lol. Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain is a collection, presenting in printed form the work I did across different media over the last 10 years — there’s poetry, essays, performances, plays, drawings, and photographs. Right now, I’m working on a collection of essays about music, mysticism, gender, and politics. Some of them have been published already: they’re about Sunn O))), Lightning Bolt, and Nine Inch Nails. What’s fun about this project is that, for the first time in my life, I’m writing nonfiction from a place of enthusiasm rather than critique or fury. I just love these bands and want to tell people why.
Your last album, Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House, dealt with grief, and the grieving stages of dealing with the trauma of losing someone really close. The album was informed by Korean shamanist ritual and the Korean tradition of P’ansori singing (which demands rehearsal next to waterfalls, in order to ravage the vocal cords), as well as by Keiji Haino, Diamanda Galás, and Jeff Buckley. What does this album mean to you 9 months on?
The album came out in the middle of lockdown, so there was no tour, no live performances, no communal catharsis with an audience—and in a way, that seemed fitting, since so much of that record is about the stunning and annihilating solitude of encountering death. Just, you know, good ol’ lonesome screaming into the abyss.
Are transgression or transgressive experiences in general something you are interested in translating into your work?
What else is there to care about?
What are some of the recent themes and topics that you are interested in exploring?
I have a new project that just launched called GLUT (a superabundance of nothing). It’s a sound work created using divination and AI and only my voice, and this sound piece is the core of both an immersive physical installation and a video game. The game can be downloaded for free at glut.website, and the installation is up now at the HKW Berlin, in the group show Illiberal Arts. GLUT was a way for me to think about how AI existed long before computers in the form of divination techniques. If we understand an intelligence to be something capable of recognizing patterns, predicting what will come next in a pattern, and articulating meaning from a set of data, then divination could be said to be a form of intelligence in its own right.
I was also curious about how magical and smart Amazon has become—like, is it a new form of divination and prophecy? Is it our contemporary mysticism? One of the experiences that began GLUT was when Amazon recommended my own book to me, which, because my book is pretty strange and niche and published by a super tiny press, felt actually fucking impressive, like, out of the millions of possible items to try to sell me, it managed to locate a pretty likely one. The other side of this experience is of course how claustrophobic the internet has become, how the algorithm figures you out pretty quickly and then just narrows more and more the range of what you can find.
The surveillance embedded in all places on the internet is fucking terrifying, so GLUT tries both to reach into how that feels as well as push against it in a critical way. With my collaborator, Jessika Khazrik (who produced the sound, and is also a SHAPE Artist this year), we trained two AI vocal clones based on my voice, but tricked them with vocoding processes, so we wouldn’t give them any of my actual voice data to sell. Training machines with machines and seeing if they’ll notice— that sort of thing.
Accessibility is always a primary concern for me, so it was important to make sure the work was accessible beyond the museum installation, especially during a pandemic. It was interesting to try and translate the immersive sound piece to a digital-only format without losing the guts, the somatic element, since the physical installation was built especially to rattle your bones. It’s a small, narrow, dark room with a bench, and the speakers are spatialized, with a sub woofer in the bench so you really feel it in your ass. I hope it helps that the avatar in the game is based on a teratoma tumor and the monster from The Thing, and that it drags itself through an environment of nesting black holes, diseased intestinal tunnels, and there’s even a non-Euclidean spike tunnel. Fun!
What are you currently working on & planning?
My next novel, Your Love Is Not Good, is coming out in 2023, on And Other Stories Press, which means I’m in the throes of final revisions now. And I’ve been writing new stuff for the next album, which I think will be some kind of guitar drone chanting thing that quotes Clarice Lispector about eggs.
But mostly I feel pretty exhausted from all this apocalypse, and so have just been rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I do every couple years, and it’s not like I’m coping with the end of the world by custom-ordering Spike mouse pads or anything ignominious like that.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova