Yall this person is someone whose perspective I am so happy to share with you. Her work as an artist, designer, radio host, incredible conceptual thinker, all are expressions of her unique combination of Sagittarius, Scorpio, and Gemini, among other things! All of this can be found articulated beautifully in her interview below.
Helen Shewolfe Tseng is an interdisciplinary artist and designer living and working in an expanding universe. She co-hosts Astral Projection Radio Hour on BFF.fm and is the co-author and illustrator of The Astrological Grimoire (Chronicle Books, April 2019). Helen is currently a YBCA Fellow and a Designer in Residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts.
1. What brings you the most joy?
Being in a flow state: being fully present and absorbed in a task. I have a mark-making practice called growth spells that acts as a personal portal to autotelic experience, though I find myself there in other circumstances too, any states of being that are marked by a sense of intuitive competence and agency, as if channeling something beyond me. I've read that flow states induce a loss of ego and space-time perception, which happens to be one of the most joyful and expansive places our brains can travel to. I am drawn to this observation because it takes two vastly mysterious things – consciousness, the universe – and merges them into a tangible space that can be accessed, traversed, and embodied.
2. Do you relate to the common Sagittarius trait of knowledge / spiritual / adventure seeking? What do you find yourself seeking? When and how do you rest from seeking, if that's something you do, and if that's something you ever want to rest from?
I relate to my Sagittarius nature primarily internally, so that’s where I tend to seek. The realms of thought, perception, identity, memory, wonder, truth. Where disparate fields collide and connect. I freelance and keep myself occupied with an assortment of projects – it’s hard for me to do any one thing for too long. I am not satisfied with well-tread ground and I will seek out a niche or carve my own, and I tend to use my work as a bridge into all of my varied interests. And I don’t like being told something is true and just accepting it; I often feel the need to see the full ecosystem, to independently forge my own theories and impressions. I seek the secrets, the weird dark complex webs under the surface, the hidden levers. Knowing how a magic trick works doesn’t make it any less magical to me.
Because of this I can be a skeptical person, and I have sometimes had difficulty being present, because to seek is to always look elsewhere, and to be idle can feel fatal. Sitting with the unknown and unknowable is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night, but it can also be comforting and humbling. I am learning to rest in the abundance of that infinite void.
3. Some of your work feels abstract, as in, visually it's spacious and open for a lot of interpretation. How much do you feel the need to be 'understood'? How much do you feel the need to engage with the literal, especially in relation to the political realm?
My work is divided into a few distinct but overlapping categories: freelance graphic design, a witch alter ego that includes the radio show and a forthcoming book, a nebulous art practice. Design involves effective visual communication and problem solving, so understanding and being understood is fairly central to that work. When we started the radio show five years ago, it was kind of an irreverent performance rooted in the mystery of the occult and esoteric. But these days, we are more interested in how the emergent cultural phenomena of the witch correlates to the strangeness of being human at this particular moment in time. And the art side prioritizes the tangible the least, as it’s often process-oriented and exploratory. There is a lot of spaciousness here, as I am still relatively new to this landscape and have resisted drawing any boundaries around what my art might consist of. Right now, I’m very taken with coyote adaptation; before this, I was painting with fiber optic cable, and researching a cluster of small towns in rural Mississippi.
It turns out all the facets of my work have inherent political implications, even if I am not directly engaging with them. Design affects the ways people perceive information, the world, other people. Witch culture exists in part as a response to oppression, environmental peril, and a general atmosphere of instability. And when my art draws from personal experience, it is deeply intertwined with my existence as a marginalized person. How overtly I engage beyond that depends, though I do tend to seek out work in realms that I am curious about and care about. But I am less interested in being personally understood and more in broadening my understanding and shifting existing modes of understanding, applying the appropriate angles for engagement. With most work I have adequate agency over, I am intentional about maintaining an openness and depth that is accessible from multiple levels. Sometimes I build in a secret level, just for me.
4. As a continuation of our conversation about our internet lives, will you talk about your current relationship with the internet? Where does it feel good? Where does it feel bad? What's in between?
Some things that feel bad: That the containers of web content and social media distort things of varying gravities into a set of standardized dimensions, reducing some while amplifying others, which in turn distorts how I relate to those things in the physical world. That judgment comes so easily and brutally. When it consumes my time, energy, and focus in ways I resent. When the physical act of using an internet device results in chronic discomfort in my body.
Some things that feel good: Ease of access to incredible things, e.g. live streams of wolves in Yellowstone, footage of astronomical events of the distant past, a universe of subcultures. When it connects me with kindred spirits I would not have crossed paths with otherwise. When it deepens and expands upon existing relationships. When it acts as a near-infinite library of resources and continues to be a platform and medium for my livelihood, creative practices, and habitual seeking.
Some things that are in between: That the architecture of the internet and social media have become implicit in my dreams, e.g. using time travel in a lucid dream to go back and Instagram something. Learning to treat my phone as a difficult but necessary relationship requiring mindfulness and boundaries. The rabbit holes! So many rabbit holes to bury my muzzle in.
5. What feels easy and alive?
What feels alive does not necessarily feel easy, and the converse also holds true. I feel the most alive in ideation and creation synthesis, but those moments of deep knowing often come at the end of long, intense periods of trudging, scratching, combing, fine-tuning. That said, I reject the assumption that suffering is necessary for making art, so I actively choose ease in places that surround and support the processes of creation, which can require so much of me. Cultivating ease in relationships and with basic needs has afforded me the energy and resources to continue doing what keeps me alive, and the ability to do so has been the greatest privilege.
WE ONLY POSSESS PERSPECTIVE
Our poetry now is the realization that we possess nothing
Anything therefore is a delight
(since we do not possess it) and thus need not fear its loss
We need not destroy the past: it is gone; at any moment, it might reappear and seem to be and be the present
Would it be a repetition? Only if we thought we owned it, but since we don’t, it is free and so are we
This John Cage quote connects to this moment astrologically, when the Sun is in Sagittarius and Jupiter also recently moved into Sagittarius (its home sign) and will be there for the next year or so. Sagittarius is always asking the question, what philosophy will sustain us? What perspective can renew and energize? This Fire energy is not ‘satisfied with well-trod ground’ as Helen mentions above. Here’s some thinking on how we can use this particular philosophy to enliven our experience of life right now -
Our poetry now is the realization that we possess nothing is an aspirational way I’d like to talk about the process of pregnancy working on me. I use the word ‘aspirational’ because so often it doesn’t feel like poetry. I’ve mentioned this process some on instagram and in my weekly newsletter. At (most?) times it has felt magnificently difficult. Specifically because of how sharply it has been showing me all the things I thought I possessed that I am finding I don’t actually possess. Like for example, my body! How it feels! How it acts! The body: a thing that so many of us able-bodied people think we possess control over in some way. I don’t think I have no control - I’m still going to treat this body with care - but the percentage of what I thought I controlled within it becomes smaller all the time.
When I talk about my sense of a release of (the illusion of) control, and how it feels very specific to the circumstances of this pregnancy, it is unique to those specifics, and yet right now millions of other people are also being asked, or forced, to release their own versions of what they think they control, all over the planet. In fact struggle itself seems to be when we touch something in life that we thought we had control over, or wanted to go a certain way and then it didn’t. Which is why so many of us feel a sense of struggle so often. This exact surrendering of control might be happening because someone can’t get pregnant and they want to be. Or because someone in their lives is dying. Or because they can’t get the money or resources they need to thrive. There are a million ways that this happens. Our experiences are completely unique, and yet not at all.
Our poetry now is the realization that we possess nothing - this is a radical position; It’s totally enlivening to me. If we own nothing, truly, then everything that passes through our lives is a gift, or at least an opportunity. The truth is we are not entitled to anything! (This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t create an equitable society for all, or extend entitlements to others. It just means, no matter what we do, or how we evolve, things (identities) will still often be taken from us in a way that feels premature.) When you consider this idea, what might it open up in your perspective and behavior?
Pregnancy has been teaching me this in a profound way. Yes, I did certain small things to contribute to conception, but those actions were very very tiny compared to what has happened without any of my conscious participation. This baby is growing organs and eyelashes, and my body has been a home for that. But I have done nothing to make it happen! History, biology, ancestry, spirit, whatever you want to call it, are all making this happen. This experience is showing me how much that is happening all the time, in many places where we think we did something to make something happen.
The pain of it is not as much the physical experience (although sure, that sucks a lot) but more my thinking that it should be different from this. My body should be able to do more. My emotions should be more even. My life should be different from how it is in this moment. The underlying assumptions of those ‘shoulds’ are that my body is something that I have control over and should be able to make feel good, or do what I want. This idea is the suffering, or at least compounds the suffering! What are the underlying assumptions you have about how your life should be, or your body should be, or your relationship should be, that compound your suffering?
And, what can you really say you did alone? And therefore what can you really say you possess? And when you possess nothing - not even the choice of how long you live, for example - what shift in your perspective does that allow? What new freedom does that offer? It can be scary to really be with that truth but damn then life can become a new kind of adventure. I don’t possess this baby growing in me. I’ve honestly had so little to do with its creation and I have no idea how long its life will be, or anything else about it really. When I’m connected to that truth, I feel much more appreciative of the new perspectives I am being offered through the challenge of this time. It reminds me of the wonder, the wonder that can be found in every experience.
Oh, this, now this. This is what it’s like right now. This new way I’m being asked to learn to touch life.
This is the kind of Fire perspective, the wonder available in any situation, the adventurous energy of Sagittarius, that life presents us with right now, saying, here you go, here is yet another opportunity to contact life itself through your own life. Sagittarius reminds us that perspective is what makes or breaks our lives, each hour that life passes.