Lyra Hill

"It took me a really, really long time to be able to embrace my power, which is considerable. It took me an even longer time to be able to say that without immediately apologizing."

I woke up at 4:00 in the morning to shoot this video and I am not a morning person. On a little dune, just on the other side of the Magic Hedge at Montrose Beach, I watched the sun rise with three talented women. I was working and improvising, racing against the rising sun, trying to find the best shot. But once the shot was set, I was breathing, listening, and waiting, a part of the moment as the camera rolled and Lyra grounded herself for three minutes at a time. Lyra Hill is the type of person who regularly conducts these moments for people. As a performer, teacher, filmmaker and witch, she has the power to gather attention, guide focus, and leave a positive impact. Later, that same day, I got a flat tire and got locked out of my house for a few hours with no phone. Oddly enough, these things barely phased me.


Lori: Well the first question I've been asking people, because it's nice to hear how people interpret the answer, easy question: Who are you?

Lyra: Oh boy. My name is Lyra Mattole Hill. Not many people know my middle name.

How do you spell that?

M-A-T-T-O-L-E, it's a river in Northern California that was named for a Native American tribe. Their land and their language and their tribe was named Mattole and in their language it means clear water.

That's my middle name. I'm an artist and ... I think it's important that I call myself an activist, even though I feel sometimes like I haven't earned the title anymore. It's a big part of how I move through the world. So, I'm an artist and an activist and the way that manifests in my life is through teaching and performing and creating things, mentoring people, and organizing events.

What are you an activist for?

Deeper understanding, I'd say. I grew up in an environmental activist community, doing a lot of traditional activist things like going to big marches or creating giant puppets that would be walked down the street or having angry conversations, facilitating consensus processes, or organizing among other activists. I got arrested at the Republican National Convention in 2004 when I was 16. That was an exciting moment. I had a lot of friends who would chain themselves to trees and stuff like that. When I think about activism now I... For me it's still very connected to ecology and the Earth and thinking about the survival of our species and what is possible and what is worth fighting for.

When I moved to Chicago I became involved with a lot more people who are doing social justice work. I work at the MCA and there's a big push there for expanding the demographic in the museum, reaching out to young people, reaching out to people of color and supporting them. Not just through more diverse art shows, but also by giving money to schools to bring students to the museum to try to expose people to lots more things. I help run the teen program. Last year we held a lot of Black Lives Matter conversations, we’re making space for conversations to happen, making space within the museum for people who might not normally feel comfortable there to explore what it might mean to look at a painting or do a performance piece or connect with someone that you hadn't expected to connect with. The story here that I'm trying to tell is one of shifting my perception of what is worth fighting for from our ecology and our environment to the ecology of communities... and equity, trying to support people who are disadvantaged or lack access.

I've always struggled with where I should place my energy, because things are so hopeless, things feel so hopeless, in general. I've been going back and forth wondering what the top priority should be. If the Earth, or at least the way we understand our environment, is changing so rapidly, so disastrously in ways that are inevitable, is it really better for me to argue for something like sustainable energy over reaching out to an individual who I can see now and trying to help them have a better time? Even if helping them have a better time means that I can't recycle or something like that. Everyone's means are so limited so, what's the priority I guess. I've been struggling with that back and forth.

You're getting close to the core of what I'm going for with this project. Is it only significant when we obviously physically alter things, using verbal and physical force, or can we "move" things using something less perceptible like confidence or an energy that you can emanate? Can it affect change in the long run? I think so.

I think so too.

I think you can't have one without the other really.

Totally. Absolutely. Otherwise you'll burn out. I believe so and I also think it's really hard to believe that. Now I think about the effort of remembering an intention. I think about intentions all the time. I've ended up back where I began, which is with magic and ritual. Because I grew up in this activist tradition, but it was also tied into Earth worship and neo-paganism.

Would you say Wiccan?

I tend to avoid the term Wicca, because it reminds me of a mid-90s Craft revitalization that I didn't identify with.

You didn't use that term growing up?

No I didn't. I just say Pagan. I think that works the best for me, because it is the least specific. It's like, okay polytheistic perhaps, or animism, all of the ideas are accessible if you describe yourself as a pagan, you can pick and choose. Whereas Wicca for me comes with more of an aesthetic and a method of spell working and stuff and I don't actually cast that many spells, I mostly make spaces.

But that idea of being a positive force or emanating smiles or confidence, whatever it is that one possesses, projecting that outward in a healthy way, that as activism I think is totally valid and really, really important and also incredibly difficult to have confidence in as a method, because it's ephemeral for the most part. And it feels sometimes self-indulgent, especially as a woman. There's an assumption that that's just what I should be doing.

Well, it goes back to the 1950s housewife, just smile or keep a nice home and everything...

Yeah, or take care of people, make people feel better, show people that they're worth it. That's totally a nurturing attitude, but it's also an enormous amount of work.

Maybe that's where it also comes back to intention but also authenticity. The 1950s housewife problem was that it was a surface... and often at great conflict with how the person might have been feeling underneath it all. You kept up the good home despite the fact that you didn't want to be there.

Which is what you were saying before, you can't do one with the other. So, you can't actually do that labor, you can't do that work without having the time to see and take care of yourself. Otherwise you just end up drowning yourself or putting your head in an oven.

Yeah, exactly. If it all starts with some kind of a positive energy or an authentic energy, what do we say we do with that in order to make it useful? Is it organizing your own energy? Recognizing it? Knowing how to show it or share it? Then it almost can't exist without an outward expression of such things. Maybe I'm interested in the fact that some of those things can be small, like you saying that by you doing a performance, you're trying to let yourself know that that can be activism because someone can hear something or think something a certain way and learn from that. You really have a captive audience for an hour or so, which is sometimes more remarkable to even just five people in an audience then to hear that you went out and did something else at some other time away from them. It's an interesting thing about how audience and the way an audience is configured, factors into this kind of energy.

I think about audience a lot. This point in my life is a great time to have this conversation because a lot of these things are coming together for me. In terms of what effect I actually have. Trying to objectively observe how I influence people is a project at this stage because I'm starting to do bigger shows and people like paying attention to me so... what does that mean? What do I do with that? I've been creating these immersive performance environments where I'm talking and there are overwhelming lights and sound in some configuration. I'm often speaking directly to my audience, addressing them. Which is a skill that comes from ritual. It comes from being a priestess and organizing and leading trance and meditations for almost my whole life, and also from being an MC, which is similar. Master of Ceremonies is a magical position.

And a teacher— directing attention and encouraging exploration. These are things that I've been doing for so long and finally I'm trying to take that skill and make it something that can be transformative in a less passive way than most audience experiences. So, now I often think when I'm doing a show, I'm opening up a space, I'm opening up a liminal space between things, perhaps a realm that is unknown. An experience that is unexpected and, to an extent, takes one over. Then, if I can successfully create that container, what do I fill it with? What do I put in there? What do I invite people to do with me? It's important to me that it's an invitation and also a challenge when I'm telling a story to my audience and directly requesting they put effort into going there with me. Whether I'm asking them to imagine themselves alone, or imagine themselves in space, or breathe in a certain way, or make a sound with me, or move their bodies, or whatever it is.

I think that this can be an activist effort: when people release themselves of the trappings of the every day, or the anxieties they might feel about the way they present themselves or the situation that they're in or all the bullshit that's at the top of our minds all the time. If one can relax and release themselves then an enormous amount of revelation might occur. Especially in our world now, we have so little time to reflect and we're not really encouraged to go deeper or explore things that are frightening, particularly ideas of death and destruction and pain and the unknown, all of these ideas that haunt our everyday lives, but feel toxic. Or feel dangerous from the position of someone who might be unstable.

I think a lot of people in the world are pretty unstable, whether emotionally or financially or physically, whatever it is and it's so, so hard to feel like we can safely explore what that even means or what it does to us. The way that I want to help people now is by creating experiences where they can safely explore those frightening ideas and emotions, particularly death. I think about death a lot. What it means to release things or face the ultimate unknown. Then the second part of my responsibility, if that's the place that I'm opening, is bringing people back in a way that's safe. That is a practice that you must have a strong grasp on if you're leading anyone in trance work. It's very, very important to bring people in, but then also to bring them out again. I've seen that have a real tangible effect on a lot of people who are close to me. That gives me strength and that keeps me going, because I can see that it makes a difference.

It's positive reinforcement, but you have to keep putting it out there to get that back and it might not always be 100%, but it doesn't matter. Nothing's ever 100% energy return.

No, and I have to remember that it's not going to be perfect and that that's okay and even if something... I worry all the time that the shit that I do is ridiculous and people are going to make fun of me. My whole life I've been worried that if people find out I'm a witch then they'll dismiss everything that I do as hocus pocus.

Let's talk a little bit about the image we set up for you. To add a little context, when I brought up this idea to you, you had said something like you wanted to create an earthquake. You immediately had the location pretty much, the Montrose Beach Park. Then there was this idea of making an earthquake, as if you had the ability to communicate with the Earth in that way and collaborate with it. We met at the beach at 5:30 in the morning to get the sunrise, and we still might have done the earthquake, or maybe it was going to rain, and there are all these birds there and maybe it was going to be windy...there were so many things we could do. And in the end it just seemed appropriate to improvise with Mother Nature and see what she gave us to work with.

That location is really important to me. The Magic Hedge has a great name, first of all. I used to live really close by so I'd go there a lot. There's not a lot of natural space in Chicago, it's hard to feel like you're outside of the city if you don't have a car. At the Magic Hedge you can surround yourself with all this shrubbery, or you can go out on these dunes and distance yourself from the sound of traffic. You can even walk out on this pier and look back at the whole skyline. When I go to that area I feel the repetition of myself visiting that area, which is important for any kind of ritual. In one sense a ritual is just a repetition, right? I immediately feel comfortable there. I feel familiar with not only the physical land, but the energy of the place. Having done many personal rituals in that place, I feel held when I'm there and connected more readily to whatever energies I might want to work with. Which is why it was a perfect place, in my mind, to improvise with nature.

On a slight tangent, it was also fun to know that you were going there. Knowing that I sent you to this place felt a little bit like sending you on a journey into my personal world, or my own magical realm. I trust you so much, I was like, "Lori is going to go there and she's going to know exactly what needs to happen, she'll be able to see it." Then you did. You found the exact same place that I was hoping we would do something, which is this specific mound of sand and these certain trees. As soon as you brought that up I was like, "Oh duh, of course. Lori knows. Lori can feel that that's where the locus of energy is."

When I went there the first time, there were three guys drinking a couple of beers out of a cardboard 12-pack and I just totally ignored them. From far away, I was like, that's the spot...but then I thought...uh-oh, there are people there... No, no there isn't. And I went over and I just started taking location photos and they slowly inched over, aware of my frame. It was really funny.

Can you talk a little bit about what you're doing in the image? I don't believe that you were simply just thinking, "I'll raise my arms." You know what I mean? Because you could have been, which would have been more like acting I suppose. What was going through your mind and where's the gesture come from?

I was grounding myself, which is a practice of grounding energy. For me, that always involves connecting to the Earth in some way. You create a cord, a grounding cord, where you imagine you're sending your own energy down into the earth through your spine. Like a tree, you grow roots and then you can release whatever you don't want to feel and pull from the earth whatever you would like to embody. Whatever you need from the Great Mother, if you want to say that. It's a process of reconnecting, re-energizing oneself. Thanking the forces that are larger than us and trying to imbue oneself with that power, or embody the force that you would like to harness in order to create some kind of change.

In magical work it's essential to ground yourself before you do anything else. Because you can try and "zap" people or vision something, but if you're just using your own body to push that forward, you’ll exhaust yourself. It's a practical check to ground yourself so whenever you're zapping people or visioning something, you're drawing on something larger than yourself so that you don't burn out afterwards. Grounding has that practical application but then, especially in the video, I was trying to be a conduit, I suppose, for all of the power that I feel in that place. I was thinking in the moment about becoming a part of the landscape and also connecting Earth and Sky in a sense.

If I'm standing on the ground and I feel myself in communion with the Earth, but I'm working with the Sun and it's in front of me...what's the strongest geometry? There’s a vertical force in my body and there's this sun in front of me and I'm lifting it over my head for the camera behind me. I don't know, feeling power and trying to hold it in the purest form. That's what I was trying to do.

It's interesting that you were aware of the camera too. It's not simply that you were trying to pretend you were alone or purify a situation that wasn't actually happening. Like, what's this moment? With Lori behind me and these girls wandering around me, shooting photographs. This leads into a question I've been asking everyone: What's a moment when you feel the most powerful and what does power even mean? You kept using the word there in that situation, but maybe in general, what does it even mean to have power, to feel powerful?

Power is an intense topic. I feel most powerful when I am performing. Either in an art experience or in a ritual, because at their best, those experiences are synonymous. My favorite word to describe that position is "Priestess." It’s a noun, but also a verb. I am a Priestess but also "to priestess" is to channel energy, to be that agent. In order to priestess successfully I must have absolute confidence in what I do. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy to be like, “yes I am this now.” I am doing this now. I am influencing people in this way. If I can fully invest in that position, then it works and it feels amazing. It feels outside of time, it feels totally unique to the situation. I could be doing the same performance for the 7th time, but the room is different, the audience is different, the vibe is different, what people are giving me is different and all of that is heightened and all of that I am aware of in that moment, which is amazing.

It's a total trip. Afterwards... it could go any number of ways. But in the moment I’m ecstatic and other people are ecstatic with me so it's this cumulative thing. In general, power is something I've struggled with for a long time because I felt like I didn't deserve to have it or that exercising power was inappropriate. I think part of that has to do with my gender and hanging out with boys a lot and not realizing that they treated me differently. Not realizing that I was being shamed for voicing my opinions or bossing people around or whatever it was. It took me a really, really long time to be able to embrace my power, which is considerable. It took me an even longer time to be able to say that without immediately apologizing.

Now I can say that I have a lot of power and I am really, really good at channeling it. Whether it's mine or someone else's, or it belongs to the universe. I've trained my whole life to be able to funnel and project energy. It's essential that I embrace that skill. But at the same time, power corrupts, right? I'm very wary of abusive power. I think about consent a lot in my performances: how can I make sure that, if I am getting my audience to do this thing or feel this way, that they're okay with that? That they know what they're getting into? I often think about power in terms of leadership because I am a leader. People like to follow me. I'm charismatic and well organized so what do I do with that? How do I make an impact that's responsible and fun and productive?

And passes along the power. Which is one thing I noticed about you. When you were working with Brain Frame, it wasn't just like, "Oh she was a great leader, that was great, I had a great boss. Now it's over". While it was happening and while people were working with you, they were finding and bolstering their own power. It's not always about creating a perfect, closed-off situation once, it's about...what is it? Teach a guy to fish...I'm pretty sure it says "guy" in the Bible.

Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he'll eat for his lifetime. I think where people get hung up is once you experience being powerful there's a comedown and in that moment there's often fear-- Will I ever be as powerful again? Will I ever feel that way again? It's easy to start to tighten your grip and be like, "I have to repeat this, I can't share how I did it, I can't share my secrets. Other people are pulling, they're taking power from me, it's mine, I need to work on MY power." Because it can be draining. It can be really frightening to be in that ecstatic moment, like I said, where everyone's communing together and it's this amazing thing. It's common, I think, afterwards to question everything that happened. But if you can remember that the experience is only generative if it is generous and unconditional, that's the ultimate...that's the ultimate power, Lori. One that's transparent and open and lasts in everyone and not just you.

What makes you feel really powerless?

Good question. Nothing! Just kidding. Systematic inequality.

Big stuff.

Patriarchy. History. Time. Greed.

And all those things can affect you in a small way or be part of a small situation, or be as big as they sound like they are. And they're constant.

Yeah, and on a small level, it's hard to I witness the inevitable disintegration of communication, even within radical circles. For example, a Facebook group for feminists, it's going great. Six months in, it falls apart because people are commenting on the internet and they run out of patience for each other and someone says something incendiary and people are hurt and it's not worth putting in the effort to resolve it because it's a Facebook group. And the same shit plays out over and over and over again, the same shit that I saw in my communities growing up. The same shit that I see in any organization that's a non-profit that struggles for funding or time.

What do you think is at the core of those breakdowns? Is it the stress of not having enough support? Not enough funding or whatever? Or do you think it's something more core with humans are bound to (fill in the blank), or they're damned to always be (fill in the blank)?

I think it's all of those things, because we live under enormous stress. It's hard to hold up anyone else's humanity for a sustained period of time because we're being beat down constantly. Everybody is, some people more than others, and it just makes all those situations worse because everyone's exhausted and over-stressed, especially in a radical circle. Also, it's just something about people-- I think it's self-interest. It's really hard to get out of one's own head and see that it's not about you.

Keeping in mind that most things people do are projections of their own issues is a high moral ground, but also a real slippery slope. Maybe you’re up on this high moral ground, but it's a water slide. In any moment of weakness, it becomes about oneself and then you need to lash out or retaliate or ask for something that maybe others feel you don't deserve or don't have time to give you, and then you're hurt in another way. That I think is the main problem in any breakdown of communication.

I also think that it is for the benefit of a capitalist society to keep people from figuring out how to deal with this problem.

We've tackled a lot of big things here at this diner. Anything else?

I wanted to tell you about the sun and how perfect it was to raise the sun. I like big symbols and bringing them around in my life. Right now the sun is something that I'm thinking about because in a lot of divinatory systems, in a lot of systems of human thinking, it's the source of power. It's literally the source of solar power, it keeps us all alive. It is also deadly, and will ultimately extinguish the Earth. It is outside of life, so it's an inorganic thing, which I like. And I'm a Leo so the sun is my ‘planet.’ It's not really a planet, but I've always been afraid of power and authority and really claiming, taking up that mantel so I'm trying to think about and work with the sun more intentionally these days, as a way of becoming comfortable. As a source of power.

And you had that bodysuit with the sun on it (that you're wearing in the video) designed for a performance you did at the Gene Siskel Film Center recently.

Yes. It was a show that incorporated three different performances and three different videos, but I also though about it as one big ritual. A ritual of saying goodbye to Chicago and the work that I've done here, because it's the last big thing I'll do in Chicago. (I'm moving to LA in January.) In order to priestess that ritual, I needed a powerful outfit. I had Ellen Neilsen make me this suit that has this sun shape on the front and the back, with nine spikes, (because I'm into the number 9 right now,) and I wore it for the last performance because it was an intense piece, but I really could have worn anything to perform Happy Ending. The outfit was mostly a way for me to retain the sun physically in my body for the duration of the performance so that I could stay grounded and do all the things that I needed to do to pull off the spectacle, which was technically quite complicated and involved memorizing lots and lots and following cues.

And making a lot of new objects and videos.

And not sleeping. And being a boss. Remembering to eat.The suit helped me do these things and then it happened to be the perfect suit for this video.