Features - Interviews

Whose Subconscious Is This Anyway? – An Interview with Bob Gallagher


As you may well be aware from his directorial work on some of the best music videos to come out of Ireland in the past couple of years, Bob Gallagher is not a man to shy away from the unusual or unexpected. Perhaps best known for his Radar award winning video from 2016 for Girl Band’s ‘Paul’ (as well as ‘Pears For Lunch’, ‘Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage’ and ‘In Plastic’), Gallagher has also worked with artists such as SPIES, Floor Staff, James Vincent McMorrow, Naoise Roo, Participant, Saint Sister and Myles Manley, creating visual accompaniments that veer from the beguiling to the disturbing, from the enchanting to the distressing.

Having only recently returned from a trip to Cuba that gave him the opportunity to work alongside and learn from legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, Gallagher’s next video project will see him embarking on a walking trip from Dublin to Limerick, during which he will interview volunteers on the subject of mental health, personal discovery and awareness and the broader topic of Ireland’s need for self-examination.

Speaking of the project, Gallagher says: “I’m interested in talking to people along the route about their experiences facing down difficulties with mental health and what’s gotten them through tough periods, people who have gotten to a brink in their life and come back from it. I think the more open people are about mental health issues the more apparent it becomes how common they are. I’m going to walk the 200km and just see who will talk to me along the way. It’s a sort of open-heart surgery of the land. Ultimately the project will be about visualising individual stories to show how universal they are, so I’m also interested in hearing from people other ways.”

The video’s inspiration, which will be for the new single from the mighty Rusangano Family, will also draw heavily from an experience that Gallagher had three years ago when he ventured to an isolated house in rural Ireland to take the ceremonial, spiritual medicine Ayahuasca. Native to the Amazon, and deeply rooted in indigenous shamanic practice, the brew, made of a blend of sacred vines and plants is known for its strong hallucinogenic properties and its triggering of the release of the chemical DMT in the brain. Used primarily as a method of spiritual healing under the supervision of a shaman, the consumption of Ayahuasca is seen by some as an alternative, if intense, method of remedying personal trauma, understanding grief and bereavement and, in some cases, overcoming depression and anxiety.

In his story, recounted below to Eoin Murray, Gallagher describes how his experience of Ayahuasca helped him overcome a prolonged period of self-doubt and depression and inspired a willingness to branch out in his work, venture into the wildness of experimentation and to believe in the strangeness of creativity…

Photos by Colum O’Dwyer

The Root

I’ll start by saying this: Ayahuasca is not something I recommend for everyone. When the opportunity came up for me to take it, I felt I had nothing to lose really. I had been dealing with periods of depression for a long time and I’d had suicidal thoughts more frequently than I care to mention. For me this was a last resort to find something that would pull me out of the abyss, but I would have to be willing to reach quite far into it first. Ayahuasca was a means of doing that, and I guess appealed to my curiosity more than anything else had before.

It’s important to realise that it’s not some magic potion that will just fix all your problems, but for me it illuminated those problems in a way that I could understand. I was communicating with myself in a very visual dream language. Ayahuasca is an extreme way of being propelled into a deep confrontation with yourself.

In a sense, it’s a short cut and short cuts tend to be less travelled because there’s a danger in them.

The experience gave me a healthier perspective from which to view myself, and to some extent my work. But there are other ways of achieving the same result, of understanding yourself better and working out trauma. There are many gentler and more prolonged therapies, but it seemed very clear to me when the opportunity arose that this was the path for me. So I got in touch with a group who could help me out.

You have to be vetted scrupulously because a) it’s illegal and b) the people who organise the gatherings want to be sure that you know what you’re getting yourself into. They are very conscientious about the dangers of taking it. There’s a threat that it can exacerbate pre-existing conditions. They don’t organise these things for profit so they are very comfortable with dissuading you if they feel you need to be dissuaded.

They gave me a list of instructions, things that you have to avoid in advance: No alcohol, no pork, no spicy foods, no sex for three days before the trip…

I was given a phone number, told to get a bus to a particular location and then to call it when I got there. Someone would pick me up then and take me the rest of the way. And so I did just that; got on the bus to spend a weekend with a group of strangers in the middle of god knows where. Hallucinating wildly.

The Work

There were about 12 of us including the woman who was letting us use her home for the weekend. Throughout the whole time we were there she fed us homemade soup and brown bread and was just a kind, wholesome figure to have around. Then there was the shaman – though he was reluctant to call himself that, he kept reiterating the phrase ‘I’m just a man who gives out medicine’.  His wife was with him too. They radiated a very warm, reassuring presence. I had an instinctive trust in them immediately and they dispelled a lot of the anxiety I had had on the bus ride simply with their presence. I was relieved that the shaman wasn’t the wizard-man I’d imagined with long grey hair and a cloak. He was just a normal looking guy who smoked like a chimney and wore Reebok classics and a shell tracksuit.

There’s a sense of community to the whole thing. Everyone else there had met before and kind of knew each other. I felt like a bit of an outsider at first but they made me feel welcome. On the first night you have to take part in a cleanse of sorts, getting rid of all the toxins from your body. We all built a sweat lodge in the garden out of blankets and sticks and dug a fire pit inside and filled it with rocks. Next thing you know I’m sitting naked, crammed in a circle with these strangers in a makeshift hut filled with smoke and steam. It was as horrifying as you’d think, dripping with sweat, eyes stinging, gasping for air.

They refer to it as “The Work”. Everyone who comes to one of the ceremonies does so to work on repairing something within themselves: to get through something, to reflect on the beginning or end of a phase in their life, that sort of thing. Sitting in the sweat lodge, we went around the circle and told one another what our purpose was and what we hoped to achieve with it. I think ultimately it was more for ourselves; to be able verbalise some intention, clarifying what we were searching for. One person’s father had been killed the year before and she said she was hoping to work through her grief here. I told them I was struggling to see any value in myself and that I wanted to overcome that.

That whole process helped break down the barrier of inhibition and awkwardness that I had beforehand. It felt necessary. Once you commit to being in a sweat lodge, naked with a bunch of strangers talking about your emotions you stop worrying too much about how awkward you’re feeling.

The Medicine

We started early the next day, sitting on mats in the large, dimly lit room. The shaman poured us each a cup of this drink made from mapacho, a blend of tobacco and another sacred plant that makes a sort of thick, tarry mixture. It’s supposed to build you up to the drinking of the Ayahuasca, as a sort of fortifier against the inevitable purging. If you drink it first you’re less likely to get sick during the trip. It was horrific. Like drinking blended cigars.

I had imagined that whole thing would be very formal and hokey but honestly, he kept all the mixtures in old Coke bottles and we drank it from little plastic cups. There was no emphasis on anything but the mixture itself. I feel other people would maybe try to camouflage the whole process, make us drink it from some wooden bowl carved from an ancient oak tree struck down by lightning or some shit, but there was no pageantry. That’s not to say it wasn’t ceremonial, because it was, but there was no veil of pretence around it. No razzle dazzle.

There was music playing as we drank the Ayahuasca itself, again out of plastic cups, poured from old soft drink bottles: South American folk, Celtic folk. It all reminded me a bit of Enya… dreamy mystical sort of stuff.

Compared to the tobacco drink the Ayahuasca actually tasted okay. Not pleasant, but drinkable. We were told to try our best not to get sick, but we each were given a bin bag just in case. The shaman was chanting quietly in Spanish as we all lay down and closed our eyes.

The first hour was nothing but extreme nausea. Your body is essentially responding to being poisoned; and it’s desperately trying to get the poison out. It was agonising, just regulating my breathing and trying my best not to vomit. To my left and right some of the others were starting to throw up. The smell was awful. But after about an hour the nausea started to ease off and I managed to ride it out. Then the visuals kicked in.

The Trip

Behind closed eyes it was like being in one of those tacky spray-painted space-scapes, you see being sold on the side of Westmoreland Street. I started to feel like I was on a conveyor belt through in own mind, constantly moving forward through the space. Occasionally there were little cracks or windows floating there, like drifting past a giant advent calendar of your own memories. Looking through those windows I could see particular scenes from my life playing out, and I could gravitate toward them or move away from them. I remember feeling surprised at how much control I had over my movement.

At various points I heard my friends’ voices coming from beside me or behind me, so I had the feeling that I had company. There was always a presence there. If I were feeling hesitant about moving toward a memory or a vision then I would feel one of their hands on my shoulder guiding me, reassuring me of where to go. Mostly it was my friend Lewis. At one point I remember him asking ‘Whose subconscious is this anyway?’

As I was going deeper into the experience I still felt aware of where I was physically, of what was going on around me. It was like dreaming but being awake simultaneously. At points I heard some of the others talking or crying, but none of that ever bothered me. My only concern was that I might forget the details of what I was seeing. I wanted to remember all the images and sensations and I was very consciously trying to memorize every scene.

At the deepest point of the trip I was lying flat in a boat. I was covered in flowers, floating down a river. I was looking at the sky when suddenly I felt like the boat was being lowered downwards. Sheer black walls started rising on all four sides of me and then I could see my friends standing over me. I started to shout, trying and get their attention but none of them could hear me. I realised that I wasn’t in a boat anymore, I was in a grave. One of the people above started dropping dirt onto me. My vision went and I knew in that moment that I was dead. Everything was quiet and I was alone in an infinite black space. I felt more alone then than I had ever felt in my entire life. I felt at that moment that I truly understood what it was like to be dead. That was it. Just being totally, completely alone and disconnected. It spoke to a very primeval fear and really shook me.

Physically, I started freaking out. I was struggling to breath and crying uncontrollably… I was aware that the other people in the room could hear me crying but I couldn’t stop it. My eyes were still closed but I was aware of the shaman coming over and placing a blanket over me. He put his hand on my shoulder and just kept saying the word tranquila, tranquila, tranquila. I’d never been so reassured to hear a human voice. He started to guide my breathing to match his, slow and controlled. I calmed down and drifted back into a more peaceful state. Shortly after that was when I experienced being born.

I witnessed my own birth in first person, literally seeing myself leaving the womb. I was there, as a baby, being handed to my mother by a nurse. I could see subtitles around my mother that read: “Thank God that’s over…”. I looked around the room and saw my father leaning against the wall. He looked stressed. A subtitle around him read: “Don’t forget to smile”. I had a strong sense of empathy towards them then, like I suddenly understood the incredible burden of parenthood. Even though the dynamics were strange I felt like everything was okay and I was strangely calm. I was alive, I was conscious, and I had made it out of the dark. It was a very strange scene but very cathartic. I had this incredible understanding of them and of myself in that moment.

From there, I was just going from scene to scene having conversations or experiencing different visions. I kept having the overwhelming sensation that I needed to document everything. At one point in my head I was sitting at a typewriter, writing a letter to my friend, trying to explain what was happening. I realised that it wasn’t a real typewriter and that I was still in my subconscious. I looked down at my hands and saw that they were actually a mannequin’s hands just hammering down on the keys, unable to type properly. I started laughing hysterically, like it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. There were a lot of bizarre moments like that playing out entirely within my head.

There was no conclusion to the trip really. It was more a gradual descent. The background music came to a stop and I was slowly taken out of my mind and back into reality. No one really spoke for the rest of the night. I remember sitting at the kitchen table and being handed a bowl of soup. I looked at the woman who had housed us for the weekend in the eyes and I just burst into tears because she had a really kind expression. I excused myself and just sat in the bathroom for a while, alone, decompressing I guess.

That night I filled a notebook, taking down everything I remembered from the experience, from the relentless five hours of images and scenes.

The lift-off

It was quite emotional saying goodbye the next day. The shaman and I had barely spoken a word to each other really but there was this strange feeling of communication that had taken place through the experience and there was a connection there that rendered language somehow irrelevant.

I didn’t really know what to say to him when I was leaving. I sheepishly went to shake his hand but he just grabbed me and hugged me and kept holding me. When he pulled away he called over someone who could translate for him, he looked me in the eye and said, “You have a warrior heart”. I didn’t really know how to respond to that but it was the kind of grandiose mythological statement that seemed to fall naturally from the mouth of a shaman. It meant a lot to me that he understood I’d gone through something very extreme and needed some further pep.

On the bus home I was excited to tell my friends about the experience, but in the end it actually took me a while to be able to articulate it for anyone. Even now it’s quite difficult to convey what happened that weekend.

The lingering

In terms of how the experience had an impact on my work… there was a moment in the depth of it where I was having a conversation with myself, telling myself that I needed to embrace the extremes of my imagination. For my work to ever be any good I would have to stop holding back and just say “fuck it” to however absurd an idea seemed. The extremities are where you differentiate yourself from other people.

Whereas before I might have been shy about ideas and worried about whether people would like I was creating or not… I became more confident in just running with ideas and trusting in my own intuition. I ended up using the vision of my birth as the inspiration for the next music video I did for ‘The Guest’ by Floor Staff. I remember sending on the idea and thinking “these guys will probably think I’m insane” but we made the video and we’ve been close friends since.

As for how it impacted my life overall…. the experience encouraged me to become more conscious of other people. I used to blame myself for everything, I was very consumed with worrying about what was wrong with me or what I was lacking in other people’s eyes, that I used to overlook what was happening with anyone else. I think the whole process gave me an altered perspective on myself but also it helped me understand that there’s a huge capacity there for empathy if you are comfortable enough to think outside of yourself, and how ultimately that’s much more rewarding than being trapped in your own head. The schematic irony of going on this extravagant journey inside was that it made me much more invested in what was going on outside.

It’s not like taking other drugs, and I think it’s probably a discredit to refer to it as one. It’s not for recreation. It should probably only be done if you feel you need to confront yourself in some way.

I do refer back to the experience quite a lot, thinking about how I felt immediately afterwards, and I’ve drawn on it creatively quite a bit. I do see myself in a before and after kind of way. The depth of what happened in those five hours was incredible. And it hasn’t left me. It’s always there. I don’t think it will ever leave really.

If you would like to get involved in Bob’s latest project in any way then you can reach him at putmeinthevideo@gmail.com. He’d be delighted to hear from you.

Pieta House provides a free, therapeutic approach to people who are in suicidal distress and those who engage in self-harm.