2000, the Center for Tactical Magic (CTM) has staged numerous
interventions along the border areas where familiar cultural
references and recognizable social interactions brush up against
tacit systems of power and control. CTM co-founder and spokesman,
Aaron Gach, describes projects such as the Tactical Ice Cream
Unit, the Cricket-Activated Defense System, and the Ultimate
Jacket as "opportunities for heightened clarity in communication
- even when the audience doesn't explicitly regard our work
as "art." Having learned from experience that "private
investigators, magicians, and ninjas all use secret pockets
in their day-to-day activities" he maintains that the "secret
pocket" not only holds the keys to Power but is, in its
own right, a key to understanding power. The following conversation
between artist and writer Gregory Sholette, and CTM's Aaron
Gach took place by email in 2006.
As far as I know, the notion of information or "data"
understood as an artistic medium simply does not arise in classical
aesthetics. Perhaps, Kant would have relegated it to the merely
pragmatic realm of technical knowledge. In terms of a data aesthetic
therefore, one might initially argue that the sheer onslaught
of information today ---primarily in the form of content-packets
we receive from an increasing multitude of sources from email,
to internet, to cellular phones, to mp3 players, to public advertising--
approaches the Kantian notion of the sublime: a perceptual experience
too vast to be fully graspable and therefore experienced as
both thrilling, and simultaneously startling, or even frightening.
Sublime aesthetic experience takes place for example while standing
on a hillside and watching a volcano explode. The philosopher
Lyotard has gone so far as to describe post-modernism and post-modern
art itself as a type of aesthetic sublime in so far as it manifests
the very impossibility of achieving adequate representation
of contemporary life. Returning to this notion of data aesthetic
then, it seems a truism that the flow of information today is
impossible to fully process. Its volume and its velocity are
literally super-human. Nevertheless, there is nothing about
data that is inherently beyond the grasp of human beings, especially
when supplemented by the prosthetic of computer processors.
Or is there? In dealing with the subject of "magic",
how do your ideas of illusion, secrecy, and the occult (literally
"hidden") tie in with concepts of data transmission?
"art" the word "magic" can be very confusing
for people. It simultaneously conjures notions of trickery,
witchcraft, illusion, mysticism, fantasy, and a vast array of
products, services, and popular culture references. Many of
these notions evoke a dismissive response from people when they
encounter the term, partly because they tend to immediately
latch onto a single notion of magic - cheesy Las Vegas sideshow;
dreadlocked Wiccan hippy; Dungeons & Dragons wannabe; Satanic
drug fiend; pet psychic; reality escapists; and so forth. Of
course, by conjuring such characters as Gandalf, Harry Potter,
Sabrina, and John Edwards, popular media also adds to the mix.
The Center for Tactical Magic does not exclusively align itself
with any one interpretation of "magic", in part, because
the vastness of the interpretations of "magic" is
what gives magic its power in the world of meaning.
all of the permutations of magic(k), the conventions of presenting
information are completely fucked with. A stage magic trick
is a good example of data mystification on many levels. For
starters, a magician often uses "patter" or a story
to provide a context for the audience's experience of the illusion.
S/he might say something like, "Ladies and Gents, as a
special treat for you tonight, I'm going to make the president
disappear. Now before anyone gets too excited, it's an already
dead president - Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill -
our racist, Indian-killer president." In the patter, the
magician may or may not lie, but the intention is always to
manipulate the audience's perceptions. This is done easily enough
because the information presented in the form of patter appears
to coincide with the visual information presented through the
magician's movements and use of props. (The $20 in the magician's
hands will disappear
from view, but not likely from material
existence. And Andrew Jackson does appear on the twenty dollar
bill; however, historians debate whether he killed more Native
Americans then some of our other racist presidents.). And of
course, the magician's movements are deceptively "natural"
in appearance: a well-placed cough or a hand on the hip doesn't
generally attract attention. Similarly, the props are shown
to be beyond suspicion: an audience member inspects the bill;
the magician's clothing looks normal enough; the hands are shown
to be empty; etc. If performed successfully, a good magic trick
will have a convincing effect largely because the magician has
presented several forms of discordant information in a harmonious
manner. The verbal info, the body language, the sequence of
events, and the overall physical appearance conform to the audience's
expectations of normalcy (i.e. the magician faked a cough and
used a hidden gimmick to ditch the bill half way through the
performance yet kept a closed hand in plain view while continuing
to discuss the merits of vanishing racist presidents). When
the magician finally opens the fist to reveal not a twenty but
a handful of pretzels the audience will attempt to bridge the
gap between what they believe they have witnessed and what they
formerly believed was possible.
of an illusion greatly hinges on the fact that humans are deeply
conditioned to interpret information in very particular ways.
In some cases, our perceptive abilities are simply inadequate
to accurately interpret the unfolding events. In other cases,
communication through words and body language necessitates that
we filter out data that we regard as insignificant. Magic exploits
these aspects of human cognition, and has done so with many
of the same tricks for thousands of years. Similarly, marketing
agencies, PR firms, and politicos use patter and our subconscious
reflexes to proffer their own illusions.
When art does concern itself with the aesthetics of information,
it tends to concern itself with data display rather than interpretation.
Most artists approach the data-sphere by drawing attention to
the limits of comprehension through the use of some type an
interface that overwhelms our senses - think of Thomas Hirshhorn
or the type of computer art favored by museums in which visualizing
data takes precedence over its meaning. And on those occasions
when content is tackled, it is the paradoxes that plague what
Habermas termed "communicative action" that are underscored.
This is the sort of aesthetic ambiguity that contemporary art
exercises over and against conventional logic with typically
disorienting, and apolitical results. By contrast however, the
interventionist artist has to deal with the pragmatics of data
content and transmission. I suspect this is where the political
meets the aesthetic in all tactical media including your work,
Aaron. But how does the CTM do more than simply create a spectacle
around data mystification?
the Western traditions of ritual magic and various occult practices
there is often a "lust for results" that demands linearity
in the form of cause-and-effect. Nearly every other expression
of ritual magic across the globe regards the magical act as
a liminal space that appears during the performance. This is
a zone of transformation; a place where the rules of everyday
life are suspended and alternative realities can trickle in.
It is here that the "real" magic takes place.
Ice Cream Unit, for example, certainly incorporates some spectacular
elements: a cross between an ice cream truck, SWAT vehicle,
hot rod, and an activist command center, it combines familiar
elements in a strikingly unfamiliar way. But beyond the shear
aesthetics of the TICU, it is designed for use in public contexts.
Concealed within its uncanny cloak resides a wifi internet transmitter,
public address sound system, and a vast array of surveillance
devices that can be used for activities ranging from monitoring
police activity to assisting independent journalists at public
events. Additionally, the unit has proven useful as tactical
support for demonstrators at political rallies in Chicago and
Kansas City. Like other CTM projects, the TICU is regarded as
a sort of "secret pocket" that harbors useful items
for interdiction, but also creates a space where meaningful
shifts in consciousness and action can occur.
But if the mission of the Center for Tactical Magic is one of
focusing the viewer/participant's attention on encountering
life or perception in an unexpected way, I am still not sure
how you move beyond merely defamiliarizing reified social forms,
just as so much contemporary art does. In other words, how does
one go further and intervene to challenge ideological assumptions
or to produce an alternative experience? Here I am thinking
of the notion of free movement that the Ultimate Jacket purports
to offer its wearer. Your "Ultimate Jacket" holds
out the promise of a modern cloak of invisibility. And in reality
it calls attention to the run-down status of public space that,
as we all know, is today riddled with networks of optical surveillance
and fortified with elaborate systems of spatial management.
So are CTM's projects therefore doing two things at once? Is
the aesthetic play of data also a practical act of communication?
Is it both art, and magic? Or is it all more than meets the
the Center for Tactical Magic confesses a fondness for misdirection,
we also thrive on using magic to expose some illusions. The
Ultimate Jacket is a good example. The officially-stated origin
of the Ultimate Jacket - that it was inspired by the fact that
ninjas, magicians, and private investigators all use secret
pockets in their day-to-day activities - is absurd but entirely
true. This is important to acknowledge because the CTM triad
was initially selected in an investigation of Power - how individuals
with unique skill-sets navigate diverse power relationships,
and how these skill-sets could empower others with an enhanced
sense of autonomy and agency. The fact that all three were using
secret pockets lends credence to the metaphor of power as represented
by secret pockets. The value of a pocket is measured by its
absence; a pocket is only useful in that its emptiness can be
used to contain something of import. Thus, one has to create
a space before one can fill it. (There are certainly parallels
here to Hardt & Negri's notion of "counterpower".)
seeks out potent spaces and also creates spaces of potential.
In many instances, these spaces are, both public and private,
physical and psychological. But in all cases our approach is
tactical rather than strategic in nature. Our projects are often
temporary and repeatable in multiple contexts, either by ourselves
or by others. The latter consideration is still widely unfamiliar
territory to contemporary artists who still cling to the modernist
exaltation of the unique author. Yet, among activists and many
professional communities it's largely acknowledged that the
sharing of information is crucial for the successful advancement
of their collective desires.
As you allude
to, "public" space has largely become an illusion,
especially in urban areas. It is increasingly privatized, even
by "public" institutions. All one has to do to discover
this for him/herself is to perform an unproductive, non-consumptive,
and preferably interesting act in a presumed public space and
see how long it takes before an authority figure threatens to
press charges for trespassing. Despite the fact that our First
Amendment guarantees our rights of freedom of assembly and freedom
of speech, cities across the country require local citizens
to purchase permits for rallies, marches, and protests, or suffer
police repression. We learned this lesson first hand when we
helped organize a police accountability rally in Kansas City.
Ironically, the park where the rally was held featured a stone
monument with the first amendment engraved in it.
This is quite a different approach, Aaron, to the type of activist
intervention of my generation in the 70s/80s, or even that of
the previous one in the 60s, in so far as we sought to demystify
the mechanisms of the stage itself, or in Brechtian terms to
reveal the technology that produced an illusion of reality to
be at the service of powerful, anti-humanist interests.
you demystify, do you then assume that the "reality"
you expose is starker or more somber than the reality being
performed daily? Hopefully not. Houdini emphasized self-liberation
from the constraints of everyday life, such as prisons, handcuffs,
safes, ropes, and packing crates. Therefore, ideally you demonstrate
that it is desirable to embrace a fantastic, self-determined
lifestyle; and you simultaneously demonstrate how the machine
works so that one is not duped by its workings, but revels in
the innovation of their own fantastic complex. Of course, shifting
consciousness alone, without corresponding action merely amounts
to wishful thinking. To that that end, most of the CTM's initial
projects serve as experiments and training exercises that are
easily repeatable by anyone anywhere. We recognize our place
in a continuity of resistance and flow, with the gleeful conviction
that the audience will "rise up and usurp the principal
roles and radically re-arrange the drama to suite themselves".
Sholette is a New York-based artist, writer, and founding member
of the artists' collectives Political Art Documentation and
Distribution and REPOhistory, He is co-editor of The Interventionists:
A Users Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life
(MassMoCA/MIT Press, 2004, 2006) with Nato Thompson, and Collectivism
After Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945 with
Blake Stimson, (University of Minnesota, 2007). Sholette is
currently developing a book on contemporary political art for