Secret Pockets

Since 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.

 

Sholette: 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?

Gach: Like "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.

In nearly 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.

The success 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.

Sholette: 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?

Gach: In 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.

The Tactical 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.

Sholette: 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 eye?

Gach: While 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".)

The CTM 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.

Sholette: 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.

Gach: If 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".

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Gregory 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 Pluto Press.