ON DRONES by the Center for Tactical Magic (from Arthur 35)

Originally published in Arthur 35

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Column: Applied Magic(k)
Author: The Center for Tactical Magic
Title: “The Deception of Robot Demons”
Illustration: Aaron Gach

Seldom used in stage magic today, automata (self-operating mechanical figures) featured prominently among conjuror’s acts before the 1900’s. Skillful craftsmen offered public demonstrations of elaborate clockwork characters that could perform entertaining miracles. Perhaps the most famous automaton of all time was the chess-playing spectacle known as The Turk. From the late 1700’s through the mid-1800’s, the turban-topped, robe-wearing, moustachioed machine amazed audiences in Europe and the Americas as he defeated the majority of his opponents, including Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Despite an intense amount of public speculation and scrutiny, the mystery of its inner workings remained a closely guarded secret for many years. Although some correctly suspected that The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that concealed a human chess master, these theories were particularly difficult to prove since The Turk was opened up at the beginning of performances to provide the audience with a view of its interior.

In crafting illusions, it is essential for magicians to deflect suspicion by guiding audience perception. This may occur through misdirection, camouflage, patter—or, in the case of The Turk—a combination of all three presented through a carefully orchestrated sequence of events that gives a false appearance of reality. The final effect in this case was an amusing battle of wits apparently between man and machine that was way ahead of its time. Resonating with some of the earliest fears and hopes of the posthuman condition, it predated Mary Shelley’s techno-angst classic, Frankenstein, by nearly 50 years, and IBM’s Deep Thought chess computer (which lost to chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1989) by more than 200 years.

Somewhere between the horror of Frankenstein and the hubris of Deep Thought a melange of other mechanistic mayhem has emerged with far less entertaining implications. Although Nikola Tesla first conjured the notion of a squadron of remotely piloted warplanes in 1915, it has only been in the past decade that drone warfare has moved from from the shadows into the spotlight. In this “theater of conflict,” we find ourselves once again presented with the illusion of intelligent machinations. As with The Turk, we are often presented with a well-choreographed display intended to subvert our logic through partial truths and deceptive patter.

Drone strikes (particularly when they run afoul) are frequently discussed by government spokespersons as if the machines were making their own decisions, with zero accountability for their human operators, strike teams, or the officers and officials who authorize and oversee these missions from an air farce base outside of Las Vegas. When US missiles kill people in countries that we’re not even at war with, should it even matter if the aircraft had a human being sitting in the cockpit? Continue reading


Here is the entirety of the “Applied Magic(k)” column by The Center for Tactical Magic in Arthur No. 34/April 2013. The illustration below is by Aaron Gach. Please support this work by procuring a copy of Arthur from a kindly local retailer or directly from us. It costs $5 — not too bad!

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Anarcho-Occultism or, A Society Gets All the Magic(k) It Deserves

Like some digital cauldron, our email was all a-bubble this past month with some particularly savory notes. “Do you believe in occult conspiracies?” “How can I meet others who are interested in magic(k) and aren’t batshit crazy?” And, perhaps our favorite of the bunch: “What’s the relationship between magic(k) and anarchy (or anti-capitalism)?” Any one of these questions is worthy of inspiring a volume in its own right; however, we’re going to use a bit of invisible thread to tie them altogether at once.

First off, there’s not one, single relationship between magic(k) and anarchy, in part because there are many different aspects of anarchism and many, many magic(k)s. As a starting point, let’s use some of the principles of stage magic. Capitalism is an illusion. Or, more properly put, it is a system based on illusory means and ends. In the current economic paradigm, corporations increase their wealth through several illusions: by manufacturing and marketing phantom “needs” (i.e., the magician’s “force”), by the engineering wizardry of planned obsolescence (i.e., the use of gimmicked props), by conjuring commodities out of basic necessities (i.e., misdirection), and by manipulating public policy to ensure that would-be costs are mysteriously transferred to taxpayers via so-called “externalities”, often in the form of weakened labor laws, cut-rate resource extraction, government subsidies, and environmental loopholes, to name but a few (i.e., the use of “dupes”). These sleights are but parts of the capitalist repertoire performed in a much larger theater of conflict. The grand illusion is the one that aims to convince the audience that the status quo is the only show in town. Continue reading


From The Center for Tactical Magic:


Daddy was a bankrobber,
But he never hurt nobody.
He just loved to live that way
And he loved to take their money.

Some is rich and some is poor,
And that’s the way the world is.
And I don’t believe in lying back
And saying how bad your luck is.

—from “My Daddy was a Bank Robber” by The Clash

Everyone knows that robbing a bank is illegal. But, there’s no law against fantasizing about it. Popular culture has long relied on this fantasy to promote a wide array of bank robber tales, often romanticizing the lawbreaker as a clever hero outsmarting the agents of economic oppression. The old American West was populated with such infamous desperadoes as Butch Cassidy, Frank and Jesse James, Black Bart, Joaquin Murrieta, and Pearl Hart. And, the Great Depression gave rise to the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, “Slick” Willie Sutton, and John Dillinger to name but a few of the most notorious.

Although the current economic conditions are frequently compared to the desperation of the Depression era, many law-abiding citizens would finger banks as the biggest criminals in our society today. Upon further scrutiny, it becomes clear that this heightened antagonism towards the big banking establishment deserves a creative outlet. As many people battle rising unemployment, increasing food costs, exorbitant health care fees, and bank foreclosures, the “get rich quick” narrative comes head-to-head with the “make ends meet” social conditions that have cultivated the legendary heists of the past.

Can planning a bank robbery really pay off? Yes, it can. The Bank Heist Contest is offering $1000 to the best bank robbery proposal. Period. No need to assemble a team or snag a getaway car. Applicants just need plan it out, draw it up, and describe it as best as possible. If it wins, they’ll be $1000 richer. And the best part: no risk of jail time.

The Bank Heist Contest is a participatory cultural endeavor designed to re-visit the romantic representation of bank robbers in relation to the current economic and social crises, including: income disparity, unemployment, housing foreclosures, federal bailouts, the LIBOR scandal, and a wealth of other egregious economic indicators. It is organized by the The Center for Tactical Magic with support from Southern Exposure, a non-profit arts organization in San Francisco. For inquiries, please email: heistcontest@tacticalmagic.org



Psychic Surveillance: Hi-tech wizardry and ESP come together at this mystic parlor in Stockton, CA. How can you augment your powers of perception?

Applied Magic(k): Magic(k) Calls
by the Center for Tactical Magic

Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August 2006), available from The Arthur Store

The ancient oracles of Greece, which served as messaging centers between the gods and the mortals, did not shy away from associating metaphysical affairs with technological wizardry. Visitors to the oracles marveled as doors opened, fountains poured forth, and lights flickered all of the their own accord, thanks to an innovative use of hydraulics, pneumatics, levers, weights and balances. Such high-tech engineering (for the times, anyway) not only served to set an appropriate magical tone, but also held the potential to assist in conveying messages from the gods. Although more than 2,000 years old, this blend of magic(k) and tech stands in stark contrast to many of today’s expressions of magic(k). What is it about technology and magic(k) that leaves so many magic(k) practitioners hiding in the folds of their anachronistic robes and tuxedos?

Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the inventor credited with the notion of global satellite communications, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At the surface, such an assertion may seem simple enough; however, there are a few layers to excavate here. Some interpret this to mean we have reached an age where we are quite impressed by our own inventions. The workings of our gadgets have become increasingly imperceptible, if not due to sheer miniaturized size of the parts, then surely due to the veils of specialized knowledge. In the end, we don’t know how a given technology, a cell phone for instance, even works nor do we particularly care so long as we can talk on it when we need to. We take it for granted that there is a technical logic behind the engineering of a cell phone.

For some, that brief insignificant moment of faith in technology is comparable to magic(k)—after all, many (if not most) magic tricks are successfully performed along these very lines. Any enchantment whatsoever is overpowered by the puzzle that remains to be solved. The audience does not wonder if it is “real” magic(k); they wonder at how it is accomplished. While the overall effect may still be enough to satisfy and entertain, the method remains cloaked in secrecy and illusion. Likewise, when a technology performs its prescribed function, we tend not to ask any questions, and thus the mysteries of its inner workings are obscured to all but those with specialized knowledge. This certainly has some parallels with the way some view magic(k), equally in the realms of the occult, entertainment, and perhaps politics as well.

However, the magic(k) of a “sufficiently advanced technology” is not simply manifested solely by its ability to perform its prescribed function without one’s understanding of how it works. Magic(k) teases questions of “what?” and “why” just as much as “how?” Aside from the general mystery of its inner workings, a cell phone appears to be no more magical than a wristwatch or a solar-powered calculator largely because of our familiarity with it and the banal circumstances under which it is used. But when we take a moment to really consider what a cell phone does, we begin to scrape away at another layer of meaning. Continue reading

How to Subvert Institutional Authority Through Graffiti and Other Tactics in 13 Steps

Applied Magic(k): Sigils, Logos and Lucky Charms
by the Center for Tactical Magic

Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (June 2006), available from The Arthur Store

One of the first lessons of magic(k) that we learn as children is that words and symbols have power. Abracadabra. Hocus Pocus. A five-pointed star. A four-leaf clover. As we get older, this primary notion quickly degrades and often becomes the source of one of the first dismissive tendencies towards magic(k) that arises amongst adults. Too many hokey movies and failed attempts to levitate with an utterance conspire against us. Soon the lesson is forgotten; magic(k) words and the power of symbols sneak away to party with Santa and the tooth fairy.

But words and symbols continue to work their magic(k) regardless of whether or not we believe in them. Look at the recent outcry against Madonna singing from the cross or riots in response to Mohammed cartoons and we begin to see that the power of symbols is anything but make-believe. For those who insist that religious sensitivities are an easy shot, consider this secular example: For over 150 years the United States had a Department of War. During much of that time U.S. foreign policy consisted of “neutrality” and therefore the DoW did not lend any direct military support in foreign conflicts. World War II put a definitive end on U.S. neutrality once and for all, and in 1947 the DoW was renamed the “National Military Establishment” or NME (pronounced “enemy”). Realizing the error of their acronym, politicians again changed the name in 1949 to what we know today as the “Department of Defense.” More than half a century after “war” became “defense” the DoD sits deep within the Pentagon planning “pre-emptive defensive strikes” while waving a flag with 50 pentagrams on it.

Okay, so spin-doctoring isn’t exactly the same thing as witch-doctoring. Still, most performing magicians (conjurers) won’t deny the power of language. And few will debate the fact that word choice makes a difference when presenting a trick. Many will even insist that the “patter” makes or breaks the illusion. More to the point, the strength and efficacy of a trick is often closely tied to the audience’s ability to relate both specifically and abstractly to the overall illusion. This is precisely why magic with money tends to hold people’s attention more than tricks with handkerchiefs. Money is already a loaded symbol, whereas how many people revere a silk hanky? If you still maintain your doubts, try first performing card tricks over lunch and then later in the middle of a poker game. Any guesses on which audience gets more riled up when you magically produce four aces from up your sleeve?

Admittedly, the ability to make a scrap of green paper covered in Masonic symbols disappear doesn’t quite live up to our childhood expectations of magic(k). Perhaps this is especially true because we become adept at making dollars disappear all the time. Continue reading