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: firstname.lastname@example.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).
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. We act like it’s nothing, but when we use cell phones, our disembodied voices are transmitted invisibly via remote towers networked to celestial satellites (invented by Arthur C. Clarke, remember) floating somewhere in the heavens, before bouncing back to earth to be received by another living person located perhaps thousands of miles away. And this all happens in “real-time.” Is it becoming more difficult to distinguish between technology and magic(k) yet? Well, let’s keep going…
Applied Magic(k): Sigils, Logos and Lucky Charms by the Center for Tactical Magic
Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (June 2006)
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. As we grow older, we become initiated into the Church of Consumerism. It is here that we become increasingly distrustful of anything “magical” since we quickly find the mystique tarnished by a barrage of commodities gilded in glitz. Yesteryear’s potions, spells, and apparatuses are hawked as today’s energy drinks, pharmaceuticals, and hi-tech gizmos. Finding ourselves surrounded by “magic” cleaning supplies, “power” tools, and Lucky Charms, it’s easy to concede that there’s no such thing as “real” magic(k). Yet, ironically this is where some of the oldest forms of magic(k) still thrive today.
Originally published in Arthur No. 22 (April 2006)
Applied Magic(k): Donut Power by the Center for Tactical Magic
Although people often associate the word “occult” with secret magical orders, demon-worshipers and ancient alchemical scrawlings, its root definition is simply “secret, concealed, or hidden.” But strangely enough, “occult” is rarely associated with those who are perhaps most invested in secrets and concealments: that is, government, military, corporations and even performing magicians. Perhaps this popular tendency to view “occultism” through an anachronistic mist is ultimately a concealment of its own accord.
If we regard an occult force as “that which is hidden,” it should come as no surprise to realize that we are constantly surrounded by the occult. Everywhere we look we don’t see it…at least not at first. Otherwise it wouldn’t be occult; it would be obvious and apparent. Unseen forces are indeed at play all around us. We often fail to recognize their presence for any number of reasons: the forces may seem insignificant to the situation, we are distracted by other factors, etc. Whether one favors ritual magick or performing magic, the first challenge is to recognize which forces are present, hidden or otherwise.
Fortunately, occult forces sometimes have a funny way of revealing themselves. In 2001, members of the Center for Tactical Magic were enjoying a leisurely tromp through downtown San Francisco with a few thousand other people protesting the 21st Century’s first major display of government occultism: George W. Bush’s inauguration. At the end of the trolley line at Powell and Market, the march lost momentum and gradually slowed to a jiggle. Some protesters scurried into cafes to get their latte fixes while others started break-dancing to boom boxes in the streets. Meanwhile, riot police began to huddle in the doorways of the GAP. There were other big department stores and icons of global capitalism nearby, but for reasons unknown the GAP seemed to be getting the bulk of police attention. (Perhaps it was one of those rare instances where Power reveals itself, as if the cops were hinting, “You’re already gathered to fight injustice, you might as well protest conformist fashion produced by sweatshop labor, too.”) At first, no one seemed to care, except possibly the few shoppers who hurried away at the first signs (namely, armored cops) that something might be amiss. Gradually though, activists seemed to take to the idea, and soon a small group settled down at the feet of the police line to sip their lattes and eat their lunches.
Please see exhibit A, the photo we’ve provided for your entertainment…
Ancient diplomacy: Moses’ brother performs magic(k) before the pharoah and his court of magicians in this depiction of Exodus 7:12. What was the pharoah doing with all of those magicians anyway?
Applied Magic(k): Adult Witchcraft by The Center for Tactical Magic
Originally published in Arthur No. 21 (Feb 2006)
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 that they reproach—cheesy Las Vegas sideshow; dreadlocked Wiccan hippy; Dungeons & Dragons wannabe; Satanic drug fiend; pet psychic; reality escapist; and so forth. Of course, by conjuring such characters as Gandalf, Harry Potter, Sabrina and John Edwards, popular media does its best to fantasize, infantalize, and capitalize on our collective desires for more than another sequel to “Life as We’re Told It Is.” 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. Therefore this column is likely to exploit many of your preconceptions of magic(k) in an effort to dislodge your comfortable sensibilities.
Vanishing Act by the Center for Tactical Magic from the “Applied Magic(k)” column in Arthur No. 32 (Dec 2008)
One of the oldest themes in magic(k) is that of death and resurrection. Recurring in the origin stories of numerous religions, death and resurrection also played an important role in the initiation ceremonies of early shamans across the globe. By first descending into the depths of sickness, disease, and even death itself a Siberian shaman would make allegiances with spirit allies who could be called upon to help the living. But in order to do so, the shaman would have to survive the ordeal and return to life before s/he could act as an intermediary.
Anthropologists have observed similar tendencies in shamanic initiation throughout geographically divergent cultures. Although the story of Jesus Christ is perhaps our society’s most familiar example, scholars of world religion are quick to point out that many aspects of the Christ story are reflected in earlier religious beliefs surrounding such deities as Osiris, Dionysus, and Mithras to name but a few of the more notable, regional examples. However, the list of dying-and-rising gods numbers well into the dozens and extends across the world map to include the likes of Quetzalcoatl (Aztec), Odin (Norse), Ishtar (Mesopotamia), Julunggul (Aboriginal Australian), and Travolta (Hollywood).
While Tarantino’s resurrection of Travolta might not qualify him as a “god” worthy of the aforementioned pantheon, themes of death and resurrection have long played out on the stages of popular culture and entertainment. Early performers in Native America and in ancient Egypt would amaze audiences by bringing animals back to life. While in India, fakirs performing the famed “basket trick” would stuff a child into a woven container before perforating the basket (and presumably the child) with multiple swords, only to reveal a short moment later that the child was still alive and well. More recently, magicians P.T. Selbit and Horace Goldin might not have the popular name recognition today that they once shared in the 1920’s; however, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t recognize their famed (and misogynistic) illusion: sawing a woman in half.
A resurrection routine in theatrical magic often takes one of several forms: a transposition (in which the assistant disappears from one place and reappears somewhere else), a transformation (in which the assistant appears to change into something or someone else), or a restoration (in which the assistant is returned to normal after first being subjected to some sort of ghoulish sadism). A vanish on the other hand (in which the assistant simply disappears) is seldom used for a resurrection act because the audience is left ill-at-ease wondering what happened to the body after the magician stabbed, shot, burned, or cut it.
More commonly, vanishes are employed as a metaphorical reminder for the ephemeral and illusory nature of life. Coin vanishes are among the more familiar tricks in a conjurer’s repertoire, and audiences seem to have no trouble relating to the disappearance of money even when it happens inexplicably before their very eyes. Thurston, the great Vaudeville magician and master Mason, took the vanishing act a step further by introducing the “the vanishing Arabian steed” followed a few years later by “the vanishing automobile” along with its passengers. More than simply illustrating the technological trajectory of transportation, Thurston’s vanishes demonstrated to his audience that coins, cars, or other symbols of material wealth possess a value that is not lasting. Later magicians failed to recognize the potential for multiple levels of symbolic relevance and focused only on scale as a determining factor for their illusions by vanishing elephants and water buffalo.
However, the same cannot be said for David Copperfield’s famed vanishing of the Statue of Liberty. With 1984 looming and Ronald Reagan busy conjuring his own “voodoo economics” the disappearance of Lady Liberty probably should have spooked audiences more than it did. Clearly more prophetic than Thurston’s vanishing horse, Copperfield’s vanishing Liberty should have been regarded not as prime time entertainment but as a dire warning of politics to come. If treated as an omen, we can at least take comfort in the fact that Copperfield’s illusion is ultimately a restoration and not simply a vanish. If so, and the mystical vision holds true, we can expect the return of our civil liberties, cell phone privacy, and perhaps even the freeing of those who have been disappeared by government contracted “extraordinary rendition” aircraft and in the CIA-operated secret prisons abroad.
In stage magic, vanishes may rely on a range of methods to achieve the desired effect. The use of mirrors, trap doors, secret compartments, and doubles might be used to restore an assistant to a healthy state. While politics also utilizes no short supply of ruses, deceptions, and misdirections, it takes much more to return to a healthy state. Although we witnessed the vanishing of George Bush from the White House in January of 1993, we were left dumbstruck when a second George Bush reappeared in the Oval Office in 2001. Unlike the shamanic ascension from the underworld that affords mysterious new powers for helping treat the ailments of others, this hellish return was accompanied by two wars, an exploding national debt, a devastating economic crash, and mysterious new powers for government surveillance and the executive branch.
Thankfully the curtain call has come for that sad act. The stage has been reset and we are now eagerly awaiting the next Bush vanishing act from the halls of government. Hopefully this time it’s a permanent disappearance. And perhaps when the curtain goes up on this next act we’ll witness the resurrection of the long-dead spirit of democracy that has recently begun haunting our hopes and dreams again.
Undoubtedly, politicians and governments will continue to perform much as they have in the past. Yet, the mass mobilization around the Obama campaign has given the audience new clues in determining the outcome of the show. The close of the Obama/McCain election represented a political shift in more ways than one. For the first time in eight years (if not longer), people poured into the streets not to protest an act of government but to celebrate one. The jubilation went far beyond party politics because the triumph went not only to the Democrats. People could feel their own political power. Whether or not Obama lives up to his campaign promises and our highest expectations remains to be seen; yet, the real victory here is the empowerment of the grassroots to accomplish a major political mission. Hopefully, the next eight years brings the political utopian equivalent of unicorns and demons sharing the last slice of birthday cake under a shimmering rainbow. But if it doesn’t, we now have a road map for organizing that doesn’t just look like another weekend march with placards and puppets in the financial district of a major metropolis. On the contrary, the mobilization around Obama was widespread, sustained, contextual, and media-savvy. It utilized multiple outreach strategies, creative tactics, and a model of fundraising that accumulated millions of small donations into a mega-fund for manifesting a collective vision. And now that we see what we can accomplish, there’s no reason why we should stop there. The show must go on – locally, nationally, globally. Or else we may find ourselves sitting once again in a dark theater awaiting the resurrection of our political nightmares.
The Center for Tactical Magic is no stranger to controversy. Even when we’re not actively setting out to conjure a bit of mischief, the imps often make the effort to conjure us. Since our projects frequently trespass into different cultural territories, it’s not uncommon to encounter an occasional cold reception or heated debate. Typically, these center around what the Center is or isn’t. Activists? Occultists? Conjurers? Tricksters? Contemporary artists? Martial artists? Con artists? Most of the time we feel that these debates are more productive for everyone when we stay out of them and let folks figure things out on their own. However, we recently received some paradoxical antagonisms via email regarding one of our distribution projects and thought it might be helpful to clarify a few misunderstandings.
To begin, the project in question is a curse. It is a curse in the form of a sticker that is specifically designed to target corporations, institutions, agencies, and the like. And the ire that we raised from two different people couldn’t be more divergent. The first, a self-proclaimed “activist” wrote:
I like a lot of what you guys do, but some of it doesn’t seem very productive. I mean, curses? I just read your article in Arthur about the difference between “magical thinking” and “wishful thinking” and then you suggest “cursing” people in power? This seems hypocritical and/or delusional. I’m open to different people’s spiritual viewpoints, and I don’t mean any offense, but I don’t really see how a curse can be as effective as a protest or a petition.
The second critic, a self-proclaimed “Wiccan High Priestess” wrote:
I have long-admired the Center for Tactical Magic for your innovative interpretations of ancient magickal wisdom. However, I am deeply disturbed and taken aback by your “Diagrammatic Hex.” This curse clearly defies the Wiccan rede: “That ye hurt none, do what thou wilt.” Further, it beckons doom. “That which ye sendeth out, shall returneth three-fold!” This hex you have devised is of the darkest magick, and can only reap darkness in return. It is not only dangerous for you, but irresponsible towards those who would follow you down the Left-hand path to their own demise.
Before we directly address either of the aforementioned concerns, we should set the stage with a short history lesson. The origin of curses is ill-defined; yet, it’s certain that we find hexes, whammies, jinxes, the “evil eye” and all sorts of maleficia in cultures spanning time and geography. More often than not, curses have been cast over personal disputes, vindictive rages, and petty jealousies. However, there have also been instances where curses have been deployed in collective struggles.
In the Middle Ages, the peasant class had no easy avenue of representation through which they could air grievances against their feudal lords. So somewhere between total subjugation and full-scale revolt, curses became a tactic of dissent. By discretely attaching hexes to the property of the feudal lord, the ruling authorities could be made aware of the growing social distemper. While the nobility might be quick to dismiss the hexes as mere foolishness, the laborers of the manor, who belonged to the “superstitious” peasant class, could be relied upon to take the hexes a bit more seriously (and perhaps melodramatically). And unless the feudal lord took steps to remove the curse, the manor and the fief would slip into a dysfunctional mess. Of course, the way to remove the curse would involve rectifying any prevailing injustices.
It’s not too difficult to imagine that similar dramas were no doubt enacted hundreds of years later on plantations across the colonized globe. A bit of well-placed Hoodoo or Voodoo could serve to amplify the collective concerns of house slaves and field slaves alike. Even if the plantation owner took little heed of the “mumbo-jumbo” the workers would certainly make a fuss until things were set right.
Based on these precedents, as well as on our contemporary context of corporate neo-feudalism and wage-slavery, it seemed only fitting that we should revive and update this bit of mojo. As such, we suggest that the modern sticker-hex might produce several positive results:
The CTM presents a new interrogation of power dynamics. Existing at a technological crossroads where torture, recreation, magic, and self-liberation merge together, Witches’ Cradles (2009) are an interactive public installation based on a contemporary re-envisioning of a medieval torture device.
“During the witchcraft persecutions in Europe, Inquisitors are said to have sometimes put an accused witch in a bag, which was strung up over the limb of a tree and set swinging. When witches’ learnt about this punishment they experimented with it themselves and found that the sensory deprivation or confusion of senses induced hallucinatory experiences. A similar swinging motion has long been used by shamans and dervishes and is sometimes known as ‘dervish-dangling’.”
– Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology
Devised initially for interrogation and torture, the witches’ cradle was eventually reclaimed by its potential victims for flights of fancy and inward journeys to altered states of consciousness. Since then, the past 100 years alone have shown us an array of antecedents that cast both shadows and light on the witches’ cradle, ranging from backyard tire swings to mob lynchings; from New Age sensory deprivation tanks to the haunting images from Guantanamo Bay. Even Houdini’s famed illusion, Metamorphosis (in which he freed himself from a locked and tied canvas sack), promised “self-liberation” and “change in 3 seconds.”
The Center for Tactical Magic’s re-envisioning of the witches’ cradle plays on these historical notes while suggesting a present-day desire to conjure positive transformation. Each cradle consists of a large 5-pointed star designed to simultaneously evoke its magical origins, imperial state power, and a cosmic source of light amidst darkness. After sitting in the center pentagon, the points of the star close overhead as the cradle is hoisted off the ground, allowing the participant to swing gently in the darkened center of the collapsed star. Like a black hole, a holding cell, or a metaphysical amusement ride, the Witches’ Cradles distort time and space. It is at this event horizon that the Witches’ Cradles create a place where one can begin to realize an altered state and contemplate the next course of action.
The Witches’ Cradles can be experienced at the Shift Festival of electronic arts and new media in Basel, Switzerland running from Oct 22 – 25, along with our collection of contemporary Wands. This year’s theme for Shift? “Magic. Tech-Evocations and Assumptions of Paranormal Realities”… Enough said.
In the midst of all the New Age therapy-speak in the comments — e.g. “i was the canvas i was doing the painting on, it was a shamanic abstract x-pressionist personal human sculpture” — “sonofman” jumps in to direct the RSers over here to Arthur to check out some of the Center for Tactical Magic’s contributions. Thanks, sonofman. Here’s a quick digest of the Center’s “Applied Magic(k)” columns, for your consideration:
“Magic(k) works.” This declarative statement was recently hurled in our direction with a cautionary tone rather than a celebratory one. The sender of the warning was concerned that we didn’t take magic(k) seriously enough; that we were advocating its use willy-nilly like some sort of fun, new fad. But fear not. Although we don’t believe that fun and magic(k) are at odds with one another, we are nonetheless advocating its use very pointedly and with much consideration. And we are advocating its use precisely because it works.
As we’ve said in the past, one of the primary reasons why people don’t engage in magic(k) in the first place is out of a sense of dismissal. They dismiss magic(k) because they doubt it will produce results; and, they dismiss magic(k) because they fear it will produce results. Indeed, much of the bullshit that fertilizes the grand magic garden reeks of these airs of dismissal. Occult conspiracy theorists will even tell you that such bullshit is built up to protect the fruit from those who would dare set foot in the garden at all. Layers and layers of foul fluff and rotten rhetoric are woven into a formidable pile of vapid New Age-isms, Hollywood cheese, religious warnings, and occult elitism.