“The magician explores the secrets of Nature so as to arouse wonder at the works of God and to inspire a more ardent worship and love of the creator.” —Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia
SEEING THE SIGNS
Occultism appears and reappears throughout history as the practical science of mis-, un-, or anti-recognition. It disarms scientiﬁc truths, misappropriates manners and traditions, and un-recognizes truths and wisdoms of culture in the main. Moments of large-scale scientiﬁc and technological innovations see occult practices ﬂowering in their margins. The occult levies doubt at totalizing intelligence.
A portfolio of Occult actions and practices includes revising methods of truth production, reconsidering what counts as “data”, and developing ritual practices. These activities may ﬁll in gaps left by major truth; the known opens portals towards the unknown. Where scientiﬁc and technocratic discourse insist, at places of extreme vulnerability, on watertight truth, emergent ﬁelds of occult practice wedge open leaks.
A recent publication by the trend-forecasting group K-HOLE reports an uneasiness about the real power of truth-producing, theoretical practice. In August 2015, they wrote “…the truth was not enough. It couldn’t keep Zuccotti Park open, it couldn’t explain Normcore, and it couldn’t keep our friendships intact.”(1) Was theory failing to produce actions in its readership? Critical theory may expose hidden ideological ﬁxtures underneath structures and ﬂows of power; yet a theorist’s actions, like a psychoanalyst’s dreams, may be frustrated by overdetermining actions in a narrow framework of permissions. As K-HOLE wrote, “We needed something stronger. We needed magic.”
Spurned by critical inquisition, practitioning communities emerge. Occult “crafts” test thought in the domain of action, necessarily checked and bridled by the gains of critical theory’s interrogative methods.
Magic ﬁnds its strength in shirking ofﬁcial methods of truth-production. In its opacity and its slipperiness it becomes un-killable. From Cryotherapy to Donald Trump, magical technologies establish themselves by saying “your rules do not apply to me.”
Magic produces its accoutrements in motion: its lifestyles, communities, and events simultaneously spurn the lifestyles of the mainstream (and its aggregate wisdoms), establish speculative theories, and enact tactical strategies that style lived life in accord with occult visions. Dion Fortune, founder of the Society of Inner Light (an offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), wrote,“If we want to penetrate into the deeper issues of occultism it is not enough that we should approach it out of intellectual curiosity; this will reveal us no more than its outer form. The Occult Path is not so much a subject of study as a way of life.”(2)
The active, practicable nature of an occult lifestyle leverages a critique of authoritative truth in the main by supplying an alternative truth. This alternative truth, rather than developing as a critique of the truth of society at large, derives its criteria from necessarily different frameworks; further, its legitimacy is limited to the lifespan of the community who is giving it life.
The critical force wielded by occult truth-communities is documented variously3. The particularity of the critical force of magic comes from the strength of its disavowal of truth. According to Evans-Pritchard (a student of Marcel Mauss, one of the early develops of the ﬁeld of cultural anthropology), the occult is “employed to control ﬂows of power in a society. These concepts refer not only to the techniques of ritual adepts who channel potent occult forces to aid their clients but also to diagnostic processes occurring in social groups to determine whether their members’ (mis)fortune results from such supernatural activities”.(4) Thus, the occult is used to control ﬂows of power in multiple directions. It produces effects whereby powerful magic can be wielded by one who derives his or her authority by means other than ofﬁcial procedures. It can also be used as a diagnostic test, to explain otherwise unreasonable exercises of foreign power on subjects stripped of their agency.(5)
Evans-Pritchard’s description of the mechanics of occult power brings into focus the tendency of the occult to hide its motives and its truth-metrics from those outside it. For occult wisdoms, or cultic wisdoms in general, gain members in a highly selective initiatory economy - often in which an expert is granted authority by a mysterious or hidden source. From whence comes the special knowledge of the Shamanic healer, the Indigo child, the Agony Aunt? On the other hand, magical procedures are built to be reactivated by new communities. Thus, the spell-book is a text that anyone who has the luck to ﬁnd it may use. Magical procedures are user-customizable, manifesting in routines and rituals particular to the needs and capabilities of individual communities of practitioners. New technologies of magic are easily retroﬁtted to ancient magical procedures. So, occult power - while retaining a ﬁdelity to mysterious and selective sources - has the potential to be democratized by its culture of action, and its ability to adapt to the speciﬁc circumstances to which it is summoned.
One more note on critical theory.The occult ﬁeld, particularly the ﬁeld of divination (which shall be the focus of the rest of this essay) is uniquely skillful in answering the question posed by a subject who is stripped of agency, “why are bad things happening to me?” As James Bureaucraft reports, “A number of scholars have documented an intensiﬁcation of ‘witchcraft’ discourses and practices…as well as a rise in suspicion, paranoia, and conspiracy theories regarding political and economic practices in postsocialist and Western neoliberal states. Witch hunts become ‘forms of political action…to divert and control power, channel the distribution of resources, establish a public sphere in which moral order may be negotiated, and construct reality itself’ (emphasis mine)”.(6) A witch hunt, as a political action, militarizes theoretical discourses about power ﬂows. Critical theory is profuse when it names its enemies, but it checks itself (perhaps rightly) as far as active hunting.
In any prophesy or divination, a diviner attempts to answer the inquiry of the querent. However, in the relationship between the querent (asker of questions) and the expert or reader of signs, the dual nature of occult power can work for or against the querent. Power can use the occult to obfuscate mechanisms by which power is itself (unlawfully, coercively, and extra-ordinarily) attained. Thus, the gains made by critical theory are critical here, and cannot be thrown out. The skillful re-possession of agency by critics of power can check the power claimed by experts and visionaries of the historical occult, which relies on the mysterious and indisputable status and authority of the reader of the signs. Critical theory can acknowledge its lacks without devolving into submission to the spiritual expertise of a Rasputin-ﬁgure; together with the methods of the occult, theory can generate actions against anomie and violation wielded against the subordinated by institutional and commercial powers.
THE MOMENT OF THE SIGN
a reader-the one who poses the question of the object; the interpreter
a querent - the one for whom the question is asked
an object - the material producing language
Divination and object-based healing practices look to objects to stimulate a moment of meaning. Here, objects are vessels of energy, channels connecting the living to the dead, and carriers of latent, ancient wisdom. They communicate with the “querent” (the asker of unanswered questions), sometimes through the interpretation of the reader and sometimes directly, bypassing a third party.
The object produces an event of signiﬁcation, rather than a linguistic network of meaning. So, in the moment of signiﬁcation, the object means what it means at the moment of apprehension. It triangulates a relationship of meaning between itself, the querent, (and sometimes the reader) in time. It breaks open the web of language and even ﬁelds of meaning that may have been established in previous readings or moments of address.
The use and exchange of sign-producing objects in occult practices threatens the individual and incontrovertible authority of the reader or interpreter, who must continuously source back to the inalienable spirit of the object. An occult sign-reading or interpretive event seeks a truth-metric that is established by the object and the relationships that converge around it at the moment of interpretation. In one scenario, the pendant of your grandmother, which was present at the birth of your daughter, is sending energy to you from its box in your closet, which signiﬁes that your mother wants to reestablish connection with her granddaughter. But it will not produce that truth every time.
This kind of interaction with objects can be contrasted to the method by which capital circulates objects (7), which must be dissolved into a "currency", a currency that melts the distinctive features of objects, stirring everything into its aqueous liquid...
THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE
The sale and exchange of art(ifacts) on a speculative market offers up for inspection a strange collision that is happening all the time; which is, the interaction of a liquid currency (8) with an object’s latent or indissoluble qualities. The sale of objects known as art hones in on this disjunction in fascinating ways, and demands objects to freeze their properties in time to maintain their status as a speculative option. Art objects, and their function in ﬁnancial markets as repositories of value, must either repress or explicitly acknowledge their corporal change. Unlike their possessors and those who attribute value to currency, they do not die.
So, art objects present somewhat of a roadblock to the movement of liquid assets and circulating capital, simultaneously as they are stable repositories for value and thus, sound conductors of speculative energy.
Here, it might be prudent to explain the term “liquidity”, from economics, since it is upon this concept that the entirety of the following metaphorical voyage will ﬂoat. Liquidity, in most cases, is used by economists to describe the rate at which an asset or commodity can be turned into cash. Cash is the most liquid of commodities; precious metals are highly liquid; assets like real estate, rare books, or artifacts have lower levels of liquidity. Liquidity describes the interaction of the universal solvent of cash with other objects, people, services, rating these from high- to low- convertibility. It asks a person, how fast can you turn into cash? And then, how much cash will you yield?
A strange object - as Isabelle Graw puts it - “special commodity”, produces around it relationships which architect new manners of relation. They can carve through systems of equivalency and transvaluation, and the history of art is speckled with moments when things are truly mysterious.
Liquefaction, when describing objects and relationships, means that things in their particularity are dissolved by a translator with some degree of universality (money, language etc) into terms expressible by the translator. The idiosyncratic body of the art(ifact) frustrates liquidity, defying systems of translation and “abstract” value. This is precisely what makes it such an excellent speculative option: because its value can be constantly re-appraised by features related to, but not identical to, rates of credit and the common esteem of stocks. The idiosyncratic body of the art(ifact) is marked, even engendered by, non-negotiable speciﬁcity (n.b., this goes for digital art as well as, say, painting). As such - and this constitutes its spectacular ﬂoating value feature - it can be counterposed to a solvent, universal mediator such as money or other systems of currency. (9)
Before and after it meets the market, the art object demands valuation by terms other than those of traditional commodities. In many cases, the relationships that are produced around the object known as art - in spite of the professionalization many art worlds - are equally subject to nontraditional modes of valuation, outside of sanctioned production and exchange.
Transactions by liquid forms of valuation (such as currency, languages, and perhaps digital images), often force agreement in subjects - suppressing the speciﬁcity of these encounters. More than this, a liquid exchange presupposes ﬂuency on the part of both contracting parties, leaving little room for consideration of the terms of exchange or the organization of production. Fluid exchange presupposes an agreed-upon language of value, bypassing checks on the appropriateness of a trade in situations where mutual currency is not used to transact.
The mythology of the historical avant-garde focuses on objects and situations which aren’t already dissolved into terms of translation. As such, they avoid situations which would allow them to be freely and easily exchanged, without exceptional apparatus or descriptive scaffoldings. It can be said, too, that the most apparent effect of the art market’s professionalization is the aggressive application of language to situations of art, securitizing art as a commodity by means other than ﬁnancial conﬁdence, shoring up its value in language simultaneously as it is stored in wealth.
The apprehension, the care, and the maintenance of “strange objects”, or art, is still spawning alternative forms of social relationship, kindled by the necessity to exchange and produce aside of the help of a universal translator like money or language - outside of formalized and ofﬁcial situations of production.
The moment at which an object is known indisputably as “art” is mythologized as a challenge to liquid exchange. Why are websites like “www.art.sy” obscene? It is regarded obscene by many to attribute monetary value to unremunerated care in domestic spaces too. Economies of affect repress the signals of liquid transaction in order to preserve the appearance of particularity or singularity. So too does the art object repress signals of liquidity around it, in hopes of maintaining its magical value.
While the domestic arena is a good place to look for it, the avant-garde happens at the disjunction of liquid currency and speciﬁc items.
As is much bemoaned, hinted around, fabled (but rarely openly and frankly discussed), the relationships that populate the art world are notoriously informal, involving the shaking of hands and the nodding of heads, secret meetings and favors, alliances of taste and concerns. Of course, this pledge to informality generates endless nuances in social behaviors surrounding art practice. Styles of relationships that are fomented here have historically anticipated shifts in production at large - as the variety of responses to the absence of code creates a multitude of appropriable social forms (10). In this open ﬁeld of value-creation, capital ﬁnds places to ﬂow into and liquify increasingly larger and more diverse grounds of production and exchange.
This is, in fact, one of the greatest dangers of the production of art objects. The relationships formed in a constantly re-negotiated space of production, as often as they are birthing extra- or para-economic relationships (which purportedly avoid the exploitations of ofﬁcial capital exchange), are also opening ﬂoodgates for moneys to be able to describe and enter into increasingly expanded instances of relationship and exchange.
Nevertheless, the art object’s magical qualities do persist in the non-liquidity of its forms, its hesitation before cash-talk, its “utter particularity”. The art object gets to stage a complex life-afﬁrming and self-immolating ontological totality: theoretically, it’s safe from linguistic solvency.
And here is the art world’s fragile freedom - its redemption and its reprehensibility - it uses a territory outside of ofﬁcial regulations and commercial sanctions, which allows it to interact with objects’ so-called latent qualities and people’s genuine connections. In an effort to maintain a sense of authenticity, it is always fearing and avoiding a co-optation by a commercial or litigious body. However, it is this freedom the producers of art worlds must simultaneously protect and police, maintaining an awareness of the advantage for economic powers in the main to appropriate and exploit the methods, techniques, and relationships that this freedom births.
In the age of liquid, where it is in the interest of an image’s survival to be absolutely transmissible, an image of art - or art insofar as it produces images - struggles to retain any aura of insolvency. To reframe the freedoms that the art world has excised from the historical avant-garde, we may look to the witch-crafts as a helpful paradigm for thinking. Occult practice, and its pinioning of action to language, may be a bastion for practices which maintain speciﬁcity; whose ethics are constituted by apprehension, care, and interacting with an ontology of solids - the bodies of mystery and unknowing as such.
The occult, and occult practices, describe a way in which mysterious objects, and the relationships we have around and with them, can be paradigmatic for a a magician’s aesthetics of citizenship. A magician’s citizenship might engage the speciﬁcity of its participants while maintaining a relationship to systems of universal translation (the book of spells, if you will).
This aesthetics of citizenship responds to calls from speciﬁcity, un- or pre-coded relationships, complex and indissoluble transactions (which are occurring always alongside systems of exchange anyway.)
The art object as it is experienced by the practitioners who produce, sell, and maintain it, gives rise to improvisational forms of citizenship within that community of objects, institutions, and persons.
At the peripheries of economies, traditional or “liquid” exchange breaks down into slow-moving water, a web of sticky attachments which cause things to be exchanged or withheld. (In economic theory, the term “stickiness”, describes any element in an exchange that resists the exchange. E.g, the word “sticky” is often used when describing market prices that, for whatever reason, stay high or low despite ﬁnancial pressures.)
Exchange at the peripheries slows down the ﬂow of money, expressing with increased precision conditions that form the basis of exchange; or, the basis of withholdings. In the periphery, the hidden sticky supplement that haunts an event of liquid exchange makes itself known. It can manifest as a handshake behind a big business deal, an affair with a co-worker or an employee, a reluctance to buy when money is cheap and a reluctance to sell even at the zenith of the credit cycle. The rapid increase of exchanges made possible by the internet (the stream) - which has sped up a long history of liquefaction of untranslated objects/events/persons by making possible a landscape of total virtual representation (11) brings the presence of the hidden stickiness of these exchanges into sharp relief.
Paradoxically, the rapid increase of sales of all kinds of goods and services - and ﬁguring out how to monetize what might have been previously simply exchanged as favors - can slow and challenge the mechanisms by which value is assigned to exchange. Further, the marketing of goods and services on the internet, which often puts a seller and a buyer into direct contact (without third party suppliers), places the authority to translate directly into the hands of the exchanging parties.
A SHORT NOTE ON DIVINATION (or, divination versus credit)
The practice of divination is a future-oriented event, in which a querent addresses an object (or a body part, an element…) and awaits the signs that the object delivers. In the act of divination, the truth of the object is disclosed in a ﬂeeting moment of legibility, which dies again at the moment of transaction. The object, in ecstatic communion with the querent (or through a third party- the reader or seer of signs), responds to the querent’s speciﬁc address, providing information about the present and future that could not be obtained by traditional means of speculation or data-collection.
In Greek, manteia, (Prophet) was used to describe events of divination when the situation involved mystic understandings of the object’s signs. The sufﬁx -mancy, when attached to a root word (such as “helio”), describes a divination event sourced from the root word. (Heliomancy: “reading signs from the sun”.) —skopia, a sufﬁx, was used in similar contexts, but when the divination-event involved an analytic process more closely resembling scientiﬁc methods. Manteia hails from the Eleusinian Mysteries, referring to a state of consciousness in which consciousness is able to free itself from the ego, now able to perceive signs without interference.
An attempt to make meaning free from the manipulations of power characterizes many strains of occult divination. However, the belief that the ego of the reader disappears at the apprehension of the ritual object’s message is an irresponsible elision of the reader’s interests (remember: the occult power has the tendency to obscure its motives!) This problem is the subject of many palm-reader jokes, in which the querent is duped by a palm-reader or psychic, assuming that her motives are pure and not proﬁteering…
Divination is a process by which information is gathered where materials are richly situated. It involves the ritual handling or treatment of an object (including, but not limited to: ﬁnding an object or obtaining it by illicit or uncouth means; addressing the object with a question or simply awaiting its message; manipulating the object’s form; interacting with the object in a particular way which is sensitive to the circumstances and the people it involves; and so on.) Divination can answer highly individual questions where common logic, due process, or the concern of an authority, fails. The object, in a ﬂeeting moment of legibility, produces signs and reveals omens.
“Spontaneous divination”, another helpful term from the historical occult (12), is an event in language in which signs come to the diviner from whatever object comes into the ﬁeld of the diviner’s vision or vibration. This may include the reading of auras, and feng shui. In this case, the power of alter-linguistic signiﬁcation comes not so much from objects, but from the attention of the diviner. The power of spontaneous divination, to continue shuttling from one ﬁeld of study to the other, may be likened to the genius of the artist, as it has been understood in many art worlds.
Chaos magic and spontaneous divination both describe gifts of vision combined with actions that can re-value objects and events. These magics are sensitive to the collusion of objects’ use, history, and material particularity to produce singular instances of meaning. Truth-metrics and measures of equivalence are, by divination, continuously reset, and thus able to respond to contingent circumstances, changing relationships, and foreign bodies. An event of divination de facto unbinds the signifying fabrics surrounding objects made by currency; linguistic or otherwise.
Chaos-magic is uniquely prepared to apprehend an alter-linguistic, richly contingent, and relatively unstable dense material world.
Credit is the linguistic opposite of divination. Credit relies on a kind of semiomancy (reading of signs within the domain of symbols itself), where symbols must be manipulated at a constant rate to maintain and accrue conﬁdence within the network of their own meaning. The credit cycle, then, can be described as a linguistic metric of trust, in which conﬁdence - or, lack of it - is evinced directly by the strength or weakness of interest rates. If the symbol for debt (interest) is not taken seriously, and at an ever-increasing rate of seriousness or legitimacy, then currency, interest, and credit are no longer meaningful and fail to produce the value in the future which they promised in the past.
THE 7 FORBIDDEN ARTS
“Other criteria”, which are involved in the production, distribution, and exhibition of artworks.
The seven forbidden arts, in Johannes Hartleib’s northern Renaissance catalogue (13), describe improvisational rituals and spontaneous languages of exchange that are based upon criteria that an object or event demands of its handlers. These instances of art are arbiters of chaos-magics (14) par excellence, given the dynamic tensions created by the art object's being, theoretically, invaluable. The situations that unfold around the instance of art delay, but do not thwart, a frictionless transfer of goods, information, or value which - in other scenarios, would be fast, regular, and seamless. The situations that unfold around the strange and mysterious object delay a transfer of goods, information, and value which would be, in scenarios mediated by liquid currency, seamless, fast, regular.
These legends reveal, each in their own ways, occult practices orbiting around and issuing from the art object or art event, and exist contiguously to the ﬂuid exchanges of currency and goods which are ofﬁciated by the economy in the mainstream. Though art objects and events are certainly not unique producers of these scenarios, their visibility as evidence of production may open up a ﬁeld of vision around para-economic activity. The oft-discussed peculiar relationship of artists to money should come as no surprise: art worlds run on soul and visions. This economy of soul and vision, conceals the unremunerated exchange of life force by the producers of divining rods and ritual objects. Why, when the plenitude of the truth is so much more interesting ? The richness of the material text of the relationships of production and exchange in the art world might offer solid ground; a balletic response to the liquid futures of semiomancy tenuously architected by the credit cycle.
GEOMANCY / land-signs / the reading of the land by the laboring body
In the push to streamline, companies are turning what were formerly full-time positions into intermittent, on-call, part-time, or adjunct positions. This is especially common in universities, where tenured positions are being replaced by adjunct ones.
Adjunct faculty are often traveling incredibly long distances between geographically remote college campuses in order to get themselves to work. They travel by bus, car, train, subway, plane, and foot (and most often, an elaborate combination of these) to get their bodies to the lectern. The leanness of the economic model used by the universities (making full-time positions adjunct, often paying as little as $5,000 a semester, and revoking beneﬁts) presents an incredible strain - taking the form of excessive deferrals of centralized company-management to personal self-management - on the faculty, while cutting costs on the university’s bills. (15)
In July 2015, some adjunct faculty members of art universities had put together a newspaper on the issue of commuting faculty. I hopped on board the commuter rail to Boston to attend its launch.
A light mist fell on the ICA. A man sat on a stool in the front of the room, reading a testimonial from his long career of commuting. Looking around the room, I noticed that most of the attendants were mid-career professorial types who seemed fatigued.
After listing some of the more startling facts about the poverty that many adjunct faculty now experience, the editor looked around the room and said, “this simply cannot go on.”
This endless travel for minimal pay - in all weather. It cannot go on. The picking up of life and the perpetual motion. The fatigue and the trafﬁc, the waiting for public transport, the coordinating of private transport, the endless ﬁnagling of schedules and tickets, the loss of possessions in the whirlwind of constant motion, it cannot go on.
For now, a premium on in-person appearances at art events, launches, tours, openings, etc. makes geography and geographic manipulations (experienced directly by our bodies….an hour can mean so many distances and so much or little fatigue, depending upon your mode of travel.) Though labor becomes ﬂexible, sheer mileage doesn’t, and it becomes a larger and larger part of the work experience as rents in urban places skyrocket. How many miles have traveled over these bodies? And what is the toll?
NECROMANCY / black magic / the summoning of the dead by the living
The studio next door to one I worked in was home to a team of painting restorers. Day after day, boxes in strange shapes and sizes would be deposited at the restoration studio. Contained within each of these boxes was a work of art, each requiring something or other to return the object to the unique conditions of the original. Gels and salves, lotions and potions (and often, poisons which had long been declared illegal for use by metals and waste authorities) arrived in neat little boxes and bottles.
One day, on the way to the bathroom, I nearly body-checked Duane Hanson’s Bus Stop Lady. To my unfocused eye, she like a dead woman in a shipping crate. I shuddered deeply. Isabelle Graw has indicted the painted mark for indexing a laborer’s very spirit (16), ultimately subjecting soul to the caprices of market speculation - in so doing, the painter places at the mercy of the market the totality of his or her being. What could be so wrong about that? Hers is a pretty convincing argument, except for the fact that it misses the richness of the facts: “the soul” it has captured is a Frankensteinian monster, which binds a nominal soul (that of the artist) to the labor of an entire network of producers, restorers, handlers, conditioners. This intricate texture of labor must remain hidden, necessitated by the fact that the artwork, in order to retain its extremely high value, must stage an epic battle of anti-aging/anti-outmoding. And so, the thing known as art enlists a giant company of workers attempting to assist the artwork in stopping time from acting upon it - or at lest producing a convincing effect of the artwork’s ability to do so.
The joke of the situation, of course, is that this war on time generates inﬁnitely novel material innovations, in order to naturalize a deeply anti-chronic goal.
HYDROMANCY / signs in the water / the liquid sleeve around things
Water, the ﬂuid that enabled the ﬁrst forms of contact between isolated regions; water is the fascination of visible constant motion, it is approach and recess. To all appearances, it stands outside of entropy.
Money is humanity’s apotheosis of liquid. Water forms a perfect negative of the thing that displaces it, and a ripple echoes its shape to inﬁnity… Water traces the chemical code of what it has surrounded, storing that information forever. Water and objects: an analogy for the tension created by exchange.
Here’s a parable.
Once, a man I knew who was working in the tech industry was excited that I was studying art. In an attempt to establish some common ground, he described a game-changing web project he had heard about - an archive site that allowed art objects to be traded virtually by investors and collectors. Collectors could now bid and trade digital versions of the works. The no-hassle system allowed works to trade owners with ease, accruing value at an unprecedented rate. Centralizing all of this business proceeded smoothly, and the website’s storehouses were well-equipped to care for the works. The artwork was now allowed to trade hands and accrue value on a secondary market more quickly and easily.
The man broke off here, seeing that I wasn’t sure quite what to make of this news. Here’s the rest of the story:
One day, there was a terrible hurricane - the worst the Western Hemisphere had ever seen. All of the works of art in the warehouse was destroyed by water.
So the art world went off of the gold standard, if you will, for this epoch; whichever collector owned the work at the time of the hurricane now owned the sole and absolute rights to its representation within the digital catalogue, at this point enjoying triple the value of the art object when it had existed as a physical body. Speculators in this art world continued to use trading cards and product codes while somewhere, elsewhere, teenagers set ﬁre to buildings, babies are born and will die, someone stands and sings melodies out of an apartment window, and the wind picks up the sound.
AEROMANCY / signs from wind-patterns / an elaborate social ritual around consumption The week is NEW YORK FASHION WEEK. It is a time where, like hot air, the raw energy of consumption is caught in turbines and re-routed for the coming season. What was once in is now out; and designers, buyers, and stockists must divert their supplies. A young designer puts on a show in a building tucked somewhere above the buzz of the main events of the week and generates a counter-buzz. The sound rises, the sound deafens, until the young designer, who has materialized a fashion show out of what seems like pure energy, blows the coverage of his show like digital smoke over the meticulously-architected trends at FASHION WEEK.
These vigilante provocateurs cloud the ﬁeld of consumption and trend- tracking, diverting the forecast and bringing in unexpected weather. The elaboration of a “lifestyle”, as well as the activation of a huge network of social ﬁgures around the buying of an object makes it, at long last, totally inarticulate. We can no longer imagine buying anything without being included in the weather of the product; and like weather, there is no real telling whether its good or bad, gauche or haute, responsible or irresponsible. The wind slows the travel of some objects and speeds the travel of others, through lines of production, fabrication, display, and purchase. There are currents in the air that destroy the wind patterns created by advertising. Funnily enough, the expansion of fashion into life itself turns all lifestyle production into a matter of inclement weather, unpredictable as rain. How will anything be produced if entire worlds must be created to clear the air for a clean sale?
The irony: the reduction of money to a matter of motion ultimately implies total paralysis for a system, because it registers the thick material content of a purchase, or a sale, or a service rendered, ultimately meaningless. Thus, inﬁnite amounts of water of another kind are released into the atmosphere, causing weather around a current. Readers of the wind, adepts in the art of the commodity-pheromone, may track these ﬂows. Those who participate in production must be sensitive as lightning rods and ﬂexible as sea-grass. Others may retreat to bunkers, awaiting the end of the storm.
PYROMANCY / signs read in ﬁre / those things which are taken away
ForceField FireGuard E-84 is a ﬂame retardant paint, a thin sludge that can be spread on the surfaces of interior buildings to prevent the spread of ﬁre, protect from smoke, and helps materials resist charring when ﬂames touch it. For two hours of continuous exposure to ﬂames, the paint will swell and decrease in density, creating a sort of protective blanket between itself and the surface it is protecting. At the end of two hours, the barrier will cease to expand, and Forceﬁeld FireGuard E-84 will not be able to hold the destructive essence at bay.
Forceﬁeld is also the name of a Providence-based collective of artists who used textiles - plentiful in the city - as well as other materials deeply connected to the issue and tissue of the city.
Jim Drain, one of the original members of the collective (the others: Ara Peterson, Matt Brinkman, and Leif Goldberg), answered some questions below on the relationships the collective had to these materials.
VH: I read in an article online that Force Field created some of the tunnels themselves as well as exploring some that already existed. How did you ﬁnd the tunnels, what went into opening new ones up, and - when you think of your relationship to the physical city of Providence, does this feel like a signiﬁcant part of it?
JD: Providence has an extensive tunnel system. The person who told us about the tunnel died of a horrible accident. Actually, it is really difﬁcult to think about it. It took weeks for him to be identiﬁed. But, I can say this: there is as much or more brick below ground than above ground.
VH: When did using ﬁre become a part of the group's activities? In “Tunnel Vision”, there are ﬂaming torches. One time Ara came by to drop something for my friend who was assisting him, and he threw ﬁrecrackers out the window of the car as he drove away. And then there was the bonﬁre at Brian Gibson's this summer when he got hurt. I have heard a little bit of an oral history from Kik Williams and Bayne Peterson about bonﬁres when the group gets together, and was wondering if you could talk a little about that.
JD: Do you know about the manhole covers that explode? In the winter, gas builds up over time and and the smallest spark will make these huge, heavy disks of steel ﬂy high into the air. "Fatalities are rare, but one of the worst accidents happened in Pittsburgh in 1991, when an underground explosion sent a manhole cover through the windshield of a mother's car, beheading her in front of her children."
VH: What kinds of materials that relate to ﬁre have you used; how and where do you get them? Do you have to bring illegal stuff from other states?
JD: I was asked to run a workshop with kids from pretty tough places, very under-resourced places in Florida. We were given a budget of $100 at an art fair. I had the organizers bring singles. I had each of the kids burn a dollar bill, mix it with water and glue and use it as ink to make drawings.
VH:There's a product online that's called ForceField FireGaurd - it's a ﬁre retardant paint sold at Home Depot. I was wondering if there was any link between the name ForceField and this product, or if its just a coincidence.
JD: They did not like our ﬁre-oxidant paint idea.
CHIROMANCY / signs read in the palm / the pressing of hands
The hand is an index, identiﬁer, but also a sign of invitation, of humility or pride. With our hands, we record our own presence, we fashion objects and touch others. The length of the arm makes the hands the parts of our bodies that extend farthest into the world; thus, they may used against us, used against others. They represent the eternal nuance of engagement.
Blood from a kill, blown against a hand pressed against the cave wall, creating a silhouette.
one to one - trace
Grauman’s Chinese Theater, boasting the third largest commercial movie screen in America. The world-renowned actress Mary Pickford walks into a into a drying bed of concrete, pressing an image of her approach to a premiere into the landscape forever. It is said that this began the tradition of pressing handprints into concrete on Hollywood Boulevard.
one to two - vector
Biometric Identiﬁcation Systems advance. Several users of the iPhone 5 realize that pressing the same ﬁnger multiple times into the ﬁngerprint scanner will create a fuller picture of the print - intuitively understanding the necessity of a “ﬂexible” pattern, that can register multiple two-dimensional images at once. Developers at Apple include this capability into the next version of the phone, which requests that users rotate the ﬁnger slightly during the scan so that a composite image of the print may be created. The full print unlocks the phone, resuming the transmission of data from the user to the internet.
one to three - full motion
SCAPULIMANCY / signs read in animals’ bones / on the quiet labor of animals
Italy 1968. Factory workers make some gains in the struggle against exploitation and the miserable condition of labor; the slogan “Better wages, shorter hours!” begins to see some real effects. Then, in December 1969, a series of bombings in Rome and Milan leave 108 wounded and 17 dead; terrorist activities on the right (many suspect they are commissioned by Fascist powers) will continue into the 1980’s, mounting to over 4,000 isolated events in just over a decade. These effectively stiﬂe momentum made by the critique of the left, plunging Italy into what political philosopher Antonio Negri will later call “the winter of the revolution” (17).
In 1969, an artist herds 12 horses into a gallery on the Via Beccaria in Rome. For the duration of the exhibition, they are tethered facing the walls. Images of the exhibition show a grid of bridles afﬁxed to spare walls and hard tile ﬂooring. Black and white photographs that survive the exhibition render a severe scene in which the horse performs the labor of standing upright for several hours during the viewing hours.
In 2016, a large commercial gallery moves from downtown to Harlem. Included in their farewell exhibition is a restaging of the 1969 Italian performance. Twelve horses are carted in from the upscale metro area. A soft padded ﬂoor is provided for them, they are attended at all times by groomsmen, supplied with hay and water, and at the end of the workday they return home. Protestors appear at the gallery. One sign reads “MODERN SLAVERY” (borrowing language from bygone days of union struggle). PETA’s president releases a statement that the horses need exercise; that despite the provisions made by the gallery for the horses’ comfort, that it’s bad for a horse to be tethered for such long durations, given its minimum requisites for daily exercise.
The horse, along with the bull, is an animal with strong associations to the image and feeling of labor - its broad shoulders, its back and strong forelegs denoting with special poignancy the grace and gravity of continuous exertion. And the horse was the vehicle for some of the earliest forms of cultural exchange, as travel on horseback allowed people to establish trade routes over land. In both iterations of the exhibition the labor of the horses rhymes with the labor of museum guards, who stand upright who and more or less immobile, bound by invisible links to works on display. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not the text read by visitors to the exhibition. Rather, viewers described the presence of the horses as providing an immense feeling of calm, of serene composure, of awe and respect for the physicality of these animals. Many viewers wrote off the concerns of the protesters, remarking that these animals were happy just “doing their thing”.
Art can take the side of the ecological critique, as Boltanski and Chiapello have decided, insofar as it can magnify the particularity of individual entities within an ecosystem or a culture. As labor becomes less and less distinct from the rest of lived life, perhaps one day we too will lose sight of the conditions of the worker, who is simply “doing his or her thing” at varying levels of intensity, all the time. However, today, we retain the potential to critique the level of dignity available to laborers in the conditions of their labor, the sensitivity to health concerns, the level of attention to real needs borne out of real situations. Reading the two exhibitions - from 1969 to 2016, gives the feeling of some amount of progress. What it would look like, for an institution to commission labor from animals in 2050? Here is some great speculative potential of a work such as this, and one of the merits of its re-staging.
GREY MAGIC (18)
Art objects; their care and keeping, and especially the expansion of formats by which things may be known as art, occasions relationships which break common rhythms of exchange and production, and occupies a grey space between desire and commerce, sacriﬁce and exchange.
Their material strangeness creates a paradigm for “strange relationships” that in turn generate expansive measures of value.
Divination practices rely on an object’s dense materialism (insofar as it retains embedded histories, insofar as it is a conductor for relationships of production, exchange, and destruction, and insofar as it possesses a unique corporal proﬁle) as the generator of symbolic value - as opposed to operating within systems of value that appear before an event with the object. Divination delays smooth linguistic ﬂows; in particular, interrupting the ﬂows of language from those possessing power towards those who are subordinated by it. A mechanism of delay, or an introduction of stickiness to a usually ﬂuid exchange, gives us pause to consider the speciﬁcity of objects being touched by linguistic currencies before the truth-metric of cash dissolves their particularity.
This special production of meaning occurs at the site of appreciation of the density of an object’s situation.
The unique success of art as a market today, in which new works are storing and accruing monetary value in a somewhat unprecedented way (19), should serve as an opportunity to witness the collision of liquids and solids at an unusually high rate, and with some degree of transparency…
The art market operates in a murky area between coded and uncoded rituals; its ungoverned terrain an excellent view of gray magic. Because it is a market that is absolutely deregulated, and one that also celebrates its mysteriousness, these uncommon relationships are often hidden.
Herein lies the fragility of the art world’s freedom: its existence in and active use of a territory outside of ofﬁcial regulations and commercial sanctions; always fearing and avoiding a co-optation by a commercial or litigious body nevertheless allows for uncountable experiments in processes of production and circulation, which may, as Mauss has asserted, be the primary arbiter of change in beliefs about human relations as such. (20) Thus, it is this freedom for which the producers of art worlds must be responsible, as it is in production’s best interest to appropriate the art world’s novel forms of exploitation as well as its triumphs of digniﬁed relation.
Art can politicize production by magnifying the point at which things with intrinsic value (by virtue of their being particular) are interacting with currencies that seek to re-term them in the language of systems of extrinsic value. This moment, seen as a collision-course of mixed languages, can be instructive, creative, dynamic, dimensional - a grey magic par excellence.
It is misanthropic to insist on the total solidity of forms. The recognition of the connective power of liquefaction is to declare respect for communication and interaction. How might we then simply slow the moment when matter enters a phase change, when solids turn into language and when language destabilizes before solids, in order to respond to the nuances of this phenomenon?
1. Fong, Greg, Sean Monahan, Emily Segal, Chris Sherron, and Dena Yago. K-HOLE #5 (2015): n. pag. Aug. 2015. Web.
2. Fortune, Dion. What Is Occultism? York Beach, Me.: S. Weiser, 2001. 24. Print.
3. The relationship between the occult and the powers-that-be is well-investigated in Jennifer Walters’ dissertation, Magical Revival: Occultism and the Culture of Regeneration in Britain C. 1880 - 1929. (Diss. U of Stirling, 2007.)
4. Evans-Pritchard, E. E., and Eva Gillies. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. Print.
5. It is no surprise, then, that occult practices and wisdoms thrive in colonized countries. Colonized residents, having alien wisdoms thrust upon them by colonial powers, produce occult wisdoms that explain the unreasonable exercise of force upon them.
6. James, Erica Caple. "Witchcraft, Bureaucraft, and the Social Life of (US) Aid in Haiti." Cultural Anthropology 27, no. 1 (2012): 50–75.
7. Saskia Sassen, in a lecture, makes the point that liquid assets (a financial purchase, in which the thing bought is only purchased to be sold again) always “stand for something else”.
8. N.B the relationship of the words “currency” and “current.” A current is fluid, flowing. Viewed from the ground, its origin and destination is nearly impossible to determine.
9. Works such as Seth Price’s “dispersion”, Murakami’s raster-based imagery, and even Warhol’s prints, point towards this liquidity feature by positioning their works closer to currency than to linguistically isolated events of signification.
10. Particularly relevant here is the reaction of mainstream production technologies to the loose and diverse forms of cultural production in the 1970’s. This instance is the subject of Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, 2006), which elaborates the relationship of artistic production to production in the main from the 1970’s till 1999.
11. I of course speak of the sale of goods on the internet, the exchange of services virtually, and the closing of physical distance between people by the incredible reach of communication technologies.
12. Episodes of spontaneous divination, or prophesying, are recorded in ancient Egyptian texts and are formalized as rituals in Greek oracular practices. See Andrew Friend, A Bell Curve: The Rise and Decline of Traditional Religion. (Authorhouse, 2011.)
13. Between 1456 and 1464 Johannes Hartlieb compiled a list of the seven magical practices he observed in the magical communities surrounding Munich. The structure of his list echoes the list structure of the seven artes liberales and artes mechanicae, from classical antiquity and from the 9th century, respectively.
14. See K-HOLE #5 (2015). Though I am not convinced that their description of chaos-magic, or the way that they wield the term, is not architected on dicey neoliberalist attitudes, I do think the term can be helpful if used carefully.
15. 14% of adjunct faculty register incomes at or above the poverty line. See http:// adjunctcommuterweekly.com/
16. Graw, Isabelle. High Price: Art between the Market and Celebrity Culture. Berlin: Sternberg, 2009. Print.17. Negri, Antonio, Giuseppe Caccia, Jason E. Smith, Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson. The Winter Is Over: Writings on Transformation Denied, 1989--1995. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
18. There is black magic and there is white magic, good and evil, positive and negative. Somewhere in the middle resides the gray witch, describing a witch who cannot curse, who cannot heal, and whose interaction with nature is neither net positive or net negative. Robert Cochrane, a key figure in the traditional witchcraft movement in the mid 1900’s, derives the power of craft in extreme doubt and the balance of polarities. In a letter to fellow practitioner William G. Gray, he writes, “Nothing is purely good or evil, these are relative terms that man has hung upon unacceptable mysteries…What matters is…the acceptance of Truth as opposed to illusion.” see Jones, Evan John., Robert Cochrane, and Michael Howard. The Roebuck in the Thicket: An Anthology of the Robert Cochrane Witchcraft Tradition. Chieveley: Capall Bann, 2001. Print.
19. According to Bloomberg, the average compound annual return on works of art has been 33% and increasing since 2004. info from Yuille, Bridgitte. "Fine Art Funds: A Beautiful Investment.” Web.
20. Mauss, Marcel, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: Norton, 1967. Print.