Tactical Magic: A Talk with Aaron Gach
I would like to introduce the Reality Sandwich audience to Aaron Gach, of the Center for Tactical Magic whose tagline is "Mixing Magic, Art & Social Engagement since 2000." I sat down with him at the "Democracy in America" art exhibition on September 26, 2008 in NYC, nearby the Center's Tactical Ice Cream Unit, a rather sleek Fascist looking treat vehicle which freely dispenses informative flyers about the law and public rights to anyone looking to buy frozen snacks. It also features a bangin audio system.
Aaron spoke about the ideas which formulated the Center, his ice cream truck, and the relationship between art and magic. The Center dissects the uses of power in our world and uses this information to aid individuals in cleverly reclaiming his or her power using the broad spectrum of magic.
AL: Tell me a little bit about how you got the Center for Tactical Magic started and your related early childhood experiences.
AG: Hi my name is Aaron Gach, and I'm a co-founding member of the Center for Tactical Magic. The Center actually began in a pretty boring academic way. I guess in the way magic tends to happen, you get these surprises that are often fortuitous and I think CTM's foundations were sort of one of those surprises. At the beginning I had this notion of interviewing different people in society that had unique skills sets and interests in power and how power manifests in society. I guess on an individual level, community level or transnational level. The first three people that I contacted were a private investigator, a stage magician and a ninja. The idea was to more or less to give them the same interview and see how their answers varied based on their personal experiences and the way they looked at the world. That premise fell apart fairly quickly, mainly because a couple of them didn't really want to do interviews, but they offered to work out some kind of apprenticeship.
The private investigator said he was too busy to sit down and do an interview but he needed help, an extra body in some of his cases. I sort of became his shadow and I could ask him questions as we were working on the cases and he explained what he was doing and why he was doing it. The ninja I contacted said he wouldn't do an interview but he still wanted to see the questions that I would have asked him. So I handed him the list of questions and he looked them over and he said, "Everything that you want to know on this list gets expressed through the martial arts. It's up to you to answer the questions for yourself if you want to train, I'll train you and you can answer the questions. Even if I were to give you the answers you wouldn't understand them without having gone through the training." So we started training together in 2000. There are crazy stories that go from there in that relationship.
The magician was actually willing to do the interview but when we set it up he couldn't actually do the interview without performing. Anytime he wanted to give me an example of something or make an analogous reference he would always have to show me a trick, sleight of hand, or an illusion. We worked together for a period of time and during that time we were just dealing with secular magic: stage magic, theatrical magic, what magicians refer to as conjuring magic.
At one point he stopped me, while we were working out a routine and asked me, "what are you trying to accomplish, what's your goal here?" At the time, I gave him a really kinda arty answer -- a lot of fluff, big words. And he said "No, no, no, what the fuck are you trying to prove with magic? Why are you interested in magic?" I said, "Look, I'm interested in perception and how people perceive the world, how reality, on the one hand is consensual and on the other it is illusionistic; how people feel incredibly disempowered by the way signs and language are manipulated around them. I want to empower people." And he said, "Are you sure you are investigating the right type of magic?" And at that point, I was very skeptical. I thought there was only one kind of magic, which was performing, stage magic, and hand tricks. When he asked me that question, I thought he meant maybe you should be looking at card tricks or something to this effect. He said "No, no, no, I'm talking about ritual magic, have you explored the occult and metaphysics?" I thought he was setting me up so I kinda smirked and said "No." waiting for the punch line. He said "I want to introduce you to some other people."
His position was that he studied magic tricks in part so that he could discern when real metaphysical manifestations occurred. It was a way of filtering out fakery from actual phenomena. That was my real introduction to that side of magic, really exploring magic as a vast spectrum, a range of experiences, products, plays, politics, arts, that really fall into "Magic." I guess, retrospectively, looking back at that, I realized I have always been interested in magic, I just didn't always call it magic. I always had a magical childhood, retrospectively I can think of a huge range of very bizarre things that happened to me throughout my life which I can accept as the fabric of life. Then you realize as you get older, that maybe these things are larger than coincidence, they are not "normal" experiences that other people have. They don't necessarily experience the same type of world that you do, and then of course as you get older you meet other people who do experience the world that you do. Only, we've all been sort of positioned that life is what we're told it is, rather than what we are experiencing.
AL: Do you want to share a specific childhood memory?
AG: Here is something that I feel a lot of people could relate to on some level, which is just wishing for things, even absurd things and having them manifest within a reasonable amount of time, and accepting that if you wish for things, forces will come into play that will create these things at different times. As a kid, these are often petty things, like wishing for candy. Usually it's the type of situation that you don't consider, you go to the store with empty pockets and you wish you had some candy. You leave the candy store and you're walking back to your house and on the side of the road you find a wad of $5 bills, and it's all muddy and probably been sitting out there for weeks on end. There it is sitting there, the means to go back and buy the candy. As a kid, you chalk it up to lucky -- that sort of situation.
Sometimes people ask what the earliest inspiration for the Ice Cream Truck was. One of the stories I like to tell about the truck is when I was five and at the county fair. The army had a tank which was set up so kids could go in and climb all over it, obviously a way of recruiting people and really getting into the minds of children at a very young age. I climbed inside and starting pushing the buttons. My mom was concerned and asked the soldiers if there was anything risky about a five year old playing in a huge weapon. They said, no, everything is locked down and requires the right sequences. I was in there with a friend, we were hitting all the buttons, and between the two of us we managed to start the tank. As a five year old, that didn't seem strange to me. My intentions were to start the tank. Obviously, I didn't know the codes, but nonetheless it started, the soldiers freaked out and jumped in. We weren't rolling anywhere, just the engines came on. That was the last time they had tanks at our county fair. So I take it as a success.
AL: You weren't recruited at that point?
AG: No (laughing). So having that experience made me think of how to set up a situation where people can willfully engage in the experience and produce real results. I think the Tactical Ice Cream Unit does that for a lot of kids. I think there are a lot of kids that see the space and their mind starts to open up, and they find new categories for understanding different things they have seen.
AL: I want to know more about each of those types of world perceptions as the private eye, magician, and the ninja. What is something you learned from each of them?
AG: OK, the single most valuable lesson that I got from the private eye is something he would talk about repeatedly, which was, humans are creatures of habit. His whole job was really predicated on uncovering hidden information, information that's either intentional hidden away, or even unintentionally -- sometimes just lost. The gist of what he was always attempting to do, was to find out more than what was readily available. Depending upon what sort of situation he was engaged in, sometimes it involved following people, sometimes it involved going to courthouses and digging up records, sometimes it involved just talking to the right people, networking people or convincing people to give him information that they weren't supposed to give him. But his main operating premise in all of these situations was always "humans are creatures of habit." That meant that if he was trying to find a missing persons he would start by looking at their routine. If there was a situation where he was trying to deal with someone who was intentionally trying to avoid him or trying to hide something, he would start by looking at the most mundane aspects of their life that they returned to, consistently. Those became points of vulnerability.
When I think of that in society at large I feel that in a lot of respects this is what TV does, this is why advertising happens on TV. It happens at that mundane part of the day when everyone is coming home from work and they are exhausted, tired, and vulnerable and they want to relax. They're in a suggestive state. That's just one type of example, but nonetheless we can begin to think about how that relates in everyday life.
My relationship with the magician gradually became more complex, like relationships do the more time you spend with someone. Initially, we were just dealing with the ideas of perception and the ideas of performing power; what it means to be a figurative power, or someone perceived as having great or greater abilities than other people. Oftentimes when you think of a magician, whether it's a street or a stage magician, the initial notion is that the magician has some sort of knowledge or power that the audience does not have. That's what allows the magician to perform.
You end up, within metaphysics and the occult, with this split, this sort of binary between those of black magic and white magic. That pops up in stage magic performance on occasion too, and it happens in reference to the type of magic performed by a magician for his audience. A magician that is truly performing for his/her audience is a magician who is trying to amaze, is trying to give some profound understanding of the complexities of reality, that reality isn't what is seems to be, that our perceptions can be fooled, deceived, and that sometimes in that fooling, we begin to recalibrate our understandings of what actually is going on around us. On the contrary side of the magician, maybe he is performing for him or herself. The act is a very egotistical act, it's an act about showing that he or she has greater abilities and becomes this big ego trip.
I think anyone who has seen a magician perform is always ill at ease when a volunteer is asked for because the fear in part is maybe they are going to go up on stage and be humiliated. This is the real shift between magicians where on one hand the magician may bring a volunteer on stage and have them participate in casting an illusion or creating a grand effect; but on the other hand everyone sort of knows the worst case scenario where someone generously volunteers to be on stage and ends up being turned into a fool -- they become the victim.
I think dealing with those sort of power relations shows up in politics all of the time. We see it every time a White House spokesperson makes semantic arguments that don't really speak to the events that are at hand; anytime that the government seeks to distract our attention by presenting us with some sort of false debate; anytime the news media chooses not to cover events or not to offer solutions to crises, but rather just to report the doom and the drama in the midst. Those are all instances where the relationship between the stage magician begins to reflect the sorts of illusions and the sorcery that gets cast in the halls of government and the offices of marketing agents.
My relationship with the ninja was interesting on a couple of different levels. For one thing, I think it's important to emphasize that ninjas in pop culture are not the same thing as ninjas today. Ninjas in pop culture and movies from the 80s, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ninja Motorcycles, all of these sorts of constructions really are fictional constructions about what the world of the ninja was historically. They are usually cast simply as assassins, or sometimes underhanded secret agents. But historically if you look at the role they played, they had a very community-based practice, they didn't necessarily abide by the norms, standards, or the codes of feudal Japan. They took matters into their own hands, and they often focused on achieving goals. It's not a martial art that's strictly self-defensive. Sometimes, it's just about accomplishing the goal at hand, which may mean running from conflict altogether, it may mean hiding, or evading circumstances. It may mean preempting a certain set of circumstances that would lead to trouble or danger.
Having that sort of understanding, of just trying to accomplish goals, while trying to think tactically and strategically, I think it goes beyond many martial arts today. The way this martial art is practiced today, while it trains for tactical purposes, it focuses on principles. The difference there is that a technique can be deployed when the circumstances allow for that technique, but understanding the principle gives you the flexibility and the resourcefulness to adapt yourself or change your conditions. So in that case, ninjas tend to think of training not just an individual body, but as thinking of the body as a small group, a large assembly, and a social mass. In those instances, the principles apply, where as an individual technique it may not.
AL: Can you tell me more about the body as a large group?
AG: When most people think of the martial arts, they think just of body on body, or two people in a confrontation, but the body when you think of principles, can be thought of not just as an individual, but as a small group of five, a dozen people, one hundred, one thousand, etc. So when you have a set of principles you can work with, you can organize as groups rather as individuals. We can apply the same sort of principles, in this case martial arts principles, to groups of people. In many ways, this is what the U.S. Military is doing.
Kind of as a side note, as a reference to the U.S. military, when the current Grand Master of this martial art first opened training to the west in the early 80s, a number of the people who began training with him were all involved in various militaries around the world, and that was who was most interested in this type of information. Now you see a lot of the same principles getting enacted within the law enforcement community, when they think about crowd control and going into conflict. It's also being used for corporate security and mercenary firms. So even though people tend to think of ninjas in a specific context, they should be aware that this art is not just historical, but one that is affecting the present as well, one that the halls of power are intimately aware of and engaged with.
I haven't spoken yet about magic on the occult level. I think if you look at occult practice on a broader, historic level, with a sweeping gaze, you will see that a lot of occult practice has been invested in the broader goal of social liberation, of the ascendancy of humanity and all sentient beings, towards some sort of greater becoming, coming into being, achieving a larger, more positive potential. Carrying on that tradition, updating and not being anachronistic about our understandings of magic is vitally important to that goal. This is a goal that a lot of different people, in different schools and camps refer to in various contexts as "The Great Work," often disagreeing on what that is, but agreeing on the general trajectory that what we are all looking at is some sort of ascendancy.
AL: Do you think The Great Work was there at the beginning and has led humankind?
AG: People argue whether The Great Work is a journey or a destination. Personally I suspect that its not a destination but it's a goal that you work towards also. That is to say, you don't work towards a goal without thinking you are going to achieve it. If you work towards a goal not expecting achievement, your successes are going to be few and far between. So I think you have to operate along the two opposing positions at the same time, which is on the one hand this perspective that the journey is immensely valuable and may in fact be the totality of the journey and at the same time you have to occupy the position that you are working toward achieving The Great Work and that The Great Work will be achieved, maybe without even knowing what that looks like. Knowing full well that when we can imagine a world that's better than what we have at the moment, then we have an obligation to try to manifest it.
I think this gets into a good space to talk about the relation between art and magic. I think those things are really critically linked together and I think they are linked in a very prehistoric way. If you think about the first artwork, or the first act of magic by people, I suspect that those acts were very similar, that the language wasn't there to differentiate upon producing art or producing magic, and in many ways they use the same process and produce the same thing. By starting with an abstract idea, sort of flowing across the grey matter in your brain, pulsing inside your head and then looking at the world around you, the forces and materials available can recombine and restructure to manifest that abstraction in reality. It's in that moment that you are in fact creating reality, that you are changing reality, shifting reality, kind of enacting your will on the cosmos, or perhaps that the cosmos is reenacting its will through you, or perhaps a little of both. I think that relationship, whether you call it making art or magic, is all about manifestation, is all about looking at the world and trying to figure out your place in it and what you want to see manifested.
AL: Do you think everything else is people acting out of fear? And when they are acting out of fear, what are they manifesting?
AG: I've been having a few conversations with people recently about this white magic, black magic dichotomy, and it's a funny dichotomy to talk about in post-modernity, and maybe even post-post modernity, where you end up with all kinds of relativist positions. A lot of people I have spoken with, often when they're talking about black magic or trying to define some idea of black magic, fear is a term that comes up a lot -- as a form of control, a way of having power over others, and it's also a way to take power away from others. Those things may sound similar, but their nuances are different. When someone can instill fear in you, obviously they can manipulate you from that position and at the same time fear is something we often conjure in ourselves as a way of not venturing out, taking risks, engaging the world, and in the activities we feel in our heart of hearts need to be undertaken.
AL: What do you think everybody is caught up with in the "real world," what do you think they are they engaged in?
AG: Where are their heads? I think a lot of the battles that have been waged historically have not been true opposite sides vying for the same thing. I think that what you have is a struggle between those who want to consolidate and accrue power and resources, and those who simply want to live a good life. So this is not a battle between two forces who want the same thing. You have this toss up between those who are greedy for power and those who want to spend time with their families, party, listen to music, eat good healthy food, etc. This is where a lot of the tensions for any sort of political struggle become very complicated. Those who want to consolidate power are putting the resources generationally into consolidating. They create huge lineages building military might, developing technology, which is a long-term journey. Those who want to live the good life think in term of a single life, or a couple of generations. They want to see their children, maybe they want to see their grandchildren live a good life. It is tough to think about what it means to create a large-scale humanistic, social transformation. So yeah, I think most people want to live in peace.
Magic and the occult has a long history of being very secretive, and I think there is a lot good reason for that. Historically there has been a lot of persecution, vulnerability, and issues of survival. Even for stage magicians, if you expose your stage tricks to everyone, you are out of a job. What we are seeing this time is an interest in magic on all fronts and which needs to be reflected in the actions of the people who have the knowledge. There needs to be an opening up for information to be shared productively, not shared just for the sake of spectacle, not just shared for the sake of archiving, but for the sake of activating power and moving toward a brighter future.
AL: What do you think, like how yoga has been co-opted, about everything in the occult having to being certified and being turned into schools and sold?
AG: This is the nature of the beast. Capitalism will make every attempt to co-opt anything that gains attention. Part of it is not being fooled by those illusions, part of it is being smarter than those illusions, creating networks and structures that are not easily co-opted. The process of cooptation is essentially a process that at its core stifles creativity. It tries to answer all of the creative questions for you, and it often gives you very boring, very cliché answers. If you're satisfied with those answers than that's fine, I'm not in a position to tell you how you should think about the world around you.
What we have found having conversations like this, most people are not excited by a world that is constantly packaged, that's being sold back to us in a cheap shoddy way. So what that means is finding your own creative voice as your own liberation, banding together with other people and quite literally creating your own reality, or re-creating your own reality which is to say, "re-creation is recreation." Find those cracks and crevices where you can band together with other people to enjoy the world around you, not the world which is sold to you.
My last point is that if we were to make any sort of prediction, it would be less of a prediction and more of a demand: What we demand is nothing short of the complete and irrevocable invocation and unleashing of the creative and prophetic power of the multitude.
AL: Well said. Thank you Aaron.
For more information, go to the Center for Tactical Magic website at http://www.tacticalmagic.org/
Image by sevenblock, courtesy of Creative Commons license.