unexpected projects is a collaboration between Jenny Salomon and Jen Stager. In this series, they interview other collaborative teams in the Bay Area to find out what their projects and processes are all about.
In Conversation: Aaron Gach of Center for Tactical Magic
Center for Tactical Magic is an international activist art collective that challenges existing power structures. unexpected projects sat down with CTM’s founder, Aaron Gach, in a coffeehouse in Albany, CA to talk about past and present projects.
unexpected projects: Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to focus on power dynamics in your work? Have you always challenged power structures around you?
Aaron Gach: The first real fight that I had was in between seventh and eighth grade with my public school administration — it was around whether or not students should be allowed to wear shorts. At the time, there were all these arguments about how students would be distracted if there was too much leg being shown. So I wrote up a petition and circulated it around the faculty and the student body and then we had a short-in where everybody came to school wearing shorts.
And in the semester before I started Berkeley as an undergrad, I worked for Greenpeace. That was a social psychology lesson on all fronts. I did a lot of door-to-door canvassing. You learn a lot about people very quickly and you are confronted with a lot of different arguments and a lot of debate. That experience was very informative for me — politically, socially, and psychologically.
Before I applied to grad school a couple friends were just starting to gain notoriety: The Yes Men and the Institute for Applied Autonomy. They were working in similar ways to those in which I was working, but I didn’t really have a context to understand how this work fit in with art. I was working collaboratively at the time with a few other friends, among them Trevor Paglen and Nato Thompson. We were doing these mixed-use events in Oakland that had a political tone. We worked with activist groups, DJs or bands, performers, and set up art exhibitions and installations. Different communities would come together for one event. We’d come up with strange names like Lava Audio Show or the Subversive Science Fair.
UP: When did you decide to go to grad school?
In 1999/2000 I applied to only one grad school, California College of Arts (CCA), for a few different reasons. One, for the kind of work that I was doing and the resources I needed, I already knew the Bay Area. I didn’t want to go to a new place and spend a year trying to figure out where I could find people and resources. CCA was also in a transition at that point; they had just opened their SF campus. I am fascinated by transitional spaces and who can stake a claim. I thought of my work as about power. And at a school that’s in transition, everything is up for grabs. It is an interesting testbed for seeing what you can establish.
In the second week of school, I rolled into the director’s office and said “I need to talk to you about who I want to work with. My work is about power and how we understand power, individually, collectively and transnationally. I need to work with people who have an understanding about power on a day-to-day basis. I want to work with a ninja, a magician and a private investigator.” He laughed. That was the start.
Once I began working with the ninja, the investigator, and the magician, I realized that the exchange of information is in itself a collaboration that can lead to other projects. In my first meeting with each person I noticed that all three of them were using secret pockets. The ninja had secret pockets for distraction devices, the magician had secret pockets for magic tricks, and the private investigator had secret pockets for surveillance. And I thought about it a lot and I literally wrote down “power equals secret pocket,” and I was like, “is that the equation?” What makes a pocket valuable is that it is a void that has been carved out from everything else around it. The space becomes very potent and can be emptied and filled with different things at different times. You are able to keep track of what is in there, but nobody else necessarily knows unless they dip into its well.
UP: Or you choose to show them.
AG: Exactly. And from that point forward, The Center for Tactical Magic began looking for projects that were engaged collaborations primarily but not always with individuals who have special knowledge, usually outside of the contemporary arts. The very first project was something called the Ultimate Jacket. It contains fifty secret pockets. It’s waterproof, breathable, abrasion resistant, non-reflective, the sleeves zip off, it’s reversible. Endless possibilities.
UP: Is the Center of Tactical Magic primarily you collaborating with mostly non-visual artists, or are there other people with whom you collaborate within the CTM?
AG: It’s mixed. On the one hand, it is accurate to say that I am the glue that holds it together from project to project, but I also feel like it is somewhat disingenuous to take complete ownership of CTM, because our model is a model of collectivity and collaboration. It’s not a proper collective in the sense that it’s the same members working together like a rock band and always working together. When I think about collaboration, I don’t think of collaboration as one beast.
Within the CTM, from project to project, it could be me working with one other individual, maybe even someone I’ve never physically met, and we are just collaborating over the internet, or it could be working with tens or in some cases more than a hundred individuals to develop a project. In those situations you have to give up a certain amount of authorship and control.
UP: So you’re the anchor point for CTM, but you could’ve chosen to identify as an individual artist collaborating with other people on various projects. Instead you chose to operate under another name. Is it freeing to work under a collective label?
AG: Working under a collective banner enables a different kind of collaboration. When I work with people, the option is on the table for them to disclose their identities. Some projects listed on the website are “CTM in collaboration with” and some are just CTM. Some people say “absolutely no way in hell should my name be tied in with this project, but I am deeply invested in working on it.” Or someone may have a different career, a different reputation, and they want to keep those identities separate. The collective banner is about sharing cultural capital and letting something grow beyond the self. Within the field of contemporary art, there is so much focus on the individual author — you look through Artforum and almost every ad is “Someone’s Name Gallery presents Somebody.”
UP: Can you tell us about the Billboard project, Linking and Unlinking?
AG: That was done with Artadia as a commission project on a digital billboard in Manhattan in 2012. So it was before Ferguson and Eric Garner, but after New York had implemented the stop-and-frisk policy. We had a few projects that already dealt with “know your rights” and interactions with police on the streets, with police accountability. I’d done some work with Copwatch, which is a dispersed network of community organizations that monitor police activity with video cameras. The purpose of this is not to record the police doing something bad, but to be present recording as a deterrent against that possibility.
The billboard project was very much in response to Know Your Rights, but thinking about the degree to which knowing your rights and exercising them is an illusion. The billboard is a triptych. The upper left section was all amateur footage of people demonstrating how to pick locks to free yourself from handcuffs. The upper right section showed magicians performing a classic trick called “linking rings”, which shows seemingly solid rings coming together and falling apart, a refutation of the laws of physics. And then the bottom text scroll was from the National Lawyers Guild — what your rights are if you are stopped by the police.
UP: Is there a project that you think of as your biggest success?
AG: This project I did with the city of Toronto, I think of it as a success in the weirdest of ways. The budget blew up by a multiple of ten. The project was on a massive scale, and the biggest irony was that the city wanted to back out of the project. Their response to wanting out of the project was to put up more and more obstacles, but they didn’t understand the conceptual backing of the project. They didn’t realize that every obstacle they put up actually deepened the project. It was in my mind almost the perfect collaboration, but for all the wrong reasons!
UP: What was the project?
AG: It was called Witches’ Cradles.
The Witches’ Cradles are based on this medieval technology that consisted in a sack that an accused witch would be placed in; the sack would be hung from a tree limb. The bouncing of the tree limb and the spinning of the sack was considered torture because it would produce an altered state of consciousness or hallucinations or discomfort. It was used as a way of eliciting confessions or evidence that this person was in fact a witch. The historical notes on the witches’ cradle suggested that witches themselves later adopted the witches’ cradle as a device for empowerment because it produced these altered states of consciousness that could be used in a ritual context. And I love that metaphor of the oppressed group reclaiming a technology that was used to oppress [in order] to connect with a divine moment.
Our versions of the witches’ cradle were displayed in the Bay Street area — which is the Canadian equivalent of Wall Street — in front of these investment banks. Each cradle is shaped like a five-pointed star, and individuals would sit in the center of it. The points of the star then collapsed overhead to create the sack, a collapsed star is a black hole, so we’re essentially turning this pentagon shape into a black hole. A black hole is the moment where you have what is called an event horizon, where space/time collapses in on itself, and all possibilities exist in a stalled moment.
We had ten cradles, and over a thousand people went in for twenty-two minutes each — they were all suspended throughout this massive arching chamber. From the outside, it is absolutely all about spectacle, but each individual that is inside is in a state of sensory deprivation and has the potential to achieve an altered state of consciousness. The idea of altered state being also an altered political state, an altered nation state. That project is about constraints on the body, the potential for individual and collective liberation.
This was a very difficult project to pull off, and required a lot of choreography. We had close to one hundred people working in the project: engineers, the city, volunteers from Toronto, curators. The city, not fully understanding what the work was about, kept saying things like, “attendees are going to have to sign liability forms,” and at first I was like “what? You are going to make all these people sign these forms?” But of course, the idea of putting into language the degree to which a city is responsible for the individual safety of a person or what their body does in space and time is an important component. It’s about that assertion of control by a government body over individuals. And then they would say, “we have to distinguish between the people who have signed a waiver and the people who are there just to watch. So we’re going to have to separate these people out.” And then we get into the politics of detention and separation and segregation and borders. I had to argue against everything while at the same time being like, “this is great!”
Then the city said, “we have to make sure people don’t hurt themselves while they are in it, so we have to take their personal effects. And if we take their personal effects, we have to protect them, so we have to have guards.” And then it was, “we have to make sure people don’t throw up in these things, so we have to make sure that people don’t drink.” It wasn’t enough for people to sign a waiver, the city insisted on having people take breathalyzers. I kid you not! They were also concerned about the rigging and safety of having people suspended in air, understandably. We were working with a company called Petzl, the worldwide leader in climbing rigging, search and rescue rigging, and police and fire suspension technology. They were doing our rigging for us, and despite that the city wanted a licensed engineer to give a stamp of approval for the design of the cradles. So we had an engineering firm look it over. They said each cradle could support about 4000 newton meters, the equivalent of an elephant. Despite that, the city arbitrarily set the limit at 250 pounds. They made everyone stand on a scale and weighed them and recorded their weight. So that happened!
UP: What are you currently working on?
AG: My current project is called the Light and Dark Arts: a radical magic show. Imagine a theatrical performance on a big stage that is Faust meets Copperfield meets Snowden. Among the releases of classified information from Edward Snowden was a PowerPoint presentation for intelligence agencies that explicitly talks about magic [“The Art of Deception”] and how intelligence agents can use it to steal personal information from users over the Internet. And this is explicit, it is not metaphorical — this is referencing magic principles, magic text, and magicians.
UP: What is an example of one of these tactics?
Pre-Snowden, there was a fellow named Mark Klein and in 2005, he came out publically as a whistleblower and revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) were taking all of the fiber optic cables from the Internet backbone of ATT, splitting them, and making a duplicate of all of ATT’s customer traffic — not just their customers, because they contract out. All of this was being copied and sent to a separate, secret room in the ATT building — emails, videos, Skype, chats — and given to the NSA. If we think about splitting in terms of stage magic, it is when a magician shows a dove, splits his hands, and then has two. Another example is something that the NSA calls spoofing, in which they create an exact copy of a site so that the user cannot determine the difference between the real site and the NSA copy. Let’s say that you are using Facebook. You send your information to Facebook, it is processed by Facebook, and sent back to you. When the NSA spoofs Facebook, they produce an identical copy, the information is re-routed through the NSA’s servers. You post onto the NSA Facebook, the NSA shows you a copy of what you posted, and then sends a version, could be the same, could be different, to your actual Facebook feed. So you think that you are interacting with Facebook, but it’s the NSA. And when your friends are interacting with you they are interacting with the NSA. This is not conspiracy theory; it has been well documented.
Above: Light and Dark Arts: a radical magic show opening May 28th.
UP: How has having a child impacted your work with Center for Tactical Magic?
That first year of my daughter’s birth (2009), I already had a couple of major projects in the conveyor belt and it was really brutal. It was the first time in my life that I really felt that I hit a limit. I was teaching at CCA, Santa Cruz, and Stanford, and I was doing a fellowship in Wisconsin, and a major public commission for the city of Toronto [Witches’ Cradles]. So the following two years were really geared towards spending time with my family and being more a part of my daughter’s life.
My favorite metaphor is that having a kid is a three-year hold-down. In big wave surfing there is a term hold-down for when you wipe out on a wave and the wave holds you under and you cannot quite make it to the surface before the next wave hits. The only solution is to relax, and keep your composure, and have confidence that you will surface.