[-empyre-] Welcome to Week 3: MODERNITY'S SPELL

Anthony Discenza adiscenza at cca.edu
Tue Nov 19 14:35:37 AEDT 2019

Thanks for the intro Margaretha, and hello and thanks to everyone else
participating in this series of conversations; especially the first two
weeks’ worth of contributors for offering such a wealth of ideas and
threads to follow.

About a year and half ago, I had been asked to write a very short piece
about magic for the Wattis Institute of the Arts in San Francisco. Every
year, the Wattis hosts a reading group that focuses on the work of a single
visual artist; that year it had been Seth Price and I had been invited to
be a participant in that particular reading group. Because Price had
referenced an interest in magic in some of his writing (without really
elucidating what this meant for him), the Wattis staff had asked me if I’d
write something about magic, as they had (mistakenly) acquired the
impression this was something I was knowledgeable about. I’m not sure if
this is really true; for the most part, my knowledge and thinking around
magic has been shaped by a lifetime of reading science fiction, fantasy,
and supernatural literature. I bring all this up mostly just to give some
sense of how I’m coming to this conversation, I guess. I do have an abiding
interest in the idea of magic and the ways it gets defined, and I think
that it continues to play an enormous and complicated role in how we
imagine and construct the world around us.

The piece I wrote for the Wattis was fairly superficial, but the argument I
was essentially making was that magic is just a kind of technology. I
wouldn’t even call it a precursor to technology; I think it’s just a
different approach to similar ends. And perhaps it’s not even really that
different, or at least maybe not in the ways we think.

Of course I’m using both terms in pretty broad senses; when I talk about
magic, I’m using the term to encompass a vast and rich array of practices
spanning thousands of years and many different cultures. When I’m talking
about technology, I mean any kind of system, methodology, or
techniques—which after all, is more or less the definition of technology.
So *already*, magic and technology feel tethered together, because whatever
kind of magical practice you might be engaging with, be it Wicca, or
hoodoo, or the Tarot, or ceremonial magic, you are always working with
techniques and methodologies. From this standpoint, I would argue, language
itself is a technology, maybe the ur-technology, since it facilitates all
others. But language is also the ur-form of magic, since all magic involves
language: speaking, utterances, naming, binding. Language is the first
magic, because it captures aspects of the world and binds them, shapes
them, separates them into forms: *tree, wind, water, sky, bird, person*.
Essential to much magical practice is knowing something’s name. To name a
thing, to speak it, is to wield it. To know the name of something is to
know its *properties*, and through this knowledge, these properties may be
put to use, to shape and effect outcomes. Of course, shaping and effecting
outcomes is also very much the concern of technology…

I’m currently writing this from Western Massachusetts, where I relocated
last year after two and half decades in the Bay Area. I’m out here to help
manage two old industrial buildings I co-own with a friend, and to put some
distance between myself and the increasingly dystopian/apocalyptic feeling
I had been experiencing in Northern California in recent years. This
morning I was out on the roof, cutting up sections of old asphalt roofing
after having had a section of the roof replaced. The sheets were incredibly
heavy and unwieldy, coated with masses of cracked and fissured tar probably
5 decades old. The surfaces called to mind the hides of primordial saurian
leviathans, or the blasted surfaces of dead planets seen from some
automated orbiting satellite. The sections, flaking and crumbling, still
had the acrid tang of bitumen, the hardened sludge of eons-dead life
compressed into a hydrocarbon-rich ooze. I find myself thinking about
petroleum a lot lately, about the incomprehensible array of stuff we
produce from it, and how all these materials are rapidly rendering the
planet increasingly inhospitable for human life. For me, it is the essence
of the science fictional to contemplate the fact that our entire world runs
on energy and materials produced from a black, gooey slime made of plants
and animals that died hundreds of millions of years ago. But it also makes
me think of magic, specifically necromancy: the summoning up of the dead to
serve our needs. Black magic, indeed. But the magic circle is broken; the
spell is totally out of control; the unleashed energy of the dead is now
reclaiming the earth, returning it to a climate more suitable for itself…

Thinking about petroleum makes me think about time, deep time, geologic
time, cosmologic time. I think about the way science enables us to be aware
of events on these time scales, but that doesn’t mean we can really
comprehend them. Even a couple hundred years is hard to *really* take a
hold of; let alone a million...

There’s a sub-sub-genre of science fiction that’s known as The Dying Earth,
after a collection of stories and novels written between 1950 and the 70s
by the late, ultra-prolific author Jack Vance; other entries in the genre
include John M. Harrison’s phantasmagoric *Viriconium* stories and Gene
Wolfe’s epic mind-fucking *Book of the New Sun*. Dying Earth stories are
usually set millions, even tens of millions of years in the future. Earth
is usually on its last legs; the sun is getting larger and redder; the
world itself has gone ruderal, having endured the rise and fall of
thousands upon thousands of civilizations—some hyper-technologic; others
barely out of the bronze age. In Dying Earth literature, the planet is
portrayed as an endless garden of ruins filled with the residue of
countless civilizations that no one remembers. Among these ruins lie
artifacts with incomprehensible properties—some the product of past
super-technology, some of alien origin, some possibly magical, although the
difference, really, is meaningless; no one really knows what any of this
junk was originally for, how it works, or what bizarre hazards its use may
pose (somewhat like the depiction of the Zone in the Strugatsky
Brothers’ *Roadside
Picnic). *The thing about Dying Earth stories is that their affect is much
more similar to fantasy than science fiction—they tend to feel like sword
and sorcery stories on the surface, but the reader is always being
reminded, in both subtle and sometimes overt ways that *we are in the
future*. And it is this far future setting that makes these stories
inherently science fiction. (If, as Ursula Le Guin says, the future in
science fiction is always a metaphor, it's worth pondering what sort of
metaphor might be at play in these kinds of stories?)

But I guess the Dying Earth is on my mind for a lot of reasons....but also
because it’s a form that takes Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that “any
sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and runs
full tilt with it. Clarke's observation has always felt intrinsically
right; it isn’t hard to see that the technological and the magical are
always running into each other, in large part because they share similar
goals. Certainly , much present technology is continually  trying to
imitate what magic looks like (or at least, what it *thinks* magic looks
like). This is the essence of the idea of interfaces being *frictionless*:
they are meant to resemble the operations of magic (or again, at least the
mainstream misprision of magic), to allow us to feel like some eldritch
mage, summoning up goods and services out of the aether, commanding
invisible spirits to do our bidding, like Ariel in *The Tempest.*

Well, I sat down to just write some brief notes to get things rolling, and
I see now I’ve written over 1300 words. I was going to try and get back to
the idea of the magic circle somehow...but perhaps I’ll just stop right
here and see what everyone else has to say.

Thanks to all,


On Mon, Nov 18, 2019 at 1:53 PM margaretha haughwout <
margaretha.anne.haughwout at gmail.com> wrote:

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Dear -empyre-
> Many thanks to the Week 2 participants -- Ciclón, Lucia, Lucian,
> WhiteFeather, and Estephania -- We had a sluggish start to the week due to
> some technical hurdles, so I'm hoping Week 2 discussants will want to
> continue the conversation on the existing threads as we move into Week 3,
> This week we welcome Fabi Borges, Ricardo Dominguez, Tony Discenza, and
> Rhonda Holberton to tell us of their ongoing work with, and thinking
> around, *Magic and Technology*. The title MODERNITY'S SPELL is meant to
> invite thinking around how the joint projects of science, state, and market
> invoke ways of knowing (and dreaming) that seem, at first blush, entirely
> counter to that of magic, or as operating to deligtimize magical practice
> -- but over time may be seen as (often disempowering) spells of their own.
> This may be a thread you all will want to pick up, but you may have your
> own approach to the week too.
> I am excited to learn more about Ricardo's take on Zapatista and Mayan
> technology, Fabi's approach to how 'we' may all be dreaming the same dream
> within Modernity, and Tony and Rhonda's thoughts on ways that technology
> and magic may not be all that different -- and what the implications of
> this is in capitalism. And all the things I haven't thought of, that has
> made this month so rich so far.
> ...
> Fabi Borges (BR) she/her/hers
> Fabiane M. Borges: Acts at the intersection between clinic, art and
> technology. She works as a Psychologist (in person and online) and as an
> essayist, having written and organized publications between academic
> journals, collections and personal books. She articulates two international
> networks/festivals: Technoshamanism (technology & ancestry) and
> Intergalactic Commune (art & space sciences). Since July 2019, she
> organizes SACIE (Subjectivity, Art and Space Sciences) a research program
> and artistic residencies in the Brazilian space program (INPE), where she
> develops a series of activities focused on Space Culture. She is the
> organizer of Extremophilia magazine, launched in 2018.
> Some of her actions have been supported by institutions such as Goethe
> Institute, SESC, MAC, MAST, MAR, Museum of Tomorrow, Valongo Observatory,
> Ibirapuera Planetarium, Nucleus of Arts and New Organisms PPGAV / UFRJ -
> (Brazil), Center for Contemporary Art (Ecuador), Aarhus University -
> Department of Information Studies & Digital Design (Denmark), STWST / Ars
> Electronica (Austria), SenseLab Concordia University (Canada), XenoEntities
> (Germany), Transmediale (Germany), Grow Tottenham, Si Shang Art Museum
> (China), etc. She lives in São Paulo in a collective house that plants
> organic, organizes parties, concerts, meetings, workshops, etc (Casa
> Japuanga, SP).
> Ricardo Dominguez (US) he/him/his
> Ricardo Dominguez is a co-founder of The Electronic Disturbance Theater
> (EDT), a group who developed virtual sit-in technologies in solidarity with
> the Zapatistas communities in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1998. In 2007 Electronic
> Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab with Brett Stalbaum, micha cardenas,
> Amy Sara Carroll, and Elle Mehrmand initiated the Transborder Immigrant
> Tool (a geo-poetic cell phone safety net tool for crossing the Anza-Borrego
> desert at the edge of the U.S. and Mexico border): https://tbt.tome.press/.
> The project was the winner of “Transnational Communities Award” (2008), an
> award funded by Cultural Contact, Endowment for Culture Mexico–US and
> handed out by the US Embassy in Mexico. It was also funded by CALIT2 and
> the Center for the Humanities at the University of California, San Diego
> (UCSD). The Transborder Immigrant Tool has been exhibited at the 2010
> California Biennial (OCMA), Toronto Free Gallery, Canada (2011), The Van
> Abbemuseum, Netherlands (2013), ZKM, Germany (2013), as well as a number of
> other national and international venues. The project was also under
> investigation by the US Congress in 2009-2010, UCSD, UC Office of the
> President, the FBI's U.S. Cyber-terrorist Division and was reviewed by
> Glenn Beck in 2010 as a gesture that potentially “dissolved” the U.S.
> border with its poetry. Dominguez is Associate Professor of Visual Arts at
> the UCSD, a Hellman Fellow, a Society for the Humanities Fellow (Cornell
> University), a Rockefeller Arts & Humanities Fellow (Bellagio Center,
> Italy) and a Principal Investigator at CALIT2/QI at UCSD.
> Tony Discenza (US) he/him/his
> Anthony Discenza is an interdisciplinary artist whose work subverts the
> production and distribution systems of mass media and the narratives it
> generates. In the late 1990s, Discenza began investigating the omnipresence
> of mediated imagery in contemporary life, using destructive processing of
> appropriated TV and film to create a series of immersive, projection-based
> works that amplify the affective space produced by these avenues of mass
> culture. This inquiry has expanded to include explorations of the
> relationships between textual, auditory, and visual systems of
> representation, in projects that have taken the form of street signage,
> digital photography, audio, sculptural installations, and writing.
> Deeply influenced by speculative fiction, Discenza’s practice frequently
> employs descriptive language, incomplete or fragmentary information, and
> unreliable narrative to direct viewers towards absent or imagined
> experiences. Over the past several years, his focus has turned towards
> various production systems of cinema as well as the problematic conditions
> of artistic practice; interwoven with these investigations is an increasing
> use of parafictional gestures that situate projects in a zone of ambiguity
> and play. In 2018, Discenza completed a large-scale commission for the de
> Young Museum in San Francisco, working in collaboration with sound
> designers Gary Rydstrom and Josh Gold of Skywalker Sound to create a sonic
> re-imaging of a lost science fiction screenplay from the 1980s.
> Discenza’s work has been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern
> Art, V-A-C Foundation, the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal Shanghai, MOCA
> Cleveland, Objectif Exhibitions, the Wattis Institute for the Contemporary
> Arts, the Getty Center, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among
> others. His work is held in the collections of Kadist Foundation, SFMOMA,
> and the Berkeley Art Museum. He currently splits his time between
> Massachusetts, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
> Rhonda Holberton (US) she/her/hers
> Rhonda Holberton holds a MFA from Stanford University and a BFA from
> California College of the Arts. Her multimedia installations make use of
> digital and interactive technologies integrated into traditional methods of
> art production.  In 2014 Holberton was a CAMAC Artist in Residence at
> Marnay-sur-Seine, France, and was awarded a Fondation Ténot Fellowship,
> Paris. Her work is included in the collection of SFMoMA and the McEvoy
> Foundation and has been exhibited at CULT | Aimee Friberg Exhibitions, FIFI
> Projects Mexico City; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; The Contemporary
> Jewish Museum, SF; Berkeley Art Center; San Jose Institute of Contemporary
> Art; and the San Francisco Arts Commission. Holberton taught experimental
> media at Stanford University from 2015-2017 and is currently an Assistant
> Professor of Digital Media at San Jose State University. She lives and
> works in Oakland.
> ...
> --
> beforebefore.net
> --
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu
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