Aaron Gach is the founder of the Center for Tactical Magic and has a notable background. As part of his art training, he studied with a magician, a ninja, and a private investigator. Under the auspices of the Center for Tactical Magic he collaborates with a variety of artists, activists, and thinkers to produce projects exploring power relations, social transformation, and self-empowerment.
We interviewed Aaron while he was exhibiting the Tactical Ice Cream Unit at Creative Time’s “Democracy in America” exhibition in September of 2008. Aaron described the The Tactical Ice Cream Unit as “Combining a number of successful activist strategies (Food-Not-Bombs, Copwatch, Indymedia, infoshops, etc) into one mega-mobile, the TICU is the Voltron-like alter-ego of the cops’ mobile command center.”
Aaron is Arthur magazine’s “Applied Magic(k)” columnist and an instructor at the California College of Arts and Crafts.
Aaron Gach was interviewed at the Park Avenue Armory on Friday; September 26, 2008
S&S Aaron, you have a very unusual background. How did you ever arrive at art?
A.G. I’ve always been interested in art. I drew and painted in high school and college, and I was also interested in politics from a pretty young age. I didn’t see a connection between those two for a very long time. Then I realized that art was more than just objects or things hanging on wall. This opened me up to thinking about what the effect of art is on people, what people bring to the art, what the art brings to them, and the relationship between the art and the audience. At that point what became interesting to me was interactivity within art, getting rid of objects altogether and getting into early performance art. I was also coming to terms with the idea that the art is actually happening between the viewer and the object, and it’s that space which is essential. Then when the object is less important, then all of a sudden you start figuring out that the art object in many ways is, while it can be creative and poetic and spiritual, it is also in many respects utilitarian.
S&S: So the object just enables that space to be created. Then, if art has a utilitarian function, then we can consider its effect, right?
AG: Right. In every project within the Center for Tactical Magic I can think of moments that were more or less effective. The Tactical Ice Cream Unit is one of the experiments that I feel was most effective. It was designed with an interface where people would come up to it regardless of party politics, regardless of whether they describe themselves as conservative or liberal. But it was a big question mark whether it would actually work.
31 Flavors of Propaganda
The strategy for the ice cream truck initially was to combine a number of different successful creative activist strategies into a mobile structure. So we were looking at the InfoShop model in terms of distributing information, we were looking at the Food Not Bombs model in terms of distributing food, we were looking at Copwatch in terms of using surveillance constructively in monitoring police activity, and we were also looking at groups like Indymedia in terms of collecting information and distributing it more widely. And on top of that addressing another need, which was to have some sort of central command center at a protest where people could come to if they needed resources that weren’t readily available, whether that’s aspirin, or first aid, or gas masks, or whatever.
S&S Does anyone ever read flyers? Why bother with the InfoShop model?
There’s this notion that I personally struggle with all the time which is this idea of, “Oh, if people just know, things won’t be the way that they are.” I don’t know if that’s a politically effective way to think about our current state of affairs but it’s certainly the strategy that a lot of community groups take. So what we try to do with the Tactical Ice Cream Unit is collect the information from different groups, archive it, and distribute it to people that wouldn’t otherwise come in contact with that information. I think it’s definitely a strategy that’s at least worth playing out, to see where we get, rather than trying to shoot it down to begin with.
S&S So how do people react to getting political information along with their ice cream?
A.G. I’ve seen it happen a couple of different ways. I’ve seen people walk away with the propaganda, start to read it over, and crumple it up and throw it away. That happens from time to time, but I wouldn’t say it happens the majority of the time. More often what happens is that people come over with the expectation that they’re gonna choose one flavor of ice cream and one flavor of information. And end up asking if they can have two flavors of information, or three flavors of information. So already I know their hunger for information has been elicited and we’re in the process of trying to satiate that. There’s also a possibility that people will pass on the information, that they’ll share it. I’ve been at enough Thanksgiving dinners in my life, not just my own family, but other people’s families, to know that information kind of leaks out in those moments. That people will talk about current affairs. That if people have information from some group that they can refer back to, that there is that viral communication aspectthat leaks into popular political discourse.
S&S Okay, so now people “know” stuff, it’s talked about at the dinner table, what good does that do?
A.G. This goes back to the “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” analogy. Hopefully if people don’t feel overwhelmed by the informationthen there’s a desire to act on it.
There’s a huge difference between an audience of spectators versus an audience of participants. Spectating is going to happen. But that’s the point where you can begin to add additional aesthetic layers or try and control how that happens, how that spectating unfolds. But at the core of it, I think what you are trying to do is figure out what the engagement is. And the engagement is very different than using audience as a proxy, it’s very different than using audience as dupe, it’s very different than just trying to manipulate your audience. All of a sudden, I think what you’re trying to open up in that moment is some sort of an exchange.
S&S Can you give us an example?
The Tactical Ice Cream Unit itself plays with spectacle in terms of how the truck looks, how the truck sounds; all of that is built into the project. It plays kind of this pied piper role, right? People see it from a distance, and they hear it from a distance, and they sort of come over and they treat it like this UFO where they don’t know if they should bow down and pray to it, or if they should run the other direction from it. But when they get there, there’s this immediate engagement. And part of what allows for that engagement to happen is their stomachs. Because they ultimately want ice cream, and they understand that this is going to serve as a sort of culinary oasis for them. So, they come to it with these expectations, and it’s understood that they’re going to have to interact with somebody to acquire that ice cream. That’s the same sort of interaction that happens at a restaurant. It’s a space that’s slightly familiar to them, so they feel a certain level of comfort. But then things shift on them. And in that shifting space they’re recalibrating what their relationship to it is. I think, actually in that moment of recalibration, they let their guard down a little bit in this way where they feel like there’s room to play.
You certainly get people that come up and are very straight-faced, very matter of fact: this is a business proposition, “I want an ice cream sandwich.” And the follow up question, “Okay, what flavor propaganda would you like with that?” is so destabilizing to that normal business relationship, that now, in that moment where they thought they knew what was going on, they’re trying to figure out what’s actually going on. In that moment, they’re looking at the menu differently, they’re looking at the side of the menu that says “Food for Thought.” And they’re starting to try and figure out the relationship between what their stomach wants and now what their brain is trying to process, trying to digest. It’s rare that someone coming upon the truck for the first time looks at it and just says “Oh, I’ll have the Black Panther 10 Point Plan with my ice cream sandwich.” Setting up that moment of breaking down expectations allows somebody to shift within that moment. And that always opens up a point of conversation.
The other thing that’s immensely helpful is telling them that it’s free. The truck operates off a model of kind of experimentalist anarchist economics, which is to say that people can tip or donate, but they don’t have to and there’s no pressure put on them to tip or donate. This is a space that confuses people all the time. Because they try and calibrate what that means. And the first inclination is to think that somehow it’s corporate sponsored, that it’s a branded ice cream, that there’s some marketing thing going on. But when they look at information that’s available, they sort of lose track of that trajectory, and then they try and figure out from there well, “Why is it free?” and “What’s my relationship to that?”
I think the ice cream truck doesn’t try and be a problem solver. It offers up models of creative problem solving approaches. And that’s a very different thing than trying to tell people that this is what you have to do. It’s a way to offer an alternative to the way things are being done. This is where the magic comes in. It’s all about giving people a show that elicits a broader sense of reality, that reality is bigger than what we’re told reality is. If they can see that there is an alternative to the way that reality is packaged and sold to them, then all of a sudden they can also begin to think on their own about how they might manipulate reality. How they might manifest their desires in reality. And that’s a big forward step.
S&S You mentioned magic. Let’s talk a little bit about how you play with tactical magic. Tactics is something that is very directed – we move from one point to another and we know exactly how we get there. And magic of course is getting from X to Y but you don’t know how you got there…
A.G. It is the Center for Tactical Magic as opposed to the Center for Strategic Magic. In part because what we hope people will take away is a sense that they can use the principles, use the tactics, and apply them to their own context or their own situation. Even if they don’t go out and build a Tactical Ice Cream Unit, they can think about other creative ways of reaching their public, or having conversations, or augmenting events in their community. So that they’re thinking about the principles and trying to figure out the tool sets and applying them to their own context. So, that’s one way that think about tactics as opposed to strategy.
S&S What about the magic part?
A.G. Well the magic, the magic comes in on a couple of different levels, because I’m definitely situated within the spectrum of stage magic and theatrical performance on one end, and occult and metaphysics, kind of ritual magic, supernatural phenomena on the other end.
The Tactical Ice Cream Unit is much more on the side of theatrical magic than on the side of metaphysics and the occult. There’s a sense of hiding in plain sight with the ice cream truck. That’s certainly playing into illusion. Specifically, I think one of the powerful things the ice cream truck does – and I’ve seen it in kids eyes and in adults eyes as well – is invoke a notion of the uncanny, taking familiar things and combining them in an unfamiliar way. What happens in that moment, is it forces you to create new categories in your mind that also effect and implicate previous categories you’ve had. So, yes, it looks like a police command van, and it looks like an ice cream truck, and it looks like some sort of anarchist command center. Most people don’t already have a category in their thinking to accommodate all of those things in the same space. In that moment of trying to figure out what it is, and trying to understand it, this sort of cognitive passageway is opened up where other things can exist in a person’s reality.
The expectation, or maybe the hope, is that the next time that they see a police command vehicle, they snicker at it. They don’t take it as seriously, or don’t feel at least as fearful or threatened by it. Though I think they should, in many respects, take it seriously, but while somehow feeling they have some power over it, and it doesn’t necessarily exert power over them. Same thing about the ice cream truck, the next time they hear Pop Goes The Weasel, or Turkey In The Straw, there’s a moment where that becomes politically charged now, having had this experience with the Tactical Ice Cream Unit. So…
S&S It enchants the universe…
AG Hopefully so. But again that’s another one of these effects that’s immeasurable.
S&S Let’s talk more about magicians and the immeasurable effects on an audience. There’s also a very performative element to magic and that weaves right into your tactics doesn’t it?
AG Envision a magician standing up on stage, doing a boring as fuck presentation of a card routine, where there’s actually no performance involved, but he’s performing the rudiments of the trick flawlessly.
People would be bored to tears.
S&S Yeah of course. You would hardly care that your card was guessed correctly or the woman was sawed in half.
AG So what makes a good magic act is incorporating something more than just the rudiments of getting from A to B. And that certainly comes into play elsewhere…
S&S So, it’s as much performative as it is material.
S&S So why did you choose magic? Or tactical magic? For example, you’re an artist, why don’t you draw something?
AG The bigger your toolbox, the better equipped you are for different situations. But on the same hand, the more shit you gotta lug around with you. I wish that I could fix everything with a hammer. But you know, that’s impractical. Sometimes you want to cook soup, and a hammer is not gonna do the trick. That’s the simple reason. Magic – you know, there is a sort of a deeper reason – magic’s a tricky proposition, in that everyone knows the word, but everyone imagines something different when they hear the word.
Slight of Hand
S&S In that way the word ‘magic’ and the word ‘art’ share that ambiguity of meaning don’t they?
AG Well, you have some of the same reactions. A lot of people are dismissive of art in the same way that a lot of people are dismissive of magic. And the irony of being dismissive about art or magic is when people are pressed, they can often find an example of art they like, or of magic they like.
But people often imagine the most dismissive element of magic, and it’s something to scoff at. Whether they think of it as some tuxedo monkey up on stage pulling silks out of his sleeve. Or if it’s a dreadlocked Wiccan hippie, naked in the woods, soaked in patchouli or something like this. People conjure stereotypical images when they think about these things. But when you talk to them about magic in relationship to their own life, they often have a very intimate attachment to something that they regard as magic whether it’s on an entertainment level or spiritual level. It could be a very personal level, or someone that they know that’s engaged in something magical.
The other trick is when you get into the terrain of magic, you begin to see that magic is not anachronistic. That the same principles in magic deployed thousands of years ago are equally effective, and deployed in a different form today. And all of the sudden it becomes a way of looking at the world and a way of deciphering the world. You start to realize that politicians and marketing agents are not ignoring magic, they are in fact practicing magic. And we’re being spellbound by the effects of their activity. So, you can choose to dismiss magic, but magic doesn’t dismiss you.
S&S Ok, so you’ve convinced us about the value of magic and showmanship and messing with peoples expectations and opening up alternative cognitive passageways – but bottom line, is there a way we can measure the effect?
A.G. I don’t think there’s such a thing as one level of addressing effect. And what may be the most effective element isn’t necessarily measurable in any sort of empirical way, and that’s a real challenge. So if you set up a blockade and it actually prevents the police from getting in, that’s sort of a concrete effect. But a psychic effect is difficult to measure. So if you curse the police, and they go home and they have nightmares at night, chances are you’re not going to know about that.
S&S: You’re not saying you’ve done this…
AG: I’m just saying theoretically if one would do such a thing…