Guttershaman – Toolkits

May 30, 2011

Since I actually used the phrase ‘Way of the Guttershaman’ last time, I should say a bit more about what that entails.

The Way of the Guttershaman cannot be taught. But it can be learned.

God, that’s really fucking pretentious, isn’t it?

What I mean is, the Guttershaman approach is just that – an approach, a set of habits, a perspective for interacting with occult possibilities. A bricolage of weird shit. In short, a way of making your own toolkit for working magic using whatever fits.

The toolkit idea is one that’s important to me. I’ve written about it elsewhere, in my thoughts about what I call the Tribe of the Strange, that Outsider-fanboy-weirdo cohort that pops up every generation, and has to find it’s roots elsewhere than the mainstream of its birthplace society. The Guttershaman approach can be seen as a toolkit for the magic-using wing of the Tribe.

So, assuming you want to… how do you make a Guttershaman toolkit?

You start with metaphors.

The definition of magic I came up with in an earlier Guttershaman piece goes like this:

Magic is the means by which some observers can use and manipulate the patterns they observe to change the world.

This means you’ve got to look closely at how your personal patterns interact with the phenomenal world. It also means the more (and wider) varieties of patterns you’re familiar with, the more scope your explorations will have. More symbol-sets, more metaphors. Better, more complex tools – ranging from metaphorical mallets to jeweller’s screwdrivers. And, always, a good reliable multi-tool for use in a pinch.

Your multi-tool, to push the metaphor, is having a solid yet flexible set of symbols which relate well to each other and pack together neatly. This means that somewhere along the line, you’ll have to study one occult system or symbol-set in depth. In my case, it was the combination of Western Alchemy and its Sufi parallels/influences – but as long as it’s a system with a lot of built-in flexibility, and one that you can relate to on a deep emotional level, it doesn’t really matter which one it is (though of course which one you work with will strongly influence all your other tools). It is vital, however, that you ingrain it deeply. In order to gain a working knowledge of what other bits and pieces will work for you, you have to have something to compare them to – this system provides your baseline.

(Hate to resort to yet another hoary cliché, but it’s kind of like jazz – before you can successfully improvise, you have to be able to play the bloody tune properly.)

And of course having an actual multi-tool is a damn good idea too – along with it’s communications equivalent, a smartphone. (More on physical tools and props below.)

I’d also strongly recommend you learn a martial art – not a fancy dojo-only dance, but something you can actually use in a street fight. A -jutsu, rather than a -do,  in Japanese terms. Nothing grounds you quite so well as knowing you can defend yourself, and specifically that you can use your body’s energies (Ch’i, Ki etc) and apply them directly. A spell, in the Guttershaman model, is simply ch’i with instructions encoded into it – so learn to push the ch’i hard and precisely.  Also, knowledge of tactics and strategy has an awful lot of application in magic, especially at the pointy end.

(I only ever recommend one book on martial arts… because while you can’t learn martial arts from a book, you can learn strategy and tactics. That book is A Professional’s Guide To Ending Violence Quickly by Marc ‘Animal’ MacYoung. All the practical tactical and strategic advice you’ll hopefully ever need. Though a look at Sun Tzu & Musashi certainly won’t hurt.)

Most of your toolkit will be things that you use to get you in the mood for magic, to raise the ‘energy’ for you to use – sets of associations with particular emotional states, that you can draw upon at will. My love of movies and TV means that a whole bunch of mine come from those media. (For example, I’m especially fond of the use of tunes from soundtracks and scores as musical cues for particular head-states. Make the associations deep enough, and you don’t even need a MP3 player… humming or whistling a couple of bars will do the trick nicely.) Particular ‘ritual’ clothes and jewellery can have the same effect – a practice that’s been codified at least as far back as Crowley.

This brings me to the subject of props. The actual physical tools of your toolkit.

They should generally be the best quality you can afford, though preferably something that can be easily replaced – but, most importantly, they should be the most apt object for the purpose, not necessarily the most expensive or rare. Some of them you’ll want to make for yourself – other bits you’ll buy off the shelf, and maybe customise to your needs.

(Here’s a lovely example: magician Jason Miller based a magic wand around a shop-bought replica of Doctor Who’s Sonic Screwdriver… which he enhanced with an elemental ritual. Nice bit of work, that!)

But at the same time, you have to be able to improvise, to use whatever is to hand – relying on your bespoke kit is fuck all use if you don’t have it on you, or it gets lost, or the batteries run out. Your primary toolkit is the collection of symbol-sets your imagination associates with magic – and that improv skill should mean you can pick up any object with a rough-and-ready resemblance to what you need and treat it as the exact, perfect tool for the moment.

(There’s a handy mind-trick I like to use for that, taken from live-action roleplay. Often, an object in the physical world of the game is considerably less accurate-to-type than what it is imagined to be in the fantasy setting – say, a tennis ball in place of a Magic Missile. These lesser objects are called Phys-Reps - physical representations. Maintain a catalogue of the archetypal versions of your tools in your head – usually, they’ll be considerably better than any object you actually use anyway. For example, if you like using lightsabres in magic – and, honestly, who doesn’t? – even the most expensive replica will pale in comparison to the one in your imagination. Make and keep that detailed imagined version of every tool… and when needed, superimpose that pattern on whatever phys-rep you actually have. Bingo! Instant enchantment.)

The majority of the Guttershaman perspective is learning which symbols and metaphors work best for you. This doesn’t mean just settling for a few different sets and leaving it there – it’s about using whatever you learn and applying it to how you interact with The Weird. Every fiction, every news article or speculative science theory, every dumb meme and ancient myth, should be grist for your mill. There’s always room to learn more, to think differently, to upgrade your tools. But you should also strive to remember: Never mistake your toolkit for reality – and respect the toolkits, the paths and stories, of others. Learn from all other ways, share the best of your own.

The Shaman part of Guttershaman, for me, is always about taking those tools and using them to go into the Weird and come back with more tools, more ideas… to hopefully enrich the Tribe of the Strange – and especially, to protect it. Not everyone who works magic is a friend or ally. Not all practitioners share our views or have our needs. Some, frankly, are just spiteful vicious cunts. If you’re thinking the Guttershaman path makes sense to you, never forget that the primary duty of the Shaman is to defend their tribe from demons.

I’ve been looking here at how the Guttershaman’s mindset works – how to construct working mindsets and models inside your head. Next time, I’ll be looking at the stuff that’s outside your head, and how you deal with it.

The little things. Like, for example, gods.

 

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Guttershaman – The Ultimate Secret of Magic

May 21, 2011

If ever a modern writer could be described as a legend in his own lifetime, it is Alan Moore. Already considered a genius for his reinvigoration of the comic book scene, he upped the ante considerably when he announced, at the age of 40, that he was now a magician. He’s been publicly out about this ever since – one notable aspect of his praxis is his claim to worship the Roman snake-puppet god Glycon – a deity who was probably a con-job. (There’s an excellent piece about the history and veracity of the Glycon story in this month’s Fortean Times – issue 276.)

Another notable aspect of how Moore’s magical working blurs alleged fact and supposed fiction is his story of how he met one of his creations – the working-class mage John Constantine – in the real world. Twice.

In 1993, he told Wizard Magazine of his first encounter with Constantine (whose appearance was initially based on the pop-singer Sting):

“One day, I was in Westminster in London - this was after we had introduced the character - and I was sitting in a sandwich bar. All of a sudden, up the stairs came John Constantine. He was wearing the trenchcoat, a short cut, he looked… no, he didn’t even look exactly like Sting. He looked exactly like John Constantine. He looked at me, stared me straight in the eyes, smiled, nodded almost conspiratorially, and then just walked off around the corner to the other part of the snack bar.

“I sat there and thought, should I go around that corner and see if he is really there, or should I just eat my sandwich and leave? I opted for the latter; I thought it was the safest. I’m not making any claims to anything. I’m just saying that it happened. Strange little story.”

His second meeting with John Constantine is described in his performance piece, Snakes and Ladders (adapted in comic form by Eddie Campbell and available as A Disease Of Language), and it’s of considerably more importance…

Moore said:

“Years later, in another place, he steps out of the dark and speaks to me. He whispers: ‘I’ll tell you the ultimate secret of magic. Any cunt could do it.’ “

In a later retelling of the latter story, featured in the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (which can be seen on YouTube here), Moore adds that the second encounter took place in a ritual context. Nonetheless: whatever you believe about how ‘real’ the encounter was, those words are worth considering very carefully.

Any cunt could do it.

Let’s assume that this instance of ‘John Constantine’ was telling the truth – admittedly a bit of a stretch for a fictional character, especially one noted for being something of a con-man… but let’s go with it. Let’s also assume he wasn’t being literal about the ‘any cunt’ bit – in this context, from a working-class Englishman, it should be taken to mean ‘anyone’. Besides, it’s certainly true that the successful practice of magic is not limited to those with vulvas.

So – the ultimate secret of magic is that anyone could do it. No limits of race, gender, religion, caste or class. Especially, no limits on how rich you are – magic is so very often what the poor have instead of material wealth and power (or, sometimes, a route to same).  Sure, it’s nice to have bespoke kit, your own house, a selection of good quality incense, candles, knives and drugs… but it’s not necessary. You can do very effective magic stark bollock naked in a bare room with nothing but your Will and your bodily fluids. Trust me on that.

There are those, of course, who would insist that the expensive kit is not optional – or, at least, that it brings a puissance to the whole affair that a lash-up job lacks. This mode of thought was nicely skewered in Lionel Snell’s article Paroxysms of Magick and the immortal line about the OTTO – Over The Top Occultist;

When the 70′s occultist says “there’s no point in using a silver censer when a coffee tin serves just as well”, the OTTO initiate replies “there’s no point in using a coffee tin when a 800 year old human skull looted from the ruins of a Mexican temple serves just as well.”

(The point being that few could acquire that skull besides the rich… or a thief. Hermes being the god of both mages and thieves, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Personally, I restrict my thievery to ideas…)

Magic is principally an act of applied symbolism – try hard enough and any concave surface is a chalice, any stick a wand. The shinier they are, the easier it may be to convince yourself of that – but it’s not actually necessary. That act of applied imagination can be done by anyone who wants to try it. It’s that universality, that ‘democratic’, equalizing aspect to magic that’s so important – and it often gets swept away in the Newage merchandise, the expensive tomes and especially the insistence that in order to do magic you have to be special.

I would say instead – you have to become special. The means to accomplish this are varied – and the how-to manuals are out there, prices ranging from ‘how much?’ to free-to-download. Any cunt could find it…

There’s another quote I love – and it’s perhaps apt that the source is a bit blurry:

“Magic is the defense of the self against the malevolence of society.”

-John O’Keefe

To be a magician is, at heart, a rejection of the societal definition of normality. It is a standing-apart from the accepted rules of the game. A consecration of self… regardless of externally accepted status. A rebuke to the ideas of privilege – be it privilege by reason of birth, by wealth or by habit. Deciding that your imagination and willpower have import and can affect the world and making it stick, whatever you’ve been told about Knowing Your Place.

The trouble is, of course, that the world of the Normal can still utterly and easily crush you, magic or no. No matter how well they chanted, the Native American practitioners of the Ghost Shirt ritual did not become bulletproof. But maybe a spell on a Level III ballistic vest might make it a tiny bit more effective… just enough to count.

I’ve said it before – although what goes on inside a magician’s head (and, occasionally, outside it in ritual space) is enormous and epic, the actual physical-world effects are usually minimal – tiny shifts in probability, a little tickle in a person’s mind at just the right moment… small changes with large knock-on events. A little bit of power, in (hopefully) just the right place.

The poor and weak and disenfranchised don’t have a lot of clout, but they can make the best use of what they’ve got. The Way of the Guttershaman, if you like. Having the posh kit will not make you a better magician, ever. Making the best, most creative use of the ideas, the symbols and mythologies – of your own breath and ch’i and sheer stubbornness - will. Those tiny changes can be made to grow, become stronger and/or better timed. All it takes is practice, working at it and keeping your connections to the Real and the Imaginal intact – too much of the former results in failure, too much of the latter leads to the egomania of mageitis.

Any cunt could do it. That doesn’t mean anyone can (or even that they should) – just that they – you - could.

And to anyone who tells you otherwise, for whatever reason… well, I’ll leave that to John Constantine.

 

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Building Character 3 – Character Flaws

May 15, 2011

 

“I know what it’s like to feel unequal to the task required of you… to feel incapable. I’ll never be the man I was, but I’ve come to embrace those parts of my mind that are… peculiar and broken. I understand now that’s what makes my mind special. I wish you could see yourself the way I see you. You have no idea how extraordinary you are. If you can embrace that, there’s no end to what you can do.”

– Walter Bishop, in Fringe


Last time I was considering how pop-culture can inform (and occasionally misinform) one’s personality, especially for those of us whose interests in the spiritual lead us to draw on fictional sources. I asked;

“…when you’re actively trying to build or rebuild your personality around such a basis… what do you do?” How, exactly, does it work when you’re using riffs from multi-media as a way to explore and expand your personality?

Luckily, as I was writing, a perfect example came up. (Synchronicity is, as ever, the magician’s main ally.)

The above quote is from the penultimate episode of the third season of Fringe. For those who haven’t seen the series, (and I really recommend you do) it’s an odd little show which has grown from a monster-of-the-week X-Files vibe into a complex and emotionally satisfying piece of science fiction TV with a lot to recommend it. The quote comes from a scene where two of the protagonists are working on a dangerous problem which can only be solved by the harnessing of the suppressed psychic abilities of one of them, FBI Agent Olivia Dunham – powers which were induced during her childhood by the other, a full-blown Mad Scientist named Walter Bishop.

Walter is, to put it mildly, a broken man. A genius in several fields and a pioneer in the realm of fringe science, he’s no stranger to mind-altering drugs, spend seventeen years in a mental home and has had several pieces of his brain removed – apparently as his own behest. He has caused immense harm to Olivia in the past, but despite this they have become allies and uneasy friends.

I wept when I first saw that scene. Pure absolute recognition. It was like those words had been written to pierce straight through to my soul.

Of course, they weren’t. Despite the fact that I occasionally entertain as a useful exercise the thought-experiment of The Invisibles’ Mason Lang, that certain bits of pop-culture were created as messages and instructions for the rebellious and inquisitive, I don’t actually think that there’s a hidden Hollywood cadre of illuminated beings beaming Pure Truth to the Worthy. But sometimes it really feels like there is.

The parts of my mind that are, as Walter says, peculiar and broken, have a shape to them. And  sometimes, a film or movie or book or piece of music seems to fit into one of the gaps, drop into place almost seamlessly – and part of me that was incomplete and gaping open and raw feels, even if just for a moment, whole. I think that part of our development as people, what Jung called Individuation, is a process of finding such pieces, trying them out, seeing if they fit. Tessellation of the soul.

That’s why I don’t feel that incorporating a whole personality or a single mythos into your head works terribly well. We’re all of us broken and incomplete and flawed in different ways. I suspect that in most cases, dropping an entire fiction-suit over the top of all that doesn’t actually help to repair the holes, it just covers them up for a while. Band-Aids on arterial spray. It would, I think, be a terrible idea to just become Walter Bishop, even though he’s  one of the most delightful characters in modern television – he pisses himself occasionally, has crazed rants at supermarket packaging, makes terrible decisions that have catastrophic consequences… and, like all such people from all such worlds, he’s incomplete in a significant way, because he’s a fiction. Even more than the rest of us ‘real’ people. Drawing on these archetypal figures for wisdom and guidance, maybe even for the odd quirk or habit, is a good and useful start, but it’s just a start… because their creation is so very different from ours. Their strengths and deeds, flaws and weaknesses are not the same. Similar enough to be useful, but only in part.

I also think that it’s the very act of adapting to our flaws and weaknesses that constitutes spiritual and mental growth. But for that to happen, there has to be a wound to heal.

I don’t know a single person who’s a practitioner of magic or other spiritual exercises who has not, at some point, suffered greatly. Health problems, abuse, being outcast – these are so common among the Tribe of the Strange as to practically be signs of membership. It’s more than possible, I think,  that it’s these traumas – and, more importantly, how the survivor of them adapts and grows to compensate for them – that are where the magic enters. All shamanic systems rely on shock as a means of initiation – an attempt, I suspect, to induce these fractures into people to let the light in.

(This doesn’t always work, either when deliberately induced or accidentally endured. There are plenty of folk out there who are broken and this just doesn’t happen for them. The other factors involved are variable in the extreme. Plus, it makes an awfully convenient excuse for power elites to harm others in the name of Illumination and initiation. Nothing’s perfect.)

For those of us who are broken in this particular way, there’s usually some combination – between the yearning for greater completeness, connection with others and the world, and the initial breach – which makes for a mage, a shaman, a seeker. My own journey on that Path quickly led me to realise that wisdom, guidance – tools – can come from anywhere the soul can recognise as true. That fits those broken places.

This scene from Fringe not only speaks directly to that, but perfectly encapsulates it for me. It won’t for others. That may be the entire point. But if you’re one of the broken ones, one of the Tribe of the Strange… seek your stories, your metaphors, your Truths (the good ones are usually plural) and share them, compare them with others, regardless of their background and beliefs. We can only grow by combining our stories, our toolkits… using them to change our minds, literally.

And, like Walter Bishop said – if you can embrace that, you can be extraordinary.

 

Olivia: I know that you want to believe in me, and I want to believe in me. But believing doesn’t make it true.

Walter: Just try.

Fringe


 

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Building Character 2 – Staying In Character

May 10, 2011

(Part 1 is here.)

 

Why don’t you be like me?

Why don’t you stop and see?

Why don’t you hate who I hate, kill who I kill to be free?

-The Monkees, Randy Scouse Git

 

Last time, I was talking about how pop-culture aspects are a viable source of inspiration, or even workable as a basis, for one’s personality. I also mentioned that sometimes this can go very wrong indeed.

Here’s an example.

 

Around British SF fandom in the 80s, there was a person who was known (behind her back – fandom, like any group, has its’ cliques and bitching) as Ratwoman. She was called this because of her hobby of keeping rats as pets. Now I’m not going to gainsay that as a hobby – I’ve kept fancy rats myself and found them amiable companions – but she kept (so the story went) over fifty of the buggers and let them run all over her house, with the attendant hygiene issues that implies.

 

Ratwoman was also, like many in the scene, an enthusiastic participant of the occult/pagan fringe of fandom. Her preferred mythos was Pern – the realm of telepathically-bonded dragon-riding heroes in the books of Anne McCaffrey. As you can imagine, Ratwoman getting to meet the author herself was quite an important moment… which she spent explaining exactly to McCaffrey what the books had got wrong about Pern, on the basis that Ratwoman had been there and knew better.

 

I’ve written about Otherkin before, and it’s a position I’ve a lot of sympathy with. I certainly understand from my own experiences the feeling of being so very different from everyone else around you that you really don’t feel, or want to be, human. Around the same time as the Ratwoman story, I was involved with a group of people in fandom who, before the term Otherkin was even coined, identified as being the reincarnation of Tolkienesque elves. (I wasn’t an elf. I had a whole blurry mythos of my own going on at the time, part-Lovecraft, part-Illuminatus. But we got on.) It’s a compelling feeling, that combination of outsider and tribe-member. So I completely get the idea of inhabiting a myth-structure that completely. But at the same time, I can’t help but see just how fucking presumptuous it is to tell the creator of said mythos, “You’re Doing It Wrong”.

 

(Now, if we want to get picky, the possibility that Ratwoman was right has to be mentioned… anyone who’s familiar with Alan Moore’s theory of Ideaspace could raise the possibility that there is a Ur-Pern out there in the imaginal realm, and that some folk could conceivably make contact with it. Or even that Pern, faults and all, truly does physically exist somewhere in deep space and she actually did pick up some telepathic vibe coming from it, or even translated her soul there in some manner. Nonetheless; if nothing else, going up to the person who is pretty sure they actually invented that world with overriding declarations of your version of their reality is, at the very least, impolite and tacky.)

 

I mentioned before that fannish excesses of this type, roleplay in every sense, can provide a useful place to experiment with the tenets of our personalities – and even in the face of such extreme examples as above, I believe that’s a useful and rewarding thing. But a necessary stage of that process is that sometimes, you have to leave the scenario. You have to step away. Or your personality becomes subsumed by the role.

 

It’s a particular problem for occultists. At some level, practicing magic is the assumption that your imagination can directly shape the universe. The problem there is that, if you don’t constantly cross-check what goes on inside your head with what goes on outside it, you’ll fall into the trap of what I call mageitis – spinning exquisite worlds in your mind of which you are the absolute ruler, while  living in your mum’s basement covered in fast-food stains, B.O. and ennui. This is difficult enough for anyone – neurologically, we’re hard-wired to treat metaphor as very close to reality – so unless you work hard at this, the possibility of being swallowed by the fiction is constant.

 

(Somebody once tried to gently question Ratwoman’s view of reality. She responded angrily that the person was so negative that they had “a grey psychic cloud the size of Moscow” over their head. Another danger of mageitis is hyperbole.)

 

Actors have known this for a long time. Examples of the performer being absorbed by the role abound – Jeremy Brett’s tragic battle with the Sherlock Holmes archetype is an especially sad one. The smart performers develop a balance, either a Method-based give-and-take of being completely in character and then fading back to themselves, or (mostly) never forgetting that it’s just acting, luvvy. But when you’re actively trying to build or rebuild your personality around such a basis… what do you do?

 

All personality has a performative aspect to it. Sometimes, all of us feel like the mere act of being ourselves is just too much bloody work. But I can’t help thinking that to just copy an entire personality-type, or character, or mythos from another – be it fact or fiction – is just plain lazy. I suspect a lot of that is an attempt to paper over perceived or actual flaws in one’s personality, bridging a gap between what you are and what you’re told you should be. It’s really easy to just pull on a costume, a fiction-suit, and call it good-enough.

 

Maybe it would have been easier if I’d just done that. But the cracks and flaws, the bits that didn’t fit, were either too big or the wrong shape.

 

And, I was increasingly suspecting, maybe those cracks and flaws actually had a purpose.

 

 

To be concluded…

 

 

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The Batman Complex

April 27, 2011

This is utterly splendid. Mashup-trailers for non-existent films are becoming a fascinating art form generally – and this one hits pretty much all my buttons perfectly.

(Like a lot of martially-inclined geek boys, Batman has always had major symbolic importance to me. That whole thing of rereading The Dark Knight Returns when coming up on my first acid trip 20-odd years ago is, I am sure, entirely coincidental.)

The Batman Complex takes pieces of the Nolan Batman films and the past work of Christian Bale (notably The Machinist), drops in a little Inception, a touch of The Prestige and Shutter Island (and even a wee cameo from the Tim Burton Batman!) to tell a dark, vicious tale of psychological torment and possible redemption.

And, if that wasn’t enough to make me happy, it scores the final sequence perfectly to one of my most beloved pieces of music, Clint Mansell’s Death Is The Road To Awe from the soundtrack of The Fountain.

Enjoy…

(Thanks to Vornaskotti of Whitechapel for the find.)

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INK – a short review

April 24, 2011

When you love something passionately, you want to share it with everyone you can. I’ve loved this film since I asked for it as a Xmas present in 2009 and it’s finally available in the UK from tomorrow… so I want to share it with everyone who reads me.

I hadn’t actually seen INK when I asked for it as a present (thanks wife-the-artist!), by the way. My interest was based entirely on this trailer:

(There is a second trailer, but I honestly think it’s a wee bit too spoilery. Your call.)

The first time I watched INK, I wept several times from the sheer joy of it, and cried buckets at the end. Now, anyone who’s sat & watched films with me will tell you this is not exactly unusual. What is unusual is that my deeply cynical, then-seventeen-year-old, son who watched it with me, wept too.

It is unquestionably my favourite pure fantasy film of all time, and it has a permanent place in my top 10 films of any kind. And it cost a mere $250,000 dollars to make.

I’m not going to say a whole lot more about the plot than the above trailer gives you – this is a film that rewards knowing only a little when you come to it. When I’ve tried to persuade people to watch it, a phrase I like to use is “imagine if Neil Gaiman made The Matrix on a shoestring budget”, which is not far off – because this actually is a film that lives up to that oft-used cliché of ”a modern fairy-tale”.

It’s not a perfect film. Many of my absolute favourites (like, say, Altered States, Dark City or The Fountain) aren’t. Some of the performances are, shall we say, a little florid. A central twist is pretty easy to guess. It’s also probably not to everyone’s taste. But if you’re open to anything I’ve already said, I think it’s a film you could truly love.

It’s certainly a film that makes a virtue of its tiny budget. Writer/director Jamin Winans shot it in and around his hometown of Denver, Colorado, scored it himself (the music is a major contributor to the power of the film), built many of the costumes and props with his wife/co-producer/art designer Kiowa Winans, edited and composed the SFX in their basement on a Mac, distributed the film online… you get the picture.

When INK was released in the US, it seemed to hit a chord. On its’ DVD release in November 2009, it became the most popular torrent on The Pirate Bay that week. The Winans’ reaction to this was inspired – rather than complain or try to shut down or sue anyone… they put a tip jar on the website for those who enjoyed the torrented version.

Why does this film grab me so strongly? It’s a tale of brave but fallible warriors battling terrible evil and overwhelming odds. It’s about sacrifice and loyalty, myth and magic. It’s at times tragic, brutal, hilarious and bold. It’s unquestionably a Blank Badge film. It has characters I genuinely care about, doing things I totally understand. There are at least three scenes in there which I rate as perfect, classic movie moments.

And, ultimately, it’s a film about love conquering fear.

I really hope some of you out there will give INK a try. Let me know what you think.

 

 

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Guttershaman Goes To Town – a Synchronicity

April 17, 2011

1. Trigger.

If there’s two things that have always dominated my life as a magician and general observer of the Weird, it’s synchronicity and music. When they combine, the effect can be transformative and overwhelming.

In their highly-acclaimed comic Phonogram, Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie illustrate the immense power of music as a kind of magic in itself, and as the basis for an entire magical system. Much as I love this book (and especially enjoy it’s being set in my adopted home town of Bristol), it doesn’t quite capture  how I feel about music and magic – mostly because the music which inspired Gillen in writing the comic is the pop song, where my preference is for Rock. Give me a wailing guitar, driving bassline & mythic (even bombastic) lyrics and I’m a happy magus.

So when my online friend Wolven blogged about being given a strong hint by one of his pals that a certain band deserved a listen – and said band’s name and recommended track are saturated with synchronous resonance – I paid attention.

(That’s the thing about synchronicity: though it’s often regarded as a case of our giving meaning to mere coincidence, sometimes it’s more like the coincidence brings meaning to us. Nothing ‘mere’ about it.)

The band is Crippled Black Phoenix. The track is called 444.

A single listen, and I was converted. If there’s one thing I love even more than hard rock with mystical overtones, it’s said rock with an Arabian flavour to the sound. And that name… as someone who’s worked with alchemical metaphors since my early 20s, the symbolism was, shall we say, apropos. (And very timely – it’s been a tough few months generally, and the last few weeks have been especially challenging. Between my own trials, the death of a close friend and colleague and my long-time health problems, the thought of a crippled phoenix struggling to rise from the ashes of its’ own immolation was a powerful one. And since the state I was trying to rise above is best described by the alchemical term Nigredo, the Blackening…)

(And that 444? In the kabbalistic system called Gematria, it symbolises Jesus. Resurrection overtones, noted.)

Over the next 4 or 5 days that I fell head-over-heels for this band, other tracks which stayed with me strongly were the anthemic Rise Up And Fight (’nuff said), the epic, mournful Burnt Reynolds and the Post-Rock-influenced Time of Ye Life/Born For Nothing/Paranoid Arm of Narcoleptic Empire (featuring a long, positive-thinking-speech sample of Evel Kinevel!).

The kind of music that burns in my blood, sings in my soul. Music for Magic.

So, come Wednesday, I idly wondered when they were touring. I googled… and found their last UK date was That Thursday. The next day, in London. I know a hint when I see one…  and I know that this kind of synchronicity tends to run in chains – so I was curious how this one would play out. Booked a ticket on the spot, found a cheap-and-nasty last-minute hotel (as there was no fucking way I’d make the last train home) and packed.

(Aside: London and I have… an arrangement. I moved there in my late teens, found my first magical peer group there, did a lot of workings, walked a lot of those streets seeking the Strange – and found it everywhere in that grimy, lovely old town. Every time I go back to the Smoke, it’s a recharge-reconnection. Not quite on the John Constantine level, but it does me nicely.)

Away I went.

2. Gig.

So I pull into Paddington station early Thursday afternoon. I figure I can dump my gear at the hotel, check out some old haunts & make the scene in plenty of time. The hotel was kind of what I expected – a cupboard in a repurposed Georgian terrace, off Pimlico. I noted that, with the exception of diverting one stop on the Victoria Line to the hotel, my whole itinerary was on the Circle Line. Apt. Then I spotted that the streets leading to the hotel were Lupus Street and St. George’s Square – both redolent with meaning for me. (Always liked wolves… and Saint George, in one mystical tradition, is taken as an aspect of the Sufi trickster-figure Khidr, who I worked with extensively when living in London.) Synchronicity’s thin-but-strong thread, pulling me on.

Then, a little wander. First to the Embankment, where I payed my respects to Old Father Thames. Then along the line of magical bookshops that runs about 20 minutes from Charing Cross – Watkins, Mysteries and the newly-moved Treadwells. (The equally venerable Atlantis Books, though a fine place, was never a major haunt of mine, and time didn’t seem quite enough to fit it in.)

In each shop, just for a laugh, I did a little bibliomancy. Picked an interesting book  – a how-to of magical defence, a translation of Sufi poetry, a chaos magic tome) and each one had something to say… hints on how I could best move onward, leave the Nigredo. How to let the phoenix fly.

(The new Treadwells looks pretty good, by the way. Got the vibe of the old establishment, even though they’re not quite fully moved in. Always lovely to see Christina, too. And I picked up a copy of a splendid book on that talented artist and proto-guttershaman Austin Osman Spare, Borough Satyr.)

Then a splendid Chinese meal in Gerrard Street (try the smoked shredded chicken in The Royal Dragon!) and up to King’s Cross for the gig.

The venue was The Lexington: a classic room-over-a-pub arrangement. Got there in plenty of time for a wee dram of Kentucky bourbon before kick-off.

A rare good omen: the support act were bloody excellent. I’ve seen some truly shite bands supporting good acts in my time – this outfit, Teeth Of The Sea, were strong enough that I’d cheerfully pay to see them headline.

Then Crippled Black Phoenix took the stage. And they were damn good. But… it was just a gig. Excellent music, occasional small technical flubs, a full and boisterously appreciative audience. No more, no less. They played a lot off the new album I, Vigilante, which was to be expected. Frontman Joe Volk chatted amusingly with the crowd between tracks.

And that was fine. Y’know, I though to myself, if all that’s happening is I chased a couple of accidental symbols and got off my arse to go see a good band, there’s honestly worse ways to spend my time.

The gig wound enjoyably towards its end. Then, they played 444.

And everything just clicked.

 

It’s the hardest damn thing to describe about magic. That perfect moment of resolution, the feeling of all the wheels in the universe moving softly into balance. Of being in exactly the right place at the right time – grounded, strong and sure. The place all true magic, all wisdom and love and purpose, spring from. The Axis Mundi. After too fucking long, I was back there.

I was home.

(Bristol, two days later. I’m writing, the CBP album The Resurrectionists playing in the background. As I type the words I was home, the track 444 starts to play. Honestly, the timing is perfect.)

(That’s what I mean when I say synchronicity rules the magician’s life.)

Then they played Rise Up and Fight. Then they played Burnt Reynolds. And I was still there. Drenched in sweat, convulsing to the music, tears streaming down my grinning face. Singing my throat raw to the call-and-response of Burnt Reynolds. By the time the encore, (inevitably) Time Of Yr Life/Born For Nothing/Paranoid Arm If Narcoleptic Empire hit its stride, I felt like my body was transformed into pure sound. Transcendent. Whole.

 

The last notes fade, the band leave the stage. Slowly, I ground back into mere flesh.

3. Gallery.

Aching, damp and deliriously happy, I stumble back to the hotel. On the way, I notice I’m staying about 5 minutes from the Tate Britain gallery. When I phone home to wife-the-artist to tell her I’m (better than) OK, I ask if she knows of anything interesting showing there at the moment. I’ve some time in the morning before my train home, it seems silly not to take the opportunity for a bit of culture.

“Well,” she says, “There’s the Susan Hiller retrospective… she’s got a whole Fortean thing going on. You should check it out.”

Fair do’s. I crash, wake, have an iffy breakfast and set out to the Tate.

Despite the gently nudging of wife-the-artist, I don’t spend a lot of time in art galleries, and I’m rarely moved by fine art as much as I am by a great film or TV episode – or piece of music. This was the first time I have openly wept in a gallery.

From the introduction to the exhibit:

“Hiller juxtaposes knowledge derived from anthropology, psychoanalysis and other scientific disciplines with materials generally considered unimportant, like postcards, wallpaper, popular movies and internet postings, balancing the familiar and the unexplained and inviting the viewer to participate in the creation of meaning… Privileging the repressed, forgotten or unknown, Hiller confers status on what lies beyond rationality or recognition.”

Many of the works displayed were ‘traditional’ art forms, given her own twist – collages, well-framed nick-nacks in boxes and such. Some of these, such as The Tao of Water: Homage to Joseph Beuys 1969-2010 (a collection of tiny bottles of water drawn from sacred wells around the world) 10 Months (a series of pictures of Hiller’s belly taken over the duration of her pregnancy, with accompanying text) and Automatic Writing ( a cruciform display of some examples of her own experiments in that form),  struck me with a real sense of the elusive, numinous spirit I’ve always sought. But it was her installations, combining the visual and the sonic, that had the most powerful effect.

Pieces like Psi Girls (5 simultaneously played clips from SF/horror films featuring young girls as the focus of psychokinetic activity, colour-and-sound distorted) and An Entertainment (a similar manipulation of slowed-down Punch and Judy show footage, bringing the terror that forms the basis of that tale to the fore) had a visceral effect. But at the end, it was four particular installations that moved me deepest.

Monument is a reconstruction of memorial plaques from a Victorian graveyard, all of people who died trying to save the lives of others. In the middle of these is a reproduction of a grafitti found on the site, which reads STRIVE TO BE YOUR OWN HERO. In front of this is a classic wooden bench with an old-school field-grade tape recorder and headphones lying on it – you can listen to Hiller’s stream-of-consciousness about the nature of heroism. I lingered over the names of these quiet heroes and heras for a long time, lost in thought. So lost, in fact, that it wasn’t until after I left that I noticed on a photo the name immediately below the graffiti was one Edward Blake – the same name as The Comedian in Watchman

Magic Lantern also works with juxtaposing sound and image. Coloured circles projected on a wall fade into each other, while you listen to a series of recordings of Raudive voices. Hypnotic, compelling – and, for those fans of The Invisibles out there, an extra layer of meaning when those coloured circles are red, or white…

Witness is simply one of the loveliest things I’ve ever experienced. A darkened room, lit by a few blue spotlights, contains hundreds of small speakers suspended on clear plastic lines at different heights. Each plays one of over 2000 different eye-witness account of a UFO or other Fortean encounter, taken from across the world, in a variety of languages. Occasionally, the susurrus of voices fades and a single story is given prominence – then the chorus slowly comes back up. I’ve no idea how long I wandered in this forest of tales…

The Last Silent Movie is where I finally lost it and cried. A small movie theatre set-up plays a loop, black except for subtitles. The soundtrack is samples of the last native speakers of dying or dead languages. Indescribably sad.

A very different experience from the gig of the previous night, but unquestionably as powerful and transformative. And only found by the ‘coincidence’ of my randomly-chosen hotel being near that gallery.

The chain of synchronicity neared its end. I went back into the Circle (Line), left Mother London and returned home – joyous, subtly transformed, a little clearer, a little further along my Path.

One YouTube video brought me to this. One chance, out between two worlds…


Of course this is all subjective. How could it be otherwise?

But it’s still magic.

 

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The fall of mass culture, the rise of meaning

April 12, 2011

Stowe Boyd’s piece of this title is a response to comments about the shifting nature of modern advertising, in a piece by Arianna Huffington. But Boyd has something a little wider on his mind…

The decline of mass culture that is going on in the Western world is the direct consequence of the splintering of media and our defection from the communities that mass media defines.
The other day I saw Pew numbers showing that almost nobody below 25 watches local TV news anymore, for example. Which doesn’t mean that these folks are uninformed about what’s going on, but that the ‘imagined community’ that local TV broadcasting tries to conjure into being simply doesn’t exist for them.
The ‘message’ of mass  media is not about Iraq, American Idol, or the NY Yankees: it’s mass identity. And when people turn away from mass media — and mass advertising — they aren’t just becoming unaware of the goings-on on some reality show, they are walking away from belonging to a collection of cultural aspirations and obsessions.
And what fills the void for those that operate outside the limits of mass media, which are market-facing, and market-oriented? What happens when you aren’t bombarded with car ads, when you stop listening to music about bling and champagne, or you stop subscribing to fashion magazines telling you what to buy and wear?
One thing is clear: people’s extra-market motivations start to come to the surface. People begin to care more about connection in communities, the state of the world, and, at the most fundamental level, a meaning for existence.
This is being called social marketing. It’s a good term, for perhaps conflicting reasons. First, people associate ‘social’ with ‘social causes’, meaning ‘societal causes’ in a philanthropic sense. But more importantly, this marketing will take root in social media, where our connections to each other — the social context — is as important as the content.
This need for meaning often is trivialized as becoming cause-oriented, but our involvement in causes is the outgrowth of our desire to live meaningful lives, instead of as consumers.
I don’t mean this is some fuzzy spiritual way, some obsession with enlightenment or finding a path to heaven, but on a very practical day-to-day level. It comes down to this: How are we to spend our time, and what is worth being involved in?

He’s pretty much describing a lot of the key motivations and preferred actions of the Tribe of the Strange. And I think he realises that this sort of media-manipulation and the inevitable detournement it will provoke are just the sort of things the streets will find a use for. Or, that the Tribe already have.

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Building Character, part 1 – Character Sheet

April 10, 2011

…state my assumptions.” – Darren Aronofsky, Pi.

 

All of my writing, from my earliest diary notes to Guttershaman and beyond are, at heart, an attempt to explain & justify my perspective of the world to others in a coherent and hopefully interesting way. That perspective is… hard to explain simply. But here goes, again:

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I was a lower-working-class kid with a weird-shit-inclined mind. The laddish, beer-and-footie culture of my surroundings was not exactly comfortable (or even comprehensible) to someone like me. Lacking a set of positive influences in childhood that were amenable to my… soul I suppose, I had to find my own where I could. I found ‘em in books, films, TV – SF/horror, occult and Forteana were the places where I found perspectives that simply weren’t available in my given culture. (It’s fortunate that my parents were not strongly religious…)

In those days – I’m talking the late Sixties/early Seventies – being into this stuff was like a red flag to pretty much every bully in school. I was The Weird Kid. The Odd Boy Who Doesn’t Like Sport. The Target.

Weird Kid survived, left school and home as soon as possible, learned some nasty martial arts, met others like him & continued to construct his personality out of bits from here and there. Eventually, there came a point where I sussed that I was far from being the only person who did so – or, rather, not the only person who would admit it.

(Most of us do it unconsciously, by osmosis – picking up social cues and tells from others. Many simply become mental clones of their parents’ beliefs and attitudes with very little variation – and people like that really don’t understand or condone people like me.)

I had defined my personality, my character, for myself – as it were. But that was just the start of the process. When I began meeting others who’d done pretty much the same, in the SF fan culture, I found my first true friends. (Even messed-up loners need a few friends.) The things that drew us together were Fan things – cons, pubmeets, zine-making… but in the midst of all this was the pleasure of finding the crossover between various factions – how many in the fan community were also into magic or kinky sex or tabletop RPGs. All of those have that roleplay thing in common – its universally found in those realms. We find the bits that work for us & abide by them. We rehearse them in a relatively safe space – be it a gaming table, a BDSM scene or a convention. And both our personality and our spirituality develop out of those rehearsals.

One of the biggest criticisms of this kind of approach to personal spirituality is that it’s ‘pick n mix’. It’s not always – sometimes a movie or music or film or movement really seems to pick us. And the right ones speak to us deep in our souls, like members of the faiths we rejected say their god speaks to them.

The big difference is that, unlike those with a received belief system, we can speak back to those parts of ourselves: game them, field-test them, befriend them; get the various bits to blend into, or share, mindspace. (At best… have them not squabble constantly, at worst. Well, worst this side of either monomania for whichever model you’ve developed… or simple raving psychosis, often followed by fleeing to a fundamentalist belief. Or full-blown multiple-personality disorder…)

The modern world – at what point you start to date that from is a tricky question – is a place where many are actively avoiding the traditions of the past, especially those of their parents, faith and culture. The Postmodern model gives a certain flexibility in doing so. My path to alleged adulthood is one way to do it – there are others.

But why? Why bother with all this? Why not just accept given wisdom, time-tested ways and paths? The reason for not just blindly accepting the Old Ways is that those ways, the Grand Narratives, have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. Unworthy.

(The fact that many not only abide by these institutions but wish to make them more conservative, more hidebound & dogmatic, is sadly clear – and to me, it’s just as clearly a reaction akin to future shock… running away from the complex range of ideas available, wanting to be told a relatively reassuring Single Truth to follow.)

I think every generation produces kids who just don’t fit their immediate culture – my beloved Tribe of the Strange. I was a fairly extreme case, but not as extreme as some. Where else can kids like I was go to find authenticity, when the ‘authentic’ past paths are shown to be fake at worst, riddled with hypocrisy and venal bias at best?

Once you decide your identity will not simply be a copy of your given kin and culture, you have to make it out of what you find. Affinity groups – fandoms, clubs, gangs, even political parties & churches & protest movements. The stories and songs and moments that stir genuine wonder or terror or other such highly educational, imprint-producing emotions. And once they set in and become your personality core, it doesn’t matter if they’re recent, or jigsaw, or even based on the whole cloth of pop culture and cheesy newage – they’re YOU.

Trouble is, once that’s set, you’re just another bundle of dogma – it’s just a different dogma from your dad. And adding in new layers over this – of fashion (or ironic rejection of fashion) or cause, doesn’t actually help the core.

The tools of chaos magic & multimodel approach – the occult version of applied postmodernism – provide some adaptability in this… but also offer traps to get stuck in, like any set of beliefs.

What makes the difference between a person who consciously sets out to explore alternate models of thought, dress, action as self-improvement, and one who draws on all the same sources just for sake of irony or peer-group membership? Attitude. The ironic hipster stance is a shallow thing. The search for ones authentic self through pop culture, SF & horror & comics & movies & games & even new religious paths can be valid.

It can also be utter wankery.

 

More, inevitably, later…

 

 

 

 

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My New Online Home…

April 7, 2011

After a long hiatus, a lot of changes in my life and some kindly but forthright nudging from my beloved Kirsty, I’ve made the big step to getting my own domain. So, here’s catvincent.com. Feels… roomy.

I’ve copied over all the posts from my earlier WordPress.com site, and have pulled all the Guttershaman series into one place for easy perusal. I’ve also put up copies of some of my writing in other places (such as the sadly-on-hiatus Rending The Veil). There’ll be more from the vaults appearing as and when I can get into the basement, wrestle the guardian cephalapod and wrest the treasures from the murky depths.

There’ll be plenty more new stuff coming too – although the Guttershaman series seems to have reached a natural end, I’ve plenty more up my flapping sleeve…

(Those interested in the direction that I was going with Guttershaman will find a lot of the thoughts from there being explored on modernmythology.net – which I highly recommend, even – especially! – the stuff I didn’t write.)

Much more soon…

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