Turn Your Life Into Art: Lessons in Psychomagic from the San Francisco Underground
by Caveat Magister
I want to tell you a story about two different bars. Here’s the first one.
Not to go I was in Prague, and I went to an alchemy themed bar. It was part of the building were real alchemist, of historical note, had lived and work in the 16th century. It was decorated to the nines to represent a modern version of an alchemist slab combined with the bar. Formulas and diagrams were written on all the walls. Glass laboratory jars wear on each table hood in liquids of weird colors, we weren’t sure if they were candles or drinks or what. A series of tubes forming a large chemistry apparatus hung from the ceiling, and ran the length of it. When you walked inside, you really walked into something. It was impressive.
Put the mid were standard barman news, just with alchemy themed dreams. In the process of ordering was exactly the same as bars everywhere, in the process of getting the drinks was exactly the same as bars everywhere, and at the end of the night all the decoration was really just a façade.
You were in a standard bar where the experience you had was exactly the same as you would have every place else, I would mostly hang not on anything that the bar did, but on whether you and your friends were enjoying yourselves.
I wish we did. We totally did, my friends and I. But after the first moment of “wow, cool,” we really could’ve been at any bar, anywhere.
And turns out the perfect form of a bar is not a bar at all. It is, in fact, a church. You are in a church. A place of prayer, and miracles, and fellowship. In the way most people first connect to this, the way they first realize that something is different is happening, is when they see that here, and this place, there are no drink menus. Here, there is no prescribe list of ingredients that are shuffled around mechanistically or even algorithmically, to put us all in the same conveyor belt or assembly line towards mediocrity. No! The only way to get a drink here is to walk up to the structure, which is an altar. An offer of across it a prayer from your heart. It can be anything, as long as it truly from your heart. A wish, a desire, memory, a sense impression, a fictional character, a fragment of poetry, a personal problem, an abstract concept, a historical event… Anything, as long as it is from your heart.
Nightlife as a spiritual pursuit
Why do people cars and clubs?
They go to bars because they want to have an experience, and more than just an experience of pleasure of friendship or dancing, they want an experience in which something unexpected can happen, and they can play a role in it.
What bars and clubs and or juice that you can’t have drinking at home or snuggling with your cat or playing board games with friends is a cast of unknown characters together in an environment in which social rules are looser and social lubricants are present. You are more likely to have a memorable encounter with something unknown. People are more likely to behave in unexpected ways, and by being present for that you are more likely to behave in unexpected ways. You can have an encounter, with unexpected people, and behave in new ways.
You can. That doesn’t mean you will. It doesn’t happen to the extent people want every time. Or even most times. But bars offer the potential for such encounters, a path for such encounters, in ways that most other things people have easy access to do not. When it’s not just done lazily, out of habit, going out drinking at a bar alone, or telling a friend “let’s go to the bar” as a way of expressing the hope that something will happen. That there will be a memorable even amazing encounter that you can be a part of.
That Wish for an encounter is the underline hope. The underline desire. The exact experience people are looking for is different from person to person, of course, but there is a kind of experience we’re craving.
Three different kinds of experience:
First is the “bar” experience in “bars and clubs.” Because in fact the two really aren’t the same. The Proto typical experience that people go to a bar to have involves the kind of encounters that happen in a place where you sit with strangers and talk, while the Proto typical experience that people go to a club to have involves the kind of encounters that happen in a place where you dance with strangers and can barely hear each other.
The bar experience is one in which you meet a stranger and have a conversation and it leads to something you never predicted happening and, despite drinking, you can remember every detail and tell your friends the story and it is meaningful and it’s particulars — ignite your mind and open your soul. The club experience is one in which the story takes second place to the sensations: the dancing, the music, the connection between yourself and your environment. There might be some great details – you met a celebrity or a rich guy bought your drinks – but the essence of the experience is something you can’t really bribe to people, only how amazing and overwhelming it was. The bar experience is often verbal and conceptual and particular, the club experience is often an attempt to leave the verbal and conceptual behind.
This kind of experience is Morgan and falling in love, or at least infatuation. Nothing in particular “happens,” but encounter with someone touches you on a deep level in a place that was tender overall, and as a result you feel changed — or the potential for change —although you can’t really explain why. Obviously this can overlap with either the bar or club experience, the one turning into the other.
Chapter 2: The unexamined Psyche
And both, when she had gone through all the oranges, and we lived all these experiences, and filled herself with them, I can’t deter dessert fork, and told her to stab me in the arm with it. Which she did. The ritual worked. The next day, at work, Robin organized collective action against abusive management. The company office ground to a stand stores headquarters and a representative to negotiate with her to get work moving again by addressing long-standing grievances.
That whatever reason, there are things happening in our unconscious mind, and they impact what it is we can do in the world, and who we can be. We’ve seen one example in which this can stop you from doing something, and one example in which it can be hardest hope you achieve something.
3: The world as we live it is a magical place
Call the evidence suggests that this is not how things work. The secular world is not so secular — it has just learn not to talk about it superstitions and polite company. Silicon Valley and Wall Street type to Destanni very idea of visiting a church or psychics, consult astrologers, and spend obscene amounts of money on new age health products that have no more scientific validity than the health potions in a video game
Have you been to a trans humanist party? They are filled with people talking about the singularity and exactly the same way that kids at the YMCA summer camp I attended as a teenager talked about God. Which, not coincidentally, is how hipster atheist will also talk about the power of art at their parties.
We may use scientific terms, or art school terms, or religious terms but all of our lives are oriented in some way towards experiences of the soulful, and the enchanted.
4: The psyche moves in mysterious wats, its wonders to perform
To walk through the mystic midway was to meet all manner of creatures in the role of carnival barkers and hustlers, who invited people to play games that guided you to reveal uncomfortable truths or intimate secrets. They would give you tokens, depending on the kind of experience you had, and over time the combination of tokens you got could influence the outcome of the experience for everyone.
One of the characters was Mr. Nobody, a man in a suit with a giant skull for a head, inspired by the Gede Loa of Voudu, who would ask you to tell him your greatest fear, and within devour it.
Enchanting experience when we were being spoken to by unconscious isn’t random, and it isn’t haphazard.
Will start with the fact that most of us are in auto pilot most of the time. We are simply not painful, conscious, attention to much of what we do. If we were, with so many people be trying to sell us on “mindfulness?”
And while it may seem grandiose to say right now, one of the most common goals of great experience design that has developed in the San Francisco scene is to do just that — to liberate people from their habitual ways of looking at the world, and freeze them from their complexes.
This is hardly goal you need to San Francisco. A number of modern art movements, from data to the surrealist to the situation us, had this basic goal: to awaken something slumbering in the mind and bring it to full consciousness.
Well, you don’t always need it. Think back to the “magical bar,” my church… where I initiated people into the experience without any costumes. I was wearing whatever I happen to be wearing that day. There were no masks, no robes, no sorts, no hats. The bartender was wearing whatever he wore to work. There were no props, lighting effects. It was all done simply by talking. Just by telling a story.
Asked… Wait… There was a prop, wasn’t there. Of course there was: the drink. The woman in the story I told you said that it didn’t need to be much, even a glass of water would’ve done it, but there had to be something. Something that actually happened, that can be referenced, pointed out, engaged with.
Otherwise just telling the story. And there’s nothing wrong with that: a good story can be an incredibly powerful experience. It’s a very different kind of experience in the one we’re talking about. We will discuss why in more detail as we go, but I think you can understand pretty easily that there is a difference. It’s one thing to be told a story about the Italian renaissance in a classroom or from a friend, it’s quite another to be told the exact same story while in Italy and to have someone pointed out a building and say “and that was the workshop where the statue was made 400 years ago, and it’s still displayed in the town Square we are walking to.”
Imagos are the visual manifestations of archetypal symbols. Charged images, numinous in their own right, that when you see them, reference the archetypes. Imagos tap archetypes on the shoulder. Even summon them up. An image that brings what is below her conscious mind to the surface. Having something like that in an experience changes it profoundly when a random ordinary stranger on the street says “tell me something you fear,” you’re probably not going to take it seriously. But when a human skull tells you to do it… Even if it’s not a very convincing representation of a skull or a skeleton man… Something stirs. There’s a connection made with your unconscious, now you’re experiencing that question and a whole different way.
Odyssey Works, a fascinating New York/San Francisco art collective founded in 2001 that creates art experiences for one person at a time – experiences that can last days, weeks, or even months – likes to say “design starts with empathy.”
5: Meet the Daimon
They would’ve woken up that morning never having heard of the Circus Redickuless. At 11 AM, a friend would’ve shown them a flyer or a listing for this bizarre event, and asked if they wanted to go. At 8 PM the show started. At 10, they were invited to run away and join the circus. At midnight, they be desperately selling the furniture to the roommates. And at 2 AM, they get on the bus and be driven away, trying to come up with an act that fit their particular lack of talent.
Hundreds of people.
That, as Chicken would say, was the real show. That moment when someone was inspired by what everybody acknowledged was pure bullshit to walk away from their life and do something completely different.
The highest achievement of an art experience in the San Francisco style is not to get someone to say “it was beautiful,” or “it was amazing,” or even “it moved me.” But “it changed my life.” That’s how successes measured. Breakthroughs that lead to significant personal change.
Individuation is the lifelong project of becoming more nearly the whole person you were meant to be — what the gods intended, not the parents, or the tribe, or, especially, the easily intimidated or inflated ego.
Yeats called the daimonic “the other will,” and in his book Love and Will, May describes a way in which it can seem as though it takes us over during moments when we stop acting like the character we are trying to play and instead act in accordance with her honest impulses. It shares an etymology with demonic precisely because it is so often experience as a compulsion, and even a possession.
When we have so life that gives us no more room to grow, or to grow in ways that are intrinsically meaningful to us, the daimon acts out against it. The more we repress our potential to be authentic, the more extreme the daimon’s reaction eventually becomes.
When are custody for self healing is somehow stalled, or is overwhelmed, or we suffer a truly traumatic psychological injury that is too much… Then we see a therapist. And what the therapist does, Bohart and Tellman show, is it to “cure” the patient, but to jumpstart the patient’s capacity for self healing. When that happens, patients get better, and when that doesn’t happen, patients don’t.
Because it turns out the thing that most jumpstarts someone’s capacitor to self-heal isn’t the wisdom of Freud or the latest affirmations of positive psychology, but an authentic connection with another human being.
6: An introduction to psychomagic
Jodorowsky responded that he was suffering from a sense of himself growing thinner as he worked, and that in these moments he needed to re-infuse himself with his own essence. So, he said, have a sample of your blood taken, and placed the blood into empty pill capsules. Place the blood capsules in the freezer. And whenever you are feeling creatively exhausted and empty, go to the freezer, take one of these pills, and swallow it. Your problem will be solved.
Within that unconscious is a drive to individuate, to grow and become our full selves, and it’s a powerful urge. But in most people it is routinely thwarted by the lives we live. That thwarting doesn’t just happen with the decisions we consciously make: it happens at the unconscious level, too, which is why despite our explicit desires to break out of old patterns, lift ourselves out of ruts, and take new kinds of risks to get new kinds of outcomes, we so often find ourselves repeating the same behaviors, and mistakes, again and again and again.
Why don’t direct access to it? Because the conscious and unconscious mind speak different languages. We tried to convince ourselves to do things using language, and logic, and reason, and abstract thoughts. But the unconscious speaks and experiences, and dreams, in archetypes, and symbolism, and mythology, and an images.
Psychomagic, Jodorowsky proposed, is the wart of consciously creating symbolically significant actions and events that the psyche can understand and process.
A psychomagical experience stimulates the part of the recipient’s psyche that is trying to be more authentic, but has encountered obstacles.
7: Success looks like serendipity
Lost Horizons Night Market: Open artists each print a box truck, the length is up to them. They each turn the back of the box truck into an experience – I’ve seen people turn their trucks in the bowling alleys, 50s diners, dance clubs, bars, libraries, cinemas, storytelling venues, reverse ball pits, petting zoos, lecture halls, fortunetelling booths, virtual reality playgrounds, massage parlors… And places far more strange and unique.
8: Awe and Vulnerability
What does this look like? When things go right, what kind of experiences are people having as they go through these moments?
The first is presents – people become present, in the moment.
The next is a greater sense of vulnerability – not an a “fear for my safety” way, so that can be a factor to, but in a psychological sense: that what they have hidden cannot be seen, that what they have repressed can now express itself.
Another sign of success is an awakening of awe.
10: Finite Gardens vs Infinite Robots
Oh and it’s those words I just used, “I have created the condition under which” this could happen, that is the most important thing to realize here. Because that’s what you’re doing: you’re not “doing Psychomagic” to someone, you are creating the conditions under which Psychomagic can happen. And those are two very different models.
On the other hand, if you design a garden that, for all of its beauty, has a wild streak in it, elves and fairy creatures might come take up residence.
11: Create Non-Fiction
- And she created the worlds first “decruiter” service, reaching out to people who want to quit their jobs. The website offers one free consultation for people who want to quit and would like to talk to a decruiter to see if they qualify, in a therapeutic way.
- She created a con, conference that takes place while waiting in lines. There are talks and activities in the line and nobody needs to purchase anything at the end.
- She created a tinder profile for a drone.
- She has a website that recruits people to go to oracles annual tech conference dressed up as actual articles, and pretend it’s their conference, and look for sessions on their divination issues, and offered to perform definition for techies in attendance.
Contact the decruiter website, you can actually get a free consultation to speak to someone – and if you want a second appointment to talk more about leaving your job, you need to pay for the service. And people actually do. If you Match your drone on tinder, and chat with it, and aren’t too obnoxious, and then try to set up a date? A drone will actually meet you at a bar or restaurant, hover over each chair, and talk with you (Danielle is hidden nearby with a Bluetooth speaker) for as long as the batteries last.
Take a little all the events I told stories about in this book so far. Every single one has something in common: they were all real. They were non-fiction.
Of the two bar told you about in the beginning, it was the alchemy bar that was the elaborate section: that wasn’t really an ultimate slab, they weren’t really serving portions or strange concoctions. It was a bar wearing a LARP costume. But the other bar? Oh sure I may have told a big story about how it was in church, but you know what? I actually believe that. And, more to the point, everything I said would happen actually did. There are no menus there. You order by telling the bartender something that’s on your mind or in your heart and they create a cocktail, never created before or since, as an answer. That’s all real. It really happens.
It was our claiming to be an alchemist lab, and the tenured professor down the hall who claimed to be a radical pedagogue but whose idea of crossing lines is to range the desks in a circle, who are lying. And aren’t worth mentioning again.
This is your first design principle. Effective cycle magical events or nonfiction. They can be given a little fantasy trapping, if you’d like, but the underlying dynamics are at the most powerful when they’re real. Whenever you can, design a non-fictional event instead of a fictional one. If you take no other design principles away from this book, take this one: design experiences where people are really doing things, rather than pretending to do things. Fiction is the enemy of Psychomagic. Don’t put people in a position where they have to suspend beliefs: the more disbelief they have to spend, the less impactful you’ll be.
12: Engineer Disperfection
Term for scenarios like these came from Chicken John: he called them “engineer disperfection.” To engineer disperfection is to take what are normally a routine, even rote, actions and turn them into absurd no-win scenarios. The scenario is so broken that there’s no logical or optimal way out.
13: Encourage Meaningful Choices
Inspired, we decided that one person would wear the angel wings, one person would wear the devil horns, and a third person would name a personal problem they were actually having. Then the devil in the angel would each stand behind one of her shoulders and argue about what to do, and the person would decide what to do based on that.
You may have seen an advertisement for personal force fields. You may have responded to a flyer looking for test subjects. You may have stumbled across it’s Yelp page, and been intrigued. Maybe you have heard a strange pirate radio station warning you about a cult. For three years, there were an endless number of ways you could connect to the Jejune Institute. But you had to make the decision to follow them, to notice that there was something strange going on, and track it down. Most of those trails, at least at first, would lead you to a set of offices for the Institute in downtown San Francisco, where you’d register, fill out some paperwork, and then be taken to a small room for you to watch an increasingly bizarre instructional video that would suddenly be interrupted, hijacked, by “the resistance,” which warned you of the Jejune Institute’s sinister intentions, and gave you instructions on how to escape the building undetected. What would you do?
Experiences in which people make meaningful choices, and the experience proceeds from those choices, are always – always – experienced differently, and more powerfully, then experiences in which someone is following the script.
Much of the capacity of a designed experience to reach someone depends on their ability to make meaningful choices, and for those choices to matter.
People choose how to engage with the Burning Man style temples: weather to help build it, whether to visited, whether to leave something, and what to leave. It was all self directed.
15: This could never happen twice
The more effective a psycho magical experience is, the less repeatable it is.
So make unrepeatability a key element of your experience design.
17: The Holy Trinity – Art, Ritual, Play
There are five statues of Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” around the world in Zürich, Paris, Tokyo, Philadelphia, and on the Stanford University campus.
Being moved by a piece of art has much the same effect. It can cause you to see the ordinary in a new way, or imagine something you’ve previously never conceived of.
18: Gary Warne’s Chaotic Principles
Suicide Club founder Gary Warne, who in the late 1970s developed when he called “12 chaotic principles” for how to handle the pushback that can occur when you challenge common perceptions in public.
The most per weapon that a group of people sticking together has in diffusing situations that come up is in their ability to be visibly having fun.
19: The Lazy Man’s Guide to Starting a Cult
And if you simply want to have an impact, if you’re just going for that quote that was impressive, and it moved me,” the absolute simplest thing to do is take people out into nature. The more remote and unusual the better.
If you want for the cult, and you’re really lazy, just use these design elements: take a bunch of people, preferably some friends and some strangers, out to a beautiful but remote location; give them a common goal and have them face challenges together. Something will happen.
But the whole point of the last 30 years of the San Francisco underground is that given a beautiful remote location and some people, you can also do so much more, and make it so much better.
20: Honesty is the Best Policy
You’re not going to create the ending, to establish the perfect make out session – your time trying to create the choice she gets to/has to make (engineered disperfection). Her wrestling with her dark side, and with her self, in a concrete, actionable way, leading to a choice that could have true consequences, is the heart of the psycho magical experience created.
When in doubt, when you’re struggling to figure out how to make this work: be more honest. Push the truth as far as you can, even into new territory, without ever lying. Turn it into a show, by all means, create engineered disperfection – out of which even more truth comes. Presentation counts. But never lie. Not about anything that matters, and even less than that, if you can help it.
If you simply can’t think of what to do when designing an experience, find an interesting question, a genuinely interesting question that opens up other questions and issues, or something that you’re honestly grappling with and struggling with, intern the process of asking it or struggling with it into a show.
21: Let’s Review
- Infinite Gardens versus finite robots. You’re not making the thing happen, you’re creating the conditions under which something amazing can happen. You’re cultivating, but you’re not in control.
- Create non-fictions. You want people to understand that this is really happening. If someone has to suspend disbelief about something important, then it’s not going to work. Ideally, they shouldn’t have to suspend disbelief about anything. The more real it is, the more effective is.
- Engineer Disperfection. Create situations that break conventionality and that cannot be optimized for success. Where there is no “winning” in a conventional sense.
- Encourage meaningful choices. Create moments of “applied existentialism” where people have to decide what’s really important to them, and act on it. Where people choose what to do, how they choose to react, has a significant impact on what happens next and the experience they have.
- Gardens aren’t safe. Giving people meaningful choices in a non-fictional environment designed to create Psychomagic isn’t safe. You can’t make it safe and get these kinds of impacts. What you can do is get better with danger, physical and psychological, so as to work through risks, rather than avoid them.
- This couldn’t happen twice. Repetition is the hallmark of zzzzzzzz. The less report a psycho magical experience is, the more impact it is likely to have. Even if you are doing an experience with a format, try to design conditions that are unrepeatable, that could never happen again even if you wanted them to.
- You’re either in or you’re out – except when you’re not. Unless you’re creating a hole respond teeniest active Psychomagic for someone, and maybe even then, it’s crucial to either set firm boundaries around an experience or to try the much harder task of wholly integrating the experience into their world for the long-haul. Whichever choice you make, go all in. Going halfway in either direction destroys the impact.
- The Holy Trinity – Art, Ritual, Play. And some ways these are three different things, and then in some ways these are all the same thing. The more of each you can incorporate into your experience, and the more you can blur the boundaries between them or shift back-and-forth, the more likely you are that someone is going to have a profound experience, even if it’s utterly absurd.
- Gary Warne’s Chaotic Principles. You must allow people the validity of their own reactions to what you do, otherwise you’re a bully and an asshole. Always have a clear agreement with the people in your experience about what you’ll do if things go sideways. Always stick together… Lots of important advice here… But mostly: you’re not doing fan service for your self-image, and people have a right to respond however they want to the weirdness you create.
- The Lazy man’s guide to starting a cult. The reason people have been taking each other out into nature and creating challenges for one another as a bonding exercise is that it works. It’s psychologically potent. But it’s much more potent as one element among many, rather than being the experience itself.
- Honesty is the best policy. And when in doubt, be more honest. Always be more honest. Do it in a theatrical way, do it in an interesting way, do it in an artful way, absolutely – be more honest, more vulnerable, and more open. That’s a royal road to Psychomagic.
Psychomagic during a pandemic
Go be entertainment. There are a few exceptions, but, as a rule, the thing that just doesn’t work online is creating experiences with the intention of entertaining one another.
More than that, entertainment that has nothing of the participants tends to lower the psyche into a dormant state, rather than wake it up. We are drowning in online entertainment, and it’s not enough to break through that terrible sense of timelessness and despair.
In a time when we have more access to on-demand entertainment then at any point in human history, and less access to one another, it is experiences of authenticity and connection that what we’re desperate to have. Design for that – authenticity and connection.
The idea to be self-expressive at them, but to create opportunities and invitations for them to be self-expressive at you.
The most impactful digital experiences I’ve been part of or seen have been truly collaborative: participants have been asked to do creative work that develops or shapes the experience everyone has in meaningful ways.
Make it an inconvenient, instead of easy and frictionless
Every notable successful cycle magical online activity I’ve seen so far has gone out of its way to ask the participants to make an inconvenient commitment or sacrifice of some kind.
The Wheel of Zoom
Once everyone is ready, you decide, together, what the consequences for landing on each of the 12 spaces on the wheel is. This, too, is crucial. It can’t be decided ahead of time by a couple of people: everyone has to decide on it together, in the moments before they start to play.
While the group together can decide what each of the wheel’s consequences are, each one should involve a risk of some kind – and ideally they will be balanced out between four different kinds of risks that can be undertaken online in a live environment. The four types are:
- Physical risks: Do something difficult, spontaneous, or intimate with your body in your own surroundings. These have included interpretive dances, exercise routines, and intimate exposure.
- Emotional risks: Take an emotional risk in this moment. Confess a secret, tell someone something you’ve been holding back, conduct a webcam tour of the private parts of your home, do a show-and-tell with an object that has immense importance for you and explain why.
- Social risks: Do something that helps you learn about and connect with the other participants. Tell someone what you really think of them. Ask someone something you’ve always wanted to know, offer someone an experience that you want them to have, or admit something that you really need and ask the group for help. Make someone blush.
- Absurdist risks: A challenge to do something utterly bizarre so that no one can predict what’s going to happen next. Examples of that from the past have included “adopt a pet,” “strip and weep,” “make a friend,” “create a work of art.” Whatever it is has to be done now, right now, in front of everyone: no promises that you’ll do it later. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not – it’s what they have to do.
This matters first because deciding on the wheel’s consequences together makes the risks consensual: everyone should be able to say “yes, I accepted this possibility when I signed up, and had a chance to veto it.”
Socially Distanced 1:1 Visiting Experience
Then I gave them the gift that the person before had left for them, and we discovered what it was. And, I said, I have one more gift for you:
When you first read the words in the envelope, and I asked you what they brought to your mind (I told them) I recorded your answer on my phone, and then I sent the audio file to an artist who spent the hour while we were talking creating an original piece of art based on your response to these words.She sent it back to me, and while you were going through the book finding the pages you wanted to burn, I went into my apartment and printed it out. And here … here … is the image, created just for you, of what this invocation brought up. It’s yours, your part of this, with my thanks.