An Astral Machine in Three Acts

From my first encounters with ritual magic (by which I mean any magic involving ritual, not only the more narrow ceremonial magic of Western scholarship), and especially group ritual, I knew it was my chosen art form, my calling (vocation). I tend to view ritual as a kind of experience and interaction design. Most of my rituals are performed privately while the artifacts I make are shown publicly — rather like when you see ritual artifacts on display at a museum. Although some of my artifacts may be interacted with in non-ritualistic ways, ritual is invariably involved in their manufacture, and ritual itself is often the principal artifact I produce although it may involve other artifacts of my making.

As a chaos magician I maintain a pursuit of no-style (à la Bruce Lee) magic, but like most artists (including Bruce Lee) I have organically developed something of my own, idiosyncratic style that I describe with a kind of rubric composed of words that, like “colorless green ideas,” may seem oddly collocated: an astral machine in three acts.

astral — The word means “of the stars,” and within occult jargon it often means an ontological plane or dimension that is separate from but may intersect with or otherwise touch the so-called physical or material plane. I employ it to denote the stuff of imagination: what is seen with the so-called third eye, heard with the “third ear,” felt with the “third hand,” perceived in dreams, hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences, &c. When you watch Yanomami shamans interacting with entities you cannot see for yourself (the similarity to children playing is important to recognize), those entities exist in the astral, just as in this illustration of magical evocation from E. M. Butler’s Ritual Magic:

Similar words are æriel and ætherial, which likewise tend to connote the heavenly or supramundane and also the subtle (vis-à-vis gross), but all three words embrace the dæmonic as well as the divine, the infernal as well as the supernal, and may not be subtle at all! I am especially fond of those fantastic efforts to physically manifest chaotic or apophatic astral- or æther-like dimensions and attendant entities; e.g., the Warp of Warhammer, the Oblivion of The Elder Scrolls, the Null of The Room, the Dark Dimension and Darkforce of Marvel comic books, &c. Such were some of the strongest bellows to the imaginal fire of my youth, and they remain powerful sources of inspiration for me today.

A complementary word here is æsthetic: what is perceptible to the senses. The imagination does not only project; it also receives. Between mental imagination and physical manifestation (which are not really opposite ends on any pole) is a great, multidimensional multiverse wherein ritual expression and experience can occupy many varied sets of coordinates.

machine — As a cybernetician I tend to conceptualize ritual in terms of control and communication, dynamics and energy, inputs and outputs (cf. ingresses and egresses), interactions, interfaces, state changes, configurations, networks, amplifiers, attenuators, feedback, recursion, (de)coherence, signals, semiotics, umwelten, entelechy, telos, &c. I see ritual as the con-sensual (“to sense together”) coordination and interaction of bodies whether physical, spiritual, digital, &c (cf. Actor-Network Theory and Activity Theory). My ritual performances often play out like automatic programs; my performers organized like cogs in a machine — a machine that provokes (i.e., calls forth, pro-vocare).

The Lament Configuration of Hellraiser has long been one of my favorite magical artifacts of fantasy, and a favorite example of magical interaction design: a music-box puzzle that open doors to other dimensions and summons entities from them.

This way of seeing similarities and isomorphisms between rituals and machines facilitates my design of rituals involving machines (and machines involving rituals) whether computers, robots, &c.

three acts — For me, ritual is primarily performative. The relationship between ritual and theatre is well explored, and like theatre, ritual may involve various performing arts — dance, music, song, object manipulation, legerdemain, &c — as well as various visual arts. My rituals do not always have three acts, of course, or even necessarily acts at all in the theatrical sense, but thinking about the theatricality of ritual helps me to focus on the action when designing rituals and ritual artifacts, and to design rituals that are multidimensional across multimedia and thus (hopefully) more engrossing and more affective for the participants, and more effective at reifying the intention and satisfying the desire that seeded the ritual. My ritual designs and practices both have been informed and improved by studying theatre artists such as Antonin Artaud and Viola Spolin.

The choreography of the Suspiria (2018) remake is one of my favorite examples of performing art as sorcery, and of body configuration — and extended (group) body configuration — as magical device.

Thinking about ritual theatrically also invites thinking about ritual as play and the play element of ritual, bringing us back ’round to the Yanomami shamans and the magus’s magic circle:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element of Culture

There are other recurring qualities in my work, e.g., I tend to prefer minimalism over ornamentation; to play down the normal use of words in favor of words as performative or affective utterances (à la Artaud; cf. speech-acts); to feature monsters, monstrosities, and the monstrous; &c; but these are incorporated into the greater pattern.