The Skryviners – RM Vaughn & FASTWÜRMS

The Skryviners - FASTWÜRMS 1

The Skryviners - FASTWÜRMS 2

The Skryviners - FASTWÜRMS 3

I am an atheist, and.

I am an atheist, and I am deeply superstitious. I am an atheist, and I collect totems, good luck talismans, and my cat’s whiskers. I am an atheist, and my home is cluttered with figurines depicting deities both fantastic and mundane – from multi-limbed she-killers to humble, wooden-shoed saints. I am an atheist, and I am fascinated by all manner of mysticism, divinatory practices, and magycks.

I realize this position, this fetishizing of the supernatural, is a contradictory one for a non-believer. Let’s just say, I am an atheist, and I dislike being scolded about my contradictions. As the great Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1841, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.

I cannot believe in a Supreme Being, for all the usual smartypants intellectual reasons, and for many more idiosyncratic reasons, most of which pertain to my body size and disappointing hair.

However, I fully support the proposition that, in heightened or mystically constructed circumstances, humans can and do share extra-natural events (a term I prefer to supernatural, which has been ruined by cheap ‘Ghost Hunter’ reality TV shows and the like). The human mind strikes me as especially geared, locked and loaded to create symbolic systems, fantastic or mundane, in order to explain the many mysteries of, well, the human mind.

In other words, I see mystical symbols, deities, talismanic objects, and incantatory practices as catalysts for extra-natural communications between humans, not as shortcuts to some larger-than-us Other.

My belief in the power of such symbolic transactions has greatly increased in the last few years, mostly through, of all things, performance art. (God help me, to abuse a phrase.)

In the last three years, I have been a reader in an ongoing project devised by the Creemore-based artist collective FASTWÜRMS, who are also my good friends. The project, entitled Skry-Pod, marries Tarot card reading, an ancient practice of divination, with contemporary information-delivering technology (an iPod) – thus creating moments wherein participants interact with each other in a timeless space, a magical somewhere/when fueled by two historically distinct technological systems (the Iron Age tactile and the Microchip digital), both alleging revelatory powers. Medieval meets Macintosh.

To further enhance the experience, FASTWÜRMS, expert set decorators, staged environments conducive to extra-natural transactions between readers and strangers.

All Skry-Pod readers were given beautiful, luxurious capes to wear (I was especially Pantomime-ish in mine: a middle-aged Harry Potter), and we read from inside tents constructed of elaborately coloured, comforting granny-knit Afghan blankets. Candles sparkled everywhere, and we readers were encourage to bring totems that spoke to us to adorn our tables – crystals, fragrant plants, perhaps a bingo parlour Troll Doll, whatever worked.

The result was overwhelming. At the first event, part of the 2009 Nuit Blanche, the team of readers, ranging in age from early 20s to well past 50, and ranging in experience from long-time Tarot enthusiasts (such as myself, I bought my first pack at 17) to chipper novices, were swamped.

No, that’s not a big enough word – we were tsunamied. I did at least 100 readings in about 14 hours. And I was the slow one. People lined up for hours for a few moments with my mystical, all-seeing self. On another occasion, at a summer event at the Power Plant, the crowds were less frantic, but no less intense. And I gave some very credible readings, for an atheist.

Here, then, are the three most important things I learned from participating in Skry-Pod. First, when you create a space, even with minimal props and an age-old performative dynamic (the reader and the seeker at the hushed table), it nevertheless allows and encourages strangers to open up to one another. Theatre is powerful.

Second, crazy people love to have their fortunes told. You’d think they’d know better. What to say to a crazy person: You’re crazy, your future is your own to make, real or otherwise? I guess one could console them with the idea that such an existence is actually a state of grace, but I limit my time with the insane, having been raised by one of their number. (For instance, one woman sat down for a reading, and after I told her the many things I saw in the cards, she looked up at me and said, “You didn’t answer my question”, to which I replied, “I’m sorry, would you care to tell me your question?” Her answer: My mother was murdered seven years ago, I want you to tell me who did it.)

Third, I look bitchin’ in a cape. Capes cover a lot of Nature’s cruel mistakes.

As this issue of NOMOREPOTLUCKS is considering the role of chance, there are some obvious questions we need to address.

Chance plays a huge role in Tarot reading, particularly at such public events. Who you read to, who picks you (or avoids you) as a reader are questions constantly at play. But the big conundrum, once the table is set, is always the same: do the cards presented to the questioner arrive purely by random shuffling, and therefore it becomes the job of the reader to interpret this random order, or do the cards arrive in a sequence determined by extra-natural forces, such as a mental connection between questioner and reader?

Chance is everywhere in Tarot transactions, and yet once one gets down to the reading of the cards (an activity I consider a shared one between reader and questioner, not one that positions me as an authority figure), the idea that the encounter is determined by chance and chance alone is quickly tossed aside by all parties. Everyone sees themselves in the cards, everyone knows there is more going on than a metaphysical game of Go Fish.

Sometimes the cards are so accurate, the questioner can only believe he or she has had a level of agency in their selection and arrangement, one beyond the mere shuffling of the deck.

To parse out this seeming contradiction (there’s that fucking word again), I consulted the Skry-Pod creators, went to the caped wonders themselves. As ever, FASTWÜRMS are always ready to illuminate, charm, and (yes!) contradict themselves, or at least their own aesthetic paradigms.

No dogma-plagued hobgoblins, FASTWÜRMS have minds as wide as a Creemore night sky, and can (and do) build tents big enough to hold any number of delightfully un-foolish inconsistencies.

Emerson would have loved them. I sure do.

RM Vaughn: What role does Chance play in Skry-Pod?

FASTWÜRMS: Chance is a dynamic element in the Skry-Pod performance: Tarot cards as a rational structure with irrational content. Aleatory systems are by definition irrational.

RMV: Why did you choose to load a Tarot deck onto an iPod?

FW: What attracted us to the iPod was the possibility of using algorithm-generated chance vs. the ‘true’ random outcomes of card shuffling. (This is our enactment of a somewhat arcane philosophical problem in mathematics.)

In real-world gambling this is a pragmatic problem. We discovered that in high stakes Las Vegas card games, they still default to a process of complicated human hand shuffling instead of trusting their very expensive state-of-the-art card shuffling machines.

RMV: So, Chance is, counter-intuitively speaking, reliable?

FW: The essential interaction of irrational and chance elements in creative systems like evolution, the formation of the solar system, the birth of the universe, this is what Skry-Pod reflects and generates in the psyches of participants.

RMV: Let’s talk about the collision of performativity and confessional spaces in Skry-Pod.

FW: Both provide a ritual structure, a safe consensual environment for strangers to share and exchange irrational and personal information.

RMV: Why did you choose to load the Crowley Tarot Deck onto the iPods, as opposed to a more familiar one, such as the Marseille Deck?

FW: We chose the Crowley deck because the card images were created by Frieda Harris. They have a more complex synthetic structure: 1,200 visual symbols included in the 78 cards!

RM Vaughan is a Toronto-based writer and video artist originally from New Brunswick. He is the author of eight books and a contributor to over 50 anthologies. His videos and short films play in galleries and festivals across Canada and around the world. Vaughan comments on art and culture for a wide variety of publications and writes a weekly visual arts column for The Globe and Mail.

FASTWÜRMS is the shared authorship of Canadian artists Dai Skuse and Kim Kozzi. Formed in 1979, they mingle media, disciplines and art forms to question nature, the environment and issues of power.