MARIANO TOMATIS

WONDER INJECTOR

Italian writer and magician
working for a better Rule #34:
«If it exists, there is magic of it.
If not, let’s make it!»

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 2014 (36)

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WHAT IS SCI FOO?

Science Foo Camp (or “Sci Foo”) is an invitation-only gathering organized by Digital Science, O'Reilly Media, and Google, with support from Nature. The 9th edition of Sci Foo takes place on 8-10 August 2014 at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA. Lord Martin Rees has defined it as “a sort of mini Woodstock of the Mind”. Participants include researchers, writers, educators, artists, policy makers, investors, and other thought leaders, all doing groundbreaking work in diverse areas of science and technology.

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Magic & Activism

Mesmeristic treatments and artistic barricades

Posted on friday 13 june 2014, 56 days before scifoo14 • Written by Mariano Tomatis

The world’s soccer tournament kicked off yesterday in Brasil, with scattered protests around the country coordinated by the Não Copa (No Cup) Movement. Hundreds of protesters are railing against the $11.5 billion spent by the government to host the event, arguing that money could have been better used.

Social movements always face questions of tactics and strategy, and dilemmas may derive from the issues the protest has chosen to emphasize. The (far from obvious) commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience as a primary method of protest may lead to frustration those who argue the necessity of violent actions — and viceversa.

In the last few years Italy has hosted an interesting laboratory: subject of the dispute is the Turin-Lyon high speed rail project, a $50 billion “Grande Opera” considered by many a senseless squander of public money — in a country where we are still paying a fuel tax to finance the Italo-Ethiopian War fought by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist army in 1935-1936. The project involves also the excavation of two twin tunnels, each of them 35-mile long and 20-foot wide, with a huge environmental impact. So far the indomitable NoTAV (i.e. NoHSR, No High-Speed Rail) opposition has created a strong network of solidarity all over the country, in front of the increasing militarisation of the Susa Valley.

Involved as a magician in a NoTAV event organised to raise awareness about the dispute, I designed a leaflet — a typical tool for propaganda — incorporating a rather unusual narrative layer with magical implications. In a world literally overloaded of informative leaflets, the purpose was to make it sticky, in the spirit of the bestselling book by Chip and Dan Heath Made To Stick, a book seeking to explain what makes an idea interesting and memorable.

On one side of the leaflet, a logo of the NoTAV campaign surmounted the strange image of a child holding a tube as a telescope. I distributed dozens of leaflets, explaining that they were therapeutic tools for the cure of a psychiatric disorder: the irrepressible (Freudian?) boost of destroying mountains and digging tunnels through solid stones, in order to assert virility and going faster and faster. In the historical tradition of mesmeristic treatment, the relief comes from an hallucinatory image produced through the leaflet, without the need of any chemical drug.

Roll it and put it in front of your left eye with your left hand, as if holding a telescope. Open the right hand with the palm facing you and put it close to the tube, approximately 6 inches from your nose. Keep your eyes both open and look a point far at the horizon: a tunnel will appear in the middle of your right palm! Administer this hallucination to someone suffering from the disorder, commenting: «Do you see the tunnel through your hand? Be satisfied with it, because it is the only tunnel you will ever see!»

My audience in a bookstore, mesmerised by the NoTAV treatment. Modo Infoshop, Bologna (Italy) on 9 May 2014.

The second side of my leaflet showed a hacked version of a popular Italian painting: Il quarto stato (“The Fourth Estate”) by Giuseppe Pellizza dal Volpedo, a truly icon of the twentieth century, showing striking workers.

The original painting (left) and my hacked version on the other side of the NoTAV leaflet (right).

In my version the main three characters are dressed like a clown, a magician and a fairy (zoom here). The subtext: magic should return to the people.

The NoTAV treatment (Novissima Oculistica Terapia Allucinatoria Visiva, i.e. Brand New Optical Therapy of Visual Hallucination) is but one of the oblique approaches to activism inspired by the work of Wu Ming Foundation, “a collective of militant storytellers opposing the toxic narratives that create fear, prejudices and inequality” — as the New Statesman defined them (here).

In commenting this approach to magic and activism, Wu Ming wrote:

Those magicians [...] will not be an élite: those magicians will be us, all of us, no close caste of wisemen, no übermensch, magic to the people! Outside the narrow spaces of theaters and clubs, out of the less and less magical TV box set, out of the caverns of obscurevoyant and psychics, enchantment and awareness can — and must — come together again, to enrich life, to dance with eleven legs, to tell stories and to enliven them by any means necessary. (1)

Blu’s artistic barricade

Another action inspired by the group of writers, also using wonder and surprise to oppose senseless urban projects, was signed by Blu, a Bologna-based artist known for his large-scale paintings (one of the 10 best living street artists, according to The Guardian). In order to create a roundabout to ease the traffic towards a commercial center, in 2012 the Municipality of Bologna deliberated the destruction of Xm24, a popular social center run in the spirit of co-operation and mutual aid. At the beginning of 2013 Blu contributed to the protest against the project with an astonishingly huge painting on a wall of Xm24. His work was so beautiful and stunning that Municipality was forced to alter the original project and change the location of the roundabout, resigning from the destruction of the social center. Wonder has prevailed over money.

The theme of the painting is an apocalyptic conflict between Evil (impersonated by members of Municipality, police and higher classes) and Good (impersonated by multitudes of people living in the suburbs). The Tolkenian symbology behind the painting was inspired to Blu by some articles written by Wu Ming, dedicated to the political implications of the epic in The Lord of the Rings.

The successful “artistic barricade” inspired a public event in front of the murales. “Occupy Mordor” took place on 14 April 2013. In the occasion, more than 600 people came to visit the work of art and during the evening Wu Ming 4 illustrated its symbology and subtleties with a learned lecture (Italian audio and video here).

Me and the Evil side of Blu’s murales (left) and a detail from the Good side of the painting: a modern pirate with a mouse/eyepatch and a tattoo representing a anchor/USB port (right).

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(1) Mariano Tomatis and Ferdinando Buscema, L’arte di stupire, Sperling & Kupfer, Milano 2014, back cover.

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Cultivating wonder: the contribution by Jason Salavon