Magic and the Military

Exorcising the Evil Spirits from the Pentagon, by The Fugs

Magic and the Military


The direct relation between stage magicians and the military/political complex has been researched to great length. A documentary space in STUK allows the visitor to explore the myriad of ways in which magic has liaisoned with the military.

At the height of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency paid $3,000 to renowned magician John Mulholland to write a manual on misdirection, concealment, and stagecraft. All known copies of the document were believed to be destroyed in 1973. But the manuals resurfaced, and have been republished as The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception. Topics include the handling of tablets, powders and liquids, as well as ‘surreptitious removal of objects by women’ and ‘special aspects of deception for women’. This manuscript wasn’t Mulhollands’ first contribution to his native country. In 1944 his book The Art of Illusion was distributed among soldiers for their entertainment and to boost their moral. However, the difference between both contributions is important to note. As Jonathan Allen states in his article Deceptionists at War, Mulholland’s ambivalence about his involvement with the CIA can be deduced from the titles of his publications, ‘between the art of illusion, and the art of deception. Illusion, with its Latin roots in ludere, to play, suggests cooperation within the ethics of the encounter between audience and magician, a “willful play of confidences between viewer and spectacle.” Deception however, drawn from decipere, to ensnare or cheat, suggests a will to prevail, a more divisive exchange, and one with potentially lethal stakes.’

Mulholland was, by the way, not the first magician to work for his government. Harry Houdini spied on Russian and German military for Scotland Yard and Jasper Maskelyne created fake tanks and submarines to deceive the German troops during the Second World War.

Also presented in this space, is the PBS Documentary The Ghost Army which narrates the story of the U.S. 23rd Headquarters Special Troops who used visual decoys, sonic deception and fake radio transmissions to set up elaborate battlefield illusions. The men who participated were recruited from art schools and agencies and were hired for their acting skills. Artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Bill Blass played a role in this very specific unit. The unit was formed in 1944. Their mission began shortly after D-Day and ended in the Rhine River valley.  Official documents states that the men staged up to twenty battlefield deceptions. With these they saved thousands of soldiers’ lives. The Ghost Army was written and directed by Rick Beyer and produced by Plate of Peas Productions.

In turn, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders of the band The Fugs, resorted to the magical, designing a ritual in protest of the Vietnam War: Levitating the Pentagon. On October 21, 1967 they organized an “exorcism” of the Pentagon in which several thousand demonstrators participated. The action’s absurdism extended even to the process of securing a permit beforehand; the authorities finally agreed to allow the Pentagon to be elevated three feet in the air, down from the 300 feet that organizers had initially requested. With their action, the organizers merged a creative “happening” with political intent, the engagement of ritual towards political ends and the blatant usurpation of corporate media techniques in service of a movement. They used innovative strategies of social action to alter the terms of debate regarding the Vietnam War. Inasmuch as these strategies drew on ‘secret’ insights into the nature of social reality, they were seen as ‘magical’ and in continuity with pre-modern esoteric traditions. The new left turned to such tactics out of deep frustration with traditional forms of democratic political engagement.

21 FEB - 9 MAR 2017


opening hours expo

21 Feb: 19:30-23:00 (opening)
22 Feb – 9 Mar: 
We–Sa  14:00-22:00 
Su–Tu  14:00-19:00

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