Magic and Media

SPRING 2012: V.08 N.01: CAA Conference Edition 2012

Mina Cheon
Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Co-Chairs: Mina Cheon and Lisa Paul Streitfeld
Panel Members: Laurence A. Rickels, Sue Taylor, Rita Alves, Evan Malater


On February 23, 2012, “Magic and Media,” a New Media Caucus sponsored panel was held at the College Art Association 100th Annual Conference in Los Angeles at the Convention Center. It was chaired by Mina Cheon with co-chair Lisa Paul Streitfeld, and included a dynamic group of speakers: Laurence A. Rickels, Sue Taylor, Rita Alves, and Evan Malater.


The panel investigates the relationship between magic and media in the age of new media culture. From freak (reality) shows, horror flicks and the scholarship of vampirism to new-agey re-creations of religious cults, on-line spiritual healing and pop-star worship, we live in an age where the often-separated realms of magic and media intersect in phantasmagoric ways, exposing fragments of our chaotic humanity, cultural diversity and limbo existence. The panelists are gathered for their distinctive interpretation of new media culture, while the panel charts an arc of psychoanalysis as a way to newly define the relationship between magic and media.

“Fits like a Dream, Works like a Charm.” Black Magic sold for under $50, Gap. [1]

Magic and media are upon us, and I fall into a dream state, like a bona fide Korean shaman who induces her trance states through drugs, alcohol and dance. I’ve intoxicated myself with the words of others, allowing the framing of this body of work to unfold unconsciously.

Wittgenstein wrote that magic stops once science questions it, and as a schema, in science “there is progress.” “But in magic, there isn’t. Magic has no tendency within itself to develop.” [2] So the imperial mode of questioning and defining things may have a place in the history of science but I veer from questioning magic when it is left for saying the unspeakable or when ideas converge and texts interlace into pockets of liminal moments. As Victor Turner said about thresholds, this, our time and gathering, is to be “‘betwixt and between’ all recognized fixed points in space-time of structural classification.” [3]

Between liminality and virtuality, magic and media is an impossible set up. There is no knowledge base that can casually sum up these differences; they are different schemas at play. But why the great effort to sell magic tied to media – as in that GAP advertisement, or to frame or capture magic as an image?

Michael Taussig looks at Cuna Indians in the early 20th century found in Erland Nordenskiold’s work [4] and of the chief, nele, the community’s shaman and medicine man, who would burn Western images that are considered consumer commodities as way of mimetic magic, reversing the power relation between the self and other. By burning the image, he gets a hold of it, and controls evil spirits by enticing them with such imagery. [5] Taussig writes, “The image is more powerful than what it is an image of.” [6] Whether it is the non-West that is othered, or the other spun around as self in protection of the Western other, I think imperial tendencies stem from the unconscious.

With this topic, right from the beginning, the introduction collapses into itself. The conclusion by co-chair Lisa Paul Streitfeld is offered as an opening and not an ending to the discussion on magic and media. Her concluding paper helps stage this panel to be liminal. And, considering this liminal moment, there is an exaggerated and extreme stretching of reality, so that upon return, aggregation to reality from liminality, we bring a little magic back with us.

Evan Malater’s paper and his search for magic in Freud’s uncanny is pronounced by a chilling biographic image, which like Jean (Hans) Arp’s 1916-17 Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) breaks up any sense of logic. Arp’s piece of art, pieces of shredded paper, actually, randomly placed by chance for a composition, connects Dada with Surrealism, and intersects the avant-garde and the world of the unconscious. It is also an exemplary precursor to new media art, through which one can trace the lineage of participation and interactivity in art. Malater references today’s Internet The Cut-up Machine, a site by Gary Leeming honoring William S. Burroughs and beat poetry, [7] and Arp’s Untitled, which predates the Internet, counter-culture, and is the dada-surrealism bent self-generative cut up machine for creating conceptual and abstract art.

Malater writes, “It [his letter, his book to his father] wanted to know how murder happens” and that he “had a burning case of archive fever,” that the world of citation and addresses on the Internet is one where projections, dreams, fears and associations can be pieced together cohesively or as desired – poetically, as he claims at moments; traumatically at others. Whatever the case, it is a reflection of what he himself is thinking about and wanting to know, the questioning of his past history and of his father, and death by murders of a family and of a nation. All these things have become accessible for him now through the Internet, to throw in the air (as Arp once did) to see where things—papers, words and feelings—fall.

Malater’s text, rich with informational collaging, semiotic displacing, to find meaning of place and clear things up through psychoanalysis, reminds us of Sue Taylor’s referencing to how “magic is in the performance.” While Malater proclaims the magic in Internet findings, it also resides in his text. His paper, “Trauma and the Internet Oracle,” is based on a cross-genre book-in-progress, Father, hello, and the panel was the first public forum for sharing the work, this being the first publication about it.

Rital Alves’ paper “The Freak Show and Transformation in Michael Jackson’s Life and Work,” looks at Michael Jackson’s life as a postmodern performance, his career and the industry of image-making melded to provide the ultimate freak show, a spectacle of heights only achievable with stardom.

As with all celebrities, Jackson was in fact, not so creative, and why is anyone surprised at what he does in the first place? Somehow, French cyborgian artist Orlan’s portrayal of the pain (surgery scenes) along with the plastic (the result of her face) shows the layering behind the work, the work behind the work, which in Jackson’s terms is invisible; he is all show, until the very end. Alves’ powerful analysis of Jackson, in terms of how contemporary art critiques and places his performance as a comparative in artworks, sees Jackson as the placeholder who represents both Jean Baudrillard’s term “implosion of meaning” [8] and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s term “bizarre as mainstream” [9] that flattens out meaning. “Remember meaning?” asks Gomez-Pena. [10]

From Alve’s reading of “What is it” to “This is it,” Jackson’s legacy is one that is more freakish when left in the mystery. She mentions Bruce High Quality Foundation’s “We Like America and America Likes Us,” and when Joseph Beuys “liked America” [11] in 1974, he did so uniting with a coyote, the ambiguous and tense relations here of “liking, being alike, licking…” fall under cautiousness – to like, rather than loving America today. To love Michael Jackson, to cry for Princess Diana or Whitney Houston “blankly” is loving Fredric Jameson’s pastiche culture [12] without a critique; allowing mediocrity (media-crity) and projections spilling everywhere, while desiring the other. Jackson both thrills and drills his audience with the carnivalesque that sells.

Sue Taylor’s paper “The Masked Magician, Enacting Archaic Desires” is compelling. The TV star magician Valentino’s unmasking “doubly” plays off of believability, aliveness, and presentation of magic, in Ervin Goffman’s terms, between the sincere and cynical presentation of self in everyday life. [13] The boundaries between the actor and person, acting and living cannot easily be defined, and certainly media plays a part in extending and stylizing that confusion. Whether it is Freud’s fort-da game or suckling Kleinian mother’s good breast, making female bodies disappear and reappear, sawing and patching them up, or drowning and submerging in lactation or gestation, Taylor’s read on the male’s phantasy of perpetual self-regeneration is hilarious.

Magic that fits into a box, a commercial, a TV frame, sold and consumed, repeats archaic formulae for self-gratification, historicizes magic and encapsulates it to render it understandable. The outward misogyny and the spectacle under the premise of butchering women, as a magical act, is a machinery of its own, seeped in the narcissistic unconscious urge to become oneself through control and domination. Taylor’s feminist and psychoanalytic interpretation of such magic shows, and their relationship to technology that extends the phantasm, also shows how the face unmasked is sold to further mediate between technology and magic.

Last of all, the panel and publication honors the work of Laurence A. Rickels, who is teaching us, new media scholars, artists and students, the connection between blood, alcohol, and unmourning the other, or the undead. His paper on “Endopsychic Genealogy in Dark City” is the real introduction of this publication, and shares with us a new context of what he calls “Psy Fi.” Watching Alex Proyas’ 1998 film Dark City, and being called today for yet another ‘lecture on vampirism,’ I would like to preface how Rickels’ work in new media and the psychoanalysis of media is imperative, since we are ‘running out’ of time. As Rickels points out, the Devil Father controls time and “gives a deadline.” [14] It is through Rickels’ diligence toward psychoanalytic readings of new media culture of the “other” that we can begin to unpack, un-can technology and bring magic back— ‘bring back the undead.’

In postcolonialism, Homi K. Bhabha writes in “The Other Question” [15] about the recreation of racial stereotypes and discriminations that are disseminated over time through media, things that must be repeated in order to regenerate myths of believability and credibility, to  “pin it down”  in logic systems, to render them as truthful. Bhabha then includes psychoanalysis to question the unconscious construction of racism and looks in Frantz Fanon’s work, “the madness of racism, the pleasure of pain, the agonistic fantasy of political power.” [16]

How magic and technology get tied to the future, or of the historic past, is an imperial move, and Rickels takes us to that ‘other’ question, which is the “history of the other – as a psychohistory of projection.” [17] Rickels writes: “The history (the hysteria!) of Europe has always covered for the West making a move on the East. What is Back East [and he mentions the East packed with animals and subhumans, and I would like to include Samsung Androids here], however, comes into focus as a potential total threat to the West, the kind of threat that requires preemptive strikes.” [18] Rickels continues, that while the “Threat” (for example Vampirism) comes from the East it is “the West that is doubling over with the hunger.” [19]

Anthropology can’t help us; postcolonialism alone can’t help us either. Rickels’ work illuminates for us a path, a guiding light on magic, man, the media, and psychoanalysis; a mirror that helps see our fragmented selves in ghostly (vampiric, zombie-like, werewolfish, Eastern) delights.


1. “Fits like a Dream, Works like a Charm” was the slogan for the 2010 collection of pants called Black Magic by Gap, Inc.
2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough,” in Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951, ed. James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), 141.
3. Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), 97.
4. Erland Nordenskiold with Rubén Pérez Kantule, An Historical and Ethnographic Study of the Cuna Indians, ed. Henry Wassén, Comparative Ethnological Studies, no. 10. (Göteburg: Ethnografiska Museum, 1938).
5. Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1993), 133.
6. Ibid., 62.
7. Gary Leeming’s Web Site of “The Cut-up Machine,” (accessed March 1, 2012).
8. Jean Baudrillard, “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media,” in Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 79-86.
9. Guillermo Gómez-Peña, “Culturas-in-Extremis: Performing against the cultural backdrop of the Mainstream Bizarre,” in The Performances Studies Reader, ed. Henry Bial (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2004), 287-298.
10. Ibid., 287.
11. A description of Joseph Beuys’ 1974 performance I Like America and America Likes Me follows: “For three days in May of 1974, Joseph Beuys lived and communicated with a coyote in a small room in the newly-opened Rene Block Gallery at 409 West Broadway in New York,” by David Levi Strauss, in Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics in the Twilight of the Millennium, (Autonomedia, Brooklyn, NY, 1999). Also available in Web Site, (accessed February 1, 2012).
12. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” in Postmodernism: A Reader, ed. Thomas Dochtery (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).
13. Ervin Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959).
14. Laurence A. Rickels, The Devil Notebooks (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), xii.
15. Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question: Stereotypes, Discrimination, and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 2003) 66-84.
16. Bhabha, “Interrogating Identity: Frantz Fanon and the postcolonial prerogative,” ibid., 41.
17. Laurence A. Rickels, The Vampire Lectures (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 2.
18. Ibid., 11.
19. Ibid., 12


Mina Cheon is a Korean-American new media artist, scholar, and a full-time professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) teaching in studio art and new media, humanistic studies and art history. Cheon received her Ph.D. in Philosophy of Media and Communications from the European Graduate School (EGS) in Switzerland in 2008, and published her book Shamanism + Cyberspace (Atropos Press, New York and Dresden) in 2009. As an artist, Cheon exhibits internationally what she calls “Polipop” (Political Pop Art), new media artwork that addresses the relationship between media, popular culture, and politics within Asia and between Asia and the West. Her solo exhibitions in 2012-2013 include showing at The Sungkok Art Museum in Seoul, Maryland Art Place in Baltimore, and White Box in New York. Her past solo exhibitions include showing at the Lance Fung Gallery in New York (2002), Insa Art Space, Art Council, in Seoul (2005), and C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore (2008). Cheon received an MFA in painting from MICA (1999) and an MFA in Imaging Digital Arts from the University of Maryland (2002). Her BFA is in painting from Ewha Woman’s University (1996), Seoul, Korea, where she was a visiting professor in 2011.