On July 13th I put on a show for my photo project, Stank Rag, with Sarah Potter in Asbury Park, NJ. Whenever doing an art opening, I like to include an interactive element with the hopes of making it feel more inviting and exciting.
This time around I decided to do “Aura Photographs” while performing as a character, Steve The (self-proclaimed) Shaman. In keeping with Stank Rag's general irreverence, I intended for Steve The Shaman to embody and satirize the self-serious and unsavory traits of certain characters within the New Age movement (currently re-branded as a consciousness, spirituality, and well-being movement).
Steve wore an over-sized dashiki with no pants, soul-patch, glasses frames with no glass, several pieces of large turquoise jewelry, and no shoes. He had the odor of several clashing essential oils, spoke in a hushed yet somehow judgmental tone, carried a large wizard-like staff, and forced phrases like “holding space” into his sentences. I had assumed that Steve The Shaman's name and offensive appearance would reek of satire and thus inform the way in which participants interacted with him. Perhaps the stank of satire was overpowered by the odor of patchouli and cinnamon, because I was incorrect in my assumption.
The aura photographs were created using a very clunky technological magic trick involving photoshopping auras atop photos taken with a DSLR camera and printing them onto INSTAX disposable film. Steve The Shaman hid behind a partition inside the photo booth and instructed the participants to clear their mind, focus, and hold a pair of crystals with wires attached to them for about 2 minutes. The wires led to the other side of the partition where they were connected to nothing. While the participants concentrated, I rapidly drew auras onto their photos...and in some cases added dogs in bishop costumes or Steve Buscemi's eyes. About 3 minutes later, Steve would pass the finished aura photograph through the partition and send the participant on their merry way with a hushed “namaste.”
I spent most of the event inside of the aura photo booth performing my charlatanry. When I exited the booth into the main space, I discovered that Steve The Shaman was being treated with authority and respect he did not deserve. Several people were waiting for an opportunity to talk with Steve about his practice and have him interpret their auras.
As a fan of Andy Kaufman, this situation initially gave me a bit of a metaphorical bonerrr and I fully leaned into Steve The Shaman's character. My mother, also in attendance, was gleefully lying to attendees claiming that I (Steve her son) displayed all sorts of extrasensory abilities as a child. I “interpreted” several auras, all of which signified that the person in question may be undergoing some kind of change and that they had a pure (but wounded) heart with a thirst for connection with other people...you know, a vague summary of the most generic human condition. Several interpretations in, I found myself being consulted by someone with health problems genuinely looking for answers and more importantly, comfort. They earnestly opened up to me while I stood there dressed like a white asshole in a dashiki. My stomach sank. I wasn't being funny. I was just being fraudulent. I broke character to explain that the photos were fake and tried to offer genuine advice. After explaining that Steve was “just a bit” to several other people, I noticed a few of them were resistant to the idea that it was fake.
I had a similar experience at a different show/performance. Again I was dressed like an asshole, but this time I was doing oracle card readings using a giant oracle deck I had made. Part of my shtick involved explaining to participants that I claimed no supernatural powers on behalf of myself or the cards. The performance placed a significant emphasis on the participant doing the psychological legwork to make the reading meaningful. I wanted them to feel like they were at the wheel while I was just there to guide them through it. Some participants still expected me to be able to divine their future or know their past, often times becoming frustrated when I denied being able to do so. However, most of the readings worked out beautifully. Participants opened up to me earnestly, human to human, with no pretense on either of our parts. From my observation, most people who consulted with me were looking for permission to act/feel a certain way and seeing those desires reflected in the cards gave them the confidence to embrace what they felt to be true on a subconscious level. Other times they just needed a way to visually and symbolically map out their current psychological state and view it from a seemingly objective standpoint.
I truly believe that using oracle cards can be a fantastic psychological tool when utilized in a more pragmatic fashion. Strip away the romanticized esotericism and you're left with a set of symbols that two people can use as conversational props to discuss the complexities of their subjective experiences...with an element of chance thrown in to contribute the occasional meaningful coincidence. Doing those performances felt like dancing with a bunch of different partners.
With that being said, I suspect the main difference between the Steve The Shaman and the Oracle Card Reader performances involves the concept of transaction. Steve The Shaman did not provide participants with anything real or meaningful. The photos were fake. The interpretations were banal. The character should have been entirely reprehensible...his cultural appropriations unforgivable. He presented himself as a necessary conduit to something cartoonishly mystical. In that way, Steve The (self-proclaimed) Shaman provided nothing but false hope while simultaneously taking the sense of power away from participants in exchange for a hollow souvenir.
The most disturbing thing about Steve The Shaman was not that his manner of dress went completely unchallenged, but that it gave me a small glimpse into how easy it can be to take advantage of those seeking hope and comfort. I've encountered many people who have fallen prey to predatory life coaches, self-proclaimed shamans, and hollow hope peddlers. They mask their predatory capitalist musk with incense and wear turquoise jewelry to distract from their Dracula fangs. They prey on the traumatized and use jargon infused platitudes as bait. Not only do they harm others by leading them astray and tapping them for money, they also discredit and taint an entire realm of potentially useful (but often scientifically unrecognized) practices by dumbing-down and commodifying them, often times with no respect for their cultural matrix from which they were extracted.
Unfortunately this experience didn't provide me with any insights on how to fix this problem, only reveal how easy it is to profit off of becoming part of it.
In my own practice, I've realized the importance of making sure my performances leave room for a positive meaningful transaction to take place.