Casting for the voice of strength : Austin Spare and the cultures of cartomancy

Allen, Jonathan (2017) Casting for the voice of strength : Austin Spare and the cultures of cartomancy. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This practice-based PHD project tests cross/trans disciplinary approaches to historical artifacts, set in the field of contemporary fine art research. It is predicated specifically upon my discovery in 2013 of a forgotten deck of fortune-telling cards, hand painted 1906 by the English artist and mystic Austin Osman Spare. Spare's cards had lain unnoticed for almost seventy years within the collection of London's secretive Magic Circle, following their accession to the magic club's museum in 1944; before that date, no record of the deck exists. I respond to this historical find in the form of two interdependent "readings" of the artist's deck of cards. 'Reading One' provides the first in-depth descriptive survey of the deck, as well as establishing its provenance, its place in the artist's oeuvre and within the wider histories of cartomancy. 'Reading Two' adopts complementary approaches that are contingent upon, and shaped by, specific findings within 'Reading One'. These include an elaboration of the deck's release from captivity at The Magic Circle ('Facsimilate and proliferate'), an evaluation of its internal connective logic ('Combinatoric consciousness'), its introduction to the moving image ('Cartomantic cinema') and to historical time ('Making it up for lost time'), and the articulation of a card that is missing from the deck ('Casting for the voice of Strength'). The relationship between these two constituent readings is explored as a continuity which follows a cyclical, rather than linear, progression - second readings are contingent upon first but often lead to renewed first readings, leading to renewed second readings and so on. Within this reanimating process, the object can be seen directing its researcher, sometimes casting her/him in particular roles that meet its needs. In the realm of art production, this orientation towards the object implies that the appropriation of historical material by artists be appropriate, with all the psychological, ethical, and political consequences that such encounters entail. While applied here to a single object - Austin Spare's cartomancy deck - the project's model of contingent and continuous knowledge production encourages other researchers to respond innovatively to the directives, even demands of their chosen objects of research.

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