Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Cards in The Machine

Two cards from Gabrielle Angus-West's audacious Bonefire Tarot

A good modern Tarot deck is one that manages to honour tradition and blaze its own trail at the same time. I have little patience with modern artists who content themselves with just re-drawing or aping Pamela Colman Smith’s designs (always to greatly inferior results); but by the same token there are certain rules and regulations that you have to follow if you want to call your project a tarot deck. You can’t just take any old picture that has one element bearing a remote resemblance to a card, slap it in and call it done. Stray too far from the rules, and you are no longer making a tarot deck, but an oracle deck… and the two are completely different animals. 

Some very good decks tread cautiously. Barbara Moore’s Steampunk Tarot falls into that category: it’s an excellent traditional deck, very much based on PCS but in possession of its own style and voice. Others are so scholarly that they transcend history: Christine Payne-Towler and Michael Dowers knocked this sort of deck out of the park with their fantastic Tarot of the Holy Light. Still others walk a tightrope, throwing caution to the winds without losing sight of established ritual: Aussie artist Gabrielle Angus-West manages this in her wonderful Bonefire Tarot, which copped an honour as one of the ten best new decks published in 2013.

Bonefire Tarot is a passionate mash-up of symbols and influences in blazing colors, hand-painted in the style of tattoo art. As such it draws on more than one tradition, stirring it all up in a rich dayglow cauldron of Outsider art, and splashing the resulting psychedelic stew over the cards in a wave of high energy that’s at once hard on the eyes and soothing to the senses. It is simultaneously outrageous and orhodox. It’s a tarot that bypasses words and reason and shoots straight into your collective unconscious with needle intensity. It’s one of the most astonishing (and to other artists like me, humbling) tarots to emerge in modern times.

The thing that all these decks have in common, and which the Bonefire Tarot is the most recent brilliant addiction to, is the growing line of Tarot iPhone and iPad apps from a little software outfit in Maryland called The Fool’s Dog. 

Bonefire Tarot is one of those decks that I’ve lusted after for a while but could not justify the expense in my limited budget. At $3.99 a pop, the tarot apps from The Fool’s Dog are perfect for dabblers and experts alike. They allow access a wide range of decks that you might otherwise not be able to afford, yes, but also to their all-important texts. I already owned physical copies of Holy Light and M.M. Meleen’s wonderful Thoth-derived Rosetta Tarot, but for $3.99 I bought the apps for the scholarly books that compliment both decks (last I heard, the Holy Light book had not even been published in physical form).

The apps don’t replace physical decks and really nothing could; but for an extremely reasonable price, I now have access to a wide range of decks and designs and texts right here in my study, right here at my work-desk, just a finger’s-touch away. This has been invaluable to me in the designing of my own Tarot of the Zirkus Mägi: at a touch, I can reference not just the decks, but volumes of  text that would be cumbersome to sort through at best. What does Moore have to say about this card? What do Farrar and Bone have to say about that one? How do Payne-Towler and M.M. Meleen explain the symbols that they used? It has all helped me build a better, and hopefully more significant, deck of my own. 

Some of the Fool’s Dog apps are based on some pretty minor decks: the one accompanying Juliet Sharman-Burke’s Beginner’s Guide to the Tarot is exactly the sort of deck I am most contemptuous of: just a pointless and hugely inferior copy of Colman-Smith. But I didn’t get that app for the deck, I got it for the book, and the book has been very helpful. Others are novelty decks that I avoid even in this form: The Housewives’ Tarot or The Zombie Tarot, both of which are beautifully designed but hard to take seriously. I did buy the app version of Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot, and this was the one out-and-out mistake that I’ve made. The deck falls, as far as I am concerned, into the category of straying too far outside the rules to the point where it’s no longer a legitimate Tarot deck but just a bunch of pretty pictures printed on cards. It’s the only deck I own, physically or electronically, that I don’t connect with on any level. But at $3.99 the mistake wasn’t a horrible one, and the accompanying text by Moore is worth having.

Although readings are possible within the apps (and the people at The Fool’s Dog have devised the most satisfactory simulation of the reading ritual out there in app land), the best feature is the ability to log and record physical readings that you make in the so-called Real World. I can set up my iPad on my reading table, deal out the physical cards and then go back and forth from the cards to the app, enter the reading, make notes and consult reference texts as needed. 

But at their best, the apps bring decks like the astonishing Bonefire into my life, and allow me to take them everywhere I go. Enlightenment, symbology and great art at a price that won’t bankrupt you is always a good thing.

— Freder

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