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A Tarot Deck to Reimagine the Arts with Petr Dlouhý

A selection of cards drawn at random.

A Tarot Deck to Reimagine the Arts was produced as part of RESHAPE, an EU-funded culture network that looked to produce fairer practices in the arts across Europe and the Southern Mediterranean. Through this project, a group came together that wanted to find a tool that might instil rituals for more considered exchanges between cultural producers. This work ended up with their fabulous tarot deck.

Petr Dlouhý could be perceived as a curator, researcher, producer and culture organizer. Yet, he would rather call himself a host, an attentive listener or a mycelium that creates connections and facilitates the cross-pollination of knowledge and practices. Or one could see him even as a smuggler, who subverts the institutionalised order with an informal approach while trying to support those who are not recognised by official structures 🌱

How did these cards come about, physically, and conceptually?

It’s been a very long journey, around three years. It started with a project called RESHAPE which brought together a number of EU and Southern Mediterranean culture workers - people who are operating in the field from various positions and in various dynamics - to work within five research trajectories. Our goal as RESHAPErs was to propose changes to how we operate, think, gather, and produce in the arts field. I was part of a research trajectory looking at international and transnational artistic practices. Our first conversations were a lot about mobility, ecological concerns of artists' mobility, access to travel and who can and who cannot travel.

At some point, we started looking for more poetic ways of asking questions of ourselves. We wanted some kind of tool or structure that would help put different perspectives into action. We thought we needed something to make us relate to language differently, something that would help us have a more present and poetic relation to language. We also wanted a tool with the ability to subvert standard narratives. This got us to think about rituals, and how we could design our own rituals for when we arrive somewhere, or host someone who is coming to us. Some actions that will make you more aware of your close environment and the dynamics of hypermobility – some people only seem to be interested in the mobility itself.

Ingrid Vranken, a colleague from the same trajectory suggested that there is already a tool that brings together the desired poetics and rituals, that works strongly with imagination - tarot. We had a discussion with another trajectory that was working on ideas around solidarity and social fabric and realised that we all wanted to make tarot cards. This is why some cards are white and some black on the back, it represents the two different trajectories involved.

How did you get from the traditional tarot Major Arcana archetypes to your own versions?

As a group, we started to think of our own archetypes, which would work more precisely for the context of our research... For example, we switched Magician for Compost and The Emperor for Boundaries. Then we commissioned 16 designers to come up with new visuals for each archetype.

Did the decision on who would deal with which archetypes relate to the specific interests of that person? Did the ideas and concepts surround a specific archetype in some way related to the style or practice of the person responsible for its reimagining?

That part of the process was actually super-fast, we simply distributed the cards between ourselves randomly and then it was down to us to decide how to approach it. We didn’t have many conversations about who’s delegating and whose responsibility is what. I think the only thing we made sure of was that we had enough diversity in the designers, which eventually there was. We got people from all around the world as we had a wide spread of connections amongst the group.

You drew from a wide network with lots of areas of interest, which seems to reflect some of the original concerns of the project. Did the making of the cards facilitate you to think about the original concerns differently?

Yes, and I think this is one of the reasons I love the cards. They bring so many voices to the work and so many different approaches to design. But this was an organic process, it wasn’t some kind of grand curatorial project where we thought about who should and shouldn’t be included for this or that reason. It was all very intuitive, within our RESHAPE groups and with the designers. Some of my colleagues just gave the name of the archetype to the designer. Some posed questions that related to the archetype, but intentionally didn't provide any further guidance. Some were far more involved and were in very close contact with the designer, having long conversations about what the cards could mean. It’s nice that the designers worked with very different starting information.

I think this is one of the real strengths of the cards, that there’s no normative theme or aesthetic approach to how they were produced. This is reflected in how they can be used. If a player or user of the cards doesn’t like some element, it's fine because there are loads of other elements that they can engage with or be drawn into.

I think it’s important that there are some cards that you don’t like. If you dislike something it can trigger you in some way - some cards are not easy to deal with. They are not all beautiful or easy. This adds to their provocative power.

Yes, the power of an aesthetic experience where a negative attitude or dislike can be as (or more) powerful than something you do like.

To take it back a step or two, could you expand on how the whole process was funded?

RESHAPE was a super big European Union project with a lot of funding and some very large partners like the British Council and the Goethe Institute Barcelona. Along with these big stakeholders, there were some small, grassroots organisations. A major theme for RESHAPE was to use the power of the large stakeholders and try to transmit some of that power to the grassroots organisation.

Were there any stipulated outcomes for the funding? For example, were the tarot cards framed as an output of the project?

I'm not sure what was at the forefront for the funders, but for the RESHAPE team, the cards were super epic. When we started to do the sessions with people the majority loved it. I think as a tool it will exist long, long after the project has been forgotten. Many of those that were involved are still attached to the cards. Personally, I’ve used them over 100 times in many different contexts - I consider myself a RESHAPE tarot freak. But it’s not only me, we’ve also distributed many sets of cards. I come across many people who mention them or have them in their pocket.

So, who has decks and who has hadn readings?

Everybody in RESHAPE got their deck, the researchers, partners etc. During the process, we agreed that we did not want the deck to be seen as a product. We’ve tried to resist a product mentality throughout the distribution of the cards. For example, it's not possible to buy them. This means it’s not some kind of precious thing that just gets stuck on a shelf slowly gathering dust. We tried to distribute them only to people who were interested in them. It was a little conspiracy.

Other than Tarot, were there any other significant influences when you were making the cards?

No, not really, we were more interested in rituals and, kind of, poetic micro-actions. The various archetypes came about through spending two years together as a group, talking a lot to each other, and doing things together.

Do you think games are a way to unlock rituals in different places?

Yeah, I think so, for me a ritual is a practice that can be done repetitively. So, we wanted the game to be something to accommodate everydayness, something very simple that has the potential to shift your attention towards something, or someone else. I think this links them to your game, that ability to shift perspectives.

Yes, obviously our cards are partly designed as evaluation tools, but we want to shift the idea of evaluation from something done at the end of a project as a box-ticking exercise towards something that is like a ritual - something that's just embedded and ongoing. But it’s hard to get people to think differently about evaluation.

When I do the readings and propose rituals, I think that in very few cases there’s a sudden change. At some point, it's not only important to take on these rituals, but also just to imagine them. The readings don’t have to change something immediately, but they can create small cracks in how you think about things. The effect can be cumulative across multiple readings.

If I do collective readings for people that don't know each other, then the experience is about listening to others. This kind of listening practice is very strong because you can hear for the first time some voices that were in the room for a long time. Maybe for the rest of the day, they're just silent or just don’t say anything. It’s like an icebreaker where communication can be simpler. A reading can displace or mediate the fears that people have in various social settings.

Do you use the tarot deck yourself?

I’ve started to learn how to use them for myself. I facilitate a lot of readings, maybe one per week, and this has made the cards very embodied in my everydayness. But yesterday, I used them when I was writing a speech for an opening. I didn't know what to speak about, so I laid three cards in a row and just made a reading and wrote the speech based on the cards.

Obviously, the cards don’t physically change, and the designs stay the same, but do you feel the cards change for different people and contexts?

No, the cards don’t stay the same, they depend on which context they appear in and how people approach them. The cards don’t have definite narratives. We don't say this card is this or that and if you read a brief explanation on the website, the cards are just paired with some questions. This makes it flexible to use. We are not fortune telling, we are not saying this is how things will be, but rather imposing questions on ourselves. The way it triggers people’s imagination can be similar, but there can be big surprises when a combination of cards comes in a different constellation, or one appears in a different position - suddenly, everything changes.

For example, when the card of Joy comes up, in most cases there is a straightforward interpretation - the positive image of the card depicting the epic sun somehow evokes happiness as a magic ingredient that we desperately need. We look at the Joy, we feel it, we want to keep it without questioning it. But I remember one long conversation when we were talking about burnout, and the burning power of the sun suddenly appeared, first as joy but then as the most terrible burning skin.

When I facilitate, it's hard not to impose possible interpretations, especially when I do lots of readings in a row. I know when I need to stop because it gets harder to be attentive to what’s in front of me and not impose my own ideas. Readings can be very mentally exhausting; I can’t do more than two per day. When it comes to the third, it's hard to not impose or pre-describe cards for people. The idea isn’t to guide them too much. The cards are like a portal, bringing a little bit of magic to our conversations. I think it's important, this shift towards another way of talking to each other.

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