Suddenly we realize: this is the reverse world. Glass crystals and smoke are medicalinstruments, while a pacemaker or antibiotics are seen as quirky fantasy objects created by misguided cranks. Stefanie Sargnagel
New age esotericism is slowly but surely making its way into the centre of mainstream society, despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence for the effectiveness of any esotericist products and services beyond the Placebo effect. Nevertheless, the influx seems unstoppable. Esotericist offers are not only a game played with the hopes of gullible or desperate people, they are also profitable business models somewhere in between marketing and promises of salvation. Klaus Pichler had to witness the transition process into an esotericist way of life first hand in my own social environment- after suffering an existential crisis, two friends began to identify with the contents of the ‘spiritual world’ and its self-declared earthly
representatives and soon displayed severe personality changes. Their view of the world became more and more bizarre; they believed to be surrounded by energetic enemies distanced themselves from their loved ones and spent their savings on respective products, seminars and services. Fueled by feelings of helplessness and anger, Klaus Pichler began to search for answers: what do followers of esotericist theories believe in and what makes this model of explaining the world so appealing? How is esotericism capitalized and marketed? What is it like to try out all these offers for yourself?
What inspired this series?
My project was a personal story because I lost two friends, who I was really close to, to this scene. They both had some kind of a life crisis and became more and more interested in, I call it, ‘irrational ideas and transformation’. So they began to go crazy, more or less, and it completely changed their lives and their personalities so I kind of lost them as friends.
Is there a name to this ‘scene’ you are describing?
In German, it’s called ‘esoterisch’. It’s a scene where there are only priests and believers, and everybody is a little bit of a believer and little bit of a priest at the same time. But spirituality is just a marketing principle. It’s more-or-less about capitalism.
The aim of this scene is to get other people to use their services and to give them their money. I don’t think it’s a new movement. Its roots are definitely in this new age movement of the 60s and 70s. But this has had rapid growth through media. The basic principles are completely from the New Age Era, but what’s new is the marketing system behind it. It now fits into this post- truth era where facts are not important anymore, and beliefs are more important. So there has been a huge rise in the last 10 to 15 years I think.
There are so many different pools and so many different approaches. Esotericism is just a collective terminus for it. If you take one typical esotericist career, they like trying out one thing, then changing to the next thing and the next thing. There are so many different concepts and so many different approaches that you will be able to spend your money, but you will never find true healing.
What makes these spiritual, New Age Movements so effective?
There are two different levels I think. One, is on a marketing level and the other is on a spiritual level, which is used as a a tool for effective marketing. These manufacturers of this stuff are really clever marketeers that use spirituality as a means of emotional marketing. There is this story which is delivered with this product.
It’s so tempting to cite Gwyneth Paltrow. I don’t want to diss her, but, for example, she will sell a product, like a glass object, with this surrounding story. Like it’s not just a glass object, it’s a medical tool. So this kind of story leads to the high price of the object. Except the manufacturing cost is really small and most of them are made in China. If you think about this principle, then you will find that the whole advertising world consists of this principle…like how they claim it’s not a car, it’s a lifestyle. Or the Church of Apple. It’s also quite a religious society. It’s really closed, everything looks the same, but the design is seen as special and therefore they are like some kind of religious tools.
Do you think that at the end of the day, all these people who involve themselves in these religions are just all looking for love and acceptance in some way?
Oh course, who doesn’t. I think this kind of spiritual belief and esoteric belief, it’s always based on a deficit. Always. You don’t turn into an esoteric because you’re so happy and your life is perfect. So there is always one kind of problem, if it’s disease, trauma, insecurity, unhappiness, depression, whatever. So this is kind of a completely finished path for people who are not happy or feel pain. Of course, the manufacturers are harvesting, their own urge, will, or motivation to become healthy again. It’s just like these principles, or promises of sanity, promises of salvation. They are harvesting it in this really clever, capitalist way. Everything is separated into different products, services and everything has its price.
What kind of research went into creating this project?
I decided that for this project, I needed to pretend that I was a hardcore esotericist. So I kind of, decorated myself with like, the feathers in this scene, and I really went into it, I joined forums, Facebook groups, and I tried to get in contact with important people. I went to esotericist fayres, I used whatever platform possible to get knowledge. Of course, one very important book for me was Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’.
It’s just about, ‘how can I change myself to become a better person?’ It’s not about caring for the rest.
I decided that esotericism is really egoistic and really, a self-centred practice. All these ideas of transformation and all these esoteric concepts, they’re’ self-centred. It’s just about, ‘how can I change myself to become a better person?’ It’s not about caring for the rest. Therefore I decided that I don’t want to work with models but I’d like to work with myself. Everyone in this project is me.
The original inspiration of this picture was a picture of a healing ritual to end the war in Syria.It’s called World Healing Ritual, it’s really common. It’s really practiced a lot amongst these people.
It’s about sending energy to the border of Syria so that the border reacts with the hand of this energy. If you think about it and reflect on the principle it’s also really egoistic because it’s completely senseless to send energy to Syria. How should this work for any rational human being? It’s really senseless. But you take part in some kind of a ritual and you feel a better person, because the character of this ritual has sent some endorphins are released and you feel better and you feel like the energy. I think it’s also, and in this case, there was also an entry fee. You had to pay 80 euro to be allowed to take part in this ritual. So it also has a capitalist nature. I think this was the first picture of my series because it contains every element – It’s irrational, it’s egoistic, it’s capitalistic, it’s completely nonsense.
These photos which are discussed in these forums are really important because they are seen as proof.
When you enter the esoteric- spiritual forums, there are plenty of so-called ‘evidence’ photos. These are photos that are treated as proof, showing something supernatural. Which is kind of strange because photography has definitely, in the rest of the world, lost the hard evidence status it had until the late 19th century. Because of digital manipulation and subjectivity, it’s a different discourse. Everybody agrees that photography isn’t evidence anymore.
But in this esoteric scene, it is seen as evidence.
There are plenty of so-called ‘evidence’ photographs which claim to show something supernatural like angels, spiritual dust, or orbs or whatever. These photos which are discussed in these forums are really important because they are seen as proof.
For me as a photographer, it’s really easy to kind of see, where the photographic incidences which have led to these photos. It’s like the basic laws of physics- reflection, double exposure. There are plenty of these photos which for me, were like open books to read about the mistake or the accident, or the coincidence which has led to them looking like that in a particular way.
Just me standing with the jogging suit and the hemorrhoid cream, that’s basically it.
I decided to recreate these photos and to recreate them with the most stupid things possible because they are so easy to redo for anyone who is a little bit into photography. In the case of this person who is standing in the field, I went to the pharmacy and asked the pharmacist what is the cream that people are most shy to order. She told me, “Yeah, it’s definitely hemorrhoid cream.” So I got hemorrhoid cream and I put it on the lense of the camera, and this cream produced this halo outline. You know the reflective tape that traffic signs have? I ordered this reflective tape then I took like a jogging suit and stuck it on. I used the flash and it flashed upon the jogging suit – just me standing with the jogging suit and the hemorrhoid cream, that’s basically it.
They find a Facebook group with other people who also believe in it, and suddenly, a stupid idea becomes a movement.
I had great fun putting this online in the social media groups. People freaked out saying, “Oh, it’s an angel, it’s an angel. Congratulations!” They talked to me about their own experiences in seeing angels, and one even told me that he always sees angels in the form of his coffee in the morning. Another one told me that an angel lives in his house- in his basement. So it was really strange. Sometimes I was asked, ‘what kind of angel could this be?’.
The discussion was not if this could be an angel or not. It was more like, which angel could this be? This was really strange because, I think, for me, it proved that the more you are into this scene the more this irrationalism is in effect. One person makes up a theory, then people believe in it. They find a Facebook group with other people who also believe in it, and suddenly, a stupid idea becomes a movement. So strange.
This particular mixture of pills is a mixture of pills which help against credulity.
There is a homeopathic system, it’s called the Schuessler Remedies also known as Schüßler salts. It’s comparable to Bach’s remedies. It’s based upon the beliefs of a doctor Schuessler. He claimed that disease is caused by a lack of minerals in your body. These pills consist of milk, sugar and alcohol. There are, I think, 24 or 27 different pills and you can combine them how you like. It claims to be able to cure everything, from depression to cancer, everything.
This particular mixture of pills is a mixture of pills which help against credulity. It’s so perfect for me because the symptom and the cure, and the cause, the error are all in one thing. So it’s really turning itself on its head, and the other way around, I think it’s really brilliant. When I found out that these pills existed of course I had to buy them.
It’s like putting a drop of water into the Atlantic Ocean and then selling the Atlantic Ocean as a medical remedy.
The process of deriving these basic substances for the remedies, is completely an irrational thing. For example, you take a plant, and then you take alcohol, and to make an essence out of it, you just put more and more and more alcohol in it – or whatever substance. In the case of the Schuessler Remedies, it’s milk and sugar, because homeopathy thinks the less of the original substance is in it, the stronger its effect, but you’re just eating sugar and alcohol.
There are different potencies, but it’s like putting a drop of water into the Atlantic Ocean and then selling the Atlantic Ocean as a medical remedy. In Austria or Germany it’s kind of a standard thing, and it’s this kind of alternative medicine accounts for one third of the whole of the German world of pharmaceutical medicine.
Everything is cosy and everything is soft.
The colour schemes are not coincidental, they are really on purpose. Everything is soft and playful. So this is just like a vacation for the brain more or less. The colours create confidence, and the splash of colours, like everything, is cosy and nice. I think the colours are also important because it’s like this lack of responsibility for everything. It’s like a room of recreation for the mind. And that’s what I tried to get into the aesthetics of this. It’s very romantic. If you go onto Ebay and look into the New Age section, then you can find that everything looks the same and everything has this really nice look. Everything is cosy and everything is soft.
This is one of the strangest objects that I’ve found. There is a belief amongst these conspiracy theorists and esoterics, that the barcodes on product packaging are antennas for negative cosmic energies. If you take these products to the barcode scanners at the cash desk in the supermarket, and they make this ‘beep’ sound, this antenna is activated and biotoxins are released into the product in the moment. To avoid that, some ‘clever’ people found a remedy against it. They manufactured this, ‘harmoniser pen’. It’s a regular blackboard pen or whiteboard pen with an energised chip and it’s used to cross out the particle in the supermarket so the scanner cannot activate the toxins anymore.
This an extraction ritual. The principle of this extraction ritual is to extract negative energies and negative thoughts out of the brain. It’s derived from animistic natural religions and shamanistic practices. There are these shamanists in traditional religions, and there are some, I would call them neo-shamanists because most of them are western people. They take elements of these natural religions and mix it with capitalist practices, and also with themes of 21st century living. In a way it’s really strange because in the native practice, it’s about getting rid of toxins and making yourself stronger and making yourself a better person.
But these kinds of rituals of natural religions practiced by these western people, have nothing to do with this traditional Shamanism. There’s a growing discourse about cultural appropriation and I think that’s really important because it’s also part of this globalisation. For me, the most interesting thing about globalisation is how you really notice that people are just taking their sketches out of a culture and keep repeating this until it’s globalised completely. I think that’s very important and interesting.