Suzanne Treister's Hexen 2.0 Tarot

Ambitious, innovative--and entirely original

I’m still trying to fathom the extent (and intent) of Suzanne Treister’s Hexen 2.0 project, but I’ll tell you what I’ve figured out so far. Beginning with—these comments from a 2013 New York Times review of the Hexen installation, then showing at a New York gallery:

The British artist Suzanne Treister has a unifying theory about everything that would concern anyone worried about the current state of global affairs.

[Her] main theme is control — social, mental, technological and otherwise — exerted most powerfully and pervasively by means of feedback mechanisms. The stock market’s feedback-induced ups and downs would be an example.

Ms. Treister delivers her thinking not in a footnote-larded treatise but in the form of a set of tarot cards, each illustrating in cartoon drawings and handwritten text a person, idea or event that changed the course of 20th-century history.

The connections drawn within and among the cards are so mind-boggling to contemplate that it seems entirely appropriate to comprehend them within a magical system like the tarot.

The original drawings for the Hexen Tarot—which comprises both arcanas—are displayed in a complex installation that also includes a video “seance,” and elaborate historical diagrams like this one:

But in addition—the Hexen Tarot itself was produced as a usable deck, and sold at various galleries where the show was installed.

I really wish I had one. They are long gone, of course, except for those acquired by wise collectors.

“Hexen,” by the way, is derived from the ancient Greek term hexis, which apparently is very difficult to define in modern terms. However, for Tarot purposes, we can go with Aristotle’s use of hexis to indicate a relatively stable arrangement of parts.

Why Tarot?

There was an accompanying Hexen 2.0 book—similarly long gone. But a key essay, by art historian Lars Bang Larsen, is still available on Treister’s overwhelming website—here’s a direct link. And here are some relevant excerpts:

In HEXEN 2.0, Treister works through the format of the tarot card, thereby
tapping into the dynamic potential of occult knowledge forms to connect
seemingly disparate historical dots in a kind of alchemical hypertext.

[She] follows the topological displacements and transformations of knowledge across many disciplines; knowledge's 'tripping' through unofficially connected networks is affirmed by way of the tarot deck as an encyclopedic format.

Employing the tarot deck is [not] a quick-fix attempt at re-enchanting the world, but—apart from a homeopathic indication of occult aspects in the history leading up to “control society”—a structuring device that mirrors and performs procedures of mass intelligence gathering in the service of a new epistemology. One can perhaps compare it to a Turing Machine: a virtual system capable of simulating the behavior of any other machine or apparatus of knowledge, including itself.

Bang Larsen’s commentary on Hexen 2.0 goes on for quite a while, and involves a fair amount of academic rhetoric. But it also offers some unexpectedly thoughtful insights on the nature of the Tarot:

In Treister's deck, the original symbolic import of the tarots is used as ciphers that vie for their meaning with the new content that Treister has invested them with.

This is in accordance with how tarot card readers read the person in front of them as carefully as the card that is called up: in this way the tarot deck allows you to reach for an object of knowledge through a system that is explicitly and opaquely coded, and therefore allows the operator of the deck to negotiate and undo the codes in the process.

Quick aside—the idea of Tarot symbolism as a system of “ciphers” that can be used in many ways is similar to my approach in Ten Doors to Tarot, which examines different (yet intersecting) paths through the Tarot landscape.

Bang Larsen continues:

Divorced from its personal application, Treister employs the tarot card for readings of a collective destiny that matches up possible futures of reactivated knowledge and traces their effects back to our present.

And this was not just an abstract notion. For example—in 2014, University College London’s art department held an event featuring “tarot readings about global futures,” using the Hexen deck. Here’s the direct link to a photographic scrapbook of the event. And here’s a sampling:

Another set of snaps captures a reading session in 2019.

The Hexen Cards

Treister’s fascinating treatment of Ken Kesey as the Knave of Chalices is discussed in another story. And here are two more examples (described in Bang Larsen’s essay) that demonstrate how Treister’s designs intertwine people, ideas, and information:

[For example] in tarot lore, the Ace of Pentacles represents new beginnings, wealth and inspiration in material or financial matters, such as the energy to undertake a new business venture. In Treister's deck, [it] conflates The Four Technologies: nano-, bio- and info-technology as well as cognitive science. [And] the drawing pulls quotes from a 2002 report commissioned by the US National Science Foundation, [titled] “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance.”

The Three of Swords (a card that urges to take a strong look at that which is at the centre of our world), refers in Treister's version to CIA's infamous MKULTRA program, in which volunteers as well as unwitting civilians were guinea pigs for government mind control experiments with psychedelica.

I may think of MKULTRA—and a few episodes of the X-Files—every time I see the Three of Swords now. But that actually seems like a surprisingly good fit . . . .

The amount of work that went into the Hexen Tarot is just amazing. And as the New York Times reviewer observed:

Ms. Treister’s images, which resemble diagrams made by a paranoid hippie, are fun as well as thought-provoking.

Here’s a snap of the first ten trumps:

And here (because I can’t resist) is a list of the topics/people featured on each trump:

In the unlikely event I ever have a surplus of time, I’d love to add a brief explanation for each trump, and tackle the minor arcana.

But for now—if you are intrigued by Hexen 2.0, you’ll find that exploring the conceptual structure and detailed drawings provides an informative (though challenging!) view of hidden connections in 20th-century history.

Treister’s installation (in whole or part) is still touring the world—and along the way, acquainting people with the possibilities of Tarot. These pictures show portions of Hexen 2.0 on display recently in a Berlin gallery: