"In asking what technology is, Gell defamiliarises distinctions between the technical and the magical: technology is more than the tools we invent and use as rational creatures; magic is more than a consequence of our inadequacy to explain and solve problems. Simple enough. But Gell then goes on to define the technical not as ‘an either/or distinction between production processes which do, or do not, make use of artefacts called “tools”.’ The technical refers to the entire spectrum of ingenious ways to achieve a desired result. ‘Techniques form a bridge, sometimes only a simple one, sometimes a very complicated one, between a set of given elements (the body, some raw materials, some environmental features) and a goal-state, which is to be realized making use of these givens.’ Defining the technical in this way quickly leads to the disintegration of distinctions between tool-orientated techniques used to obtain material needs, such as wielding an axe to procure food or thumbing an iPhone to order a pizza, and the more playful and expressive pursuits, such as dancing, singing, painting and writing.
And what of magic? It consists of ‘symbolic commentary’ on certain techniques, guiding the entire process. In the garden, to use Gell’s example, the person who casts a spell, says a prayer, or recites an incantation when tending to vegetables, inserts an ideal harvest into the craft of gardening. Magic frames practical techniques by going beyond them and behind them, working the imaginary back into the details of the activity, such as evoking apotropaic sayings when turning soil, sowing seeds, or encouraging vital entanglements of dirt, worm, plant, insect, weather, gardener. When it comes to magical images, an obvious example of ‘symbolic commentary’ that Gell mentions is advertising, since it ‘does not only serve to entice consumers to buy particular items; in effect, it guides the whole process of design and manufacture from start to finish, since it provides the idealised image to which the finished product must conform’. And once we start down this path, we have to wonder what processes do not involve some element of magic as Gell defines it, both for doing good and for doing bad, for manipulation and for protection, for constraining and for escaping those constraints. Because, approached in this way, magic has not disappeared and is not merely an aesthetic embellishment (as hard-nosed positivists would have it); it has instead become more diverse, assimilated into the techniques used to achieve particular outcomes, looping endlessly in the habituated experiences of any given day or image. Fantasies applied to techniques bring them to life and maintain what we like to refer to as the practical, the pragmatic, the real. If we do not see magic explicitly, suggests Gell, ‘it is because technology and magic, for us, are one and the same’. Magic, in its application, becomes invisible.
It is something in Gell’s formulation, general though it is, that conjures Milledge’s ecological approach to work, her forms and techniques, the way she handles materials, initiates collaborations, incorporates gestures, and stages exhibitions like theatre. I say ‘ecological’ because there is something very difficult about an atomised account of Milledge’s output: each artwork is better seen as one interconnected part of a system. I have a sense (a feeling) that writing about her work means entering this system; engaging with her materials, such as recycled textiles, paint rags, rope, wax, oil, tree sap, recycled glass, sound; her techniques, such as Hinterglasmalerei, or reverse painting on glass; as well as her themes, which unashamedly evoke a paganish cosmology and ecopolitical witching. I have a sense (a feeling) that it means thinking of theory not as a mode of ‘interrogation’ that tortures art for answers but which aspires to a form of proximity, theory alongside art, which is very much unfinished, for both art and theory, and not at all concerned with explanation. Art and theory as a ‘technology of enchantment’, as Gell puts it, where magic does not come after we have run out of ideas and explanations for our experiences with images and objects but forms the very force – the conjuring – of those images and objects."