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"We like to be deceived." -Blaise Pascal
"Carlos" was the name of a 2,000-year-old spirit allegedly channeled by José Alvarez when he toured Australia in 1988. Channeling was all the rage in Australia and an Australian television program contacted James Randi about finding someone who might show Australians that channeling was something doubtful. Randi approached Alvarez, a performance artist and friend who had long toyed with the idea of creating such a character. The rest, as they say, is history. Alvarez
looked at videotapes of other people speaking in strange voices, pretending to be in touch with other worlds, and he picked it up right away. Eventually he went to Australia, took the performance into the Sydney Opera House before a rapt audience there, all handling crystals and beads and whatnot, and with charmed looks on their faces, attracted and enthralled by this man onstage, José Alvarez, doing the Spirit of Carlos that was claimed to be 2,000 years old. His performance was very convincing, and actually better than the "real" chanellers!
However, all of the material that he produced was spurious. In the press releases he invented magazines and newspapers, he invented towns and cities and radio stations and TV channels and whatnot, that didn't even exist. He prepared videos of radio interviews and theater appearances that never happened. And just one phone call by the media back to the United States would have revealed the whole thing as a hoax. Even after it was all revealed on the Australian Sixty Minutes TV show, a week after the Opera House appearance, many continued to believe in "Carlos" and his uninspired messages. (Randi, personal correspondence.)
For Alvarez, the creation of the character "Carlos" was a performance/experiment to see how far he could take his creation, but his purpose was not to make people look foolish. He hoped to liberate them from a false belief. However, the result of the performance seemed to demonstrate how easy it is to create a cult from scratch and how, even when the truth is revealed to them, some still refuse to accept it. The "Carlos" hoax also demonstrated how gullible and uncritical the mass media are when covering paranormal or supernatural topics. Rather than having an interest in exposing the truth, the members of the media were obsessed with "Carlos" the phenomenon and transformed his character from a hoax to a myth. The character Alvarez had so arduously created was transmogrified by the press. The media didn't even need to do any research to have determined that "Carlos" was not genuine. The biggest clue was handed to them on a silver platter: "Carlos" performed for free. He offered crystals from Atlantis for sale, but took orders rather than cash. Every journalist should know that the first sign of an authentic fake guru is greed.
José Alvarez had hoaxed an entire continent with his art. But he had created something that the media and his audiences would take from him and recreate to suit their own needs. One lesson here has to be the magician's refrain: deception requires cooperation. Another lesson might be that the need to believe in something like a "Carlos" is so great in some people that we must despair of them ever being liberated.
Alvarez continues to travel the world performing "Carlos" in a malleable manifestation of his initial "incarnation." He appears on global network TV, and performs before large live audiences, engaging them in discussions regarding gurus and the dangers of passive acceptance of unquestioned belief. His goal? To bring people real enlightenment.
His ongoing exploration of the nature of belief, charisma, and power, and how they intersect, was featured at the 2002 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Sagan, Carl. "Carlos," Parade Magazine, December 4, 1994.
Carlos (requires Real Audio) Studio 360