I'm grappling here with an old chestnut, please bare with me...
I'm busy preparing a presentation for the Wellcome Collection in London.
It's not going to be an 'expose' of how magic tricks work, but more a look at how magicians practice, what kind of things magicians spend their time doing, behind the scenes, etc.
And it occurred to me that in fact 'explaining' how magic tricks work is close to impossible. Of course some broadly speaking 'mechanical' or technical aspect can be explained. Let's take for example a classic card trick, in which a spectator randomly selects a card and signs it: the magician then tears the card up very clearly, and then the card is found, all whole, in some other location e.g. the magician's pocket.
A purely 'mechanical' explanation might mention things like: having a duplicate card, switching one for the other, or using a 'clone' signature. But these things don't really explain much. They don't explain how spectators are convinced (and rightly so) that is the same signed card that is being torn (it is), and the same signed card that is later shown to be whole again (it is). They don't explain how it's possible that such a feat be interesting to watch, and why; they don't explain psychological, emotional connotations at play in the feat; they don't explain, in short, why such a feat really works on the audience, and why.
Another way of putting it could be this: magicians spend a life time trying to understand magical feats in relation to their audience: to understand, for example, on which beat to execute a particular move, or which words to precisely use, or how to use the gaze, etc. And it is the interaction of bodily and perceptual decisions, actions, pauses, gestures, and words, together with the spectator's own interpretation and elaboration of the whole situation, that constitutes the 'real' method: it is this larger and subtle interactive choreography (let's call it) that truly allow spectators to fool themselves.
At the risk of sounding pedantic (I know I am!), even a simple magic trick can't really be explained, at least not in the way we typically understand that idea. One could try and describe all the subtleties and principles at work. But that would take a huge amount of work: a life work, in fact, learning, refining, questioning, and changing approaches. And that is what magicians do.
Simply as a bonus, a short classical act by P&T, in which their Cups and Balls trick is 'explained', though not at all.
I was recently interview by Dr Matt Pritchard a.k.a. the Science Magician, for his ongoing project Words on Wonder.
Find it here:
The camera shakes a few times, and you'll need to adjust the audio, but nevertheless here is a postshow discussion filmed after presenting 'The Chore of Enchantment' in Norwich, May 2019.
Some really interesting questions and thoughts emerge, around the status of magic today (is it really having a renaissance?), why magic seems to have such little cultural cachet, and how to combine magic with theatre.
Thanks to all who were present. The show was sold out (180 seats), and despite some technical issues, it was a great one. I'm especially happy as the show seems to be finding its feet, after slightly lost its way during Edinburgh 2018...
A short essay of mine has just been published in the academic journal Platform (Royal Holloway University).
It's a first attempt at verbalising how magic is a form of theatre, and how magic's role is to perhaps question theatre itself. In the back of my mind I had Penn & Teller, as examples of magicians whose acts are constantly asking audiences to perform serious intellectual work. But perhaps the same goes for most magic acts...
You can access the article here, for free.
The full journal is accessible here.
Last summer in Edinburgh, deception psychologist (is that right?) Richard Wiseman told me of an academic position that has opened up at Carleton University, in Ottowa, Canada: very likely the 1st of its kind, this is a Chair in Conjuring. It is made possible by a $2-million donation by a philanthropist. The full title is the “Allan Slaight Chair for the Study of the Conjuring Arts”. As of yet, the post remains vacant.
I thought this was an interesting development, given pockets of academic interest in conjuring and magic are beginning to emerge (see my blog post on this here). Magic needs to be studied and analysed more, especially outside of the insular world of magicians and magic conventions.
There is also the issue of a fundamental disparity between the public’s perception of conjuring (trivial trickery), and what is actually a very intricate, old and specialised activity. There is an incredible wealth of magic literature (though mainly by and for magicians), and the ways in which magicians learn and develop sleights and psychological misdirection - sometimes over decades of study and practice - deserves serious study.
Searching the web about the Carleton post, however, I quickly came across a scathing dismissal of the scheme. In a short piece called ‘Get serious, Carleton’, a senior fellow at the University criticises the post, largely on the basis of allowing wealthy philanthropists to dictate the direction of universities (this is a fair point, a problem the UK is perhaps going to see more of, sadly). In the context of cuts to humanities subjects (classics, English, literature, etc), the author sees the Chair in Conjuring as a way of further trivialising serious university study. He writes:
‘Those of us who believe that universities need to […] promote higher learning and research in a broad range of sciences, engineering, arts and the humanities, should make sure they remain focused on serious pursuits. Let’s forget the magic tricks.’
And thus the article ends.
It got me thinking of something I often mull over: that the presumed triviality of magic, as frustrating as it might be to hear about for many ‘serious’ magicians, might in fact be a strange kind of asset.
Let me try to qualify this.
Of course for those serious magicians out there, triviality is a badge of shame, something to fight against daily. We all want recognition for the hard work, as well as public appreciation. And the possibility of earning a livelihood wouldn’t go amiss.
Also, I’m not suggesting magicians should be happy with the public’s misperception of the form. In fact, the only reason I’m currently back into magic, after over a decade of pursuing other performance activities, is because I’m curious about how magic can meet and dialogue with other performing art forms (contemporary theatre, performance art, alternative comedy, etc). In other words, magic ‘seriously’ needs to up the game and challenge itself, to not remain anachronistic and trivial.
However, part of the appeal of magic, to me, is its cultural invisibility, its perception as mere trivial trickery.
Here’s why I think triviality is an asset to embrace and work with:
1. Triviality offers a perfect disguise of sorts for magic. How better to conceal its depth, than by having people believe it’s ‘just a trick’? What better misdirection could we ask for?
2. Triviality offers a great angle from which to play with the audience’s expectations. Rational people will always dismiss the unusual or the impossible (and this dismissal is probably also why magic is on the bottom rung: it’s just guys pretending to do impossible things, isn’t it?). Therefore, we have an ideal situation for maximising on the build up, from the trivial all the way to a sense of genuine mystery and awe. Whereas a visitor at an art gallery might (might) come with a pre-established taste for paintings, rarely do audiences come to magic (when they do) with a pre-established taste for card tricks. What a perfect starting point for taking the audience on a journey (it's harder for painters to do this, as so much is already known, analysed, studied, etc)
3. This is a weird idea, but hear me out: I think it’s currently quite ‘easy’, or at least possible, to do something artistically interesting with magic, simply because from the audience’s viewpoint magic is just tricks. Magic’s awkward clichés (top hat, rabbits) are in fact extremely easy to brush off nowadays. So how else can magic be presented? When a Penn & Teller perform their signature cups and balls trick, where they effectively disclose the method, yet where the performed explanation is so well and quickly executed that it ends up being baffling nevertheless, for an audience something genuinely exciting and new is happening (and they are right: no one did this before Penn & Teller). Magic’s triviality means it’s actually ripe for experimentation, for trying out new approaches, for carving out an original artistic path.
In other words:
Magicians! Let’s embrace the perception of triviality, and let’s get on with creating new contexts for developing the presentation of magic for new audiences; let’s challenge magic by experimenting with new forms; let’s write books that expand upon our understandings of magic, and that dialogue with other fields, ideas and histories.
Only then might a university post on conjuring not strike other academics as an aberration.
The recent passing of Ricky Jay (see previous blog post) has led me to re-watch David Mamet's House of Games (1987), a rather delightful film, if at times troubling (see the Post Scriptum at the bottom).
Jay plays a small role, as part of a gang of suave confidence tricksters, or con men. He first appears, and this really is his scene, sitting at a poker table, engaged in a fraught high-stakes game. He ends up winning the last round, but things turn nasty when it transpires the game's main loser doesn't have the requisite cash. However, just as Jay's character pulls out a gun out and places it menacingly on the table, the film's protagonist, a psychologist, who has been observing the game all along, offers to step in to cover the missing money. The psychologist signs a cheque, but just before handing it over, spots a few drops of water seeping out of the gun, prompting her to refuse handing over the money; instead, she makes a comment about the nonthreatening water pistol is. In response, Jay's character and the other card players suddenly stop their act: it transpires that the whole game was merely a set up, a con, to trick the psychologist out of her money. She initially fell for it, and so did we, as film viewers.
What's memorable about House of Games is the way this scene, which occurs towards the beginning, establishes much of the the premise of this film about cons (and about cons within cons).
Without spoiling the plot if you haven't see it, I can say that it's a film that gives the viewer the key for unlocking the film from the very beginning. This is quite different from magic-themed films such as The Prestige or The Illusionist, which use a Sixth Sense-like approach of fooling the viewer right up until the final twist: in these films there is always the "ooo" moment at the end, where you realise it was all staged to to make you believe in a very different reality than the one you've been following all along. It's a kind of 'who dunnit' structure, operating at the level of the whole narrative: and so it turns out, for instance, that there were really two identical twin magicians all along, or that the main character's love interest had only pretended to die, etc.
In House of Games, after the Ricky Jay scene, we are invited on a similarly deceptive narrative journey, except that here we have been clearly told that this will be the case, and shown exactly the mechanics at play (unlike in The Prestige and The Illusionist). The initial Poker-playing scene is there to tell us: "See, this is how a con is done. These people are pretending, they are 'acting' as though there is a gun, a threat, real money. You have been warned..."
The film treats us, its audience, with respect. It grants us the intelligence to be able to see through the illusion, and to then appreciate it as such. It doesn't just fool us. It first tells us, and shows us, exactly how it's going to fool us; and then it does it.
And this is such a valuable model for magic and magicians. For thinking about a magician's relation to the audience: do you merely show them something amazing and unexplainable? Or do you let them in on the dynamic of illusion and magic (without spoilers), and then proceed to do illusion and magic?
PS The 'note' I mentioned at the top has to do with the gender dynamics in the narrative, which are a little let's say "dated" (read: chauvinistic male fantasy). There is a theme of 'loving your captor' underlying much of it, and the captive is a woman. That said, there is much appreciate here that doesn't rely on regressive gender politics.
PSS On an unrelated note, I love this sentence that the protagonist writes on a bar napkin, after she returns to the dingy bar: 'The necessity of dark places to transact a dark business'.
The magic community - which broadly includes professional and amateur magicians, as well as ‘friends’ of magic (theatre people, artists, producers, etc) - has responded with heartfelt sadness at the passing of one of those defining ‘legends’: the historian, scholar and performer extraordinaire Ricky Jay.
Much is written on him, including great profiles in magazines, and I won’t add anything here.
I came across and read a profile by the New Yorker, from way back in 1993. At the time Jay was preparing his defining show, Ricky Jay and his 52 assistants.
The article goes into some depth as to how much of a book collector he was, portraying the man as a true bibliophile, and recounting the dismay that surrounded illusionist David Copperfield’s acquisition of a large collection of rare books on magic and various other curiosities (a collection which Jay had carefully catalogued and expanded upon, under the patronage of a banker, until said banker went bankrupt).
Reading the profile, then returning to Twitter, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the galling idiocy of Copperfield, who today was advertising a bag he’s designed (from his latest show), or of the magic company Vanishing Inc, advertising a magic product to buy. On a day in which there might be pause to reflect on what matters, the unashamed promotion and business-as-usual is especially jarring. And not just promotion of, say, a work (a show, a book, an event), but merely promotion of products, whose formula for success is always the same, whether you’re selling beauty cream or the latest trick pack of cards: “hey you, are you dissatisfied? Well if you buy this product, your life will change…” It is a fabulous deceit (no pun intended), whose direct consequence is constantly lowering the bar, reducing magic to a transaction, to a product that can be bought and sold. Inevitably the buyer gets bored, and so new products must fill the void, the frustration, the difficulty of maintaining an ongoing relation with the art form. Again the formula: “hey don’t worry about studying and learning things and trying, and failing, and trying again. Just click here to purchase this item. All has been taken care for you, because we value you…”
For those who don’t know, the so called magic scene, in the last 20 or more years, has increasingly turned into a toy shop for addicted adult-children with short attention spans. Addicted to the latest props-that-do-magic, addicted to the aura that you’re supposedly buying when you purchase the product of a famous star (“As seen on Penn and Teller’s Fool Us!”), addicted to the cheap immediate pleasure that comes with compulsive buying.
Ricky Jay (who was most likely an imperfect person, from what I gather) carved a path that was unique, merely because he cultivated his interests, and fashioned them into his performing persona. A brilliant magician, but also a model to emulate (artists do exactly this: follow their path, work hard at it). Ricky Jay’s model is a reminder to cut the crap out. Call out a demeaning culture of greed for what it is. No art form, no scholarship, no interesting events can develop in such a market of short-lived gizmos and toys. To all sellers of magic products: find your income elsewhere. Don’t believe in the inevitability of capitalist relations. There are alternatives. Your amazing latest ‘discoveries’ are distractions, and you know it. You’re not contributing anything, you’re taking time away from people who might just be able, with enough concentration and dedication, to develop interesting ideas, thoughts and performances.
In short (and this is more for magicians). Magic isn’t “broken”. It has been taken over by greedy ‘dealers’ and magic shops and magicians who are all too eager to exploit and capitalise people’s dissatisfaction. Yes, doing and studying magic is hard, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it. We don’t need another product, another surge of dopamine, followed by a low, followed by another product, etc. We need to cut off this ridiculous addiction and develop slower forms of study, practice, rehearsal and exchange that can re-define the field. There are some great magicians already, and always, doing this, but they are always a small minority. This needn’t be the case. Where to start? We ought not let avid and destructive commercial interests define what is and isn’t possible in an art form.
A strange title, granted: ‘the limits of magic’ is a paradox, since by definition magic is something that exceeds or at least challenges the idea of limits: magic expands what’s possible, real, thinkable, etc. However illusory, it undoes expectations around laws of nature, matter, space, time etc (or at least, it is expected to do so, and in very precise, reasoned ways).
And this is the crunch: one of the harshest things about magic, as a form of entertainment/art, is precisely how bound it is to preconceived definitions and notions of itself. In other words, what a magic show has to look like, how much magic must be in it (and what kind) in order to qualify as magic, etc.
I will get to this via a small detour into comedy.
Re-watching some of UK comedian Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, particularly episodes 4 and 5 (series 4), what I find utterly compelling is a sense of Lee doing comedy by pretty much undoing the form itself: going to amazing extremes, falling totally short of any 'story' or narrative, and descending into odd experiments with language. Of course certain conventions remain in place: there is still a performer on stage, speaking, and an audience attending, laughing, reacting. So it's tempting to say: “it’s still comedy, all the time”, etc.
However, Lee plays with the form in genuinely unparalleled and risky ways, and the laughter derives precisely from how much he is clearly messing with our understanding of comedy itself. The ‘humour’ (or most of it anyway) lies in just how far he goes with tripping up comedy itself. In this respect, he borrows from much of the avant-garde, performance art, and experimental art traditions.
I wonder whether magic can similarly do such a turn on itself (though I'm aware this is entirely what motivates my interest in it: to take it apart, and it still be magic in that taking apart).
Perhaps this is an interesting time for theatre-magic: there are chinks of light here and there, attempts at rethinking what live magic might be and look like, both accepting and contesting conventional norms. But as I prepare for Edinburgh Fringe 2018, I also know there will a dialogue to be had around what 'passes' for magic (the current show features even less than the previous one, which was already criticised for 'not having enough'!).
A magic show in which the magic element lies precisely in the fact that no magic happens? The magic has disappeared...
Something to mull
Upon receiving a request, I've made a tutorial video for learning how to do the coin roll. This is when a coin appears to walk across your fingers, as made popular (I am told) by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.
A word of warning: it takes time to learn this smoothly. If it gets frustrating, just have a break, then return to it later. Insist without insistence...
Once you learn the mechanics of it, it is fairly simple, although it will require a couple of months of daily practice.
This is a follow up from a previous blog entry, back in 2016.
For those interested in how magic is being written about and studied by academic scholars - across cultural-historical studies mainly - some brilliant books have come out over the last decade or two.
Here are some of the titles I have read, or simply spotted, ordered by date:
- James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in The Age of Barnum (2001)
- Simon During, Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (2004)
- Philipp Butterworth, Magic on the Early English Stage (2005)
- Michael Mangan, Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring (2007)
- Coppa, Hass & Peck eds, Performing Magic on The Western Stage: From The Eighteenth Century to The Present (2008)
-Chris Goto-Jones, Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism and The Making of the Modern World (2016)
On the relation between magic and cinema, see:
- Karen Beckman, Vanishing Women: Magic, Film and Feminism (2003)
- Matthew Solomon, Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and The New Magic of The Twentieth Century (2010)
- Colin Williamson, Hidden In Plain Sight: An Archaeology of Magic and The Cinema (2015)
There are also brilliant free articles in the University of Huddersfield's Journal of Performance Magic.
And lastly, though not an academic study, I want to flag the recent book by A.Bandit, the name for the collaboration between conceptual artist Glenn Kaino and current Broadway magic star Derek Delguadio. It features great artworks and interesting interviews with John Baldessarri, Ricky Jay, Marina Abramovic, Teller (my fave), and others.
- Glenn Kaino and Derek Delgaudio, A Secret Has Two Faces: The Collaborative Work of Glenn Kaino and Derek Delgaudio (2017)
Enjoy the academic study of magic
Happy to say that my text 'Dining Tables and Performances: or, The Labour of Illusion' has been published by the lovely FEAST journal, in an issue dedicated to the spaces in which we eat.
You can read my essay here, for free.
A tiny visual flavour of it below
Week 1 of rehearsals at the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts, Brighton
(ACCA, I should mention, are generously supporting the development of the new show… watch this space)
I have been struck by the pleasure of time spent alone working on text and possible performance ideas. Not wishing to jinx future rehearsals, in the first week I was blessed with that most ideal of conditions for working: to be undisturbed. Undisturbed by crippling doubts and ‘second album syndrome’; undisturbed by social commitments, or the fear of missing out; undisturbed by admin duties.
This is largely due to Arts Council England supporting the development of the work. The project is still a fairly small operation, but having Arts Council backing has made all the difference.
The plan is to develop the project through continuous rehearsals and work-in-progress showings, between Jan and May 2018. All details will be available on this website, under the Gambini section. Producer Sally Rose and I are also concocting a likely plan for Edinburgh, ahead of touring the work in 2018-2019.
The new show is likely to be called The Chore of Enchantment. It will be about disappointment and wonder, about political awakening and disillusionment, the job of the magician, being overwhelmed by the news, and experiencing ‘magician’s block’ (same as writer’s block, but for magicians).
Coming to a theatre near you… if you book it.
Please book it.
PS An early promo is below, shot by Hugo Glendinning.
Such a simple yet 'profound' moment of confusion, in this short clip by magician Michael Carbonaro, subjecting unsuspecting members of the public to magic tricks.
Sitting at a bar, receiving a large drink, from which he proceeds to extract seemingly inexhaustible amounts of fruit, cocktail umbrellas, and even an egg seemingly containing a live parakeet, Michael Carbonaro's unsuspecting victim seems bemused and, in her own words, 'happy' at this oddly impossible feat (and Michael does a good job of feigning surprise himself).
The interesting moment comes at the end, when the magician reveals that A. This was all a magic trick, and B. You're on TV. The audience member (now turned into an audience member, we could say), seems less concerned about the television element, but does offer a great comment: firstly, she tells Michael how much she loves magic. Then, it slowly dawns on her what happened, and that the amazing bottomless drink must be a magic trick. 'That whole thing was magic? You just did all this? That was not.... the drink?'
It's as though magic needs an author, a person responsible for these feats, a centre of animation, a puppet master, etc. Before the revelation, when Michael is haplessly performing as though magic was happening to him, the illusion is solid: something delightful and wonderful is happening here, who knows why... But as soon as the premise is clear - that someone is behind all this, making it happen intentionally - that's when we shift into magic.
At least half of these blog musings are based on films and TV things that (I) relate to magic... Particularly films that play on the strange border between fiction and reality, artifice and misdirection, such as the superlative By the time it gets dark (2016), by Anocha Suwichakornpong.
A slow burner, that utterly toppled my brain by the end. It plays with the camera pulling back to 'show' the act of film-making at work, and through this simple device you're left utterly floating, not knowing how to read certain sections: is it a film within a film, or is it just... a film?
Suwichakornpong peels back not to gratify her or the viewers' intellect ('oooh, so clever'), but to forge a cinema experience where nothing is certain, everything is strange, because we are never really sure if what we're seeing is 'behind the scenes', or squarely in front of said scenes. It's the director's ability to keep this tension unresolved that I found so admirable: whereas normally with clever devices such as these there is a clear moment in which a switch is flicked ON or OFF (a revelation occurs, a trapdoor is released, etc), with By the time it gets dark we experience a suspended state of not knowing. About half of the way in, I felt myself loosing my footing, and from there on, captured by the film's relatively slow pace, I pleasantly continued to free-fall.
Super inspiring as a model for a magic show/theatre show. Are the actions and text on stage relating to the present moment, or a previous one? Is it a simulation of real magic, or a display of real magic?
This film teaches us to float without having to decide.
Still from By the time it gets dark (2016), by Anocha Suwichakornpong
I adore the lampooning that magic gets here, in the animated series Big Mouth ep 1.
Boy in middle: ‘Do you mind? I’m doing a magic trick!’
Girl on left: ‘I love magic. It’s like juggling but it’s definitely more confrontational, that’s for sure.’
Girl on right: ‘Yeah it’s like one person playing cards at you.’
It highlights what should always be obvious: that performance can be seen a veiled aggression, a means of selfishly asserting oneself, commanding the attention in the room.
Next time I hear or read about 'commanding your audience' I'll think of this lovely send-up.
Magicians be warned: know your place.
How great to find Liberty Larsen.
On Penn & Teller's latest TV show 'Fool Us', in which an array of magicians perform each week (under the pretence of fooling the Vegas duo), I was delighted to come across Liberty Larsen. Her style is clearly after my own heart, as she sets up to undermine the act itself, and call attention slyly to its own machinations, whilst keeping the illusion intact.
"I really don’t like lying to people… It’s a real problem, it interferes with this job.
As a magician, if you’re performing as yourself, and not as a character, as soon as you open your mouth it’s sort of inevitable, you’re just going to start lying, and I have really terrible magician’s guilt…"
Thus begins Liberty's act, and how perfectly the text calls attention to itself, to its own unfolding. The 1st line is already a lie, as well as an admission of lying, and its negation, all at once; and so we listen, teetering, veering, careening in and out truth and falsehood, reality and fiction.
Then, turning to the show's host, Alyson Hannigan:
"So, when I sit here with you, on a very primal level, every cell in my body does not want to lie to you. So I’m not going to. So there... [pause] Alison I brought a time machine with me to the theatre tonight…"
Penn's laugh can be heard loud and clear, as the tension built up from the premise somersaults and makes a big splat on the floor of the theatre. The rest of the act bathes in the glory of this initial framing, and moves a little away from it. But the opening text is fantastic, and reminds me of the elusive rabbit I'm chasing in pursuing magic and theatre in the 1st place.
Watching the enigmatic film Last Year in Marienbad, about half of the way through it dawns on me that the subject matter - the 'drama' - is not central: yes, there is a love triangle of sorts, and yes it is kind of about a man pursuing a woman, in an oddly clinical beaux monde setting.
But the human drama is here something of a red herring, What is really at stake, and what the film director (Resnais) and screenwriter (Robbe-Grillet) pursued quite adamantly, is a kind of dazzling and atonal formal study in rhythm: rhythms of speech, incantatory repetitions, monotonous speech, as well as temporal and spatial disorientation.
In other words, we think we're watching a love story, but really this is video art: it is a black and white moving painting set to recited poetry, a hallucination of slow camera shots, repetitious images, a monotonous voice that insists on remembering, and another that insists on forgetting (if there is a subject, really, I would say this is a film about our watching of the film).
All of which leads me to reflect on how much I love this strategy: offering spectators a work that is seemingly one thing, though it is in fact very much another. A kind of misdirection in itself, practised so well by some of my favourite writers (Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy and Italo Calvino's books spring to mind). It is a device to captivate readers and spectators: the familiarity lures people in, and once inside, well, why not try something else? With Resnais' film, we might pay a visit for the plot, but once we get there we are shown slow hallucinatory takes of staircases and people standing immobile (9 minutes into the movie, and still no human being speaking).
There is so much potential in this strategy for magic and magic shows. Because magic is attractive and familiar, what better way of luring audiences with this red herring, and then turning towards stranger things? I promised a card trick... however, here's an experiment in rhythmic speech and deconstructed narrative, ha!
Unlike Resnais's film, however, I wonder if magic is more constrained by the promise inherent in the genre (the final surprise or revelation, the entertaining climax): no matter how much you stray from the magic trick, I wonder if as a magician you still have to end on that familiar, slightly toe-curling, but-oh-so-reassuring final note: "Ta-da...!"
Trailer for Last Year in Marienbad
In talking about magic in the work of David Lynch, I am not referring to a special ethereal quality, but simply the abundance of what are effectively conjuring performances, re-imagined in the context of the world of Twin Peaks.
In series 3, Cooper makes his uncanny appearance levitating inside a glass box, in echoes of David Copperfield's 'Flying' levitation back in the 90's, during which the illusionist produced the same exact image, night after night on a live stage.
Returning to series 2, during the extended Black Lodge sequence of the last episode, Cooper's cup of coffee keeps changing consistency, from smoothly liquid, to thick and oozy, to block solid, again and again. Lynch is aptly tapping into conjuring - the uncanny transformations of matter - to power this universe in which time flows in all directions. The magic tricks pinpoint a fractured dream-like reality.
Other examples include, in episode 8 of series 3, the 'giant' walking on stage and gently levitating upwards, whilst an unnamed woman holds a ball of light.
One of my pet favourite moments, from the current series (3), is an exchange between drug dealers (here called man A and man B, as I don't know their names), in which a coin trick is used to establish a clear sense of hierarchy. Man A holds out a US quarter and tosses it into the air. As the coin is filmed spinning in mid-air, man B suddenly, and to his surprise, spits out a quarter from his own mouth, and holds it between his fingers. In a further circular twist, the original spinning coin then falls into the extended palm of man A: man B looks down at his hands to find that the coin he had spat out is no longer there.
Somewhat impossible to stage in 'real life', but beautifully capturing how magic can serve this eerie sense of reality not being what we think it is.
'Through the darkness of futures past
The magician longs to see
One chants out between two worlds
Fire walk with me'
(end of episode 6, series 2)
As I continue to watch Twin Peaks, explicit references to magic crop up again and again.
One of the most startling scenes occurs when Donna pays a visit to an old woman, whose grandson is studying magic. The grandson, sitting in a large armchair wearing formal evening wear, looks remarkably like a young Lynch. He performs a somewhat impossible trick, making the cream-corn vanish from the plate into his hands. Shortly after, he intones the refrain that will continue through a few episodes: 'J'ai une âme solitaire' (I am a lonely soul).
What a delight to see magic appearing (or re-appearing) in director David Lynch's works. I am thinking in particular of Twin Peaks, where in Series 1 we see Dr. Jacoby perform a fairly impressive trick with golf balls, to a very unimpressed Special Agent Cooper.
Here the magic underscores the character's quirky and rather bizarre personality. Magic as a kind of odd tick, a strange appendage or form of behaviour, never directly mentioned. Agent Cooper does not react in the slightest, nor does Dr. Jacoby take this indifference as a cue to stop his conjuring shenanigans: he just keeps the tricks going, as though it were the most natural accompaniment to their conversation.
From the same series is another moment in which magic has a far more tangible effect, enabling a passage from one world to another: in this case, the investigating 18year old Audrey is trying to con her way into working at the casino/brothel at the epicentre of the series. In her interview, her lies are found out, and when the casino manager threatens her with that sweat line 'Give me one good reason why I shouldn't air-mail your bottom back to civilisation...', Audrey thinks for a moment, then reaches for a cherry from a nearby cocktail, and performs the old trick of tying a not in the cherry stalk, all whilst holding it in her mouth. This time the trick succeeds, and the next line from the harsh interviewer is "Sign here... Welcome to One-Eyed Jack's".
The execution of a deliberate con is how the character cons her way into the job. Or else: when her lies are found out, she openly performs a remarkable deception, thereby insisting with trickery, as opposed to giving up and changing course of action. Fake it till' you make it, all the way.
‘Since the world is on a delusional course, we must adopt a delusional standpoint towards the world.’
Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil
I have just found my motto.
Henceforth I shall call myself not an 'illusionist', but a 'delusionist'.
I won't 'illude', I will 'delude'.
As in: "Ladies and Gentlement, for my next delusion...'
What does magic share in common with with the way cubs play-fight?
Quite a lot, as I was surprised to discover in reading philosopher Brian Massumi, in his essay on how animals actually show capacities for ‘thinking’ in action, for language, for sophisticated play: in other words, activities that we tend to reserve for ourselves, the special human beings that we are (not).
It turns out that cubs have particular ways of ‘exaggerating’ the gestures of fighting, and therefore signalling to the their siblings “Look, this is as if we were fighting”. They are constantly ‘telling’ each other that what they are doing isn’t real: it’s a kind of theatrical version of the real thing. This ‘telling’ happens precisely through the exaggerated mannerism, which is what tells the other “This is a game”.
To quote the philosopher:
‘The play statement “this is a game” is far from a simple act of designation. It is the staging of a paradox. A wolf cub who bites its litter mate in play “says”, in the manner in which it bites, “this is not a bite”.’ (p.4)
The “this is not a bite” is what turns it into play. The “this is not a bite” sweeps up both litter mates in an act of play. Finally, observe this striking passage that uses words like ‘misdirection’ and ‘flourish’, words straight from magic’s vocabulary:
‘The [play] gesture is performed with a mischievous air, with an impish exaggeration or misdirection, or on the more nuanced end of the spectrum, a flourish, or even a certain understated grace modestly calling attention to the spirit in which the gesture is proffered.’ p.9
What better ways of describing theatrical magic?
Of course audiences at a magic show in a theatre already know from the billing that what they are going to see is “not real”. The title already does the job. This is perhaps another reason why I deliberately titled my current show This is not a magic show: to consciously bring attention to the way titles ‘perform’ certain functions.
Apart from the titling, consider the magician's gestures themselves - the handling of the cards, which might be bombastic or more ‘nuanced’ as Massumi writes: it is the physicality that "tells" the spectator “look, this is playing, this is not the real thing”. And both parties are swept up in this act of play.
With the added paradox: that the thing ‘referred’ to in magic, the miracle or impossible feat, is by definition unreal, it will never manifest. Unlike the cub’s play fight, which refers to the 'real fight', with magicians and their audiences the ultimate ‘referent’ is nowhere to be found: magic remains gloriously, mysteriously, and irresolvably, absent.
FYI: The book is What Animals Teach Us About Politics, by Brian Massumi.
During a foggy start to the new year, a saving grace has been the rather brilliant US television series Search Party. (Spoiler alert: ending revealed below)
Set in the present day in Brooklyn, we find the central character, a woman in her 20s, who is shocked when she comes across a street poster of a missing person, someone she vaguely knew from school, and decides to investigate with the help of her hipster friends. All kinds of clues, possible conspiracies and even a cult are gradually uncovered; in a very dramatic ending, a second character is killed, but the missing person is found… until everyone involved realises that the missing person had, in fact, simply decided to take a hike and go off ‘social media’ for a while, not realising she had been declared missing at all. All the mysteries, conspiracies, the links intimated between characters and places (the big mind-map on the wall, different coloured threads connecting words and photos), were in fact fictitious, unwittingly ‘made up’ by the main character, in a thirst for adventure and a misguided sense of justice.
What is striking to me, with my magic hat on, is this brilliant sense of the ‘mystery’ dissolving: of complicated conspiracies and possible linkages vanishing into thin air. The central character believes to be digging deep, to be uncovering a strange network of events and people, a great puzzle forming in her mind, and therefore ours too. It is merely delusional. There is no mystery.
Search Party was a great Don Quixote for our times, except Quixote that is doomed to wake up from the dream she has been constructing, and realise that, because of her interpreting the world as ‘mysterious, a person has accidentally been killed. She saw a mystery, where there was in fact none.
I thought of writer Thomas Berhard’s quote (from Correction):
'We mustn’t let ourselves go so far as to suspect something remarkable, something mysterious, or significant, in everything and behind everything.'
In May 2016 I conducted an interview with a theatre magazine, but for various complicated reasons this was never released. So here it is in text format!
It mainly covers how 'This is not a magic show' draws on contemporary theatre and performance references (mentions of Spalding Gray, Forced Entertainment and Stewart Lee abound), and what it means to present magic in the context of theatre, intended both as a place and as an art form.