Broadly speaking, performance art is about real actions, real bodies and real time, whereas magic trades in the pure fakery of theatre, spectacle and illusion. In performance art, the person well and truly endures pain and discomfort, whereas magicians only simulate, for effect.
But of course this distinction is too black and white, and unfair: performance art might be about doing things ‘for effect’ (no differently from waving jazz-hands), and vice versa magicians have famously died or injured themselves during their illusions, thereby giving the lie to the supposed fakery of their acts.
What is always ignored or suppressed, by magicians and audiences alike, is the material reality of the magic act, what I think of as the labour of illusion: the hands and the countless years of training (for instance in sleight of hand card magic), or the disciplined body, with its wounds and scars.
Perhaps a distinction between performance art and magic can be made around the visibility and propriety of the wound: in the former it tends to be exposed, in the latter it is largely hidden. For instance, in performance artist Chris Burden’s 1971 Shoot, his assistant stood at a distance and shot the artist in the arm, inaugurating performance art as a wound-making activity.
Conversely, one night in 1918, vaudeville magician Chung Ling Soo (real name Bill Robinson) performed a version of his famous Bullet Catch, in which an assistant stood at a distance and fired directly at the illusionist: on this occasion the gun literally misfired, and instead of ‘catching’ the bullet in his hand, Chung Ling Soo was shot in the chest. He collapsed to the ground and for the first time ever broke his Chinese stage character, announcing in plain English: ‘Something’s happened. Lower the curtain’. He died the following morning.
Which of these versions of the shoot is more ‘real’?