The digital ramblings of an analog conjurer
July 14, 2016 REAL MAGIC
This is a slightly edited version of the original ‘Real Magic’ essay which was first published in This is Not a Box. I could say an awful lot more on this subject, but this essay is just a simple introduction to a much larger conceptual framework (including the concept of ‘The Empty Space’ which was also published in This is Not a Box and here in The Shift). Enjoy.
A new paradigm for conjuring
What do you say when someone seriously asks you how you made something appear or disappear? How you read someone’s mind? If magic is real? Is it just a trick? How you do what you do? Are you stuck for something to say? Do you hide behind false explanations that you think sound more impressive or respectable? Perhaps there are new ways of thinking about these questions that you haven’t considered; a paradigm shift which allows you to recalibrate and reimagine what you are doing by embracing reality and honesty.
In my opinion the first hint of a ‘real’ magician was Chan Canasta. Chan was apparently telling people what he was doing, cultivating an atmosphere of honesty and openness which was deeply compelling. Chan would state that any questions could be asked about his methods and he would explain everything; this was a very powerful theatrical device which immediately made Chan’s performance riveting, regardless of how simple the following effects or how little he actually revealed. Chan would reference what he did as a mixture of abilities or aptitudes including psychology and training which he was devoted to – he didn’t do tricks, he did experiments. Chan was a master of staging, misdirection and psychological control. He performed ‘real magic’; he was honest, deceptive and brilliant.
I’m suggesting an even deeper commitment, not just presentation or ‘patter’ but a comprehensive understanding and identification with the real nature of magic and allowing it to inform your work. Real Magic is defined by the following four assumptions:
1) Understanding that magic is real; it is a dimension of subjective experience.
2) The performance of magic is comprised of real skills and real abilities.
3) Openness, honesty and truth are expressed and nonsense is rejected.
4) Develop language which is congruent with these assumptions.
Embracing these assumptions can inform your magic in new and interesting ways, without losing any deceptive or entertainment value. You will feel a deeper connection to the art and your place in it. If asked, most magicians would probably say that magic doesn’t exist; therefore most of what they are doing might feel like they are faking having powers to create something that isn’t real. Well, I am saying that magic does exist; it exists within the mind of the observer and you make it happen through a variety of real skills. Magic doesn’t exist by suspending the laws of physics; it exists as a dimension of experience under the guidance of a skilled practitioner.
Magic is a rational system which bends or breaks reality for observers; it creates artistic solutions to otherwise impossible problems. This doesn’t happen while fragmented across time and space – like a film – but live; it is immediate and deliberate. You can create false expectations or hallucinations through words, body language and choreography; you can influence, alter and predict how someone will think or act, you can make things appear, disappear or transform. You are able to move unseen between the gaps of someone’s awareness and invisibly alter their perception of reality. You don’t have to pretend to have ‘magic powers’, you actually have them! Embrace reality.
This is what makes magic so incredible: humans have developed a performance art which uses rational principles and real skills to create the experience of something magical, something impossible. A magician is someone who can exploit the fundamental principles of the way human beings relate to and understand the world, for artistic purposes; by using human creativity, ingenuity and skill it’s possible to deceive the most powerful ‘thinking machine’ ever created, causing it to question reality! This is profound because it is real! These real skills converge in many different ways to produce what we call magic (Fig. 1). This fact is more interesting and more beautiful than pretending to have magic powers.
By studying the Model of Magic (Fig. 1), it is possible to create multiple ‘high-level’ ways of thinking about what you are doing. By taking one word from each portion of the model you can make statements about magic which are completely true without revealing anything about methodology. For example, Magic could be described as:
• Creativity, attention and movement.
• Expression, perception and dexterity.
• Presentation, expectation and coordination.
• Showmanship, emotion and practice.
• Composition, intelligence and skill.
• Choreography, rapport and timing.
• Style, time and balance.
These combinations could also be used to describe a coin vanish or a simple card trick. I am not attempting to define what magic is or isn’t, I simply hope that looking at magic in this way will reinvigorate your perspective on the richness that runs through magic at a fundamental level; a plethora of real skills, abilities and principles that can be combined with endless variety. Taking a closer look at the ingredients of magic may recalibrate how you identify with it. Maybe this will open up possibilities for you as a performer, creating new relationships between yourself and an audience, allowing you to inject honesty and openness into your work while avoiding nonsense or pseudo-science.
Reality is what makes magic so wonderful to me. The trick is the tip of the iceberg. It’s the only bit that ever gets seen so don’t pretend it’s the only bit that exists; everything beneath the surface is far more interesting. Take pride in your work and acknowledge reality. You are manipulating experience by using the principles of deception for artistic means; you really are creating magic with real skill. This is a fact. This isn’t a package of pseudo-intellectual hokum designed to make you sound intelligent or new pseudo-poetry to spew in order to make you sound philosophical. This is magic, plain and simple. Therefore developing a better way to think, relate and talk about it, can only be a good thing.
The next time someone asks how you do what you do, tell them. Walk the line between the immersive and the ‘meta’; a way to hide in plain sight, a way to reveal a real magician performing real magic.
June 4, 2016 THE EMPTY SPACE
‘The Empty Space’ is a short essay, originally published in This is Not a Box; it is a philosophical/artistic description of the psychological experience, sometimes referred to as ‘the magic moment’. I’m currently working on an academic paper, to be presented at a conference in 2017, which describes this moment in concrete psychological terms. This is an updated version of the original essay:
THE EMPTY SPACE
Nothingness & Somethingness
The ‘magic moment’ is often described as a moment of wonder or astonishment; however, this only describes a possible reaction after the moment of magic has occurred. If this is the case, what is the moment before wonder, before astonishment? What therefore, is the magic moment? I call it ‘the empty space’; a theoretical dimension of experience.
The empty space is comprised of nothingness, devoid of any meaning or form where the spectator has no sense of time, space or self. The spectator experiences a fracture in the grounded sense of consciousness or reality and instead it is replaced by a disconnection from any sense of context or understanding. That is the magic moment: an empty space, a void in which the spectator dissolves, losing any sense of who or what they are, no thoughts, feeling or action, complete nothingness… a form of paralysis.
Nothingness inherently contains the entire universe. It is where we came from and where we are heading towards; it is the fundamental reality and therefore cannot be contaminated. This nothingness is universal and eternal; it is larger than the individual and so all consuming. Nothingness is simple, powerful and honest, without feeling or definition; it is comparable to Buddhist states of being in which to clear your mind and experience nothingness is the highest ideal, pure Zen. Magic has the ability to force this state upon a spectator for the briefest of moments.
Experiencing the empty space can only last for a few seconds at most. The loss of self and context is what can make the magic moment feel so profound. How long the moment lasts or how long a spectator exists in this state is defined by the exact nature of the relationship between performer and spectator in that particular moment. If a spectator resists before the magic moment, their reaction is largely conscious and they won’t truly enter the empty space and experience nothingness; they will remain on the outside unable to fully experience the magic moment.
Once the magic moment is over, the spectator will leave the nothingness and enter a new space of ‘somethingness’ where meaning, context and understanding begin to develop or reconstruct. It is only when exiting the void that we transform from nothing to something. It is only now that an audience begins to think, feel, wonder in an attempt to understand what has happened; it is now that the spectator may feel excitement, astonishment, amazement or wonder. The spectator may try to understand what has happened in the present by looking for evidence in the past, or they latch on to aspects of the performance to support/explain the feelings felt within the empty space. Regardless, the spectator has emerged transformed, entered into a new space with new feelings, thoughts and emotions. Experiencing nothingness within the empty space and exiting that space to find somethingness is what has transformed the spectator’s experience of reality. Therefore what we think of as magic is the movement between nothingness and somethingness, a movement from absence to substance; nothingness is the magic and somethingness is our reaction to it.
The nothingness is the unconscious, naive and raw stream of the moment, a suspension of time and space; a shared experience of intimacy and openness where no thought, action or emotion is present. The somethingness is the substance with context and meaning, the resulting feelings from engaging cognitive processes and processing the data. However excitable someone’s reaction to magic may be, it is conscious and disconnected from the moment of magic itself; the ‘reaction’ is the moment after magic, it is not the magic moment itself.
So, the art of magic is about using a set of real skills to create absence so that the spectator can create substance for themselves, to create something out of nothing. Our goal is not actually the trick but the construction of a theoretical space, an empty space which has the potential to be transformative. Leaving this space can give a spectator a glimpse of a newly created world and is the highest expression of the art, creating meaning for both spectator and performer.