Pagan University – The Ritual of Graduation

Graduation is a pagan ritualYesterday I took part in a pagan ritual. No, I did not dance naked around a camp fire or undertake an invocation of ancient gods. The heathen ritual I took part in was a contemporary university graduation to receive my MBA degree.

The pomp and circumstance of the academic dress and procession seem to be innocent reminders of ancient traditions to add gravitas to the moment of graduation. The ritualistic aspects of the ceremony and the continuous doffing of the at the chancellor are, however, all part of an elaborate pagan ceremony.

One particular moment, the conferring of the degree, can only be described as magical. Not magic in the sense that the ceremony has an ethereal atmosphere, but magic in the literal sense of the word. The conferring of the degree is in its very essence a mystical moment.

All graduands were standing and the Chancellor conferred the degree upon us. Even though she did not use any incantations nor did she invoke any occult forces, the conferring of the degrees is a moment of magic. It is only from that point forward that I could by right call myself a Master in Business Administration. Even those who decided not to attend the ceremony did not escape the magic powers of the Chancellor, as also they had their degrees conferred upon them by the power invested in her.

It seems rather strange that a rational organisation such as a university uses archaic and irrational practices to finalise several years of intense rational work. Although the purpose of academic education is to hone rational thinking skills, the process is concluded in an irrational moment.

Although it might not be sensed by contemporary graduands as being just that, there is no significant difference between the conferring of the degree and the activities of a witch doctor or priest bestowing a blessing.

Given the fact that the vast majority of graduands chose to attend the ceremony, rather than being provided with their degree  through the mail, shows that no matter how rational we think we are, we all require a magical and non-rational moments.

How the Seven Deadly Sins Progress Civilisation

The Seven Deadly Sins are the engine of society.

In his book, Sex, Bombs & Burgers, Peter Nowak describes how the world as we know it is shaped by the three primal forces of lust, aggression and gluttony. This is not a new notion, as more than 2500 years ago, Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote:

War is father of all things  (Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι)

Nowak takes the old saying from the ancient one a step further and adds lust and gluttony as major drivers for technological advancement. He argues that if it wasn’t for sex, bombs and burgers, what he calls the ‘Shameful Trinity’, we might all still be living in caves. From cars to high-definition televisions, from website logins to microwave popcorn, the origins of all technological advancement can be traced to sinful behaviour.

This books shows that progress is not driven by rational drives for progress itself, but that we are driven by our emotions. We can take dig a little deeper into Nowak’s Shameful Trinity and uncover what since early Christian times has been called the Seven Deadly Sins. Although Christian theology tries to eradicate these seven aspects of humanity from our lives, they are actually what drives us to be who we are. In The Divine Comedy, Dante describes the seven sins as:

Gula (gluttony)

Food is our primary need and has for millennia been the source of many innovations. Our stone age ancestors invented farming and started the neolithical revolution. An in our current times, high tech genetic technology is used to ensure people’s survival and high profits for food companies. The other innovation that food technology has introduced to contemporary society is the strict implementation of scientific management, following in the footsteps of Frederick Taylor. In fast food outlets every second counts and companies such as McDonalds have pioneered many management techniques that shave of those extra few seconds to deliver their fast ‘food’ even faster.

Luxuria (extravagance)

The original list of sins included fornication. But in AD 590 the pope of the time replaced it with extravagance. Lust, or porneia (Πορνεία) in ancient Greek, drives much of our culture. The pornography industry has played a major role in the proliferation of many technologies. Not as the progenitor, but as an early adopter and influence of the market. In the 1980s, when the Betamax and VHS video formats were battling it out for supremacy, the pornography industry played a big role in making VHS the most popular format. A similar ‘battle’ is currently being waged over which of the two blue-laser DVD formats — Blu-ray Disc or HD-DVD — will replace DVDs for high-definition content.

Avaritia (greed)

Unrestrained accumulation of wealth is the basic premise of capitalist philosophy. The idea of unbridled economic growth logically requires an unrestrained desire to buy stuff. Adam Smith postulated an invisible hand. This principle is what allocates resources in society through the conjunction of self-interest, competition and supply & demand. That this invisible hand can not fully self regulate has become apparent in the Global Financial Crisis, which was caused by greed in an unregulated financial system.

Acedia (sloth)

Sloth is a major driver in our quest for technology. Palaeolithic people decided it would be much better to stay in one place rather than moving around all the time so they invented farming. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier — from reclining chairs to snowmobiles, technology allows us to be extremely lazy.

Ira (wrath)

Wrath is the justification for many wars. The first World War started because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the current Middle Eastern wars are caused by the wrath incurred because of the terrorist attacks in 2001. The causes of war are, however, mostly more complicated. Long term motives such as colonial expansion in the first and the thirst for oil in the second examples,are possibly the real causes.

Invidia (envy)

The state of envy can be an amazing motivator to improve your own existence. Envying your bosses’ position might drive somebody to perform better and undertake further studies to improve the chances of a promotion. Envy can of course also result in destructive behaviour and is one of the causes of war. Germany envied the allies because of the wealth accumulated through their colonies and thought it would be a good idea to start a war.

Superbia (pride)

Last but not least, pride is one of the great drivers in the fashion industry. Sociologist Goffman agreed with Shakespeare that all the world is but a stage. Goffman described the world as one large play in which we are all actors. As such we need props to communicate our identity to the outside world. In an society where the old anchors have been cut everybody has to seek their own identity and shopping provides the perfect replacement for tradition and religion. We buy certain brands, nit because they are necessarily better than another brand, but because we identify with it. It is the pride in ourselves that is one of the major drivers in our shopping behaviour.

Beyond good and evil

You might think that I have a negative view of humanity by claiming that our lives are driven by what are commonly considered sins.

But this post is not about what is good or bad, it is merely stating the sociological facts of the human condition. The facts are that not our quest for world peace or the admirable aim to make poverty history are the real drivers of progress. It is those behaviours and states of mind that some seek out to eradicate from humanity that makes us human.

This illustrates that the world is much more complex than simple religious philosophy could ever encapsulate.

The boundaries between good and bad are often faded and we need to seek beyond good and evil to find philosophical truth.

Chien Andalusia: What do the Lyrics of the Pixies mean?

The music of The Pixies was part of the soundtrack of my student years. Experiencing their sound for the first time live in 1989 at the Pinkpop concert opened a whole new planet of sound to me. I vividly remember standing in front of Joey Santiago as  he was playing Vamos. Cool as a cucumber, he produced the most bizarre sounds I had ever heard come from a guitar.

After the festival I immediately bought their Doolittle and Surfer Rosa CDs and immersed myself into the absurdist musical art of The Pixies. Being only 19 years old I attempted to seek meaning in their lyrics, such as Debaser:

Got me a movie
I want you to know
Slicing up eyeballs
I want you to know
Girlie so groovy
I want you to know
Don’t know about you
But I am Un Chien Andalusia

Listening to some of their Doolittle tracks such as Debaser placed a lot of questions into the mind of a 19 year old.  What do these words mean? Does Frank Black possess some profound knowledge he wants to share only with those whoc can decipher his songs?

Little did I knew that their inspiration came  directly from the 1929 film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. This surrealist work of cinematographic art is a disjointed jumble of weird and disturbing images. It is all too human human to seek meaning in everything we perceive. The makers of Un Chien Andalus were, however, quite clear on their that there was absolutely no meaning attached to the images:

No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted … Nothing, in the film, symbolises anything. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.

Absurdist art shows us that there might not be any meaning and that things are just the way they are. Psychoanalysis is, by the way, the ultimate attempt to seek meaning where there is none. Absurdism highlights the meaninglesness that is in our lives and provides a point of reflection on sobering fact. It has taken me two decades of studying philosophy to understand this! Our minds are information processing machines that try to put everything we perceive into some kind of order. In most cases, however, things are just the way they are. And so is the music of The Pixies.

Their songs are symphonic eruptions that sound like a psychotic version of Abba.  Joey’s snaring guitar and Black Francis’ frantic screams are counterpointed by the tight rhythms  for David Lovering and sweet sounds of Kim Deal’s voice. The music from The Pixies can only be enjoyed head on; not interpreted and analysed, but experienced.

The Pixies in Melbourne, March 2010 (Flickr, dai pontybodkin).Last week I was fortunate to experience a live Pixies concert once again, this time in Festival Hall in Melbourne. Although the music was played somewhat mechanically, it was a great concert. Although I think I am getting too old too immerse myself in the mosh pit—I have been limping for the past three days—the best way to experience any  rock music is through lots of sweat.

At one stage I was standing back, as I was gasping for breath, and was hit in the face by the  sheer beauty of their compositions. Reflecting back on my 1989 Pinkpop experience, it dawned on me that The Pixies propelled me on a musical journey which  showed me how to experience music in a different way. After discovering the The Pixies, I am no longer afraid of music!

The journey took me from the likes of Einstürzende Neubauten and Karl Heinz Stockhausen to composers such as Phillip Glass, John Adams and Béla Bartók. The Pixes bridged the eighties and the nineties from a Rock & Roll perspective by creating the foundation for what would become known as grunge. Most importantly, their music also bridges a gap between popular music and contemporary art music as their complex compositions are timeless pieces of rock & roll.

Un chien andalouUn Chien nnn

Are you sure? Cognitive dissonance in magic tricks

Performing magic touches at the core of how we see the world. The fact that magic is possible, the fact that our brains can be deceived so easily proves that reality is not necessarily what we perceive it to be. Alvo Stockman expressed this fundamental fact on his video blog recently:

Being sure is at the core of being human and it is at the heart of what magic relies on … People need to mentally commit to something before it is destroyed.

Here he eloquently surmises the essence of magic. The magician creates a situation of which the spectator is sure that it is true. Although the fact that the observer knows that he or she is watching a magician will create some suspicion; but, because they don’t know what will happen next it is almost impossible not to believe what they see, as there is no hint available to what is going on. The technique, but more importantly the presentation, of the magician make the spectator’s mind “mentally commit” to the state of affair as presented by the magician.

In this video, you can see me performing the Ninja Rings in the local suq (street bazaar) in Luxor, Egypt. Although the routine keeps repeating the same effect, the technique is so deceptive that there is no way the spectator can think anything else but to assent to the state of affairs as presented by me, i.e., the rings penetrate each other.

The spectators will search for solutions in their mind, and when handing the rings out for inspection, they find out that their perceptions were wrong. One particular spectator in this video gets a bit too enthusiastic, nearly destroying the actual weld that holds the rings together. He is very committed to obtaining certainty rather than believing what I cause him to see. Alvo continues in more general terms:

Every day our brain makes decisions about what we see in probabilistic terms. The more information we have, the more certain we are about the world.

Cognitive Dissonance

In magic, we create the opposite situation. The magician presents a reality that does not conform with reality as the spectator is used to see. This difference creates cognitive dissonance in the spectator’s mind—a gap between the state of mind of the spectator and what they see. In good magic, an experience is created in which the spectator becomes more and more or less confident about what they see until a point has been reached where no rational explanation is immediately available and a state of astonishment.

Proud to be a Neanderthal

1992 PortraitHomo Sapiens is currently the dominant human species on earth. This was, however, not always the case. For 200,000 years our closest cousins, the Neanderthal, dominated Europe.

Back in 1993 I backpacked around China and visited the historical city of Xian. I shared a dorm with an Australian who introduced herself as being an archaeologist. We needed to get some passport photographs and when she saw mine exclaimed:

Neanderthal!

You might think I was insulted, but in fact I am proud to be associated with the earliest Europeans. For most people, when we say Neanderthal we think about brutish creatures, somewhere between apes and humans; dragging their wives by the hair into their cave and beating other males with a club,

Anthropologist John Hawks believes that we should give them a bit more credit. Neanderthal humans were not as primitive as the popular image might suggest. They had the same brain size as us, but smaller bodies. Archaeological evidence points towards a sophisticated culture. Manganese oxide rocks with artificial wear and tear found in caves in Europe point towards art, as this material can be used as a pigment. Also, Neanderthal stone tools were no less advanced then the tools made by the Homo Sapiens. This shows that our evolutionary cousins were not primitive sub-humans, but capable of abstract thought.

Erik Trinkaus argues that early European humans exhibit morphological aspects that are distinctive Neanderthal traits. There are also some indications in genetic material found in the archaeological record. Some scientists have posited a hyberdisation of early Homo Sapiens with Neanderthal. The interbreeding between these two species of man could have accelerated evolution as diversity is the engine of natural selection. Scientists of have even suggested that the ability to use language was passed on from Neanderthal to modern Homo Sapiens. Based on this scientific evidence, I can say that:

I am proud to be a Neanderthal.

The Praise of Folly: Philosophical View of Limburg Carnival

Today is Ash Wednesday and in many places around the world, including my home town of Hoensbroek, this marks the end of the annual carnival. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday was the start of the lent and carnival were the last three joyful days before the sombre time of fasting until Easter.

The annual carnival is an important part of the annual calender in the southern parts of the Netherlands and has played an important part in the first thirty years of my life. When I was a boy I was dragged by my parents to many carnival parades and parties. When I was in my second year of university I even had the honour of being known as Prince Peter I of the Klotsköp in Hoensbroek. My last carnival experience was when I visited a party of the Limburger Kangaroos in Melbourne Australia.

Prince Peter I and the Council of Eleven of the Klotsköp (1989-1990).

Prince Peter I and the Council of Eleven of the Klotsköp (1989-1990).

Having been away from my home town for ten years now I have obtained some distance from these traditions to be able to place them in some philosophical context. Although it might seem at first sight that carnival is about eating, drinking and fornicating as much as possible, in this article I will argue that carnival plays an important part in contemporary post-modern culture, specially with the disappearance of its religious significance as a preparation to the fasting.1

The essence of the carnival is a praise of folly and it are three days of the year when the normal world is turned upside down. Power over the city or town is symbolically handed over to the prince of the carnival and his Council of Eleven. The council and the prince are cultural mediators of the festivities, creating a connection between the everyday world of the sane and the world of the insane. The Council of Eleven is steeped in symbolism. Their bicorne hats are inspired on the hats worn by jesters and symbolise the foolishness that is central to carnival. Their formal suits are a reminder of the worldly connection of the council who are thus mediating between the two worlds. Every member of the council and the prince wear a chain that symbolises their unity. The regalia of the prince, his sceptre, feathers and other distinguishing features, are an expression of his symbolic power of the three days of folly. The council and the prince are the cultural mediators of the carnival, as it is their task to organise the carnival and bring folly to the otherwise so serious world.

Limburger Carnaval parade in Hoensbroek 2010 (Photo: Evelien Prevos).

Carnaval parade in Hoensbroek 2010 (Photo: Evelien Prevos).

The most recognisable aspect of carnival in most cultures around the world are the costumes worn by the revellers. They replace their identity in real life for a temporary identity, usually signifying a connection with the bizarre world of insane. The costume is a ‘mask’ behind which one can hide their normal identity so that carnival can be celebrated without shame. Although revellers hide their personal identity behind the ‘mask’, it is in fact an expression of their individuality. People take great care choosing their temporary identity and some express themselves in very individual creations.

The temporary loss of personal identity is an expression of a longing to a pre-modern time. Celebrations have a strong collectivist character – to properly celebrate carnival requires a critical mass of people. This is why my most recent experience with carnival in Mebourne was not very satisfying, compared to my home where regular life stands still for several days.

This shows a paradox in carnival. One the one hand we celebrate our individuality through costumes and on the other hand we seek for collectivist experiences. In contemporary society, personal identity is a product of individual development. We can, to a certain extent, choose our identity. This is, however, a fairly recent development. Our identities used to be determined by tradition and heritage. Although we can never fully relinquish our tradition and heritage, we now have great freedom in defining ourselves.

During carnival the idea of a fixed identity is implicitly criticised and our post-modern concept of individually created identities taken to the extreme with the ‘mask’ as a symbol of the fluidity of our identity.

During the the three days of carnival, many towns organise strange activities that are totally deprived of meaning. One such example is the annual Kowrenne (running of the cows) in Hoensbroek. This is a game whereby people run underneath home made models of cows. There is no reason for this activity, nor does it contain any symbolism to something outside the activity itself. These activities are an expression of the collective identity of the people that organise them and therefore have a very strong local character.

Carnival is an expression of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, the playing man, providing resistance against the individualist aspects of contemporary life by organising a collective experience. The absurdity of carnival is an ode to absurdity, with the fools as the central symbol, mediated by the Council of Eleven. In carnival, people refer back to a time when, as Michel Foucault argues, when sanity and insanity where not opposites, but were complimentary. The absurdity of life is, according to Albert Camus, located in the confrontation between the irrationality of reality and our longing for clarity. In carnival, this confrontation is resolved by giving priority to the irrational. Carnival is thus a purification ritual as a catharsis for the pressures of contemporary life. Even though carnival has, in most regions, lost its connection with religion, it plays an important function in contemporary society.

Expressions of absurdity are not limited to places where carnival is formally celebrated. Many sports events, dance parties and pop festivals show similar aspects. This shows that, as Barbara Ehrenreich beautifully outlined in her book Collective Joy, that we have a deep need for ritualistic moments where we can express the absurdity of life and relieve our selves from having to create our own identity. Carnival shows that we should not take life to seriously and that reason and insanity are not mutually exclusive extremes, but aspects we need to fully embrace in order to be fully human.

Drawings by René Feijten.

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  1. This is an abridged translation of a Dutch essay written for the eZine Cultuurwetenschappen

Magic Blueprinting: Using MML for scripting routines

The history of magic and the history of language go hand in hand. Language started with verbal communication, supported by dance, painting and rituals. Ancient shamans passed their craft on to the next generation in this very same way, initiating their apprentices step by step through one-on-one instruction via words, dance, painting and ritual.

Writing as we know it first developed about 6,000 years ago in present day Iraq. From then on, people wrote about every aspect of their lives, including magic. But, no writing about how to perform magic has ever been found in ancient documents. It seems that the pact of secrecy between magicians prevented them from committing their knowledge in permanent form. It is interesting to note in this respect that magicians have always been at the forefront of technology when it comes to creating the illusion of magic. When it comes to explaining secrets, however, magicians are a lot more conservative. The first magic book was published more than five millennia after the invention of writing! Since then, writing has been used prolifically by magicians to teach each other about their secrets and  initiate new magicians.

The twentieth century brought new technologies and with new means of communication came new ways of teaching magic. In a span of only a few decades, magicians moved from books to video and now to DVD and on-line technologies to share their secret knowledge. This proliferation of technology in magic teaching has made it much easier to pass on knowledge, but also raises problems for the craft, as there is a fine line between teaching magic and blatant exposure of magic secrets.

Magic Blueprinting

The evolution of language is still ongoing and as our world becomes more complicated, people seek new ways to present knowledge beyond verbal communication and text. One of the most popular tools to communicate a series of actions over a period of time is ‘flowcharting’, a technique that was first used in 1921. This time, however, it took magicians only 87 years to adopt this new form of knowledge presentation, when Alvo Stockman developed the Magic Modelling Language, magic blueprinting.

Magic Blueprinting (MML). Click to enlarge.

Magic Blueprinting (MML). Click to enlarge.

Presenting a series of activities in a graphical way is used in many different disciplines and is known under many names. Some call it a flowchart, others an activity map or a process map, while marketers prefer the term service blueprinting. I use these maps in my non-magical professional work to outline processes and illustrate where improvements can be made. Some of the questions that can be asked when looking at a process map are: Are there too many steps? Are all steps necessary to reach the end goal? Is the right person taking this step? Where can this process go wrong? These are also relevant questions for a performer when developing a magical routine.

After reading Alvo’s pamphlet I immediately developed flowcharts for some of my favourite magic routines, such as A Card in Hand by Theodore Annemann (Annemann’s Card Magic, 1977). The magic blueprint for this routine does not strictly follow the specifications of MML 1.0. Firstly, the flow of the action is illustrated with lines between boxes, rather than the grid like appearance of MML, making it easier to follow the flow of action. Secondly, to distinguish between the actions of the performer and the spectator, so called ‘swimlines’ are used. These are the vertical lines across the diagram. Thirdly, the actions of the performer are separated in frontstage and backstage. Frontstage is that which the spectator is supposed to see, while backstage refers to any action, the ‘moves’ spectators are not supposed to see. Last, but not least, a fourth swimline is used for the monologue, forming a comprehensive blueprint of a magic routine.

The map shows that there are six steps in this routine from the frontstage magician point of view, while there are five steps where the spectator gets involved. The routine has one climax, which happens in the spectator’s hand. Last but not least, there are three backstage moments that require attention management.

The front-stage actions of the performer are what the spectator is supposed to see. In this particular routine, the performer needs six steps, including an introduction, to reach the end. A Climax Quotient of 1/6 seems very low, but the scripting and high involvement of the spectator help to increase tension towards the end. Other routines, such as the Chinese Linking Rings, have a very high Climax Quotient, as many magical effects happen in quick succession, but it is very hard in these type of routines to build up tension and they thus rely on rhythm, rather than scripting.

The spectator swim-line shows that he or she is heavily involved in the routine with an Interactivity factor of five. This routine is almost in perfect balance in that out of a total of eleven front stage actions, the spectator undertakes five, giving an Interactivity Ratio of 11/5 (45%).

The script has been added to the actual process map to show the relationship between words and actions. The words are like the audio track to the actions and serve a threefold purpose. The words are explanatory and support the actions. The words also aid in managing the spectator’s attention away from the backstage actions. Most importantly, the words build tension towards the unveiling of the card. I have borrowed this technique from Fred Kaps’ rendition of Homing Card, where with every failure the inner conflict of the performer becomes more intense, moving from surprise to confusion to embarrassment.

This routine has three backstage moments, which need to be kept outside the attention of the spectator. Using a magic blueprint helps to construct a routine to appropriately direct the spectator’s attention away from the backstage. In this example, the scripting is constructed in order to manage the spectator’s attention away from the backstage action.

Not every little movement is captured in this map. For example, as I say the words: “… use the top card”, I gesture with the top card to direct the spectator’s attention. This action does, however not show on the blueprint because it is a detail the spectator is not aware of. Small backstage actions are indicated in the script between straight brackets. This raised the question what the appropriate level of granularity in magic blueprints is.

As Dai Vernon once said, a routine needs to be simple and a spectator has to be able to remember the steps. Following this advice, looking at A Card in Hand from the spectator’s perspective, can be summarised as such:

I selected a card, it was mixed back in the deck, the magician gave me another card and it turned into the one I chose.

This sentence describes five of the eleven steps indicated on the blueprint. The granularity of the map, i.e. the size of the steps, needs to match the spectator’s experience of the routine. There might be more steps, but people usually forget the details of what happened in a magic routine. There is no need to have a box for each change of finger position, because the spectator will not be aware of such detail. When developing a magic blueprint, always keep the spectator’s perspective in mind.

I use process maps almost daily in my non magical professional work because they are a great way to display and analyse a process. For some reason, however, it never occurred to me to use this technique for scripting magic routines, until I stumbled across Alvo’s pamphlet on the Magic Modelling Language.

Magic blueprinting, as I prefer to call it, is a useful technique to work out the details of a routine. The maps help to visualise the logistics of the routine and can assist in designing the appropriate theatrical devices required to keep the backstage hidden from the spectators. Magic blueprints also help to see a routine from the spectator’s perspective, which really is the only perspective that matters.

The Magic of Special Effects

Just got back from watching Avatar and was blown away by the special effects. Watching it in 3D really transports you into another world; unfortunately the storyline was only one dimensional. Some aspects of the movie are truly magical in the sense that disbelief is totally suspended. Cinematographic technology has developed rapidly the past decades and they seem to be able to create almost any conceivable reality.

Magicians have much in common with cinema in that both aim to suspend the disbelief of the spectator and create an alternative reality. The objective of any magic performance is, or should be, to create a temporary reality where magic is possible. I am sure that nobody truly beliefs that the performer has magical powers and that subterfuge and deceit are used to create the illusion of magic. Many techniques are available, including advanced technology. Magicians have, however, a strange love-hate relationship with camera tricks.

At the start of almost every magic show on television, the producers emphasise that the magic is created without the use of camera tricks. They feel a need to convince the audience that the direct actions of the magician  are the cause of the magic, not through buttons pushed by a backstage technician. As a theatrical art, magic relies on the knowledge that it requires a lot of skill and any implication that technology is involved thus reduces the perceived skill of the magician. Using camera tricks is seen as the ‘easy way out’ and is not highly regarded by magicians.

This taboo is surprising, as magicians have always used the latest available technology to create magic. The father of modern magic, Robert Houdin, often used electricity and electromagnetism. This played very well for nineteenth century audiences, but contemporary viewers would not consider these effects very magical. We all know about electricity and use appliances that to the average nineteenth century visitor would seem truly magical. Science fiction writer, inventor and futurist Arthur C. Clarke created a link between technology and magic in his famous Third Law (Profiles of The Future, 1961):

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Cinema is an example of magical technology. Watching the silver screen it seems as if a moving image is projected in front of us, but our mind is actually being deceived as there are 24 still images each second flickering in front of our eyes. Cinema is actually a double illusion because any film of sufficient quality will cause us to suspend our disbelief and be transported to another world.

Magicians recognised the potential of cinema very early after its invention. The Théâtre Robert Houdin in Paris was one of the first places in Paris where motion pictures were shown and French Magician Georges Méliès was a pioneer in cinema. In the early days of this new medium, two types of magic films were popular. Films of tricks show conjurers performing sleight of hand and just like the television shows of recent decades they did not use camera tricks and relied of the manual dexterity of the performer. Trick films on the other hand employ cinematic techniques to create magical effects. To the audiences of early cinema, who were not aware of the technical possibilities, there was no real distinction between these two types of films.  Méliès is well known for his trick films, such as  Les Cartes Vivantes from 1905 and has become famous for his Journey to the Moon, one of the first special effects feature films.

To the magicians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the techniques of trick photography were just as secret as other magical methods. Méliès abhorred the exposure of his secrets in scientific journals of the day. To his audiences, he was creating real magic and his

Contemporary audiences are all very well aware of the methods used by film makers and do not regard Les Cartes Vivantes in the same way as Méliès’ original viewers. Méliès has most certainly lost his battle against exposure of cinematographic secrets. Most DVDs contain features that explain how the special effects were created. You might think that magicians would never contemplate exposing their own methods to the general public, but a quick visit to any of the many online magic shops will show that any secret is for sale.

The fact that people are mystified by movies, even though everybody pretty much knows, or is able to know, the methods demonstrates that exposure of magic methods is inconsequential. Only when magic is performed as a challenge or a puzzle will the audience think more about the method than the effect. Magic, just as cinema, is a story telling art where slight of hand and other techniques are used to show the spectator a world where magic is possible.

A wonderful illustration of the close relationship between magic and cinematographic technology has been created by Swiss magician Marco Tempest. His mystical amalgam of sleight of hand magic and special effects is a masterpiece in the art of magic.

Adelaide Magic Convention

Cards from mouth

Fun with cards.

The two and a half day gathering of magicians and magic enthusiasts at the Adelaide Magic Convention started with a Close-Up show. It quickly became clear that this would be a weekend of card tricks, more card tricks and even some more card tricks.

Magicians have a love-hate relationship with cards; well I have anyway. There are often complaints about the amount of card tricks during conventions and magic meetings, but everybody always gravitates back to them. Playing cards are the piano in the orchestra of magical props. A deck of cards is a piano with 52 keys that can be used to achieve every single effect in the arsenal of the modern conjurer. No other prop is so versatile. However, a lot of card magic is pretty boring because the performer forgets to place the props and the adventures they have into any context. Never ask a magician how magic is performed, but make sure to ask why those four aces keep assembling.

The day ended early because the lecture by Laurie Kelly lecture was cancelled and I decided to have an early night in preparation of the big day on Saturday. The day began with the close-up competition. My personal favourite was Simon Taylor’s session. He was able to place his material in a suitable context, creating interest and also showing some good skill. The main reason I like his work is because we share an interest into adding an intellectual perspective to magic without losing sight of the entertainment aspect.

The first lecture for the day was by American Geoff Williams. I was delighted by his presentation and am working on incorporating some of his ideas in my close-up work. He is, as he puts it himself, no great inventor of magic but works on improvements of known routines. I like his offbeat style, calling a trick I Hate David Copperfield, is a great way to attract attention to what is basically a reworked classic that performed many years ago. Unfortunately, however, he was not able to delight at his performance in the Gala Show later that night.

In the afternoon there were six performers battling it out in the stage competition. Joel Howlett presented his wholesome manipulation act. He ignores the trend towards Derren Brown, David Blaine and Chris Angel type material and follows in the footsteps of Cardini and Fred Kaps. Magicians appreciate this type of material because they respect the amount of skill involved. Almost every magician has at some stage practised front- and back-palming cards, but not many (including myself) have the guts to perform this type of material because it is so hard.

Magicians work extremely hard to hide half of their performance from the audience. Some of the most demanding actions take place while the attention of the spectator is diverted away from the action. However, some really good magic can be performed that barely requires any complicated sleight of hand. One of my favourite card routines I perform at the moment is a souped-up version of the 21-Card Trick. This classic is the first card trick that many people learn and magicians usually loathe as not being deceptive enough. But, the amended version I use requires almost no sleight of hand and get greats reactions when I perform it. Why spend time learning  second dealing, Faro shuffles and other complicated stuff when people can be amazed by the simplest tricks, using nothing but a good script.

I also met an anthropology student with an interest in theatrical magic. We discussed the possibility of writing an ethnology of magic world. To an outsider, a meeting of magicians sounds like a very strange thing indeed. Magicians have their own rituals (initiations and the broken wand ceremony springs to mind) and their own rules of behaviour, specially regarding secrecy.

Second lecture for the day was by English children’s entertainer Terry Herbert. He first showed his well known children’s act, for which a small group of kids was invited. After his performance he talked about his ideas on entertaining children. It was great to hear somebody with decades of experience talk.

I bought his DVD on performing magic for children under five. It is quite difficult to do this because to a child under the age of five everything is magic. Their minds have not yet been conditioned to know that certain things are impossible. A simple game of peekaboo is a magical event for a baby. Most illusions created by magicians are cognitive illusions, i.e. the brain gets tricked into assigning wrong causal relationships to what the eye perceives. But, the brain needs to be trained first to understand what normal causal relationships are and that takes a few years.

Magic without tricks

Magic without tricks

Day two ended with a Gala Dinner with performances from four magicians. The two highlights of the Gala Dinner were a Belgian contact juggler who creates visual magic with with perspex balls and Raymond Crow’s famous hand shadows show. It became apparent to me that both in performances magic is created without using deception. This is interesting to note because as I wrote above, magicians hide most of the effort that is required to create illusions, while in these two cases, all the effort is shown in full view.

Geoff Williams spoke in his lecture about the fact that magicians are basically liars. Ricky Jay was recently interviewed about lying and mentions Jerry Andrus, a magician who never lied in his performances. When he said: “I will place this card in the middle of the deck” than this was always a true statement. In almost all magic, lying is a regular occurrence. But when creating magic without deception there is no need to lie and no need to hide most of the work required to create the magic.

The last day started with a church service. This is the first convention I have attended where a Church Service was on offer on Sunday morning. None of the attendants I spoke to took up the offer so I wonder how many people attended. Those who have read more of my blog know my a-religious stance. But come to think of it, there are very close links to magic and religion and anthropologists still have a hard time distinguishing one from he other. Magic and religion share the same origins – nevertheless I gave the church service a miss.

Magic without tricks

Magic without tricks

My last session for this convention was the Paul O’Neill lecture about the marketing of magic. When he started to explain in detail how to create a website, I left the room and made my way to the airport to catch our flight back to Melbourne.

In an earlier Facebook/Twitter post I wrote that the convention was not so inspiring. Well, maybe not from a magical technical point of view, but I guess the above post shows that magic never fails to inspire. To share some of the wonder I experienced when watching Raymond Crow, here is a Youtube video of his hand shadows.