In recruitment of new staff an often used golden rule often is that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour. Businesses rely on reference checks or even Google searches to find out as much as they can about their potential new staff. But, is past behaviour really a good proxy for predicting future behaviour?
A magician’s view
The silent part of the American magician’s duo Penn & Teller broke his usual silence and vow of secrecy when he explained a classical magic trick to a gathering of consciousness scholars.
Teller showed that magicians can use the propensity of the human mind to seek patterns by skilfully changing the method during the routine. Teller beautifully illustrates that in human behaviour, the past is in no way a reliable approach to predicting the future.
Predicting future behaviour in recruitment
it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour
We have to be careful when judging a person through second hand information gained from referees, Facebook searches and other forms of overt espionage. People are not billiard balls that operate in accordance with laws of physics. People have free will and can change their behaviour depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Most importantly, we can learn from our mistakes and grow as people by learning from them. Not hiring somebody who has made a mistake in the past could mean that you miss out on hiring a person with a high level of maturity and an ability to adapt. Therefore, when judging a person, keep in mind the words of Roman poet Horace: “Non sum quals eram”—I am not who I once was.
Dutch Magician Tommy Wonder provides an interesting insight into the nature of religion in Volume I of his The Books of Wonder (1996).
He gives advice to magicians on what to do when a spectator discovers—or beliefs to discover—the secret to a magic routine:
“I’ve frequently wondered why people sometimes come up with painfully silly solutions and don’t stop to realize it. If they would give the matter more thought they would quickly see that their solution couldn’t possibly work. I believe their reasoning runs something like this: The moment a spectator sees a magical effect that he [sic] doesn’t understand, he is confronted with a problem, a problem that stands square in front of him like a granite boulder … Now if the spectator contrives some solution, in a way he has enabled himself to move the problem. He can roll this boulder out of his way, so that he is no longer confronted by it. The problem seems to be solved … his mind throws a big party. He’s solved the problem!”
This observation from the every day practice of a professional magician shows an interesting psychological mechanism at work. Somebody is presented with a seemingly unsolvable problem, which creates a conflict in the mind. As soon as a solution is presented, no matter how improbable, the conflict seems to disappear. Wonder continues:
“Because his mind is dancing and celebrating its victory, it never stops to realize that it only moved the problem … it still exists in another place.”
The psychological mechanism at work is a process of cognitive dissonance. When a magician makes a ball disappear, there are two observations which seem to have no causal relationship—the ball is there and the ball is gone. It is the job of the magician to hide the actual cause—this causeless event is the magical effect. Humans are inclined to remove any tension between dissonant observations, even if this means inventing miraculous connections.
Cognitive dissonance is often used as an explanation for the emergence of religion in pre-scientific cultures. The idea being that ancient people experienced a cognitive dissonance in their experience of natural occurrences, such as the daily disappearance and re-appearance of the sun. The explanations created to relieve the tension is what we now know as religion. This is, however, only a partial explanation. Although much of religion is provides explanations for the way the world is, for those who follow it religion is also a vehicle to provide meaning to life, something that cannot be provided by science.
Does all cognitive dissonance need to be resolved? Why can we not live with the tension of not knowing—accepting that there are questions for which we do not have an answer, or for which there even might not be an answer? Tommy Wonder touches on this when he argues that magicians should aim to defuse the cognitive dissonance experienced by the spectator, creating suspension of disbelief and giving rise to a feeling that magic really exists—even if it is only for a fleeting moment, as our rational mind quickly takes over, trying to resolve the dissonance.
Magicians like to collect magic tricks, DVDs and books. Several academic libraries have also created collections on theatrical magic. View this comprehensive bibliography of scientific literature about magic.
Many magicians are avid collectors of magic tricks, DVDs, books and anything else related to their passion. Some are quite fanatical and amass thousands of volumes on the art of deception, like the Conjuring Arts Research Centre in New York shown in this video. Several such libraries exist in the world, including some academic libraries have also created collections on conjuring.
The Magic Library
Beth Kattelman from the department of theatre at Ohio State University published an article on one of these collections in Theatre Survey, published by the American Society for Theatre Research.1. Some notable academic collections of magic books and paraphernalia in Australia are the Will Alma Conjuring Collection at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne and the Robbins Stage Magic Collection, State Library of New South Wales.2 Some other academic institutions with a magic library:
Parallel to the literature about magic, written by magicians, a sub-genre of scientific writings from many fields of endeavour exists. These books and journal articles are mainly written for the colleagues of the professionals and scientists that created this work. Historians, social scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists, neuroscientists, film researchers and so on have deliberated on the role, workings and practical purpose of conjuring.
Most of this work is, however, locked behind pay walls and publishers charge exorbitant prices for a single ten-page journal article. Over the past three years, I have extensively researched this literature and created an online annotated bibliography on the science of conjuring to help unlock this vast resource.
Kattelman, Beth A. (2008) The American Museum of Magic/Lund Memorial Library and Other Resources on Magic and Conjuring. Theatre Survey (49) 2: 285-293. DOI: 10.1017/S0040557408000161↩
Awcock, F. (2004). Will Alma, master magician. The La Trobe Journal, 74, 15–24; Gallacher, L. (2006). Casting the spell: Magic in books. The La Trobe Journal, 78, 71–87. ↩
Comparing the development of abstract painting with developments in conjuring.
One of the most interesting developments in modern painting is the movement towards abstract art. Although this form art is often controversial and ridiculed by those who do not know how to appreciate it, its development is a very deliberate movement away from the confounds of naturalist painting. Abstract painting is quest to find the essence of painting, stripped bare of its relationship with reality it expresses ideas and dreams rather than things.
This is no better illustrated than by the work of Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan. He started his career by painting naturalistic and impressionistic works, such as The Red Tree from 1908, seen in the top left below. Mondriaan later became inspired by the cubist movement and painted The Gray Tree in 1911. Mondriaan later experimented further with abstracting the idea of a tree and produced Flowering Apple Tree. Later in his career he became mainly known for his compositions with strict geometrical patterns and primary colours iconic for the De Stijl movement.
The same type of evolution can also be seen in conjuring. The naturalistic painting style can be compared with the time when conjurers pretended to be real magicians. Dressed in exotic clothes, summoning spirits and uttering occult words to impress their audiences. Magic as we know it today started with Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, more often than not labelled the father of modern magic. He created the iconic figure of the gentlemen magician in evening dress, pretending to be a real magician. This modern form of magic lasted for more than a century. But now the stereotypical idea of the magician has been destroyed by post-modern conjurers such as Penn & Teller and David Blaine. They perform in ordinary clothes, no longer even pretending to be real magicians. The magician is no longer somebody pretending to be somebody else, but has become an independent archetype. Interestingly enough, some magicians went totally against this development and created the Bizarre Magic movement in which they try to relive the early days of magic. The abstraction in conjuring is, however, continuing.
Conjuring is making its next breakthrough to the complete abstraction of the magician, just like Mondriaan’s paintings are complete abstractions of what art once was. This new magic is stripped down to its bare essentials. One magician who is moving down this path is Canadian Jay Sankey. He creates magic with ordinary objects, bolts and nails, straws, key rings and anything he can get his hands on. All but gone are the playing cards, coins and sponge balls and other even stranger props. The future of magic is a simple and direct bending of reality. Just like abstract art can be confused with a child’s painting, abstract magic is deceivingly simple, but is laced with psychological subtleties to create extraordinary experiences.
Julian Assange, Editor in chief of Wikileaks, is the Masked Magician of the political world. Albeit not hidden behind behind a mask, he exposes the secrets of the diplomatic, military and political world to all who are interested.
The WikiLeaks website has created a media storm around the world. The website facilitates whistle blowers from all over the world to anonymously publish material that otherwise would never see the light of day.
Julian Assange, Editor in chief of Wikileaks, is the Masked Magician of the political world. Albeit not hidden behind behind a mask, he exposes the secrets of the diplomatic, military and political world to all who are interested.
On his motivation, the WikiLeaks website states that:
Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. … the US Supreme Court ruled that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government”.
WikiLeak’s philosophy is based on Bergson’s concept of the Open Society, later popularised by Karl Popper. In an open society, the government has no secrets and people enjoy freedom. The open society is an Enlightenment ideal where people have to make their own decisions based on the information available to them.
The idea of the open society is contrasted with the closed, authoritarian, society. Knowledge is closely guarded and people’s freedom is limited by what they are allow to know. In closed society, decisions people make is based on the collective ideal rather than individual choices.
Most traditional societies are closed and do not share knowledge as freely as in the Western world. In traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures knowledge was only passed on to those initiated in certain traditions. Aboriginal culture is traditionally secretive and knowledge is passed on along generational and gender lines.
The reason for secrecy is because knowledge is considered dangerous to those not prepared to wield it. Australian Kevin Solway has compiled a great collection of wisdom from traditional sources called Venom Crystals. The words contained therein are beautiful crystals, but they can also be a venom to the spirit to those not ready for it.
The material published by WikiLeaks can, however, in no way be called wisdom. The information preciously guarded by governments and organisations around the world is banal and barely goes beyond what can be deduced from public sources anyway. WikiLeaks does not publish venom crystals of information that need to be guarded from feeble minds. WikiLeaks defends the open society in a way that is only possible since the advent of the Internet.
Just like magicians around the world are vexed by the Masked Magician, politicians, business leaders, church officials and military are vexed by WikiLeaks. But just like the Masked Magician has not damaged magic as a performance art, the revelations of WikiLeaks will not bring down our society.
The secrets of politics, religion, war, business and magic are banal. It is only when they are exposed that we can take their keepers seriously and are able to fully appreciate what they do. The words of magician Jim Steinmeyer can be applied to magic and politics:
”… to appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques. You’ll have to learn to think like a magician” (Hiding the Elephant)
Deception and secrets are inherent to magic as a performance art. But how important are secrets really to the performance of magic?
Canadian magician Jay Sankey recently asked himself why there is such an obsession with the method of magic tricks. This obsession comes from both sides of the stage curtain. Magicians spend most of their time perfecting new ways to achieve the same old effects. Spectators are obsessed with the method because they are presented with a mystery that the magician is unwilling to explain.
Sankey is correct that almost every art form uses a kind of deception. Realistic art aims to make us believe we see something that is not there. Actors pretend to be somebody they are not, dancers hide the enormous physical strain they are under and magicians hide the real cause of the effects they create. I think that it is this focus on the method that is preventing magic from becoming an important form of performance art.
There are two reasons for this obsession: firstly, secrecy is inherent to magic because we present occurrences where the actual causal relationships are obfuscated from the spectator. This secrecy is not the case in any other form of arts where deception is used to support a story. In practical terms, the magician deceives to make something happen without physical cause while a dancer or actor deceives to tell a story or communicate an emotion.
A good example is the movie Avatar — a feast of visual deception. But because there was a story (albeit a one-dimension one), attention was moved away from the method. And the most interesting part is that movie makers even expose their methods on the obligatory “making of …” DVD so that everybody who is interested can find out how they were deceived in believing in a three-dimensional world.
Jim Steinmeyer writes in Hiding the Elephant that one can only truly understand the art of magic if you understand the magician’s secrets:
To appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques. You’ll have to learn to think like a magician.
This idea has recently been confirmed through scientific enquiry. A group of people were subjected to an fMRI brain scan while watching a video of a magic trick. The research showed that looking at a trick triggers specific parts of the brain- the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) — that are associated with the detection of conflict and cognitive control. This finding means that people watching magic tricks are placed in a position where they will focus on method because as their brain seeks cognitive control.
The cognitive control prevents spectators from truly experiencing magic as a form of art — suspension of disbelief is made impossible. Most people are well educated and do not believe in real magic, leaving little room for actual suspension of disbelief. There is also a social contract between conjurers and their spectators that although an admission of deception is made, the method will not be revealed.
Deception in the Arts
One form of magic where this is still possible is mentalism. The main reason for this is that the science of the brain is not as advanced as the science of physical objects and thus, following Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction, there is still a lot of room for people to believe in magic. Clarke’s law states that:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Because technology about how or mind works is still in its infancy, many people are prepared to believe that Uri Geller can bend metal with his mind and John Edward can communicate with deceased people. Some people believe so firmly in paranormal powers that some proclaim that English mentalist Derren Brown possesses supernatural powers, even though he clearly admits being a magician. These people believe that Brown wishes to keep his special powers a secret!
This week the controversial television show Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed is aired on Australian television. Too many magicians, this seems like the end of the world. Their cherished secrets are being squandered for the sake of ratings. I agree with them that these shows are not of high quality, but not because of their content.
Exposure in magic is a double edge sword. It would, of course, be self-defeating to explain tricks while performing magic, just as it would be very annoying to have the special effects in a movie explained to yo while watching the story. In the early days of filmmaking, exposure of the secret techniques to create special effects was very controversial. This knowledge is nowadays freely available, and people still watch movies!
In some way, exposure can be good for magic. The only people I ever here speaking of magic as a form of art are magicians themselves. They do so because magicians know what it takes to do good magic. Magicians do not focus on the secret but on presentation. They can switch off their cognitive control as they know the methods. This knowledge gives yo a freedom to enjoy magic at a whole different level. And lastly, the fact that magicians can quite easily be deceived supports this view.
Performing magic touches at the the core of how we perceive the world. Spectators experience cognitive dissonance when watching a magic trick.
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.
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.
Using Alvo Stockman’s Magic Modelling Language to analyse the dynamics of magic 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.
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.
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.
Magicians have a love-hate relationship with special camera tricks. Not many people realise that special effects were invented by magicians.
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.
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.
21 Card Trick
A lifelong passion
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.
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.
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 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 wonders I experienced when watching Raymond Crow, here is a Youtube video of his hand shadows.