In February of 2019, I began performing and recording a new card routine. Following from Part 1 and Part 2, this entry outlines its rationale. As with Part 2, I will approach the structure of the routine through (some of) the questions for devising performances proposed by Peter Samelson.
- Why am I doing this?
- Why should anyone want to watch this?
If there is a reason to do magic (fooling people is not a reason, just a technique) then what is it? What does someone have to gain from watching me perform?
Yes, why do this? For many, answers to this question might revolve around monetary reward, the joy of bringing wonder to others, or the feelings of prestige that comes from being a performer. The first is not relevant in my case, the second is an aspiration I hope to realize but also realize is sometimes just a hope, and the third is something I am far too modest to admit enjoying. Instead I want to bring out another aim.
The more I go down this path, the more I appreciate my interests lie in using magic as a way to appreciate interactions – what we as humans do when we get together and how we do it. Magic, in short, is being orientated to as a method; and in particular a method for understanding ourselves and others. A central question I have pursued along these lines has been ‘How do performers and their audiences come together to do magic?’. The question I want to arise from of our time together is not the common one to displays of conjuring of ‘How did he do that?’, but instead the self and group referential one of ‘How did we do that?’.
Why should anyone want to partake in this sort of coming together? (I prefer this formulation to Samelson’s original question because it brings front and center how audience members are significant participants in what unfolds). In this round of my performances my aspiration was that the experiences in these sessions – while maybe (maybe) being entertaining – would also enable participants to reflect on social life and its interactions in order to think about how they could be re-imagined. I have worked toward this aspiration through the ‘What?’ and the ‘How?’ of the sessions…
What is this piece about?
First, some prefatory comments. The composition of this routine was an outgrowth of the previous ones. Through my performances I have sought to undertake cycles of action, reflection and revision. Towards this end, in the third routine I put back to participants my emerging appreciations, uncertainties, and questions as a way of advancing our mutual appreciations of magic.
But the composition of this routine was also a product of my growing familiarity with magic more generally. Since the original inspiration for this line of research in 2002, I have avoided watching magicians, illusionists, and the like in order to approach my learning with a certain freshness. In January 2019, however, I had the good fortune to attend my first convention at The Session. It was a wonderful experience of witnessing varied styles and traditions. Watching performances and then being shown (more or less) their mechanisms also drove home a point I had heard many times but became crystal clear for me: the effects and emotional affects of tricks are not determined by their technical sophistication. Individuals such as Dani DaOrtiz demonstrated how relatively simple ‘self-working tricks’ can be the basis for exciting and intellectually stimulating performances. For a beginner like me coming into this craft in my, say uhumm, ‘middle years’ this was a comforting reassurance. My attendance also encouraged me to incorporate a fair number of ‘self-working tricks’ into the third routine. Up to that point in time I operated under the assumption that it was imperative to ramp up the technical complexity of what was on show over time.
As noted above, through this routine I sought to make our interactions together a topic for discussion. To do so, the sessions included two kinds of verbal contributions from me:
During the tricks I offered (i) directives for action, (ii) observations and reflections associated with my previous routines, (iii) general thoughts on magic and (iv) commentary on the tricks performed. In practice these weren’t clearly distinct categories neatly separated in time, but let me offer some differences in any case.
Directives for action: More than just asking participants to do certain things (for instance, imagine a number, cut the deck, etc.) my directives sought to offer more or less accurate depictions of what was taking place (for instance, telling participants the tricks would be done ‘solely in their hands’).
Observations and reflections: As part of a process of learning, I wanted to put reflections generated from my previous routines to people in order to get feedback. This included, for instance, sharing my emerging view that while the sessions involved many forms of asymmetry regarding who knew what and who did what, reciprocity was also in play. Participants scrutinized me, and I needed this attention. Without it, there would not have been any concealment or revelation. And yet, if taken too far, both attention to or challenge of what I was doing would have make the tricks impossible to perform. It was through our interactions together over time that we found some resolution for how to get the magic done.
General thoughts on magic: I brought in points from reading autobiographies and instructional books, particularly those associated with shifting the center of attention away from magicians. For example, as many thoughtful practitioners of conjuring have contended, magic is not ultimately about what the magician does but about what audiences perceive. The latter is dependent on shifting and varied cultural notions about what is mysterious, unexpected, meaningful and the like. I wanted to see how participants related such contentions to their own experiences in these sessions.
Commentary on the tricks performed: Again as a way of shaping interpretations as well as soliciting feedback, I offered post-trick commentary. For instance, I noted the technical skill required in some instances. I also noted that despite the simplicity of a couple of them, participants in past routines often accredited me with technical skills because they were operating under the assumption the tricks must have been done through some sleight of hand jiggery-pokery. In the absence of seeing anything that approached such jiggery-pokery (because there was not any), participants said I must be pretty good with my hands…Funny right?
In the main, the questions interspersed between the individual tricks drew attention to the interactions taking place between all of us, and how these related to more commonplace social dynamics. For instance, I brought attention to the somewhat ‘casual’ relationship I had with the truth in these sessions in order to ask about how indifference to the truth or skepticism about whether the truth is being told featured in many other walks of life (marketing, politics, everyday interactions, etc.). I also asked participants to reflect on our interactions in order to get some comment from them about how magic ought (and ought not) to be performed.
- Who are you doing this for? Who is your audience?
- Who are you in this presentation? Who is your character?
To restate the language from Part 2, the audience for this routine consisted mainly of fellow academics — faculty members of universities, post-doctoral researchers or PhD students. This is a group for which inquiry and research are central elements of their day to day work. By and large these individuals tend to be middle class, but from varied national backgrounds and, at least in my sessions, were fairly gender mixed.
What does this group want? That seems a question to work through in relation to specific individuals at certain times rather than something that can be presupposed. A mix of entertainment and intellectual simulation seem reasonable general starting points. But people can have other desires: to look clever, to not look silly, to please me, to please each other, etc. Also, what people want can shift significantly from moment to moment. Through my questions and patter then I hoped to at least bring to the table some of these pushes and pulls.
As far as who I sought to appear as in all this, my character was that of my profession: a university professor investigating performer-audience interactions. But it is more complicated than this too. I also adopted the role of a student too, a student of magic in his semi-early days of learning a skill but also someone able to offer anecdotes and draw generalizations from his past experience.