How do magicians and their audiences come together to do magic? As detailed in Going On, this question provided the overall rationale for my first session of card tricks. To pursue it, I intermixed tricks with dialogue reflection about how participants and I were acting. Through this exchange, the intention was to produce cycles of action, reflection and revision that advanced my practical know-how of card conjuring as well as my theoretical appreciation of what is at stake in undertaking it. Through the observations and responses of participants, I modified the make-up of individual sessions and advanced an understanding of our interactions as reciprocal (see Becoming a Magician, Becoming an Audience).
With learning comes the identification of discomforts, knots and binds. As detailed in Going On, in the first card sessions I suggested to participants that I identified cards on the basis of reading facial expressions, postures, eye movements, voice, and the like. Participants were asked to look in particular directions, say certain kinds of things (for instance, call off cards), etc. I proposed I could determine their selected cards through closely attending to the specifics of their actions.
As one discomfort, while none of the tricks were performed on the basis of ‘body reading’, at times some participants indicated they believed this patter. This begged the question of whether I should openly state (once the tricks were finished) that no body reading was involved — or, more precisely, that it did not provide the basis for the identification of cards. While I did this toward the end of what would eventually become 13 sessions, declaring so seemed to (i) deflate much of the curiosity built up and, more worryingly, (ii) make it appear that I was trying to prove I had outwitted (gullible) participants.
As another set of discomforts, while the sessions took place between largely known academic colleagues as form of research-entertainment, they were affectively charged at times. For instance, one person repeatedly become agitated to the point of getting up from the table because cards tricks reminded him of childhood experiences of being humiliated by magicians. Others bristled at my reluctance to divulge the mechanisms for the tricks. This included one person that (persuasively) insisted I tell her whether I could actually read her body language as well as the mechanisms of one trick (information the other participant did not wish to know and left to avoid hearing).
At a minimum, such experiences suggested the importance of devising and performing card magic with an eye to developing a willingness to be moved by and to respond to others. How to do so though was the task to be taken up. That the deception afoot was avowed, consented to, and partially in the service of entertainment does not exhaust how to stay with the discomforts and binds of performing magic. My determination at the end of these sessions was that sustained engagement with these troubles — what they are, who defines them, what can be done in response — was vital in trying to understand magic as an activity.
Act 1 — What’s Going On?
In response, as part of devising and revising a second card session routine, I sought a structured preparation.
As part of my still preliminary engagement with attempts to theorize magic by practitioners and scholars, I happened over a list of questions drawn up by Peter Samelson for devising performances (see box).
- 1. Why am I doing this?
- 2. 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?
- 1. What is this piece about?
- 2. What would this look like if it were “real Magic?”
- Since magic is an imagistic art and communicates through its symbolism, each piece must have an inherent meaning. What is it? If it is to work as magic, it must look like magic. What would that be?
- 1. Who are you doing this for? Who is your audience?
- 2. Who are you in this presentation? Who is your character?
- The type of audience you perform for will determine the key part of the equation in exploring what your work means. Age, economic strata, environment: they all affect what you choose to do and where. Know yourself, know your work, know your audience. Who are they? What do they want? And who is the character performing? Wouldn’t that affect everything from costume to language?
Excerpt from Samelson, Peter (2003) Why, What, and Who? A Theory of Questions. In: J. Jay (Ed., 2013) Magic in Mind: Essential Essays for Magicians. USA: Vanishing Inc., pp. 85–86.
Samelson prefaced these questions with this counsel:
Dear reader. I’d like to have you meet my three friends, and tormentors. What, Why and Who. Getting the introductions out of the way, I’ll introduce you to these three inquisitors, but it is up to you to get to know them intimately.
Certainly for me, getting to know the questions has evoked a strong sense of how they might be regarded as both friends and persecutors. They are friends in helping to think through fundamental questions associated with a practice. They are persecutors because their simplicity belies the vexations in responding to them. Like any kind of practical activity, much is taking place in the undertaking of magic. Motivations can be complex and shift over time. The intended meaning of actions can vary from moment to moment through what is unfolding. Trying to answer Why?, What? and Who? then is like trying to capture the current of a stream in your hand.
Having made these points of caution, let me offer my response to Why?, What? and Who?, though I offer them as after the fact rationalizations and simplifications that point toward something of significance in my devising of this second card trick session rather than capturing its invariant qualities.
As noted previously, a central question I want to pursue as part of my Learning Magic project is “How do magicians and their audiences come together and do magic?”. But why is this interesting? My past examination of studying secrecy in relation to statecraft has led me to become concerned about the implications of intentional concealment. The Latin root for the English word secret, secretus, meant ‘to separate’ or ‘set apart’. This is what secrecy often encourages. Secret keeping and secret telling are transformative. They are bound up with the formation of individual and collective identities. Some people get labelled as members of a group, others get excluded. Some people get treated as ‘in the know’, while others as ‘ignorant’. Those labels can then get marshalled as part of wider stories about who ought to be listened to and who can be discounted. In my past research, given the way governments often mill their claims to possess hidden information, I have been concerned with how the appeal to supposed secrets can provide a questionable resource for managing impressions.
Rather than just taking on the prestige of magician-as-secret-keeper, then, in these sessions I sought to deliberately draw attention to how audiences and magicians come together to do conjuring. This was done in order to inquire into how interactions are accomplished when various kinds of asymmetry are afoot. I regarded this as important because my reading to date of attempts theorize magic suggests there has been a marked tendency to treat this activity in fairly one directional terms. Herein agency, knowledge and the scope for action decidedly (even solely) rest in the hands of the performer. The magician plays the role of manipulator and the experience of conjuring is told from this perspective.
In this round of my performances then, I sought to actively inquiry with my audience into how magic gets done there and then as it is being done. The hope was that the experiences in these sessions — while being entertaining with any luck, — would also enable participants to reflect on how secrecy infuses social life and how to re-imagine it. Rather than trying to sweep the audience away, the intent was to encourage a receptiveness to the aversions, commitments and fascinations associated with concealment and revelation.
As indicated above, I sought to make this round of sessions about disclosure and concealment; this meaning I did not just want to use disclosure and concealment, I wanted to make them into topics for discussion. I also wanted to make this round about our interactions together. To cover both, the sessions were designed with two kinds of verbal contributions from me:
- Patter: My statements during the tricks consisted of (i) directives for action, (ii) observations about the parallels between the tricks undertaken and wider dynamics of disclosure and concealment, and (iii) general descriptions of the techniques for how card tricks are undertaken (for instance, hiding physical manipulations by doing them in plain sight, memorizing cards). While the techniques mentioned were relevant to at least some aspects of the tricks in this session, they only told part of the story and what I said did not always correspond to the card trick just performed. As a result of the mismatches, in certain respects I was deceiving about the deception claimed, this by proffering a patter designed to distract as it brought matters into view. For instance, as part of a trick that involved placing a deck of cards under a handkerchief, I discussed how overt obscuration is used in magic as a way of exciting imagination about what lies beneath. This patter was itself something of a ruse though because in offering it I hoped to evoke this sort of inquisitive response in participants in order to occupy them. Further still, the trick in question relied on the handkerchief to obstruct view, but not in the way I was suggesting. In this way, the trick was verbally made to be about obscuration, while obscuration was used for the card manipulation, while the talk of obscuration functioned as a form of obscuration in itself. A risk with this kind of multi-layering was that it was too clever by half: participants would not be able to get the various levels of meaning implied. In that sense of the many levels of obscuration might themselves …well… obscure. One aspect I struggled with was whether and how to signal the parallels I was seeking to run.
With the composition of this patter I sought to differentiate this session from many others. For instance, in The Royal Road to Card Magic, Jean Hugard and Frederick Braué recommended that when performing sleights of hand, it is important to “make your tricks amusing and interesting by including a pleasant discourse that will divert the spectator”. Diversion from the mechanism of the tricks was an intention of my patter, but I wanted more than a pleasant discourse. Instead I wanted to evoke a curiosity about what was taking place between us as well as how our time together might help participants think through experiences off the card table. In this, I was not attempting remove myself as a magician from the effect — a path pursued in some forms of experimental conjuring(1). I was there, they were there, we were there together, but what ‘being there’ meant was the thing we sought to figure out.
- Questions: In the main, the questions interspersed between the individual tricks drew attention to the interactions taking place between us and between audience members (for instance, how participants were or were not scrutinizing or challenging me). Thus within the sessions, participants responded in ways that went beyond the typical (dis-)affiliation displays that follow tricks (for instance, applause, laughter, jeers, expressions of “How did he do that?”). Instead of just being with the activity at hand, they were asked to account for what it meant to be involved as the activity was unfolding. One aspect I struggled with was how to reflect back to participants their actions — how they were or were not attending to me, how they were or were not challenging me, and how both compared to other participants, — without this turning the conversation charged with evaluations and judgements.
Because of my overall desire to take participants into the details of what was taking place there and then (rather than out to some imaginary), what is notable in relation to Peter Samelson’s sub-questions is that I was not thinking at all about this session looking like ‘real magic’. Too, unlike the approach recommended by some, I was not seeking to eliminate from the audiences’ minds each possible basis for the tricks in order to achieve an effect of impossibility. Instead I was asking how what was possible (and mundane and ordinary) was made possible. The everyday acts of people conversing and acting together is a kind of magic for me — this what I sought to find ways of appreciating.
In certain respects, the question of ‘Who?’ is straightforward. As with the previous round, this 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, tend to be 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 from the start for the group as a whole. 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.
There is another ‘Who?’ though. As my sessions are recorded and examined for research purposes, there is a wider relevant audience to think about: those who will read the analysis. Therefore, the tricks and overall sessions should be done in a way that can make sense to this group later. Since you are reading this page, you are also part of the Who.
As far as who I sought to be 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, a student of magic in his early days of learning a skill.
 For an analysis of attempts to de-centring the magician, see: Charles Rolfe (2016) Theatrical magic and the agenda to enchant the world. Social & Cultural Geography, 17(4): 574–596.