Concealment

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Secrecy has often been defined as a form of intentional concealment. Concealment and secrecy are, in turn, often thought about as the polar opposite to disclosure and transparency. In practice, however, these notions are often entangled. In diplomacy, war, personal relations and so many other part of life, for instance, selective openness can be as means of distraction and disguise.

Entertainment magic makes the interlinking of disclosure and concealment into an art form. By showing certain features of a scene — for instance, some cards on the tables being face up, some being face down — magicians try to foster a certain sense of what the world is like. They do so, however, under the expectations that audiences generally appreciate not everything is as it seems and that audiences are scrutinizing the scene presented to them.

Given the anticipation for deception is integral to entertainment magic, how can magic be pulled off? The limitations of human perception are important enablers for magic. Psychologists utilizing magic tricks as a means of studying perception and cognition have made a number of important findings: what we perceive depends on the manner we attend to a situation, we can fail to see what is directly in front of us, and we do not consciously perceive everything that is available to our senses.

More than just resulting from the limitations of our perception, though, entertainment magic is enabled by the social conventions associated with it as a performance art. More specifically, it is the very anticipation for doubt and scrutiny by audiences that provide a basis for dissimulation. A task of a magician is to harness audience’s expectations for concealment in order to conceal.

The academic and magician Wally Smith illustrated this through recounting the history of the development of modern forms of entertainment magic in Europe and North America. As he details in ‘Technologies of Stage Magic’, up until the mid-19th century it was commonplace for stage magicians to use dim lighting, numerous onstage props and elaborate costumes. These features signaled to audiences that relevant features of the scene were obscured. Especially as audiences of time were becoming more knowledgeable about the methods underpinning stage acts, magicians shifted toward a minimalist and naturalist style. This is the kind of magic in The Magic of Social Life: the set-up is simple.

In this modern style of magic, not only are the methods and mechanisms of magic meant to be hidden, a second-order concealment is in operation. Audiences need to be confident that are seeing what they need to see. In this way, modern magic involves a concealment of concealment. In this way too, expectations for deception can provide the basis for it.

When should this dance of the shown and not shown end? In general terms, magicians ascribe a great importance to keeping their methods secrets. Informal codes and oaths varyingly stipulate that magicians should not reveal the basis for their effects to non-magicians. In some instances, such prohibitions are policed as part of membership organizations, such as in the case of the British Magic Circle.

One reason is to ensure magic is magical. As Michael Weber argued, “We don’t keep secrets from the audience, we keep secrets for the audience.” And yet, magicians can disagree about what counts as the (real) secrets of their art too.

This video undertaken with members of the University of the Third Age (Exeter) explores some of the ways audiences and magicians orientate to concealment and revelation. The effect followed on directly from the one in ‘Witnessing’ video, so watch that one first.

Note: The effect performed in this video is a version of ‘My Personal Triumph’ by Héctor Mancha (with permission). The short story mentioned is ‘The Purloined Letter’ by Edgar Allan Poe.

Concealment

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Next: Duality