‘What is magic?’ Sometimes the easiest way of defining something is by saying what it is not. In my experience, undertaking entertainment magic is not like playing a guitar or juggling tennis balls in one important respect: magic requires an audience. I can practice tricks alone endlessly in front of a mirror, but it seems stretching the term to breaking point to consider that this on its own could make me a magician.
In this sense, undertaking magic is akin to telling a joke — it requires more than one person. As a joint activity, audiences and magicians are thus bound up together in relations of mutual dependency. Each realizes themselves through the other.
In my experience though, it is commonplace to hear magic characterized as a process of one-directional control based on magicians’ knowledge of secret methods. Because of this knowledge as well as the use of intentional deception, entertainment magic is often presented as an exercise in power and manipulation.
In my performances and in my writings, I have sought to question such depictions.
To be sure, magic often entails asymmetrical relations between performers and audience members in terms of who speaks and who acts.
But such asymmetries do not mean that that the magician-audience relation is one-directional. Instead, I have sought to conceive it as a form of reciprocal action.
When approached in this way, the practice of conjuring shifts from being a unidirectional competitive act of manipulation by a secret keeper to an emerging process negotiated between individuals that involves a mix of control and cooperation. Herein audiences are understood through their relations to the magician, and the magician is understood through their relations with audiences.
The manner in which magic is jointly accomplished even as it entails intentional concealment, asymmetrical knowledge as well as misdirection are discussed in the Inter-Relations video.
Other entries in The Magic of Social Life also elaborate how magic is a jointly accomplished activity. Even when they are ‘merely’ or ‘passively’ spectating, audiences play an active role in enabling the deception and concealment integral to making magic.
As a way to bring out the mutual dependency between audiences and magicians, the Reciprocity video presents an effect that each participant from the University of the Third Age (Exeter) was able to do for themselves in their own home. Before watching the video, please get out a deck of playing cards and take part yourself!