Posts tagged psychology
Journal of Performance Magic -- The End of Mind Reading, Eddie Dean

Dear Reader,

Today I thought I’d give a shoutout to another publication with some pretty enlightening thoughts on modern magic performance, lots of idea gold here…

There’s a publication called the Journal of Performance Magic, which Z.Y. hipped me up to. It’s all free as part of University publications.

Z.Y. hit me up with this particular article: The End of Mind Reading which is pretty informative and, while I don’t necessarily agree with everything in it, Eddie makes some pretty unique discoveries and shares a unique perspective. Nice work, man.



Let Go

A soft echo of “Let go.” is all I heard as I performed a “floating table” effect for a bunch of kids the other day. It was extremely disturbing, because it’s not like they were all trying to “expose” how the table was “floating”, these were super young kids, but I think they sincerely wanted to see what would happen if I let the tablecloth go. It was genuine desire to see something that went up next level insane. Like, this table is already floating with me holding it, but what will happen when I let it go? Does it fly over everyone’s heads? Does it fall to the ground?

This is something to consider when adults ask to “shuffle the deck” or seemingly attempt to goof up your “tricks” (if you’re a magician reading this), because this response proves that most times, in my humble opinion, you shouldn’t consider performing magic as a series of oppositions between you and the participants/audience members (as some magicians I know do). You should view it as being a tour guide of the impossible. And just like people in a brand new place of impossibility, they just want to see how far this strange new land goes back, they’re just doing their jobs as curious people.

They don’t really want you to fail when you let go. They don’t want you to mess everything up when the deck gets shuffled or they put something where they shouldn’t. They want it to succeed. Because if it succeeds, then the curtain just gets pushed back farther and farther until there’s nothing to “find” anymore, because then there’s no “trick”, then the feeling of magic is really being realized for them.

Honestly, I wondered if it would’ve been better for me to let go of the table and just let it drop to the ground. We would have witnessed a boundary, and we would’ve witnessed something fantastic, a table floating above everyone’s heads, and then we would’ve witnessed something real, something crashing to the ground.

I think about some of the ways I can give the audience even more from my magic performances. I think about letting the magic exist beyond myself. I think about letting go.

-- J.R.

Beauty in Magic & Theatre

Dear Reader —

We’re back after ALTÆR, a public thank you for joining us on that journey… With reflection on performances in general, I give to you this meditation on beauty within art…

We like to view beautiful things.

Because beauty so rarely exists.

Everyday life is ugly, there are struggles we all face. When we watch theatre, when we watch magic, we want to partake in a hyper-curated beautiful reality, we want to see a world in which we do not live. This is why the archetype of the magician has persisted throughout the ages. They are the harbinger of the fantastic. While there may be elements within our falsely constructed fantasy that connect us to daily life, we in no way want to see something that is everyday life.

There may be “ugly” art, but there is no doubt some way in which this art is has the qualities of beauty. Perhaps these ugly beauties exemplify something within us that is painful, visceral and vile, something heartbreaking or moving, however make no mistake that these too are beautiful moments, even though they may superficially harbor pain for us.

Therefore, only put things before an audience in which you have defined the beauty you will share. What are you showing them that gives them a new perspective, what are you giving them that shares some of the beauty from your life? For it is only when we do this, that, in return, you will receive the greatest response of all from them: you will receive their beauty back to you.

-- J.R.

The Dangers of Mentalism: Walking the Line by Necessity

     This is part two of a short series, so make sure to check out Part One: The Dangers of Mentalism: An Introduction a couple posts back.

     Magic is necessarily about presenting something impossible as possible. Within the context of the magic trick this is fun and exciting, and it is accepted that different magicians ask different levels of credulity from their spectators when they perform. While that is all well and good while the effect is being performed, I think it is important to think about the longer-term consequences of our presentational choices. This is partially because the drama which the spectator remembers is just as important as that which they witness, but also because, if we are going to spend immense amounts of time carefully constructing effects that convince, or seem to convince, someone something is real, we should be cognizant of what that belief (honestly intended or not) could lead to.

     While this applies to almost every branch of magic, mentalism stands out as the clearest example because of its long and fraught connection with spiritualism and occultism (and the charlatanism that goes with it; this is not supposed to be a put-down of spiritualism, simply a statement that theatrically intended mentalism should not be conflated with it). The most common modern way of avoiding this confusion is to present mentalism as psychological reading of tells, eye movements, Neuro Linguistic Programing (NLP) word associations, and the like (thanks Derren). This neatly sidesteps the problem, correct? Wrong.

     To understand why, we have to step back and think about why it is so important that mentalism try to get away from spiritualism. It’s not that spiritualism is more or less real than other magic presentations (which include everything on the spectrum from Woofle Dust to quantum mechanics). And (I hope) it’s not just that many magicians think spiritualism is a weak presentation (because if I have to hear one more time about how “the power of your imagination” makes the card change I swear to god…). What I would say, though, is that spiritualism is a significantly more nuanced presentational frame than most, it has a more direct bearing on many people’s lives (more, I think, than many magicians think) than other frames, and it has more potential to be misused and abused than most. So for example, though quantum mechanics is incredibly complicated and nuanced in terms of what it actually does and does not explain, very few people encounter it directly in their daily lives, so a magician fudging the truth about it won't really change any choices they make in the day to day, and there are established credentials that indicate who is actually an authority on it (do they have a PhD after their name?). Alternatively, Woofle Dust has no nuance (there is no grain of truth, and the audience knows it), and rarely occurs in people’s lives.

     If we look at NLP, micro expression reading, body language mirroring, etc, we see that they fit these criteria as neatly as spiritualism does. These concepts come up in, and therefore influence, people’s everyday lives quite regularly, as they are simply methods of talking and interacting with people, something we are all doing constantly. Additionally, they are nuanced in that, while all built on grains of truth and elements of reality, they are often blown out of proportion and exaggerate, either by over eager media, or by hucksters hoping to make a quick buck off of them. This then also explains why they are dangerous: they are easily exploitable by those seeking to profit from those unclear on what and how these ideas actually work. And therefore magicians blithely bolstering their credibility can be doing real harm as well.

     But was it by accident that mentalism stumbled directly from one moral grey area to another? I would say no. I think magic needs these “fuzzy spaces” between what is known and accepted, and what is actually understood. Magic has always, and always will, draw on these fringe spaces to operate and give its effects backdrop and meaning.

    More on what I mean by “fringe spaces”, and how to use them without letting them use you, next time.

-- Z.Y. 

The Dangers of Mentalism: an Introduction

     A week or so ago I had a jarring experience that made me revisit how I present mentalism effects. While I originally intended to write a quick post about how magicians need to be careful in how they use the “psychological reading” pseudo method, the more I thought about it the more complex the topic became, and the more it seemed to connect to the history and evolution of mentalism. So instead of a single post, this will be the first in a short series about mentalism presentations, how they connect with real world tropes, and the dangers of the audience lending a bit too much credence to our presentational frames.

     Before I get into all that, though, let me explain what happened. I was hanging out with an old friend, and since they always enjoyed my magic, and usually requested to see some, I had prepared a few mentalism effects. Just as the topic came up and I began to perform, a few of their friends that I didn’t know started to watch. The final effect (performed one on one of the newcomers) was a billet effect presented as psychological reading of a childhood nickname. For the first letter I had swept my hand across the air telling them one side was A and the other Z, and supposedly reading their eyes to determine the letter. I had named it, and was concentrating on their face when suddenly I let my eyes go blank, started slightly, and abruptly stated the last letter, finally filling in the name. They were duly surprised and intrigued, and began discussing what had happened, and how.

     Now though I have been creating and performing mentalism effects for a while, most are in the context of larger, more formal performances, so only rarely do I get that kind of direct access into the audience's immediate thoughts. It shocked me, then, how fully they bought into the pseudo method, discussing how clear it was for the first letter, and trying to figure out what subtle tell had given away the last letter in such a manner.

     One common refrain when discussing mentalism is that care must be taken to ensure the performer does not, intentionally or otherwise, bolster the audience's belief in the supernatural. While many come to think that presenting these particular effects as feats of psychology, body reading, NLP, and the like elides this issue, I have come to wonder if these pseudo methods are perhaps more dangerous. In later posts I’ll talk about why, in many ways, NLP and its ilk are the modern equivalents of palm reading and fortune telling, why and how magic gravitates towards whatever the current popular tropes are as presentational frames, why that’s both dangerous and necessary, and how carefully you have to matching the believability of the pseudo method to the unbelievability of the effect.

-- Z.Y.