Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Inventing The Impossible

I have previously posted about Marco Tempest and his inclusion of modern technology in his magic performances. In the video below he give a little insight into his philosophy on creating magic effects and how they cross over with technology.
To start it off he reminds us of Arthur C Clarke's third law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
And goes on to describe how people like Robert Houdin and others also tread this line in the golden age of magic.
Magic is a unique tool for previsualizing the future. Magicians show their audiences what it would be like to fly, read minds, have super powers, teleport, disappear and reappear. Magicians are prototyping the future every day.
Marco Tempest

The final illusion he performs is picked straight out of David Brin's latest book Existence. Glasses that can be worn and that shows you a digitally enhanced world. It gives you a map overlay, a yellow brick road, if you will, leading you straight to where you are going or even telling you who the people are that passes you. This is a technology which is currently being developed by google, (check a teaser here) but with magic we can see glimpses of the future now. It might still be crude, but so was the first brick sized mobile phone i had in 1994.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Steve Martin Funny Man

This guy was a real Showman, still is in some ways, but here we see him doing our kind of material. In a time when there were no avenue for his work he carved it out on the folk music scene. All respects, and what a demon on the banjo.

"I don't have to leave.
I lied."

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Art of Tommy Cooper

Tommy Cooper, master of fumbling and rambling magic. This is a great little documentary about a large child.
Tommy Cooper was a national comedy institution whose catchphrases still remain in the language today. This bumbling giant with outsized feet and hands, whose mere entrance on stage had audiences erupting with uncontrollable laughter, was born in Caerphilly in 1921.
This programme looks at the life and art of the man in the fez, whose clumsy, fumbling stage magic tricks hid a real talent as a magician. His private life was complicated and often difficult, but as far as his audiences were concerned, he was first and foremost a clown whose confusion with the mechanisms of everyday life made for hilarious viewing.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Dai Vernon: The Spirit Of Magic

Dai Vernon is to magic what James Joyce was to the novel and Einstein to physics.
Max Maven

This is a documentary about the 'Professor' a huge influence of modern magic. Its a bit of a warts and all look at the obsession of a Showman with his Craft.
When Cliff Green, asked Vernon, "What kind of magic do you do?" Vernon responded by asking the boy to name a card. Upon pulling a pack of cards from his pocket, Vernon turned over the top card of the deck to reveal the named card and replied to the speechless Green, "That's the kind of magic I do. What kind of magic do you do?"

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Limbless Magicians

This card trick, known as Oil and Water, is a piece of card magic which is irritatingly simple yet ingenious. As you watch the magician mix red and black cards in what must be the most straight forward and revealing way possible only to still leave you baffled as the magician reveals that the cards are separate again, three reds and three blacks separated like oil and water.

I believe I saw Rene Lavand for the first time as a guest on the Paul Daniels Magic Show and he did this routine. I was amazed, so amazed infact that even though I had recorded the program on a VHS tape and watched it hundreds of times before I noticed that Lavand only had One Arm. When I finally noticed I loved it even more.

Then just the other day I discovered, through the Deceptology blog, a magician named Mahdi Gilbert which has no hands. Here he is performing the same trick as above.

Monday, 12 November 2012

a New World


First there was language.
We expressed truth.
As we saw it.
As it was.
Who was there?
What happened?
- When.

Then there were stories
We expressed other truths.
As we saw it.
As it was -
Imagined in our minds,
Shaped by us,
Not just the world.
More exciting.
More meaningful.
Greater explanations.

Old stories improved by telling.
Reshaped by Crowd reactions.
The teller’s thoughts coloured it.
The hero emerged
No longer just a man
Something more,
So much more.

Without stories
Diverging from the true,
Without the first fictions
There was no religion.


A cave.
A fire.
A Shaman stands.
The others look up.
He waits for attention
Eyes meets eyes,
the flickering light
changes the space.
His mouth opens
The beginning: The word.

Friday, 9 November 2012

A 'real' mind reader...

Dave is an extremely gifted clairvoyant who finds out specific financial information.

Mysteries of Magic

The Impossible made Possible

This is a great documentary series from 1997 directed by Mel Morpeth. It features magic luminaries like Penn and Teller and this series was apparently the first time the ever silent Teller publicly let himself be interviewed. I particularly like the first and last of the episodes. The first is on the history of magic, the second on illusions and the third and last is about death defying stunts.

The Learning Channel is known for its informative programs, and the Mysteries of Magic series is no exception. The first DVD in the trio, The Masters of Mystery, takes the viewer on a magical journey from the campfires of ancient tribes to the bright neon lights of Las Vegas and delivers a concise history of illusionists throughout history. Featuring interviews with top magicians of today (such as Lance Burton, Eugene Burger, and Jeff McBride), The Masters of Mystery uncovers the origins of the many modern tricks that still make audiences wonder "How did they do that?" Beginning with the magicians of ancient Egypt who translated age-old beliefs into physical acts of illusion, the DVD offers us a glimpse into the religious ceremonies that gave early magic makers their first platform for performance.
Using clips from modern television specials, the disc provides a definitive history of the classic "Cups and Balls" routine, possibly the oldest magic trick ever recorded. We are also educated about the book The Discovery of Witchcraft, written by a magician to expose the tricks of the trade in order to save many wizards of the time from being burned at the stake.
Technically, the DVD doesn't offer much. In fact, the greatest trick involved may be getting the disc out of the box it comes in--and the menu selection is a bit lacking in extras. The content, however, provides plenty of insight into the medium without revealing any secrets. --Zachary Lively

The old theory that magical illusions are all done with smoke and mirrors is proven in The Impossible Made Possible. This episode of the Learning Channel's Mysteries of Magic series explores the origins of some of magic's most intriguing illusions.
Beginning with the 1790s multimedia show phantasmagoria--a performance using a simple magic lantern and wall projections--the documentary provides insight into the early special effects that made magicians legendary. Peppered with interview segments conducted with many modern artists, the DVD shows us how magicians of the past harnessed the powers of sound, light, optical illusions, and even narcotics to bewilder their audiences.
The program also features the "Allied Arts," which are illusions such as fire-eating and -breathing, and a clip from an old Laurel and Hardy film spotlighting the funny and engaging performance of a regurgitationist. There are marvelous and entrancing automatons, tricks from the early days of electricity, and finally, the invention that eventually brought the death of the music hall performer: motion pictures.
Aside from a simple scene-access menu and a brief summation of the factoids behind the production of the program, the DVD has little to offer technically. It is the content, however, that makes the disc truly magical. --Zachary Lively

Part three of the Mysteries of Magic series examines the fearless magicians who risk their lives for their art and to entertain the audience. Features the sword basket, guillotine, and cannonball escape tricks. ~ Heather M. Fierst, Rovi
In this final episode we get to hear the history of one of the most famous illusions of all time the 'sawing a lady in half', including footage of Richiardi's infamous most gory and grotesque version.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Creating Art FOR the Crowd

--> ..."the reason she'd never heard of me was because I was famous." 

Neil Stephenson, writer and honorary Showman.
{from an online interview (slashdot) with the author Neal Stephenson. It touches on the intersection between art and entertainment, writers as Showmen and about Showman/writer and Crowd. It is about what Stephenson calls Beowulf writers writing not for church or wealthy patrons but directly for the Crowd and masses. He speaks up for Illuminated Showmen everywhere by giving a fiery defense of creating art for the masses. He refuses the word Commercial artist and calls them Beowulf artists...}

[A] while back, I went to a writers' conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we'd exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me "And where do you teach?" just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another "And which distro do you use?"
I was taken aback. "I don't teach anywhere," I said.
Her turn to be taken aback. "Then what do you do?"
"I'm...a writer," I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that. 
"Yes, but what do you do?"

I couldn't think of how to answer the question---I'd already answered it!

"You can't make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?" she tried.

"From...being a writer," I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn't snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.
Dante holding his most famous book.
The great artists of the Italian Renaissance were accountable to wealthy entities who became their patrons or gave them commissions. In many cases there was no other way to arrange it. There is only one Sistine Chapel. Not just anyone could walk in and start daubing paint on the ceiling. Someone had to be the gatekeeper---to hire an artist and give him a set of more or less restrictive limits within which he was allowed to be creative. So the artist was, in the end, accountable to the Church. The Church's goal was to build a magnificent structure that would stand there forever and provide inspiration to the Christians who walked into it, and they had to make sure that Michelangelo would carry out his work accordingly.

Similar arrangements were made by writers. After Dante was banished from Florence he found a patron in the Prince of Verona, for example. And if you look at many old books of the Baroque period you find the opening pages filled with florid expressions of gratitude from the authors to their patrons. It's the same as in a modern book when it says "this work was supported by a grant from the XYZ Foundation."

Nowadays we have different ways of supporting artists. Some painters, for example, make a living selling their work to wealthy collectors. In other cases, musicians or artists will find appointments at universities or other cultural institutions. But in both such cases there is a kind of accountability at work.
A wealthy art collector who pays a lot of money for a painting does not like to see his money evaporate. He wants to feel some confidence that if he or an heir decides to sell the painting later, they'll be able to get an amount of money that is at least in the same ballpark. But that price is going to be set by the market---it depends on the perceived value of the painting in the art world. And that in turn is a function of how the artist is esteemed by critics and by other collectors. So art criticism does two things at once: it's culture, but it's also economics.

There is also a kind of accountability in the case of, say, a composer who has a faculty job at a university. The trustees of the university have got a fiduciary responsibility not to throw away money. It's not the same as hiring a laborer in factory, whose output can be easily reduced to dollars and cents. Rather, the trustees have to justify the composer's salary by pointing to intangibles. And one of those intangibles is the degree of respect accorded that composer by critics, musicians, and other experts in the field: how often his works are performed by symphony orchestras, for example.
Accountability in the writing profession has been bifurcated for many centuries. I already mentioned that Dante and other writers were supported by patrons at least as far back as the Renaissance. But I doubt that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral tradition---which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales together and fashioned them into the what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.
The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience. And the economics worked out such that they didn't need to land a commission or find a patron in order to put bread on the table. The creators of those novels were therefore able to have a connection with a mass audience and a livelihood fundamentally different from other types of artists.

Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It's conventional to refer to these as "commercial" novelists, but I hate that term, so I'm going to call them Beowulf writers.

But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called "literary" as opposed to "commercial" but I hate that term too, so I'm going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system.

Like all tricks for dividing people into two groups, this is simplistic, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is a cultural difference between these two types of writers, rooted in to whom they are accountable, and it explains what MosesJones is complaining about. Beowulf writers and Dante writers appear to have the same job, but in fact there is a quite radical difference between them---hence the odd conversation that I had with my fellow author at the writer's conference. Because she'd never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer---one so new or obscure that she'd never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn't be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she'd never heard of me was because I was famous.

All of this places someone like me in critical limbo. As everyone knows, there are literary critics, and journals that publish their work, and I imagine they have the same dual role as art critics. That is, they are engaging in intellectual discourse for its own sake. But they are also performing an economic function by making judgments. These judgments, taken collectively, eventually determine who's deemed worthy of receiving fellowships, teaching appointments, etc.

The relationship between that critical apparatus and Beowulf writers is famously awkward and leads to all sorts of peculiar misunderstandings. Occasionally I'll take a hit from a critic for being somehow arrogant or egomaniacal, which is difficult to understand from my point of view sitting here and just trying to write about whatever I find interesting. To begin with, it's not clear why they think I'm any more arrogant than anyone else who writes a book and actually expects that someone's going to read it. Secondly, I don't understand why they think that this is relevant enough to rate mention in a review. After all, if I'm going to eat at a restaurant, I don't care about the chef's personality flaws---I just want to eat good food. I was slagged for entitling my latest book "The System of the World" by one critic who found that title arrogant. That criticism is simply wrong; the critic has completely misunderstood why I chose that title. Why on earth would anyone think it was arrogant? Well, on the Dante side of the bifurcation it's implicit that authority comes from the top down, and you need to get in the habit of deferring to people who are older and grander than you. In that world, apparently one must never select a grand-sounding title for one's book until one has reached Nobel Prize status. But on my side, if I'm trying to write a book about a bunch of historical figures who were consciously trying to understand and invent the System of the World, then this is an obvious choice for the title of the book. The same argument, I believe, explains why the accusation of having a big ego is considered relevant for inclusion in a book review. Considering the economic function of these reviews (explained above) it is worth pointing out which writers are and are not suited for participating in the somewhat hierarchical and political community of Dante writers. Egomaniacs would only create trouble.

Mind you, much of the authority and seniority in that world is benevolent, or at least well-intentioned. If you are trying to become a writer by taking expensive classes in that subject, you want your teacher to know more about it than you and to behave like a teacher. And so you might hear advice along the lines of "I don't think you're ready to tackle Y yet, you need to spend a few more years honing your skills with X" and the like. All perfectly reasonable. But people on the Beowulf side may never have taken a writing class in their life. They just tend to lunge at whatever looks interesting to them, write whatever they please, and let the chips fall where they may. So we may seem not merely arrogant, but completely unhinged. It reminds me somewhat of the split between Christians and Faeries depicted in Susannah Clarke's wonderful book "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell." The faeries do whatever they want and strike the Christians (humans) as ludicrously irresponsible and "barely sane." They don't seem to deserve or appreciate their freedom.
Later at the writer's conference, I introduced myself to someone who was responsible for organizing it, and she looked at me keenly and said, "Ah, yes, you're the one who's going to bring in our males 18-32." And sure enough, when we got to the venue, there were the males 18-32, looking quite out of place compared to the baseline lit-festival crowd. They stood at long lines at the microphones and asked me one question after another while ignoring the Dante writers sitting at the table with me. Some of the males 18-32 were so out of place that they seemed to have warped in from the Land of Faerie, and had the organizers wondering whether they should summon the police. But in the end they were more or less reasonable people who just wanted to talk about books and were as mystified by the literary people as the literary people were by them. "
  It is well worth clicking over to Slashdot and read the full interview.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Penn and Teller in India

This is an episode from Penn and Teller's mini series called Magic and Mystery tour. There are so many things that are great about this show that I just urge you to check it out.
The journey they take as magicians to meet fellow crafts men living in rather simple ways is very interesting. They set out to discover the Indian Rope trick but the show is much more than that. It's a respectful look at street magicians in India. To put the two intrepid suit wearing magicians in touch with the apparently lowly caste of gypsies to which the street magicians belong they have the author of the superb study of Indian Street Magic; the Net of Magic by Lee Siegel.

It is a beautiful and insightful look at the history and origin of Magic by two of my favorite magicians. Enjoy.

The quest for the Indian Rope Trick

Friday, 2 November 2012

The Great Escape

 This is a nice interview with Yours Truly, which also is the first to mention the Illuminated Showman blog by name. Thanks to The Music.
Paul Ransom has always wondered where a contortionist’s bendy spine may take them. He finally gets to ask La Soiree’s Captain Frodo.
Whenever anyone says ‘contortionist’ the first thing that springs to mind is, well, y’know, I mean, do they, would they? Have you? The man on the other end of the line laughs and teasingly responds, “It’s best left to the imagination. I do make a comment about that and do a quick demonstration during my tennis act, so…“

The contortionist in question is Captain Frodo, a Norwegian-born, Melbourne-based blogger, philosopher and bendy showman. As part of the record-busting nu-circ juggernaut that is La Soiree, Frodo has shoved himself through tennis racket heads and travelled the world.

“It is a pretty obscure thing,” he admits of his incredible, double-jointed career. As the child of a professional magician though, a life on the stage was always likely. “I guess every kid thinks their dad can do everything, but my dad kinda could; producing candies at parties and all that sorta stuff,” he recalls. “So yeah, I wanted to be in the show even before I even really knew what that was. I just knew that you went out on stage and stood around for a while. Only later I realised you actually had to do something.”

Encouraged by his father, the young Frodo developed his own magic act based around torn up newspapers. However, before long a developing Houdini obsession led him to contortionism. “I just wanted to do an escape act,” he explains. “Before that I hadn’t been aware of the full range I had with my shoulders and so the first performance I did that was contortion-based was an escape from a straightjacket my dad ordered from America. It was only later I realised that some of that stuff I was doing inside the jacket was actually more exciting than the escape.”

If it all sounds like a vaudevillian throwback, perhaps it is. As Captain Frodo would have it, “I can’t help but see a similarity to the ‘20s, the golden days of circus and the Depression that came afterwards.”

Either way, the astounding success of La Soiree shows no sign of abating. Having already broken Opera House records and had their Melbourne Festival season blow out past six weeks, the burlesque cabaret circus continues to connect with audiences. According to Frodo, it’s because it’s more real. “You don’t have to suspend your disbelief like you do in a theatre. It’s very visceral,” he argues. “Perhaps in hard times people can enjoy the freedom that you see in the show. Y’know, it’s like anything’s possible.”

As an erstwhile philosophy student (and creator of The Illuminated Showman blog), Frodo clearly thinks deeply about being on stage. “Finding myself in an occupation that, when people first hear what you do, they go, ‘But do you have a real job?’ I wanted to demonstrate that what we do is actually as deep or as shallow as you make it.”

Flanked by fellow freaks such as David ‘Bath Boy’ O’Mer, Mario: Queen Of The Circus and lycra diva Le Gateau Chocolat, Frodo is in no doubt about the undiluted power of real entertainment. “With the world becoming more digital, people realise, ‘Ah, that’s how it feels’. Y’know, you sit there, the lights go down and master showmen give you the most polished ten minutes of their life and it’s an experience that happens now.“

WHAT: La Soiree
WHEN & WHERE: Until Thursday 29 November (extended season), Forum

Paul Ransom