So You Want to Know Magicians' Secrets? It All Happens in Your Own Mind

As a magician people always ask me 'How did you do that'? In reality if you actually want to know how a trick works, that's probably the least useful question you could ask. Believe me, the mechanics of magic really are the least interesting bit.

As a magician people always ask me 'How did you do that'? In reality if you actually want to know how a trick works, that's probably the least useful question you could ask.

Believe me, the mechanics of magic really are the least interesting bit (unless you're a slightly obsessive adolescent). Where the trick actually happens, where the 'magic' actually exists, is in your minds. So the real question you should ask is, why did I believe that happened?

That's a much more interesting question and one you can't answer without thinking about how do we actually think magic happens (I know, odd question!). If you really want to know, magic works by doing two things. First, it breaks the rules, and second, it does so through some supernatural force. So there's a reason why magicians do magic with objects that people know well. Cards are meant to be random, so a magician breaks the rules by finding some way to bring order to them and find your card. And coins definitely shouldn't fit in people's ears, so pulling one out breaks the rules, both of the coin and of your ear.

Today we generally seem to refer to this supernatural force as 'magic'. But that's not always been the case. Magic used to have lots of significantly more exciting explanations, whether as goblins, ghosts or Gods. Here's a list from an 1897 book about the different types of magic, or ways that magic can happen:

  • Feats of Dexterity - being a bit whizzy with them fingers, 'or tongue' it adds, oddly
  • Experiments in Natural Magic - 'experiments' derived from science, like making things grow unnaturally fast for example, but not, presumably, genetically engineering fluorescent rabbits
  • Mental conjuring - mind reading / mind control, in other words making people think they see fluorescent rabbits
  • Pretend mesmerism - this includes clairvoyance, trance and second sight (I love that they feel the need to distinguish this from real mesmerism)

Now compare this to what often happens today. Ever seen a magician click their fingers over a pack of cards, or sprinkle 'woofle dust' onto something? That's a pretty lame explanation of how magic happens, and shows us how lazy we've gotten in the story we're telling. What would you rather see on a Friday night, someone clicking their fingers like a poor rendition of a barbershop quartet, or a bit of pretend mesmerism and trees inexplicably growing all over the stage?

What's interesting about this list though, is that it's of its time and reveals something really important. The ways that magic happens reflects the popular and fashionable explanations for the impossible at the time. At the turn of the 19th century, lots of people saw mediums, believed in ghosts, and the 'natural sciences' were an unstoppable source of discovery and amazement. This gives insight to the fact that the greatest conjurors are able to weave rich and believable stories about how and why something is happening. But more than that, these stories inherently reflect the development of society and expose truths about the source of unexplained, and the possibilities for humanity.

In the 20th Century a great example of this is Uri Gellar. Psychic phenomena were all the rage in the '60s and '70s, leading even the American military to take an unhealthy interest in staring at goats, to kill them. This also goes a long way to explaining why goats look at you suspiciously if you if you're wearing khaki. Despite Uri facing lots of people accusing him of being a fake in the last 40 years, and a lot apparent exposes suggesting he achieved his demonstrations using trickery, some people still believe he is the real deal. Why? I think because he presents such a compelling story about how the magic happens. He draws on a pertinent societal narrative, and, even better, makes us believe we could do it too! Real or not, that's a damn sight more compelling story than some crappy woofle dust.

My question is, in the absence of goat staring, what is our societal narrative today? What are the 'supernatural' explanations for how magic can happen. One thing I'm exploring is technology. Not just to build new illusions, but to make us think about how they happen. Technology is constant source of amazement, possibility and curiosity in our society. But to really work in a magic trick, it has to break some rules. And in a world of bio-hacking and biotech, what if the rules it breaks are those of being human? Currently I'm working on turning myself into a human electromagnet and building a brain controlled monkey. But that's just the start of it.

Kieron Kirkland is Magician in Residence at the Pervasive Media Studio at Watershed in Bristol:


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