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Posts Tagged ‘perspective’

Changing the Model: The Real Experience of Magic and Mentalism, part 2

Posted by Joe M. Turner | TurnerMagic.com on May 3, 2012

In the last article, I described a mechanical model for interpreting the experience of magic and mentalism. I contend that the mechanical model presents a flawed picture of what is really happening.  Another model for the interpretation of the magical experience is seen in Figure 2.  This model, while similar to the first model in basic structure, has some important differences.

Figure 2 - The Experiential Model of Interpreting Magic

Figure 2 – The Experiential Model of Interpreting Magic

The concept of method has been expanded to include not just the external tools and actions of the performance, but also some the internal perceptions of both the performer and the audience.  Restricting the idea of method to only the physical action ignores two key concepts.  First, the attitude and mental state of the performer can play a key role in the ultimate experience of the audience.  Second, there are many important techniques which allow the performer to influence the perceptions of people in the audience.  While not as easy to manipulate as physical objects, the attention and therefore the perception of the audience can be directed both physically as well as through intangible means such as the construction of the script.  By this reference to the script I don’t mean the dynamics of the spoken words, which are physical events, but rather the architecture of the plot itself which can direct and manipulate attention.

The key element of this model is the refocusing of attention on which part of the overall interaction should be labeled as “magic.”  This label has been shifted from the method to a portion of the inner perceptions and experience of the audience.  This is the real stage on which magicians and mentalists perform.  The ability to make changes to the audience’s perceptions and to create experiences in their minds is precisely the work of the magician or mentalist.

The most important consequence of refocusing our interpretation of the overall magical interaction on the created experience is that it puts our attention on a real and relevant part of the communication.  Instead of focusing on gimmicks and secret moves and strange apparatus, the emphasis is on the emotions and experiences of the viewer.  Gimmicks and moves and props, whether poorly made or crafted by experts, are still only tools.  Because they may be described as fake or phony in some way, the entire interaction may be labeled as fake because the emphasis is placed, wrongly, on the tool.  The thoughts and emotional responses of the viewer, while intangible, are never considered fake by the person who thinks or feels them.

Despite being presented in a novel way, this isn’t an altogether new concept.  Magicians and mentalists have long written about their art in terms of “method” and “effect.”  In magic books, the effect is what the audience sees and experiences during a single trick or illusion.  It is often explained in a sentence or two.  The method is the set of actions that the performer must execute in order to do the trick.  While many great performers and writers have emphasized the importance of effect over method, most magicians are enamored with method because it is there where their physical skills are developed and tested.  There is no substitute for excellence in method, nor any excuse for failure in technique, but the real secret of magic – and the secret of real magic – that the greatest performers have always understood is that effect is ultimately more important.

In the end, the most useful interpretation of magic experiences is not as merely the combination of props or tools or techniques that are used in the performance.  Nor is it best seen as the pretended outcome of whichever imaginary power is on display.  Understood more constructively, magic is the resulting experience of the impossible that happens inside the mind of the audience member.  The real magic isn’t the physical disappearance of the coin or the lady or the tiger.  Magic is the intangible but nonetheless real experience of that impossibility in the mind of the spectator, no matter how that perception is achieved.

To be clear, this is not intended as a restatement of the well-worn adage that “perception is reality.”  Advertising professionals, marketing experts, and communication gurus have covered that idea and how it relates to business many times before; you probably have books on the subject in your own library.  This concept of the nature of magic as a real experience is based on the simpler and far more modest proposition that perception is a real thing.

View of a performance from the wings

Magic and mentalism are a form of theatre. Effective magical performances lead audiences to focus on messages and experiences rather than props and methods. Our craft is a tool to create the show, not the show itself.


By rethinking the essence of magic, not as a pretended supernatural reality but as the real experience of a constructed perception, most people can relate to magic as something that actually happens, even in their own lives.  Most of us have experienced something that seems beyond explanation, at least for the moment it takes to perceive the experience as astonishing or impossible.  That pen appeared in your jacket pocket; you realize later that it must have been brushed off the table into your pocket when you sat down, but at the precise moment you saw it there and didn’t know or hadn’t yet deduced how it could possibly have gotten there, the experience of magic occurred.  It is a real thing.  It is a real experience.  It is a valuable experience.  It is, in fact, an experience that people will not only remember, but one that they will pay to encounter over and over again.

Magicians do create real magic, then, not by using special supernatural skills to manipulate the physical world, but by using special theatrical skills to construct perceptions that result in the real experience of the impossible.

So, is magic real?  Maybe in the context of a tenth-century understanding of science and religion it’s not, but in a twenty-first century theatrical context?  Absolutely.  The psychological experience of magic is real, and the different aspects and implications of such experiences are worthwhile to explore.

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Changing the Model: The Real Experience of Magic and Mentalism, part 1

Posted by Joe M. Turner | TurnerMagic.com on April 11, 2012

Let’s start out with the obvious. Perhaps the most glaring question for a speaker who uses magic, mentalism, or other kinds of illusions as a way to deliver messages is this: “Why on earth should I make real-world decisions based on make-believe illusions?”

That exceedingly reasonable question is the corporate-speak version of a familiar dismissal that anyone who has ever performed magic has encountered.

“It’s just a trick.”

Change the perspective

A change in perspective could drastically affect the way you perceive value in the performances of magic, mentalism, and other illusion arts.

This kind of comment is usually driven by a combination of factors, some of which are frustration, annoyance, a desire to save face, and even plain old fear of the unknown. Many people enjoy the feeling of astonishment and the sense that something impossible has just happened, but there are others who strongly dislike that sensation. When presented well, the experience of magic leaves an audience not merely without an explanation, but without even a foundation on which to imagine constructing an explanation. That feeling – sort of a “reality free fall” moment – is both disconcerting and unpleasant if it is interpreted as a threat.

Before we explore the principles we can learn from seemingly impossible experiences and apply to real-world issues, let’s rethink the fundamental premise of the modern theatrical magical experience.

The performing art of magic is a unique form of theater and should be approached as such by the performer and the audience. It has been centuries since magic has been presented as any sort of real supernatural event by mainstream performers or perceived as such by general audiences. Some charlatans, mediums, “psychic surgeons,” and other con artists have abused some of the principles and tools of the art in their scams, as has the occasional spoon-bending television personality. The vast majority of magic, however, is presented in a theatrical context. In fact, it is the theatrical performers of magic who are frequently most active in debunking the scams; Houdini himself may be the best known example of a performer who actively exposed such frauds.

So let’s set aside the negatively charged criticism that magic is fake, and let’s consider instead the more positive and useful idea that magic is fiction. Fiction can have a purpose and an application to real decisions despite the fact that the characters and events didn’t take place. Fiction can be as simple as Aesop or as intricate as Shakespeare. It can be as feathery as a fairy tale or as profound as a parable. It may have no purpose other than to entertain, or it may be so imbued with message that the author’s intent leaps from the page or the stage into the psyche of the reader or viewer.

If you ask the general public to discuss intent, message, or profundity in the arts or literature, you’ll soon no doubt be engaged in discussions of important novels, drama, film, music, poetry, and perhaps dance. Rarely is magic perceived by laymen as a legitimate vessel for communicating meaning, but that is not the public’s fault. Magicians themselves are to blame because most magic performances are presented without any intent other than to amuse themselves and to fool the audience, save perhaps a more specific additional desire to look clever while doing so. Most performers of magic never consider making intentional choices about the potential meanings of their performances. In the absence of explicit choices, though, those performers nonetheless make tacit decisions that empty their performances of meaning or purpose beyond producing a puzzling, momentary distraction.

Yet even in that most meaningless, purposeless state, I contend that magic is not “just some trick.” Even at the level of being merely an amusing entertainment, there is still something profound going on when magic is performed. Something real is happening, and grasping that will change the way you interpret illusions both as entertainment and as springboards for meaningful communication. What is happening? No less than real magic.

Magic, as I would have us think about it, is indeed a real thing. It’s a useful thing. It’s just not the thing we thought it was. To explain this, let’s contrast two models for interpreting theatrical magic experiences, both of which are based on classical interpersonal communication theory. There are certainly many more ways to analyze this or any form of theatre, but this comparison identifies a key concept that will change the way you think about the relevance of magic as a form for relevant, real-world communication.

In Figure 1 we see a representation of a traditional model for interpreting theatrical magical experiences, within which category I include most visual magic, mentalism, and some optical illusions.

Figure 1 - The Mechanical Model of Interpreting Magic

Figure 1 - The Mechanical Model of Interpreting Magic

In this model, the intended message begins within the mind of the communicator, or in this case the mind of the performer. It proceeds outward through the set of filters that every communicator has. These can be biases, moods, thoughts, or any other internal factors. The action or performance then happens in the space between the performer and the audience. It then enters the audience member’s filters where it is further molded by each individual’s perceptions, and ultimately it results in some received message, or experience, in the receiver’s mind. (For the sake of this discussion, we’ll ignore the presence of noise or distractions in the environment, though they are a legitimate concern for all communicators, not just performers.)

Most people, including many if not most magicians, interpret the term “magic” as describing the various physical actions that the performer takes in the space between the performer and the audience. Magic, in this model, is essentially considered a synonym for the collection of techniques and props and secret tools. Whether executed skillfully or not, the interpretation is that the “magic” is the sum of the actions, or simply “the method.” Notice also that in this case the magic and method are considered to be entirely external in relation to the performer and the audience. When magic is perceived in this way, the performer and the audience may seem interchangeable if not completely irrelevant – any performer, and any audience, connected though a given method, would have the same magic experience.

That is obviously not the case, but because method is so often the focus, an audience’s unpleasant experience in a performance of magic or mentalism is often brushed off as a shortcoming of the art rather than considered more deeply as having roots in the both the skill of the performer as well as the audience’s conditioning and habits regarding how to interpret the experience. (It should be noted that the truly skilled performer either purposely or instinctively pushes audiences to reduce their attention on method and to focus more on the experience; more on this later.)

Performers, too, are often prone to dismiss poor magic or mentalism performances as functions of external factors rather than to examine their own contributions to the experience. Ego plays a part in this, of course, but many are completely blind to the fact that their own emphasis on the method as the magic is undermining their ability to create an amazing experience for their audience.

In this model, then, the concept of magic is physically mechanical and psychologically external to the performer and audience. Because it is perceived as only a word for “how it’s done,” the emphasis is placed completely on the processes and paraphernalia. This emphasis is heightened by the fact that those tools are generally guarded as secret knowledge, and human nature is tempted by nothing so much as forbidden fruit. With all this energy and attention focused on the least meaningful aspects of the communication experience, it is little wonder that so much of magic and other illusion arts is perceived as fake, phony, and trivial.

Next time we’ll explore a different way of looking at things!

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Foreground, Background, and Perspective

Posted by Joe M. Turner | TurnerMagic.com on May 23, 2011

Amazing Randi Face Vase Illusion

The Amazing Randi
Face Vase Illusion
created by Victoria Skye

Last week I tweeted: “Hobby Lobby: where others see a craft store, I see a magic shop!” My friend Jeff Glaze (of MostCool Media) commented that he sensed the beginning of a blog post on perspective. Turns out he was right.

A major theme of my recent writing has been that reassessing and recombining the skills and resources that you have right now can uncover new, creative ideas and capabilities that you never suspected you had. Part of the process of finding the new capabilities is to change your perspective.

There are dozens of familiar optical illusions where different ways of looking at the image produce vastly different interpretations. One of the most famous of all is the face/vase illusion in which the contours of two faces in profile create the boundaries of a vase. By alternating your perspective with regard to which parts of the image you consider to be the foreground and background, the image looks like either a vase or like two faces. (The illusion was developed by Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin in 1915, and you can find out more about it here.)

The optical illusion to the right is a variation on the face/vase theme. It was created by a magic friend of mine here in Atlanta, Victoria Skye, and features the face of famous magician and author James Randi. Victoria’s illusion was used as the background art during one a recent performance by Mr. Randi, and a photograph of that event appeared in an article in the May 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind. Victoria’s creation is clearly visible in the photo, but alas the article is not available online. Fortunately she agreed to share her creation with me and gave permission for it to appear on my blog. (You can contact Victoria to find out more about her illusions and impossible objects by emailing her.)

Whichever version of the illusion you view, it illustrates my point with regard to giving a new look to the skills, interests, and activities that you may have neglected, ignored, or completely forgotten about over the years. By putting some attention on those things that you have considered part of your background, you can cause new things to suddenly pop into the foreground.

Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby: Craft store and Magic shop!

Hobby Lobby looks like a craft store because art-and-crafters have a specific idea in mind about the use of the objects they find in that store. Thread and fabric, various adhesives, different varieties of wooden blocks and rubber balls and silk flowers… these common items have uncommon impact when their properties are applied in ways that the manufacturers probably never contemplated. Putting those contours in front of a different background emphasized different attributes and uncovered new capabilities and applications. Because I know that, Hobby Lobby doesn’t just look like a craft store; it also looks like a magic store.

Your skillset is much the same. By looking at your combination of skills and occasionally putting emphasis on skills you might have left in the background, you are likely to find that the labels you have put on yourself are woefully insufficient to describe the true and expanding depth of your real capacity.

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