Text Box:  The Honest Liar

Jamy Ian Swiss

As published in ANTINOMY #9

 

 

In Search of Street Magic

 
Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

“Ballad of a Thin Man”

Bob Dylan

 

Something is indeed happening, and if you’re not sure exactly what it is, you’re far from alone. It’s called “street magic.” But what is it? And for all the hubbub (and dollars) it generates – does it actually exist?

 

Street magic is being touted as a new kind of magic, a new form, a new style. Entire websites are devoted to the subject – entire product lines – and now, a new glossy magazine. And so, one is compelled to ask: Is there any there, there?

 

Your intrepid reporter – yours truly – has been trying to find out. While I claim no definitive opinions – and will offer several conflicting ones – here are the results of my labors so far.

 

 

What it isn’t – an aside.

 

For sake of clarity, we should establish a definition for those who came in late. The term “street magic,” until 1997, traditionally referred to magicians who made their living performing in public spaces and collecting money from the crowd. Jeff Sheridan revived this ancient form in the early 1970s in New York City, and many more have since made their mark in this world, including Chris Capehart, Jim Cellini, Gazzo, and others too numerous to mention. However, in 1997, David Blaine’s first television special aired, entitled David Blaine: Street Magic, whereupon many things in the world of magic changed – some of which I intend to consider in the pages to come. One of those changes concerns terminology: Making your living on the street by attracting a crowd in a public setting and then “passing the hat” to earn money must now (or at least for the time being) be called by its older name, “busking,” in order to distinguish it from “street magic.”

 

 

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

I’ve spoken with a number of colleagues in the preparation of this essay. Author/publisher Stephen Minch asked me if street magic “is the new bizarre magick; i.e., a dream-chamber for amateurs rather than a genuine performance venue?”

Minch offers a provocative comparison. But what is a “genuine performance venue?” And is venue the only factor that defines a form or type of magic?

 

I have come to think that a specific form or type of magic – such as manipulation, close-up, mentalism, and illusions – or perhaps children’s, strolling, platform, and stage magic – can be meaningfully discussed (and indeed demonstrated to exist) by dint of four facets. These are (in no particular order):

 

1)      Performers

2)      Audience

3)      Performance material

4)      Venue

 

A quick check of the examples cited above will confirm this analysis. Whether we talk about a type of magic based on its material, effects, and methods – i.e., manipulation, close-up, mentalism, and illusions; or based on professional venue, as in children’s magic, strolling, platform, or stage – we will quickly acknowledge that the existence of these forms is specifically reflected by existing performers, audiences, material, and venue.

 

And so: Street magic, street magic – wherefore art thou, street magic?

 

 

Thou art a will o’ the wisp.

 

1)      Performers

 

By my reckoning, there are approximately five men of whom I am aware who currently make much or all of their livings doing street magic. These are, in approximate order of appearance on television: David Blaine, Derren Brown, Cyril Takayama, Criss Angel, and Marco Tempest.[1]

 

There is a longer list of performers who have generated television specials or short series that are not currently producing such material, including Chris Korn and J.B. Benn (“Mondo Magic,” 6 episodes); Alain Nu (“Mysterious World of Alain Nu,” 4 episodes); the short-lived “T.H.E..M.” (“Totally Hidden Extreme Magic”); and a single special last year from Keith Barry. (Korn and Benn have subsequently shot further shows in Singapore for broadcast in the Far East).

 

It’s very easy to tell that these men are contemporary street magicians: They perform surrounded by camera crews.

 

It is unclear to me that there are any other street magicians operating in the world today.

 

2)      Audience

 

Defining the audience for manipulative magic, close-up magic, mentalism, and illusions – or for children’s magic, strolling magic, platform, or stage magic – is an easy matter, and it is unnecessary for me to do so, since you can readily do it for yourself.

 

The audience for street magic is apparently found on the street. But unlike busking, in which the performer establishes a performance space (a stage of sorts) and then attracts an actual (reasonably fixed and paying) audience, street magic supposes that the performer is to accost random passersby with the intention of performing magic tricks. If you think this is a wise and reasonable idea, consider the Borat movie, in which a New Yorker threatens to break every bone in Borat’s body (admittedly for trying to kiss him, which in some cases may be preferable to another Attack of the Invisible Deck); indeed, Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) was actually punched in the mouth on the street last November by a man whose clothing he offered to purchase.

 

Not buying these admittedly extreme examples? Veteran busker Chris Capehart told me that if you try to walk up to strangers to perform a magic trick, “People freak out.” The art and craft of the busker lies not only in his ability to get people to pay for the privilege of watching – but to bring the audience to him.

 

3)      Material

 

If you look over the kind of material that is sold across the Web as street magic, you will discover a wide range, but most seems to fall into two (admittedly highly approximated) categories. The secondary catalog seems to consist of standard magic tricks, often renamed to conceal their origins or to match a trendier style of titling, along with utility items like D’lites, Thumb Tips, Sponge Balls, and the like. But the primary catalog consists for the most part of tricks that, while they fulfill certain marketing requirements, deliver very little in the way of effective magic. Many of these tricks are available for purchase via an immediate download: you provide your credit card information and seconds later the instructions are yours. Clearly, if you can simply download the instructions, then such tricks require a few simple materials – a piece of string, a spot of glue – that can quickly be assembled at home. And they are, by and large, relatively easy to do, so that the buyer can be encouraged – wisely or not – to try to perform them immediately.

 

Most of these tricks are accompanied by online streaming video demos, produced to imitate the appearance of a street-magic television special, complete with heavy-handed music and a graffiti-covered wall in the background. Denny Haney[2] often explains to his own customers that “When you download these tricks, they don’t come with the music and they don’t come with the graffiti wall behind you. You have to make your own graffiti wall!”

 

Above all, however, what seems consistent with the vast majority of these tricks is that they are short, fast, one-beat effects. There is no routining, there is no theatrical build, there is little if any presentation to speak of. This is “magic as stunts,” to use Eugene Burger’s terminology. “A stunt doesn’t point beyond itself,” Burger explains. Magic points to a world of mystery and the impossible; a stunt plays on shock value and surprise. This is magic that often borders on a practical joke, just as the short-lived television series mentioned above, “T.H.E.M.,” essentially took a “Candid Camera” approach to presenting magic.

4)      Venue

 

As already mentioned, venue is one way of defining forms of magic, and the existence of genuine venues is invariably obvious. Buskers perform on the street. Bar workers perform in bars. Restaurant workers perform in restaurants. Strolling performers work at corporate and private-event cocktail parties. Platform performers work on platforms at business events. Stage performers perform on stage. These descriptions are so obvious as to be silly, but – where do professional street-magicians perform? And – other than those previously identified who produce actual television programs – who pays them for doing so?

 

If what we see in the online world is any indication, street magicians spend a lot of time performing in empty lots. Amazingly – far more amazing to me than the tricks – they find pretty girls to perform for in such places.

 

Now, while the demo videos are commonly performed in empty lots – the ever quotable Denny Haney said, “This is the only time in magic when it’s been cool to be homeless!” – more conventional settings seem be used for some of the instructional videos, settings which would seem to fall far from the “street” in “street magic.” On one of the most successful street-magic retail sites on the Web – ellusionist.com – this “review” was found, concerning some of the street magic instructional videos put out by ellusionist owner and street-magic guru, Brad Christian:

If I could improve the video, I’d actually have Brad go out on the streets and perform for real audiences. That’s all I ask for. In Street, he performed primarily in a living room for close friends and neighbors. Ninja 1 seemed to have the same comfortable, indoor setting. All the live performances in Ninja 2 took place in a fancy looking private bar. I would love to see Brad out in a nightclub with real people, or socializing on a street corner—with people he’s never met before. I’d like to see some real human interaction through street magic.

Certainly seems reasonable to me![3]

 

What is it with magic dealers named Brad?

Since we have now tumbled down the rabbit hole known as ellusionist, I am compelled to address the subject of its owner. Mr. Christian started up ellusionist.com, and his online biography tells us that “Brad Christian has performed and made his living doing phenomenal street magic on the streets of New York.”

Really?

His bio also informs us that Mr. Christian has actually performed for two celebrities: Nicholas Cage and Eric Roberts.[4]

For those who have not ventured into the ellusionist site, I will summarize the contents. Brad Christian has promoted himself into a position of standing of sorts in this small but profitable world of street magic. He has made a series of instructional videotapes; the first of which was called “How To Do Street Magic.” Later volumes have catchier names like “Ninja – Stealth Technique ” and “Ninja 2 – Weapons,” which, believe it or not, are about card magic.

The general impression one gets of Mr. Christian on his videos is that of a bland, middle-aged,[5] white-bread guy, with little performance ability, and sleight-of-hand skills at about the level of an amateur hobbyist with, by contemporary standards, perhaps one or two years of experience. As a street magician he is purely a creation of the camera, but even more important, his standing lies solely within a community that lacks any basis for comparison.

Hence, when Christian exhibits his unfortunate attempts at doing The Pass, his ability to gaze confidently into the camera with an expression of self-satisfied mastery is apparently enough to convince his inexperienced viewers and hungry consumers that they have seen something skillful. While magicians who possess genuine sleight-of-hand skills have traditionally utilized the Pass as a secret maneuver, Mr. Christian deliberately exposes it to his lay audiences in a no-skill-necessary, no-talent-required pseudo-gambling routine, and then sells this to his customers as an innovative breakthrough. In response to a published email from a customer (referred to as SJ below), asking if the explanation of the move doesn’t “weaken the effect,” Mr. Christian responds:

It strengthens the routine immensely. In fact - it isn't the Vegas routine anymore if you DON'T expose it... it's an ambitious card routine. Which isn't half as entertaining or thrilling to an audience as this. The fact that people are being let in on this incredible gambler's back room session is thrilling - I can't say enough about the sheer impact the routine has on people.

And you know, SJ - it actually IS a magic routine ... because you are using a theme (Vegas Cheating) to create incredible illusion in someone's mind. …
You have to let go of that notion of "magic" versus "not magic" - it just doesn't matter.

The reader is left to ponder that last statement on his own. I suppose, if Mr. Christian deserves any credit for his innovative use of the shift, it is this: If one is unable to do a shift as a secret sleight, use it instead as a flourish – to impress the audience with skill you don't possess.

 

The ellusionist story would not be complete without explaining that while Brad Christian makes money selling instructional videos and instant trick downloads, his biggest profit-stream may well be the playing cards he markets: decks with names like Viper, Ghost, and Black Tiger. These are cards with black backs, black faces, reversed colors, and other oddball variants of U.S. Playing Card pasteboards, which he markets to adolescents as “cool,” but of course violate the entire raison d’etre for doing magic with playing cards in the first place.

 

Because, after all, if the beauty and power of sleight of hand lies is the ability to do magic with ordinary objects, as opposed to relying on unnatural props – which is precisely why Victorian and Edwardian era apparatus either became extinct or was relegated to the kid-show magic ghetto – then these special cards are a giant step backwards, as the simple trustworthiness of a pack of commonplace and recognizable playing cards suddenly becomes transformed into a spectacularly suspicious object – or, as it says right in the advertising video: “A deck never before seen.” As if that were a good thing.[6]

Then there are the issues of Mr. Christian’s failure to credit originators for the material he exploits; his failure to obtain appropriate permission to use that material; and his habit of renaming well-known tricks in order to further obscure their origins.

As far back as 2003, when Mr. Christian was being attacked for these and other oversights on a thread on the Genii forum, he came on to respond. After a lame attempt to cover his tracks, he more or less concluded matters by telling one of his critics:

Oh, get off your high [Big Grin] horse and have some fun Andy!

Well, I guess that told ’em. But these are matters for another discussion.

Now, Brad Christian may be disingenuous, pretending that he is helping magic while instead he is just lining his pockets on the backs of genuine creators; however, there is no denying that he is tremendously successful. Although it is impossible to draw any real conclusions from the claim that the ellusionist forums boast some 60,000 members – it says nothing about how many remain currently active – nevertheless, industry sources suggest that when ellusionist posts a new $20 trick download, they might move as many as 10,000 pieces of a popular item within a few months. That’s a lot of money, especially considering that downloads cost the seller little beyond the expense of producing the instructional video, which today is an easy matter.

 

Mr. Christian is, of course, not alone. He is merely a prominent example of the trend. He is assisted by a handful of young men who help to crank out material that can be made to look good in well-edited video demos, is downloadable and (apparently) easy to do. When you have that many hungry mouths to fill, you need to keep putting out product. It doesn’t matter if the trick makes no sense, or if the premise or method is utter trash. It doesn’t matter if you’re charging $15 or $20 for a single trick that can be found in a whole book of tricks for perhaps double the asking price.[7]

 

Even a talented young magician like Daniel Garcia ends up demonstrating on video a complete piece of garbage – the “KAOS Surgical Card Through Glass,” created (such as it is) by one Sean Beard. Anyone with a modicum of conjuring knowledge will be able to tell from the demo video that the viewer is not being shown anything genuine – all the setup is concealed off camera – and if you have any further doubts, just go to youtube.com and search on “Kaos card trick” and you’ll find some kid’s crappy homemade demo unintentionally revealing all – and in this case, as in so many, the all is nothing.[8] In the hands of a genuinely clever magician like Daniel Garcia, the only conclusion to draw is that he is also a deliberately cynical junior marketeer – and if he keeps it up, it will rapidly diminish and ultimately squander his legitimate conjuring credentials. 

 

We will return to the methods of ellusionist.com, but for now, the question becomes this: If one accepts my premise that there is no such thing as street magic, except for roughly five guys with camera crews, then what in the name of street magic is happening here? Street magic may not be a working form of magic, but it must be something – it can’t be simply nothing.

 

To which I say: Street magic is a marketing sector. Nothing more. Nothing less.

 

Plus ça change…

If street magic is just a label for a piece of the magic marketplace – a piece separate from the traditional magic scene – what, if anything, is different about it?

At first blush, longtime magic enthusiasts might be inclined to shout: “Everything!” But is that really the case?

 

I don’t think so.

 

For as long as I can remember, and at least since the early-to-mid-20th century, magic has been pitched to newcomers with this come-on: “Be the life of the party!”

 

Street magic, I suggest, is merely the latest variation on that theme.

 

Now, the older among us may not find much appeal in the blaring background music (“Crank your speakers!” is the command accompanying the ellusionist demo videos), or the tee-shirt-and-Nikes garb that David Blaine established as the street-magic uniform. But magic dealers have always sold amateurs a fantasy, and on the face of it, the only difference is that the technology has changed.

 

The online street-magic demos are just that: a fantasy. Pretty girls do not hang out in vacant lots – at least not the ones the average teenager really wants to meet. Random passersby do not wish to be accosted by strangers, and they will not scream aloud at every 10-second stunt (at least, not without encouragement and video cameras). As Denny said, in reality there is no pounding music, no gritty graffiti wall. There is no camera crew. These kids are being sold a bill of goods by hucksters who actually have no discernible credentials other than their own instructional videos. Living vicariously through the staged exploits of self-proclaimed masters of a nonexistent pursuit, these novitiates are kneeling at the throne of the Emperor’s New Magic.

 

But how are those demos any different than the catalog ads I read as a kid, and the stylish and evocative Nelson Hahne illustrations that accompanied them? We lived a rich fantasy life through those illustrations, imagining ourselves not merely the life of the party – that was just the start – but beyond that, as the sophisticated sorcerer in top hat and tails, with the power of magic flowing from our eyes and fingertips, just like the electric lightning bolts flowing in the catalog art.

 

Nowadays, the illustrations come with music and screaming girls. Now, the fantasy consumers have a different model – not the professionals we saw doing manipulative magic or illusions on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but rather the cool “kids” inducing street-side freak-outs on network television specials. The definition of cool has changed, but the desire to be cool hasn’t.

 

And who is it that wants to be cool? You can’t blame the victims; geeky adolescents with no social skills have always comprised a large part of every young generation starting in magic. In fact, most beginners – from seven to 70 – are trying to compensate for some kind of social inadequacy. The ones who excel are those who transcend that initial motivation and discover something beyond their own needs – namely, the needs of the audience – and learn how to fulfill those, and not just their own. But nobody is any good right out of the starting gate, and the fact that these kids have no skills – social, magical, or otherwise – is neither new nor criminal.

 

And how else was magic sold 50 and 60 and 70 years ago or more – along with the claim that you could be the life of the party? We were told it was easy. No skill required. No talent necessary! “Self-working magic,” as if there ever were or ever will be such a thing.

 

And how is that different from the ellusionist assurance that when you buy “How To Be A Street Magician” ….

You Will Do Powerful and Impossible
Magic The Very First Day
You Receive 'The Video'

Really?

So Mr. Christian is undoubtedly selling a lie, a vision of a promised land no more real or reachable than Brigadoon. And yet, even so, how different is Brad Christian’s business plan from the project that opened the doorway to this brave-new-world way to market magic, namely the so-called “Easy To Master” magic videos? These were the first compilations assembled by hunter-gatherers – not creators – and presented to a consumer marketplace as magic that was, above all, “easy to master.” Yes, much of the material was credited, and many of the living “contributors” were asked for permission, but the record in these areas is far from spotless – and the phrase “easy to master” is, of course, a deliberate lie.

So, is there really a difference?

Well, not from the looks of it, so far.

But actually – I think there is.

 

“…not only evolution takes place over time; so does erosion.” – Tom Stone

I began doing magic when I was seven years old. My first trick was the Color Vision Box, sold to and taught to my father by Lou Tannen. Lou taught a lot in that first lesson, which my father in turn passed along to me. There was presentation – how to pretend to be reading minds. There was respect for the secret. There was the caution to practice before performing. Within a few years, when I began to go to the magic shop, there was respect for tradition, for masters, and there were books. I was barely an adolescent when Lou Tannen sold me The Royal Road to Card Magic, Lorayne’s Close-up Card Magic, and, of course, Volume 1 of The Tarbell Course in Magic.[9]

When I think back and try to remember a young version of myself actually performing magic, I am about 12 years old. I attend a friend’s bar-mitzvah, and in my pockets I have an Amadeo Acrobatic Matchbox. Dizzy Dominoes. The Money Paddle.

These are good tricks. This is real conjuring. Every one of these tricks is deceptive, engaging, and actually consists of a multi-phase routine, which builds from the start to a distinct climax. And what’s more, the social model in which I was utilizing these tricks was viable. I was performing for my friends, and I was making new friends. Magic actually did help this painfully shy and introverted child to build confidence and connect socially. And, the qualities of the tricks I was using set me on the path to becoming a conjuror. I was learning lessons that would serve me to this very day. And what’s more, the professional model I was presented with turned out to be close enough to become my actual profession – as a corporate entertainer performing everything from close-up magic to platform mentalism.

So what’s different about street magic?

Maybe not everything, but when you put it that way …

First of all, the overwhelming majority of the newer street magic tricks are, quite simply, crap. The methods are weak, impractical, often “angly.” There is no presentation to speak of; after all, what is left to say if the trick only takes 30 seconds to perform – if that long – other than Blaine’s ingenious, “Wanna see something?”? A single snappy visual and you’re done. The tricks take longer to download than they do to perform.

Even the hoariest standards of magic – tricks that literally anyone can get some kind of reaction with, like Professor’s Nightmare or The Chinese Sticks – are far – FAR! – superior to the crap being sold to kids in the guise of street magic. Why? Because these are tricks that engage an audience, that build to a routined climax, that lend themselves to an actual performance, and that speak to that magical experience that Burger talks about – of something beyond itself – rather than a mere moment of shock.

What’s more, there is a kind of magical plausibility – for lack of a better description, for this is a complicated and difficult concept to identify and define – to good magic that is utterly absent in so much street magic. Consider a popular street-magic trick in which a pen visibly penetrates a quarter. Unlike many of these items, the method here is clever and the video might fool even a well-informed magician – which is certainly enough to sell it to a substantial portion of the street-magic market. (You can’t download this one, you have to buy the gimmick.) But, the bombastic music accompanying the demo aside, the trick is weak. It is not believable by any stretch. The performer on the video makes the penetration effortlessly – and yet the quarter is “blown out” on one side, leaving the coin with ragged torn edges around the hole.

Now, while the handling is novel, this prop coin is not a new idea. And although it has been in circulation for decades, it has always been a lousy trick that made no sense, regardless of the application.[10] But to understand this you must consider the difference between a stunt and mystery. You have to be able to distinguish between “that notion of ‘magic’ versus ‘not magic.’”

Consider the difference between any effect with a blown-out coin versus effects like David Roth’s Karate Coin[11] or Pressley Guitar’s Cigarette Through Quarter. The effect of these last two examples is that of a magical, impossible, penetration and restoration. In the case of the Cigarette Through Quarter, the coin is generally borrowed from the spectator. In both tricks, the coins are mysteriously penetrated – in one case by the magician’s finger, in the other, by a cigarette – and then the finger or cigarette is withdrawn from the coin (slowly and visibly in the case of the cigarette, which is what renders it superior to the Karate Coin), and the restored coin is handed to the spectator.[12]

This is not a stunt. This is impossible. This is mysterious. This is magic!

Whereas, if you apparently shove your finger, or a pen, through a coin, and then hand the audience a coin with a ragged hole in the center, no one with two available brain cells sufficient to rub together and spark a thought will think anything but: Where’s the other coin?

This is lousy magic for many reasons. Among other things, it violates the Too Perfect Theory, because the only available explanation is the actual explanation. There is no way to build in any psychological misdirection to prevent the spectator from reconstructing the method. The effect itself is not magically plausible, not believable; while a mysterious penetration can in fact be magically convincing when properly performed (the subtle and difficult-to-describe element of plausibility mentioned above), the instantaneous jamming of a pen or finger through a metal coin, leaving a jagged hole behind, is not believable in the slightest. It may be surprising – but when the impact of the surprise fades, it leaves no lasting magical effect in its place. It is little more than a sight gag – a stunt, at best.

Yet countless street-magic tricks suffer from similar flaws – of effect, of method, of performance – and of social setting.

About the imagined setting for street-magic consumers, Eugene Burger said to me that, “On one level it’s the ultimate trivialization of magic: accosting strangers on the street.” Whereas at 12 and 13 and 15 years of age, I performed for my friends, for my relatives, for my parents’ friends, today’s fantasizing urban pranksters are being encouraged to flag down passersby and attempt to do magic for them. Yet, by the same token, they are given no tools with which to create any sort of meaningful social interaction. They are attempting to jolt the audience – to evoke a screech of shock – but with nothing more than a 10-second visual, how do you construct a relationship? How do you create a dialogue? How do you learn a social skill? On the scale of magic’s potential impact on spectators, shock strikes me as a juvenile pursuit, in both its appeal to the practitioner and in its maturity of effect on the viewer.

I was learning a useful conjuring model in a workable social construct. Young street-magicians are being sold a bill of goods, a house of cards constructed on lousy conjuring principles and an impossible social concept.

But wait – there’s more.

Remember how I was encouraged to respect the secret – and respect my art – by not performing any trick until it was ready?

If you go to ellusionist.com and take down the names of half a dozen popular tricks, and then (as mentioned previously) go to youtube.com and search on them, you will discover a remarkable phenomenon. There you will find hundreds upon hundreds of homemade videos by adolescent street-magic hobbyists, demonstrating these tricks for the camera. The looking-glass world one finds here is astonishing, albeit not in the desired way. In fact, I’ll save you a step and give you some search terms:

kaos card – revolution coin trick – king rising levitation – indecent card in ziploc bag

If you search on these phrases on youtube, you will find in each case dozens of homemade videos of adolescents demonstrating these tricks – complete with music and, in some cases, titles between segments! What is ironic is that these simple production skills are trivial to accomplish, even for children – and clearly, they are much easier to master than the ability to do even these simple tricks well, because most of these postings inadvertently expose the methods, as the commentary posted by viewers repeatedly demonstrates. Thus, not only is the respect for magic and secrets progressively diluted by on-line marketers – who repeatedly insist to their young aficionados that all these tricks are easily mastered within minutes or days at most – but the old saw about achieving mastery before performing for the public is tossed out the window faster than the blast of an overfed child puking from motion sickness.

Yet things are even more bizarre than that – because most of these videos are “performed” solely for the camera. These are adolescent males performing in their bedrooms and bathrooms, without having to interact with any human being directly. How is that going to teach anyone social or performance skills? And at the same time, of course, they really are not performing at all – they are practicing. But they are practicing before audiences of hundreds or thousands and potentially more.

And why shouldn’t that innocent and well-intentioned 14-year-old kid expose his awful attempts at the Pass when, after all, his hero and teacher has not only told him that he can learn to do it instantly, but has offered a model that is little better than the child’s week-old attempts!

And down, down through the rabbit hole we fall …

You raise up your head
And you ask, "Is this where it is?"
And somebody points to you and says
"It's his"
And you say, "What's mine?"
And somebody else says, "Where what is?"
And you say, "Oh my God
Am I here all alone?"

So what’s to be done about it? And what do we make of it all?

 

Well, there’s nothing to be done about it. The Information Age is thoroughly upon us, and just because magicians care about secrets doesn’t mean magic will get a free pass – nobody goes unscathed. As I have said before,[13] the ready access to conjuring secrets serves only to expand the quantity of bad magic in the marketplace (not merely the retail marketplace but the performing marketplace as well), and thus raises the bar for those who hope to distinguish themselves from the madding crowd. You cannot achieve that distinction with the same catalog of standard over-the-counter material, because these weapons have been turned loose in the hands of children. You must do the real work, or you will be caught out as the poser you are. And if you think about it, this is actually a good thing, that just might help to dispel the fact – bemoaned by Tommy Wonder in The Books of Wonder – that sometimes in magic, “lack of artistry and skill is protected by the secret.”[14]

 

But I suppose that what concerns me most about street-magic marketing is that we are faced with an incoming generation of young magicians who – for those few who do not merely toss magic aside within a few months or a year – for those few who wish to make it to another level, closer to that of the real art of magic – they are being dead-ended. There are precious few books for sale on ellusionist, where I am unable to find a copy of Tarbell for purchase. There is damned little mention of historical traditions and valued old masters, so prevalent in serious artistic circles, save for the condescending lip-service Brad Christian pays to generic and unnamed “old-timers” whom he pretends to venerate but insults with the term.

 

I fear that those precious few souls with the potential to make real progress will be hindered from doing so by wasting their time and energy on what is at best an unproductive path. Denny Haney – who has raised a generation or more of accomplished amateurs and professionals alike via his influence at the Denny & Lee Magic Studios – recounted to me how street-magic enthusiasts who have had the good fortune to fall under his influence have come back to him and said, “I’ve learned more in six months with you than I did in two years of learning the wrong way.”

 

I propose that street magic does not exist as a magic form – not in performers, in audiences, in venue, or in content. And it certainly does not exist as a future. The pendulum of how to both present and sell magic to the public – as audiences and as hobbyists – swings slowly but inexorably. Just as Doug Henning created the modern television magic-special and brought magic into the (almost) contemporary dress of the 60s tie-dyed and long-haired era; just as Copperfield established magic and mega-tricks done in 70s fashions to VH-1 music; just as Penn & Teller became the anti-magicians, wearing grey business suits and demolishing the pomp and pompadour of their superstar predecessors, tearing down the pretensions of the era and winning the audience’s trust via clever pseudo-exposures; so did David Blaine become the next generation’s anti-magician, establishing a new costume, taking magic out of the Las Vegas showroom and legitimizing the television performance of close-up magic, by turning the camera on the audience and doing away with the solemn insistence that “the camera will never cut away.” Blaine deserves credit for these innovations, which redefined the way magic is presented on television, and without whom there would be no Derren Brown or Cyril Takayama specials as we know them.

 

But what young enthusiasts fail to realize is that the pendulum has not stopped swinging. There is no “end of history” (to misuse Francis Fukuyama’s phrase) for magic, and today’s television world of street magic is destined to join the trash heap of broken formulas, right behind “World’s Greatest Magic” and “World’s Wildest Magic” and all the rest of the forgotten and forgettable worlds of magic that came and went across the electronic screen.

 

Yet, there will always be a place – artistically, socially, and professionally – for good magic, done well. And the sooner young beginners realize this fact, the better chance they have of finding the path to becoming magicians, and pursuing an artistic endeavor that can provide a lifetime of enduring challenges and the satisfactions of meeting them. 

 

I propose that street magic does not exist in terms of performers. At least not for professional performers – because without a camera crew in tow, no one can make a living at this.

 

I propose that street magic does not exist in terms of audience. Because without a camera crew, who wants to be accosted by strange adolescents threatening magic?

 

I propose that street magic does not exist as a venue. I spoke with Jon Lovick, one of the bookers at the Magic Castle, which presents more than 350 magicians a year. When I asked him if he had ever seen a single act perform anything remotely like what is marketed as street magic – well, the answer is obvious, isn’t it?

 

I propose that street magic does not exist in terms of material. Because, when it comes right down to it, how much of the magic we see in the guise of television street-magic really exists? We will never be told the actual shooting ratio of what quantity of tape is shot versus what amount makes it to air, but there is little doubt that, as time goes on, more and more of the magic we see on television actually does not exist at all. Credibility is a supremely pressing issue when presenting magic on television. Having worked a fair amount in television, I can attest that it is of nothing less than constant concern. Blaine’s innovation of turning the camera on the audience provided a new way of achieving credibility, which in turn allows for a lot of creative camera and editing work that previously would have risked becoming obvious to the average viewer. The result – as has become increasingly clear to the magic community – is that there is a certain amount (and it is difficult to say exactly how much) of magic being performed on television that simply cannot be performed anywhere else. Indeed – as Blaine established with his levitation – there is some magic that simply cannot be performed at all, and is not really being performed live for any genuine audience, because there might be as many stooges in a single camera shot as there are in an entire Copperfield theater audience.

 

This in turn raises another issue – which is, as David Ben put it to me: When does the most honest of all professions (as Karl Germain described it) become so dishonest that it is no longer possible to do honestly? And, as Ben also pointed out, this begins to become an unfairly competitive factor in the business world, when professionals cannot match what is seen on television (and as Eugene Burger commented to me, this also begins to become an unfair burden of sorts on amateur magicians), as a conspiracy of silence (in Ben’s words) assists the television magicians in perpetuating their mythos, because when other magicians – both professional colleagues and gracious amateurs – are asked about these effects, it would be terribly disappointing to the audience, as well as perhaps unfair to the performers, to suggest that there is another kind of trickery afoot that the audience does not suspect.

 

The fact that some television magic does not actually exist at all is one aspect of that argument, but another is the quality of the tricks themselves, as already discussed. An example that first got me seriously thinking about street magic is a trick called “Rainmaker,” in which the wonder worker can, according to the ad copy, “summon the power of the rain gods.” I went online to view a demo video, and what I saw was both unimpressive and unsurprising. In typical street-magic style – there’s a trash dumpster in the background – a handful of spectators chant “Rainmaker, rainmaker, rainmaker,” whereupon some water spritzes on them from an unclear source. One of the spectators shouts, “I was pissed on,” as most break into laughter; in another scene, a young spectator responds to the drizzle by asking, “What was that?”

 

“The ceremony is broken,” reads the Rainmaker ad copy, “and the rain stops, changing the lives of everyone in the circle!”

 

Really?

 

The video hardly depicts the reactions of a transformed group that has witnessed a human being demonstrating power and control over the forces of heaven and earth. Rather, these are the reactions of people who, as Eugene Burger put it, have been “cosmically peed on” – or, perhaps, presented with “a novel finale for the Pea Can.”

 

In viewing the demo video that can be readily located on the Web, I believe I violate no trusts when I suggest that what you are purchasing for your $160 is some kind of remote-controlled water gun with a water reservoir that is concealed on your body – a combination lawn sprinkler and colostomy bag. I will not go into further detail than this, out of respect for the manufacturer’s secret – and indeed, the prop, which, from what I gather, is reasonably well made. But is this not merely further proof that the tricks, such as they are, are little more than stunts and gags that take no more than a few seconds to demonstrate, and provide nothing in the way of performance material or pathways to conjuring skills? I don’t think I could count on the fingers of one hand magicians who might – might – be able to make something substantial out of this – and even then, I don’t know where they would do it. Is a performer with the theatrical chops to put something like this over going to make it rain in civilized conditions – indoors?  At that point, it makes no sense.

 

Finally, thoughtful magic dealers with professional performing experience – men like Denny Haney, and David Malek[15] – repeatedly told me there simply is no street magic because, as Haney said, “Everything is street magic.” In other words, if standard magic is performed on the street, it suddenly becomes street magic. As Malek put it, “The Ambitious Card routine that David Blaine did was no different – it was just on the street. The Balducci levitation is still the Balducci levitation.” Good magic, they seem to be saying, will always remain good magic, no matter where it’s performed. And bad magic doesn’t become good magic merely by doing it in an empty lot.

 

 

And yet … and yet …

 

I began in magic at the age of seven, but I did not do a paid show until I was 29. There are a number of reasons I changed careers, including the independence of self-employment, the desire for artistic self-expression, the opportunity to do work that was important to me – but another significant reason was a hunger for audiences of strangers. By the time I was in my 20s I was growing less and less interested in performing for friends, both because performance is a mask that conceals one’s self from intimates, and because performing for people one knows is not enough of a challenge or a test – it’s too easy to succeed, and such success is no measure of quality. In my last years as an amateur (and indeed my earliest years as a professional), I would often perform socially in bars and clubs that I frequented. More often than not I knew some of the people present, but that gave me an opportunity to show them something new, while expanding the circle to more people. Thus, I had the chance to perform for fresh faces who were not pre-sold. It was not as satisfying as performing for money, but it was better than performing entirely for friends.

 

On one of the forums on the ellusionist site, I found a post from a man who does much the same thing at his local coffee shop. His wife and young child sit with him, and he begins to perform for her, as a way of attracting a larger audience. His mate “is great at becoming invisible at the right times, as a great assistant (and partner) always is,” and the coffee shop clientele “are like ripe apples, just waiting to be picked by me and my Invisible Deck.”

 

But is Mr. Coffee (or was I) doing street magic, according to the definitions I’ve addressed? Or is he operating in a more reasonable social setting, a more viable performance setting, by, at the very least, bringing the audience to him?

 

 

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, "Who is that man?"
You try so hard
But you don't understand
Just what you'll say
When you get home

In researching this essay, I spent a painful amount of time online, watching videos, reading illiterate forum posts, searching through youtube and watching children who will likely never be able to do a Classic Pass deliberately explaining it to anyone who cares to watch. (Fortunately, such demonstrations, while simultaneously grotesque and pitifully offensive, will never damage the work of any expert who can actually do the move.) I spoke to a sampling of industry colleagues. Magazine publishers who sell advertising and distributors who sell magic didn’t want to be quoted on the record, while a couple of (admittedly hand-picked) retail dealers were happy to do so.

Some may believe that the street-magic phenomenon will define the mainstream amateur magic of tomorrow. On the other hand, it seems unlikely to me that the street-magic approach could ever end up defining the nature of professional magic – since, as I have argued, there is currently no professional venue for it (without a camera crew), and, it seems to me, there is barely an amateur one.

 

There have always been two magics. As I pointed out in my book, Shattering Illusions,[16] it used to be that the expert had a thumb tip and the dabbler had a Red Snapper; now, thanks to the Information Age, “the dabbler has an ITR, a Topit, and 101 revelations on a silvered video platter for a multiple selection routine.” My conclusion was that “the bar has been raised, like it or not. And in order to [clear] that bar, you’re going to have to become a great conjuror.”

 

These distinctions are about the technology, but there have also always been two magics with different artistic goals. There will always be those who dabble in magic, seeking the most impact for the least effort, and when the excitement of secrets and surprises wears off, most will eventually leave magic behind, while the rest will be satisfied to get a laugh when they take out their fire wallet to pay the bar tab.

 

And there will always be those – invariably a much smaller group, and how could it be otherwise? – who pursue magic as a timeless art, a means of self-expression, and who explore its distinctive intellectual and artistic territory, and its unique characteristics in the range of human experience.

 

These two groups have never had much in common, beyond their primitive origins. They may glance at each other suspiciously, observing one another’s strange behavior from a distance, or, lurking in one another’s native online forums, trying to make sense of local names and odd language.[17]  But there has never been much more than an uneasy truce between the factions, and often the two live out their lives barely aware of the other’s existence.

 

In the end, Street Magic is probably neither a death knell nor a revolution. Plus c’est la même chose.


Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

 



[1] Marco Tempest has been featured in four television specials in the past year for NHK television in Japan. Full disclosure: I have contributed, in various roles, to some of these programs.

[2] An accomplished professional performer who now operates one of the finest retail magic businesses in the U.S., Denny & Lee Magic Studios.

[3] Lest you get the idea that this site features a great deal of honest and critical evaluation, do not be misled. The above excerpt is a rare exception, written by someone who goes by the stage name of RT Showmann – a pseudonym for one Raymond Tolentino Singson – whose fawning “reviews” litter the site.

[4] I realize the notion of considering Julia Roberts’ brother a “celebrity” may seem overly generous at this point, but with a lengthy IMDB.com entry, I am willing to be kind here to both Mr. Christian and Mr. Roberts. And after all, he did do Runaway Train.

 

[5] From an interview on ellusionist.com:

 

Q: So first of all, where and when were you born?

                Brad: Vancouver BC, Canada – after age 30 I don't discuss age!

 

I suppose if you are a decade or two older than your customer base, Jack Weinberg's (of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement) prescription from the 1960s offers a potent motivation for secretiveness: “You can't trust anybody over thirty.”

 

 

[6] Of course, this is all part of a trend toward cluelessness, as evidenced by a trick published in MAGIC magazine last year that actually utilized a Joe Porper-style card clip – a device that should never even be seen by an audience, since it utterly diminishes the perception of the deck’s otherwise presumed ordinariness. Absent the use of irony, this is simply comedy – intentional or not.

[7] In the alternate-reality world of street magic, Eddie Fechter’s masterpiece, “Be Honest, What Is It?” has become known as “2-Card Monte,” thanks to the “presentation” David Blaine used on an early TV special. This trick can be purchased from ellusionist for $17 – I’m not joking. Of course, it is also included in Fechter by Jerry Mentzer, a book with more than 75 tricks and sleights, which retails for $45. Do the math.

[8] There is a fitting irony here – namely, that the selling point of “do it instantly” is backfiring on the seller, fostering exposés perpetrated by the very kids who are exercising his advice.

[9] Thanks, Lou.

[10] The one notable exception was a brilliant application by Derek Dingle in his unique handling of the Cigarette Through Quarter – an approach that treated the blown-out coin as a gag, and as an ingenious tool  of misdirection.

[11] Based in turn on “A Finger Gimlet” from Coin Magic by Jean Hugard (1935).   

[12] The original effect description of the Finger Gimlet reads:  “You push the tip of your forefinger through the middle of a borrowed coin, encircling the finger ring fashion. You restore the coin and return it undamaged.  (Emphasis added.)

[13] And written – see, for example, “Magic In the Age of Information, Genii, April 2001; reprinted and expanded in Shattering Illusions, Hermetic Press, 2002.

[14] Volume II, “Thoughts in Mid-Air,” page 259

[15] Owner of Earth’s Largest Magic Shop, www.elmagicshop.com, and an accomplished sleight-of-hand artist and gambling expert. 

[16] “Magic in the Age of Information,” op. cit.

[17] Occasional encounters on the muddy, bloody grounds of the Green Monster (otherwise known as the Magic Café) may lead to mutual head scratching or violent marking of territory.