Hiding the Elephant in the Room – Performance Magic and Practice Research

The Chair in the Studio

A transcription of a research seminar delivered 31/03/21

The seminar itself is now live:

Thank you for inviting me to speak.
And to speak on an aspect of my work that I never expected to speak about.
The practice element of my research is something that has never been explicitly outward facing.
It has always been fragmented.
It denies any neat methodology or any attempts to apply one.
There is no specific end point.
There is no specific product.
I’m excited/delighted to be talking about the work, but I am equally apprehensive.
In fact, when I was writing the script for tonight’s presentation I realised the act of writing it down was imposing a structure to something I’d like to have remained fragmented.
This structure felt imposed.
This comes from an innate sense that this must be a significant output.
That was something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.
So I chose to cut text, with both ctrl-c and with scissors.
This evening I assigned numbers to each paragraph or section.
I then wrote a very simple bit of code re-fragment what I had.
I hope you will forgive the indulgence.
 Surprisingly, the code asked me to begin with a fragment about coding.

Practice in Lockdown #2 The Poetry of Coding

In lockdown, being away from the studio, I took another direction.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to talk about this as practice, but I think it’s useful because it’s something that has been feeding into how I think of the creative process.
With coding I attempt see if I can programme the steps of my magic process, and magic effects (tricks) into Python functions.
For example, this is an effect using geomancy that I perform regularly.
I’m looking at what happens when I translate that into code to the computer or in this case the microcontroller. 
Can I then perform the steps of the trick and construct/reconstruct the actions in code?
The thinking is different and in turn the method of the magic effect is re-shaped into a logical process as you are faced with problems you don’t normally have to solve.
I hope to try this recoding of coding back into the physical space soon.
Do the succinct or even complex workarounds we have to make when coding have an affect on what we can do in when back in the space.
As a magician to code practise and then working with that code is really fascinating.
It is also a step away from the question of persona (a question that has been with me for a while). 
Code strips away identity, and so I’m interested in coming back to it to find a performance identity – based on a beginner’s mind.

Notebooks

My notebooks range from ordered, to a mess. There are tricks in them, but the aim isn’t to be an inventor and sometimes it’s stream of consciousness.
A stream of conscious nonsense, feelings and rants and just generally stuff that I want to get out and onto the page.
Some of it doesn’t go anywhere.
I know that’s not terribly methodologically sound, but I want to capture everything. Notebooks help – taking those notes and decoding them is very much part of reconstituting of the practice into some-thing.
However the ‘something’ should not be a goal.
Not having an endpoint to this is a luxury.

Someone Else #3 Frankfurt

A magician’s relationship to bullshit is complicated there is so much pretending you are something you are not.
In the playground we would say, ‘ you really think you’re it.’
The act of being a magician is far more irresponsible than simply bullshitting.
That’s one of the reasons I don’t normally talk about my practice or my journey into or through magic.
It doesn’t fit in to the magic autobiography of the bullshitter.
In the academy talking about practice feels uncomfortable for me, so thank you for putting up with my bullshit this evening.
I remembered a concluding remark in Frankfurt’s On Bullshit;

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”

(Frankfurt, 2009, pp. 25–26)

Note to self: There may be echoes of that in this presentation.

Hiding the Elephant in the Room

Why have I called this presentation – Hiding the Elephant in the Room?
I’ve taken part of this title from Steinmeyer’s book Hiding the Elephant.
The book charts a journey through the Golden age of Magic beginning around 1862 with the earliest Pepper’s Ghost illusion through to Houdini’s performance of the disappearing elephant trick in 1918.
The disappearing elephant trick was according to Steinmeyer and many contemporary critics … ‘unimpressive’.
For me the story that unfolds in the book ends on a low note.
Steinmeyer’s coda to the story gives us a key;

“Magicians have an uneasy, debilitating relationship with secrets, which they know to be priceless and worthless at the same time. The actual devices might be simple and crude and only of value as tools for a larger goal.”

(Steinmeyer, 2003, p. 301)

But this presentation is about practice, it isn’t about secrets.
So, here’s a my version of the Steinmeyer;

Nik has an uneasy, debilitating relationship with practice, he knows that practice is priceless and worthless at the same time. His actual practice might be simple and crude and only of value as a tool for a larger goal.

This evening I’m going to present a deliberately fragmented approach my thinking around this statement.

Someone Else #1 Corrieri

Augusto Corrieri in “An autobiography of hands: on training in sleight of hand magic” takes an autobiographical approach to accounting his practice. He draws from Le Roy’s contention that “perhaps biographical narration in itself constitutes a mode of theorising” (Corrieri, 2016, p. 284)
Corrieri’s maps his chronological journey through sleight of hand magic.
He begins this process by writing his CV.
The practice is traditionally linear.
The journey is traditionally performative.
The question for me was does this linear approach fully capture the fragmented nature of my own journey through magic which is far more fragmented and problematic?
I tried writing a CV of magic, it didn’t seem honest and it missed out so much.
Although honesty and missing out truths is pretty much a magician’s thing to do, so I don’t know why it bothered me so much.
I believe my need to understand through practice doesn’t just come from the engagement with training in magic in a traditional sense.
It comes from the fragmented nature of all that we have become in our lives.
My approach is fragmented through memory – and a coming to terms.
It is private, it is sometimes angry, it is sometimes lost.
And quite often it’s not ready to be seen.
But does that matter?
In a way yes, as outwardly/externally the performance of magic and the persona of the magician, relies on performative writing rather than honesty.
A CV that claims to set out training is, itself, a performance.
A CV is a performance.
It is a deception.

(re)Discoveries of Magic(k)

When asked what I do, I reply I’m a magician … I sometimes add ‘but not that type’.
There’s a lot to my reasons for this but, more of those later, or before – depending on how this presentation gets fragmented and randomised.
Quite a lot of my work is around something called Bizarre Magick. An easily dismissed genre, but I think an important one.
It was a countercultural reaction against the glamour and glitz of magic in the seventies – although has foundations way back.
It allows for a rediscovery of a whole bunch of darker and, if you like, real magick.
Add some Gothic, add some horror and sprinkle liberally with storytelling and character.
When I started exploring this genre I discovered a community of thinkers quite different from other communities of magicians I’d been involved in.
I also felt more comfortable with the themes and the ideas and the people.
I found this community supportive, imaginative and interesting and friendly.
Less polarised than other communities of practice in performance magic.
Interested in talking through ideas.
I think the allowance for that discourse is somewhat baked into the form itself.
The form isn’t about method or finger-flinging – it’s about the moment of story.
We are – Ultra nerds, kind of cool nerds – but a bit metal – maybe we’re the rough boys – I don’t know.
What I do know is that persona – dramaturgy – story telling – meaning were all aspects of magic I wasn’t used to exploring.

Anger

You see I can’t separate my journey through magic, from growing up the way I did, anger at being excluded and labelled, anger at privilege, anger at my physical body and hours spent at nothing.
But the swallowing of anger is quite a working class thing. This anger is suppressed, it has nowhere to go. And when it does find an outlet, it’s not usually healthy.
Magic did not save me.
At 15 a teacher took me aside for a chat – he said I wasn’t like the other kids and had I thought about university.
I obviously hadn’t as knew nothing about university or polys or anything like that.
In fact I genuinely thought there were only two universities in the country; Oxford and Cambridge.
I had no idea what went on there, although I suspected it was populated by hairy men with wearing large glasses and mainly beige suits.
These places were not for people like me – institutionalised knowledge suspension. Exclusion.
Why am I telling you this? It’s because these things provide a foundation to the continued working-class chip I have on my shoulder.
What did I have in common with the bourgeois magician and their right of centre politics?
I’ll stop you there – you’re starting to write performatively –you Dr Taylor are you’re just mashing up memories to make you sound good.

Out of Tricks

I want to reflect
… on my own discovery of magic.
… on my journey to a way of thinking
a way of thinking that I am happily unconvinced about.

Taylor, N. (2014)


Someone Else #2 – Hughes

choreography, curation, hosting –
If you haven’t already read the stuff coming from Mark Hughes – his open letters from a PhD project – you should.
His journey through practice is fascinating.
In his last letter he stated;

“For me there is always a tension between allowing yourself to see what emerges in free practice and working towards something.  Something that probably needs to be archived, performed or REF-able.”

(Hughes, 2021)

I haven’t found myself in that place as the ref-able material isn’t directly (at least for now) rooted in practice.  Practice is something that supplements some of my outputs.
This has come from being unsure of the usefulness of practice as research.

Childhood

Taking another approach, I placed myself in experiences that I was never part of.
Different situations or different imaginings , be they economic, learning, or mentoring.
All fictions.
Some of this work eventually found its way in the article ‘Out of Tricks’ – through my practice exploring HG Wells the Magic Shop.
I called this part of my work, ‘This did not happen to me’.
I was creating false autobiographies and putting myself inside of them.
Memories not my own.
As a child they are memories I wanted.
As a child creating my own fictional autobiography was a desire.
As a magician it is a necessity
I’m not sure I was/am comfortable with either.

Abandoned Magic

During lockdown and partly as a consequence of not being in a studio, I started a series of photographs called Abandoned Magic.
I wanted to get back in touch with my earliest journeys through magic.
You see, when it comes to magic I never throw anything away.
This means I have boxes of stuff, treasure to magicians, crap to everyone else.
Actually, it can be crap to magicians.
Abandoned Magic are photographs that tell tales of magic that I’ve performed, used or made when I was a kid.
These photographs tell an autobiographical journey.
The photograph here with the Joker and the Matchbox – or ‘playing card to matchbox’
I must have made this when I was eight or nine, probably from trick in a library book or something.
The story it tells:
I can see the house we lived in.
I can see the living room where made the thing.
The matchbox itself is a wooden matchbox, probably from my dad’s cigarette. I might have popped to the shop to get those.
I don’t know that for sure though as kids playing with matches and setting fire to stuff was a hobby for kids in the seventies, so I could have got it elsewhere.
I don’t think they make wooden matchboxes anymore do they?
The playing card is important, it’s from a cheap pack of cards that’s significant.
The pack of cards itself was probably terrible to do magic with.
When I look at bicycle cards these days, I wonder how I even managed.
 It’s also made from the joker, that’s important.
I would have only had one pack of cards, and so to make this object I would use a card that wouldn’t really affect the deck.
This the Joker would have been easily sacrificed.
Within this photographs I see loss, people, times, energy.

Mapping the Work

I try not to map the practice.
I try not to map before, during, and after.
– but it is inevitable that I do.
I’m interested in the accidents that occur in the space.
But equally I might see what happens when I endlessly repeat a card trick.
What happens if I endlessly practice a difficult move.
Repeat and action – how my body, how my hands respond.
And the mess that’s left at the end

Endless practice the limitations of my body, my hands my age and …

Autobiographical? This work has to be autobiographical.
So much of my practice is looking backwards.
I’ve redacted most of this section as I’m not ready to talk about it.
In the Handbook of Auto Ethnography – the editors describe the process as ‘complex and uncertain’ with encouragement ‘to embrace vulnerability with purpose’ – I’m not quite ready to share that element of me.
Mitigation of vulnerability has been activated.

Popuplus and Via

Mid way in that last chuck of practice I described myself as between the geomantic symbols via and populus.
I come back to geomantic work regularly in practice (and indeed performance).
Note: the interface with ‘ real magic’ is something that I rarely talk about. Part of this work saw me undertake bardic training with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.
Populus represents stability, security, and the status quo. It is fortified by the waxing moon, it moves towards the light. It is a safe place to be, if you are allowed to be part of it or even if you allow yourself to be part of it.
 Via is a rapid river running through this balance, represented by the waning moon it takes us into the dark places. Full of energy it represents an unstable path; it is a symbol of change. I find myself in via often, and sometimes I don’t like it,
 Magician Max Maven once said . . . a culture without magic or mystery would be insane.
 I think that as you explore magic, mystery, practice, truth, genuineness, honesty and bullshit you can become insane.

What thoughts come and recording it all

I record everything that goes on in the space, watch it back and make notes.
Make more notes, including notes on me making notes.
All of which will probably only be seen by me – I’m not making a video essay, or a demonstration of practice, or a performance to be seen by real people.
These are essentially private moments.
That’s probably the best way to put.

Disclaimer

I didn’t know how to structure this presentation at all.
I’m haven’t ever talked about my practise and or what goes on.
I write articles and chapters, and practice can feel stolen, or unjustified.
For me practice isn’t a rehearsal, it isn’t practicing a magic trick.
There is no end point necessarily.
It’s fragmented, recorded and notes are made.
While there was no intention that the work leads anywhere, it inevitable does.
It contains vulnerabilities.
It is private.
It contains truths.
There is little place for truths in performance magic.

Politics

I often find myself amidst a tension, deep rooted in working class, anti-art.
What good is practice if it doesn’t make anything?
The bourgeois magician.
‘The entertainer asks for a volunteer, the volunteer replies Fuck off, I’m not getting up onstage, I’ve been at work all day, entertain me! Do I ask you to come down where I work and polish my lathe?’ – that was Ben Elton in 1985 – Ben Elton, there’s a whole lot there about performance persona and the leftist elite
Growing up it was class based institutionalized exclusion.
The deep seated inground sensibility that we should get a proper job.
The music lesson at school about how you should not rebel and start a band.
Creativity breeds dissent.
Today politics is still deeply embedded in the magic community, but today I feel it is less about class and more to do with gender and race.

Endless practice, repetition and the remains of making mistakes

Some of my early work was to do with endless practise.
There is no goal – I’m interested in the process of practicing – limitations, yes, but what I also might discover.
Magic makes demands on the hand and on the body that is perhaps unique to the practice.
It also makes demands on the hands and the body that is separate to the genuine.
My words, my mind, is lying to you but my body cannot.
Fancy flourishes show there is a process, does a magician have to show a process?

Identity and Persona

workshop notes longing to be a diagram
Fear of magic
Magicians/people who dislike magic The puzzle fiends – can these people understand kayfabe? Magicians who have no place for kayfabe Magicians who are sceptics Sceptics who have no place for kayfabe Magicians who fear magic
Magicians who undermine their own performance – pat lines and poor humour An outside world resistant to magic – a need to turn towards an inner world
Make no claims to be magic But make no claims not to be magic
Approach the work with an open mind – not the mind of the magician
Beware snake oil
The Magician Actor

Taylor, N. (2020)

Practice in Lockdown – VR

Practise has been a bit of a challenge during lockdown.
At times I’ve headed to virtual spaces.
Studio spaces that exist in VR space.
Being able to map thought processes and in a virtual 3d space as been wonderful and very useful.
I can walk through my ideas in a black box, they pop in and out of existence.
I can juggle them, push and pull, link and explore.
Another way to use virtual space is to paint, in this case I have been painting my performance, and tracking my movements.
This, for example, is tracking my hand as I perform an early script called – how psychic are you? 
Interestingly the table exists in physical and virtual space – which is quite uncanny
I can redraw this performance in real time.
There is no end point to this either just a record.
These are early experiments.

Don’t worry, here’s a map of the work.

At some point I knew I would feel the pressure regarding free practice as research – so I thought it’s better demonstrate there have been outputs.
Just in case you’re worried, and the room is bugged. Here’s a map (now out of date) of how the work can be mapped to outputs.
 Everyone happy? Good.

The Magiculum

So from this practise I completed a couple of articles which went into the Magiculum volumes one and two .
This work was very much concerned with talking about my own personal experience.
The first one being about practice at the very start of my exploration of bizarre magick, in particular talking about shaping persona.
Second one was kind of an extension of that talking about the nitty gritty of the persona.
I found it interesting and tricky to put together some writing based on my fragmented practice.
I also didn’t like the fact that I was making some of the practice concrete in written form.
Which is why I think there is a certain fragmented feel to those pieces.
That’s deliberate and it has also found its way into this presentation.

Performance Writing – lies damn lies

I constantly find myself coming back to the genuineness of all of this.
The finding of a performance persona in magic has always been a challenge for me
The genuineness of the magician is not like taking on a character and it’s not like you could be yourself either.
By fragmenting this work I have indulged in performative writing, I don’t think I’ve told any lies.
Of course a magician would say that.
I find that very disconcerting.
Thank you for listening and next time I promise I’ll do a card trick.