“Objects have histories. Some have souls”(Chelman, 1993, p. 65)
In many ways, performance magic is about the props, the apparatus, the objects, and the things on stage. Magicians have always used objects, and these are often gimmicked or modified in some way to facilitate magical method. Very early examples of the gimmicked prop can be seen in works such as Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft (1584, pp. 290–294). More recently, the magic prop became codified by Hoffman and his contemporaries as ornate objects. These not only signalled the new gentlemen magician, but also could be reproduced commercially by magic dealers and marketed to other gentleman magicians. More than ever performance magic had become about the things on stage.
In general, magic objects themselves, that is before the physical illusory moment of the effect, function, according to Burger and Neale, as ‘symbols and metaphors: pointing beyond themselves to a larger reality and a greater mystery’ (Burger & Neale, 1995, p. 9). The magical object is a thing that affords to be something else. For example, in the effect Sole Survivor (Burger & Neale, 1995, pp. 133–136) the playing cards do not afford the ordinary deck of cards of the magician, but rather they are identifiers of the plague victims in a village from the Middle Ages.
It is possible to extend this discussion of the magical object in séance (Taylor, 2015, p. 170) to see the potential for the object to transform from a prop in a magic show into what Paavolainen, in his discussion of stage properties, calls a powerful “static force of characterisation” (Paavolainen, 2010, p. 117), and this immerses the audience in ostensive action.
This transformation is particularly evident in Bizaare Magick where, compared to conventional magic, the affordance of the objects is not so mundane, and in most cases these affordances are not regular, but are performed as part of the effect. The object has been taken from the mundane. Props in bizarre magick function, as Sofer suggests in a different context, as ‘object(s) that go[..] on a journey’, that ‘trace spatial trajectories and create temporal narratives as they track through a given performance’ (Sofer, 2003, p. 2). Extending this argument, I believe that it is the bizarre magician who produces this alteration, or in Sofer’s terms ‘triggers’ the object to alter in some way. The literature on bizarre magick contains many such discussions as to how this triggering might occur.
In Thing Theory, Bill Brown quotes Nabokov in stating that ‘the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object’ (Brown, 2001, p. 4). Brown, citing Stein, describes the encounter with an object as being through experience of that object. In mundane terms the experience, Brown uses the example of cutting a finger of on piece of paper, gives the thing, the paper, its presence and power. Of interest to me here is the idea that objects hold something that is ‘excessive’ and that imagination allows us to see ‘their force as a sensuous presence or as a metaphysical presence, the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, and totems’ (Brown, 2001, p. 5).
The transformation and heightened presence of the ordinary object and can be seen in my practice and throughout my séance shows (Taylor, 2010; Taylor & Carter, 2016, 2017, 2019) where the wine glass I use for glass moving is given a history based on a re-telling of the time I was caught running a séance in the school stationary cupboard. I tell the audience that I still use that very glass, that I have kept it for all these years and that it never fails in contacting the spirits. While the story is true in that I did try to run a séance in the school stationary cupboard, and was caught, the wine glass is in fact new (Ikea), but the movement to a magical thing is initiated by the story. This is further reinforced when the glass does indeed move and appears to provide evidence of the spirit world, and thus further triggers its presence and power.
Returning to the practice of the bizarre magick, we see a continued layering of meaning onto the magic prop and this can trigger simple or complex affordances. Most magic props can be said to move through the temporal in the expression of affordance. That is, when an object is recognised as a conjuring prop it falls victim to the association with the magic trick, however, the focus of bizarre magick is to switch this temporality to an alternative imagined history and thus attempt to avoid the notion of the magic trick entirely. The bizarre magick prop is, of course, still a magic prop, but the associations with conjuring are deflected through careful manipulation of the temporal positioning of the object, the variety of cues given by the bizarre magician to show it is authentic, and the more fuzzy approach that uses the already temporal position of the object to produce new meaning for the spectator. Much of this meaning production is fostered through ostensive storytelling, for example, an object like a key, might become haunted by the ghosts of the house it unlocked in the effect The Haunted Key (Burger, 1986, p. 138); bent by an unknown force in an old English Inn in the effect The Key in the Door (Neale, 1991, pp. 191–198) or becomes the only key that will open a vampire’s tomb in The Keys to Dracula’s Coffin (Bridewell, 1976).
Bridewell, J. (1976). Keys to Dracula’s Coffin. Invocation, 8, 120–123.
Brown, B. (2001). Thing Theory. Critical Inquiry, 28(1), 1–22.
Burger, E. (1986). Spirit theater: Reflections on the history and performance of seances (1st ed.). Kaufman and Greenberg.
Burger, E., & Neale, R. E. (1995). Magic & Meaning (1st ed.). Hermetic Press.
Chelman, C. (1993). Capricornian Tales: The Magic of Christian Chelman. L&L Publishing.
Neale, R. E. (1991). Tricks of the Imagination. Hermetic Press.
Paavolainen, T. (2010). From Props to Affordances An Ecological Approach to Theatrical Objects. Theatre Symposium, 18, 116–134. ibh.
Scot, R. (1584). The Discoverie of Witchcraft (B. Nicholson, Ed.; 1886th ed.). Elliot Stock.
Sofer, A. (2003). The Stage Life of Props. University of Michigan Press. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.11888
Taylor, N. (2010). How Psychic are you? [Performance]. Hallowe’en Happening, Laurence Batley Theatre.
Taylor, N. (2015). Impersonating Spirits: The Paranormal Entertainer and the Dramaturgy of the Gothic Séance. In L. Piatti-Farnell & D. L. Brien (Eds.), New Directions in 21st-Century Gothic: The Gothic Compass (pp. 163–174). Routledge.
Taylor, N., & Carter, A. (2016). Halloween Happening,.
Taylor, N., & Carter, A. (2017). Halloween Happening,.
Taylor, N., & Carter, A. (2019). Séance: A view from through the veil.