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An aptitude for deception is all the capital that a person requires in order to become a “spirit-medium;” or, at least, to gain the reputation of being one. Backing up the pretence to mediumship with a show of something mysterious, is all-sufficient to enlist attention, and insure the making of converts. (Barnum, 1866, p.88)(Barnum, 1866, p.88)
Ashton Carter and I are both magicians and we emphasise that performance magic is an art form that has a rich and occasionally motley history. Often associated with tricksters, swindlers and jugglers, performance magic is embroiled in the double game of striving for legitimacy as a form of paid entertainment, while simultaneously appearing to present ‘boundary work’ or even ‘real’ magic. Thus, at least for the duration of the performance, the imaginative space inhabited by the magic show is portrayed as being ambiguous in that it is neither real nor unreal. It is a boundary space where real magic may exist.
It is, however, still entertainment magic.
When discussing entertainment magic During uses the term the ‘magic assemblage’. There is, however, a more ambiguous (and perhaps less flavoursome) area referred as the ’problematic extension’ by During. (During, 2002, p.71). This ‘problematic extension’, is where performance magic form and method has been used to portray magic as real, in particular the performance of ‘real’ Spiritualism. This is the focus of the show Séance a View through the Veil; we are magicians and we are using conjuring methods to give the appearance of spirit contact. We are not contacting spirits.
The short film Séance: a View through the Veil is a distillation of our full-length performance/lecture on Victorian Parlour Séance. The show discusses and illustrates many of the issues surrounding the relationship between the technologies of the Victorian Séance from both spiritualists and magicians. I talk a bit about séance technologies in this blog post.
The complex relationship with truth in the performance of magic is deeply multifaceted and still debated by magicians today. Even so, by the 1800s we see attempts to legitimise entertainment magic. The full show Séance: a View through the Veil seeks to explore the relationship between legitimised entertainment magic and the problematic extension of spiritualism that grew up alongside it and formed a complex nexus of relationships. Which, while difficult to unpick, included issues of kayfabe, fraud, belief and downright fakery. It is an evening of performance magic that explores this nexus and demonstrates how a fraudulent medium might, through the use of séance technologies, convince you that there are spirits in your parlour and that they are ready to talk.
Press Release/Blurb of the short film Séance: a View through the Veil:
Dr Nik Taylor and Ashton Carter will bring their theatrical experience Séance: A View through the Veil to film for the first time! Watch as they recreate a selection of spirit contact vignettes where guests would appear to glimpse through the veil and into the world of spirit. Using the techniques and technologies of both the fraudulent medium and the secular magician they reveal the thinking behind some of the most popular methods of the day.
Just what might you encounter in a parlour séance of the Late Victorian Period? How were sitters convinced of spirit contact? Why were people fooled?
Join our guides to safely journey to the land of spirit to find out.
Barnum, P. T. (Phineas T. (1866). The Humbugs of the World: An account of humbugs, delusions, impositions, quackeries, deceits and deceivers generally, in all ages. New York, Carleton.
During, S. (2002). Modern enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic. Harvard University Press.