The Message is the Magic

Marshall McLuhan famously stated, ‘The medium is the message’. When people first saw motion pictures they would have marvelled as much at the medium of film as the content of the movies. Whole societies have been shaped – how we work, travel, and relax – by technological media such as cars, television, and internet; it’s not what we look at but how we look at it that is McLuhan’s message. Magicians now learn from YouTube and video downloads rather than books, and this affects how they learn magic, what they learn, and how they understand it. Right-handed magicians are learning card moves left-handed (and vice versa) from YouTube, because they aren’t aware that the online instructor’s handedness is different from theirs, or they’ve been told it doesn’t matter (it does).

True or false?

When we look at smaller-scale media, the medium and message are more like two sides of the same coin, the medium colouring the message to greater or lesser degrees. The container and content, or transmitter and transmitted, ebb and flow into one another like the water of the tide and the sand of the beach.

Messages conveyed by media are not necessarily true to their apparent source. They may be conjured up purely in the mind of the ‘receiver’. These messages may be accurate and true, partially true, or wholly false based on prejudice, non-sequitur, and all manner of imaginings. If you wear a red tie, someone – somewhere – will imagine you are a communist. The message may or may not be true (the tie-wearer might be colour blind), but media will in some way press buttons or trigger messages whether we like or intend those messages or not.

Prime suspect

A signed coin appears inside a metal canister. When it comes to working out how the trick was done, the unusual looking canister is ‘suspect No. 1’. Understanding this, we may deliberately use the media of magic – props such as unusual canisters – as misdirection, smokescreens, and false leads to prevent the true medium of the magic from revealing itself. We may use an ungimmicked metal canister when the real secret is sleight of hand, say.

The message of magic is not just transmitted in the coin vanishing in one place and reappearing in another. The media – the coin, signature, magician, canister, spectator, patter and presentation, and any other contributing factors – convey their own messages and colour the overall impact. Coin in bread roll is not the same effect as coin in metal canister, even though they are very similar. This applies to our favourite restaurant: we go there for the presentation and ambience, not just the food. They could serve the same food next door, but if we don’t like the decor or staff, we won’t go.

Maybe we don’t use special props. Maybe we are purists using ungimmicked cards and coins. Nonetheless, subtle messages are conveyed by the tools (media) we use. ‘Medium’ refers to ‘something in the middle’ which conveys a message, impact or material thing from one place, time, or person to another. We use cards, coins and other props as media to convey mystic powers or impossible concepts to our spectators’ senses. Do our choice of which specific cards and coins convey or trigger messages? The short answer is, yes.

Let’s look at some examples of the most basic media in our close-up magic (the props we use) and the messages that might be conveyed or triggered by them.

Example #1: shiny half dollars

When a non-US magician brings forth shiny half dollars to demonstrate magic, the specific media – shiny half dollars – may or may not communicate or trigger random (and even contradictory) messages about the magic and magician, such as:

  • I can’t do magic with real currency; there is something tricky about these coins that helps me do the magic
  • The coins look authentic so probably aren’t tricked
  • I am a professional
  • I’m a coin collector; but a slightly odd one who carries samples of his coin collection to show people while doing magic; therefore, I’m weird
  • I use these coins because other magicians do
  • I’m trying to look cool or be different
  • I spent my afternoon polishing coins

Note how the various messages carry connotations which could be positive or negative, useful to our magic or distracting. We look professional or weird, or both. Such messages may not be so clearly defined in the spectators’ minds, but it is the overall feeling that matters; something may or may not look or feel right.

Assuming we have specific reasons for using certain media, there are important factors – other media – which can and should be used to attempt to influence or colour how the message gets across: our old friends, patter and presentation. For example, in the above case we might use patter and presentation to justify half dollars along the lines of, ‘The alchemical properties of solid silver are very strange’. The classic patter about flying eagles (Kennedy half dollars have eagles on the back) will also suffice. It doesn’t matter whether or not the patter is believable or realistic, or just a story; the point is that we have addressed a possible issue and maybe modified the messages received by the spectators. (Whether it works, of course, is another matter. As magicians and pseudo psychologists we love to believe our theories work on everyone.)

Example #2: the performer’s cards

  • I carry these cards because they are special, trick cards
  • I can only do card tricks
  • I’m a card-magic specialist
  • I believe people enjoy card tricks and that’s why I’m carrying cards
  • I’m desperate to show anybody I can find a card trick
  • I’m a card sharp and out to con you
  • I’m a magician, what do you expect

If we borrow cards then we can probably eliminate most of these messages; but of course, that restricts where and when we do card tricks. If we brand ourselves as, say, card experts, then when we bring the cards out, we have not only neutralised some of the messages people may otherwise conceive, but turned them around: not ‘I can only do card tricks’ (negative) but ‘I specialise in card tricks’ (positive). If the first thing we do is shuffle the cards, or better still let the spectators shuffle and examine the cards, then we can also wipe out in many people’s minds the idea of trick cards.

[Dr Jaks] wears an odd ring… . Only when someone comments on the peculiarity of the design does he do [a] trick [with it]. Otherwise the ring remains on his hand as an ornament. – Bruce Elliott

Example #3: I’m a magician

  • I’m like Paul Daniels, David Copperfield, Doug Henning, David Blaine, Dynamo, Derren Brown, or any other magician you have heard of; my presence is therefore desirable, undesirable, or neutral
  • I’m silly or superficial (a sort of clown)
  • I’m powerful and deep (a sort of svengali)
  • I have a good sense of humour

These messages are not very powerful and are usually eliminated simply through interaction with spectators and through our magic. Some people ‘don’t like magic’ because they project their dislike of certain magicians onto us, but that’s got nothing to do with us.

Muzak

Context provides its own, subtle messages. Just as a restaurant may play specific background music, so the context of our performance conveys messages. Less skilful card tricks with a poor-condition, borrowed deck may be more impressive than more skilful tricks with our own deck. A close-up mat conveys its own message – it is a mini stage as well as an artificial appliance. Shiny half dollars may look professional at a gig but strange in the pub.

Does the brand of cards we use convey the right message? By that, I mean a message congruent with our personalities and appearance? For example, there is a certain brand of Bicycle cards (‘Vintage 1800’) which have a beaten-up, faded look; they put one in mind of sand-blasted, dirty-look jeans. These wouldn’t suit a slick professional magician in a tuxedo. Similarly, someone wearing a street-magic style hoody and jeans might look odd using a gold-trimmed deck with some Knightsbridge casino name stamped on the back.

A few months ago I showed a fellow magician the ‘Kellar Rope Tie’ in a branch of Caffè Nero. We were sitting on the upper floor with no other customers present. Just as my wrists were securely tied, a waitress came up to clear the tables. She took one look at me and my friend and my wrists tied with soft, white rope, and exclaimed ‘Oh excuse me!!’ and ran off. When people have been brainwashed by what passes for news on the internet nowadays, our friend can be forgiven for thinking this was a live sample of ‘barmy Britain’.

Transcending the medium

A comment on The Magic Café, which is not uncommon, is ‘normal people have cards at home, they will not produce them from a purse or a pocket’. This is surely (generally) true. But it’s as natural for a magician, amateur or professional, to carry props as for an electrician to carry a toolbox. If you are that concerned, do a coin trick – with normal coins – first, and once you have established your credentials, reach into your rucksack, attaché case or handbag (not your pocket) and rummage around, mumbling that you may have some cards if they are extremely lucky… and you do! (After all, it’s usually better in impromptu settings to wait to be asked to do magic.) Some magicians even carry cards in pouches on their belt! Again this might be fine if you’re doing a gig or attending a magic convention. If you’re the kind of magicians who ‘carries’ even just going to the shops, then an equivalence might be a chess player carrying a travel chess set on his belt when he goes to the supermarket – make of that image what you will.

The surest way to cancel out any negative messages our media may communicate is through our magic: our technique, choice of effects, and the way we perform and present them. We need effects where the medium-to-message ratio is safely in favour of the magic, and we can use patter as back-up to help cancel unwanted messages. We can also be more selective in our choice of props. But some things we cannot get around; we have to carry cards if we stand any chance of doing card magic on a regular basis. We may be slightly odd carrying them, but only until we amaze our spectators with some great card magic. Then the message more than justifies the medium.

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