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The Rediff Interview/Peter Lamont
August 19, 2004
Part II: 'Magic is about the effect, not how it's done'
In this concluding part Peter Lamont expresses his unabashed admiration for Indian magic, though he is certain that the Indian Rope Trick never existed! Read on...
Although India has given the world of magic many great illusions like the Basket Trick, Mango Trick, and so on, it has always been the legendary Rope Trick that has stood out. Now that it has been proved that it never took place, that it was the handiwork of a rather creative pen, where do you think Indian magic stands?
I still think Indian magic is one of my favourite types of magic. As you know, there's not so much of Indian magic left... street magic is the traditional magic. I have seen the basket trick, the mango trick, and jadugars performing various feats. It's similar to a lot of Western magic; quite similar to close-up magic, to street magic, which is not so big in the West either.
Stage magic in India is very much like the stage magic in the West. Indian magicians often dress up in a top hat and evening dress, which is Western clothes, because that is the image of the magician... actually a 19th century image of a magician. So even in the West, magicians dress up in a top hat and evening dress. This is a 19th century image. And magic often uses props that come from the 19th century, and people [magicians] continue to use them because they are magic props. The public, meanwhile, look at these things and think, "what in the world are those things that they have there?" because they don't recognise them. This is because magicians see tricks that become magic.
And what's interesting is that it's actually people who claim to have psychic powers who often pioneer a lot of magic tricks. No one did spoon bending before Uri Geller. Now magicians do spoon bending all the time. It is more interesting because it is more contemporary. It's newer and people, current generations, actually understand the relevance of it much more than sawing a woman in half, for example, as it seems like an old trick.
For me though, Indian magic primarily is the street magicians, and what you see in some of the performances is quite similar to what you would read in Indian magic [history] a few centuries back. The same is true to some extent in the West. The Cups and Balls magic you will find all over the place. The Indian Cups and Balls is slightly different from the European Cups and Balls. But that's been going on for thousands of years. Methods change here and there, but the themes are the same.
Indian magic provides, with or without the Indian Rope Trick, a rather unique form of magic using sleight of hand, misdirection, and performing in extremely difficult conditions; without a table, without a stage, fully surrounded, and with very few props.
I think that a lot of Western performers can learn from watching Indian street magicians performing, because few Western performers have to perform in such difficult conditions.
There are many books that talk about popular contemporary magic emanating from traditional Indian street magic. What are your views on this?
The history of magical invention is really difficult, because lots of people make lots of claims. But most of the people who do work on this are professional historians, and professional historians simply don't have access to information [related to magic]. Sources are all over the place, based on old posters that are very rare, very expensive; old books that are rare and expensive, and so on. And a lot of stuff that's written so far... We don't know how reliable they are.
So it's all sorts of arguments about where things were invented. It's the same with the history of science for that matter... history of inventions. People cannot decide who invented television, telephone, and who invented or discovered a particular scientific principle, and so on, because invention is a very difficult thing to figure. Who had the first idea? There is no way of knowing that. We cannot get into the heads of people who are dead, and so you have to look for some contemporary evidence.
In terms of Indian magic, you mentioned the Indian Basket trick. This has been taken and adapted by Western magicians for a long time. 'The man who sat in the air', as we used to call it [the levitating yogi illusion], which was first reported in early 19th century, was taken by the French magician Robert Houdin and adapted, and is still performed today in Europe and in India too. There are different versions, with modified methods, presentations, but the effect is essentially the same thing; but other people contributed.
Now think like in all good inventions and all good theatre, people borrow ideas all the time. They are always taking, stealing, creating, changing, having stolen from them, and hopefully towards a better and better performance.
By saying the Indian Rope trick never happened, do you think you are disenchanting magic?
No. It's not about disenchanting... I don't think so. There have been versions of the Indian Rope Trick. In India recently, and in other parts of the world, magicians have tried to bring the legend to life. The problem with the Indian Rope Trick is that it is impossible to do. I would love to see a full version of the Rope Trick, where the boy disappears on the top. And I would, as a magician... And if it is real magic, I'll be happy as anybody. Most magicians would love to see real magic.
The Indian Rope Trick [the book] is not about disenchanting; it is about recognising the real wonder in how you can have a global miracle, off the back, of no rope, no performance, just the imagination of some people. And the potential for human imagination is what kept the legend alive.
I think that's a wonderful thing. That's something that is to be rejoiced. It's not like disenchanting. It's not taking the magic away. It's recognising where the real magic is.
Rationalists and debunkers use magic to tell people that magic is not really magic, but just a trick... something anybody can do. How does this link with the performance of magic or the miracle per se?
I think that it's a split between the effect and the method. The effect is what the audience sees, the method is how it is done. Debunking the paranormal is magic in the sense that it uses the methods of magic, but it is not necessarily the same effect. What they are saying is, 'this is just a trick, and those people who do it saying something else, they are wrong.' At times it is a social message, a political message. It's about the message you put out, if that's what you believe.
I don't think it's the same as magic because magic is a piece of theatre. The idea is that you don't believe when you watch it that it's actually real, anymore than when watching a film you believe that John Wayne just actually killed a co-actor; that you suspend your disbelief to enjoy the experience, and as you walk away you know it wasn't real. So magic normally is that piece of theatre, a performance, where you do something that seems impossible. But when you step back from it, you know it's not.
While I think debunking is not about theatre, it's about the real world. It's about saying there are some people over there who claim to be psychic. They say it's real, in the real world, not theatre. We are saying they are wrong. So it's a social-political message to educate rather than entertain; although sometimes it can be very entertaining too.
Many magicians have debunking as a part of their show for a very long time, for different reasons: it pays, can be attraction-oriented, it's controversial, brings more people to your show, and also it is consistent with the message that you want to put out. A debunker believes that psychics are conning people, and that it's their right to say: "Be aware. You might be conned."
I have no problem with debunking. It's not what I do, but it's an interesting way to talk about deception, I think.
How is it that we find many magicians being pioneers in other fields, whether related or not. For example, George Melies in Cinema and Jasper Maskelene in the art of Camouflaging for War. Is there something in this art that equips them to be pioneers in other fields?
Deception is used by everybody, everyday, and there are specific types of deception which require special expertise. What magicians do, which is almost unique in deception, is that they deceive people when the people know they are being deceived. In other forms of deception, the whole point is that you don't know you are being deceived. If you are a conman, if you are lying to your wife, or your school teacher, or it's a military deception, it's always about the person that you are deceiving being unaware that they are being deceived.
In magic, you have to go and deceive people when everyone knows you are deceiving them. I think this forces you to think of other ways of deceiving. And so if you perform and create and develop new types of magic, you are in a very special position to utilise the principles and techniques to other forms of deception. So you see George Melies pioneering special effects in films... he was a magician. And Jasper Maskelene, who was involved in military deception, camouflaging and so on, because they had a general idea of how to deceive people.
And of course in military deception, the enemy may not know that they are being deceived, but they suspect that they might be deceived, which is closer to magic, than something like a con-game, where the mark should be completely unaware of the fact that they are being deceived.
So a magician will have an advantage in that sense. And looking at military deception, if you can deceive people who suspect they might be deceived, then you require maybe another level of mischievous thinking than most people have.
How has magic changed over the years? What is the impact or challenge with respect to constant technological innovations?
Technological innovations have definitely had an impact on the methods used in magic. Magicians continue to evolve better methods for their effects, utilising the advantages offered by improvements in technology. They have been able to perform things that would have been considered impossible.
Ironically, while improvements in technology have provided these fabulous opportunities, they have also diminished the wonder in magic. People know about the latest technologies. This makes the life of a magician difficult.
But then close-up magic remains the most impressive. It is performed right under the nose of the spectator, with simple and ungimmicked everyday props. In this age of technological innovation, it is still the simplest things that make the most impressive impact. For example, a simple coin vanish in the hands of a spectator.
With all the larger-than-life special effects that are a mark of TV and cinema today, where do you see magic headed in the next 25 years? Do you think it will survive the competition?
Yes. There's a marked increase both in quantity and quality of the technological special effects used in television, cinema, and the Internet. Now how can magicians compete with this? By concentrating and focusing on 'live' performances.
Magical performances that are close and in front of live audiences work, and will always work. Again, the genre of close-up magic is growing like never before.
Then there is the way in which magic is presented. The psychic connection seems to have an appeal like no other; performing magic that is seemingly real. While the movie Lord of the Rings offers a fascinating collection of great illusions, people know this is unreal. But when somebody can seemingly do this in real life, right in front of their eyes, it is a different story. Derren Brown in the UK is doing something similar, when he presents what can be construed as real magic, in an interesting way, attributing it to psychology.
It is only the live performance of magic that can compete with the technological special effects. By framing their performance in an interesting way, especially the psychic or psychological angle, magicians can make sure that their shows are always interesting.
Magic cannot die. It has been here forever, and it will be here forever; but in different forms, constantly changing to best suit the needs of the audiences and the technology of the times. David Copperfield has done that, David Blaine is doing that. Magic will always evolve to suit the supply and demand, utilising the available technology. There are limited effects in magic, but there is a constant addition of improvements through new and better methods.
The secret may lie in presenting magic as real. It's more interesting to see something that is seemingly real; not necessarily paranormal, but interesting. If something is known to be unreal, which is how magicians mostly present their magical acts, it might not be as interesting as something that is perceived to be real. The difference lies in whether something is perceived by the audience to be a trick, real magic, psychological effect, psychic phenomenon, pure chance, or an influence. The true impact of magic is made only when people go away wondering how it was done.
And what does magic mean to you?
I think magic first and foremost is about wonder. A friend of mine, Paul Harris, quite a brilliant American magician, has a notion of astonishment, which I think is the best way of looking at magic: That when you are born, your mind is kind of blank. You don't know what's possible, you don't know what's impossible, and the whole world is wonderful. As one grows older, we get more and more fixed about what is possible, and we have boxes that we put everything into. We forget that these boxes are things that we construct. They are not reality, but simply our construction of reality.
What magic does is provide an experience that does not fit into the box. When something happened, even if you might say it's a trick, if it's a really powerful trick and you can't imagine how it could be done, there will be a moment, just a moment, where you can't fit it into your box. After a few seconds, you will put it into your box, saying that it was a magic trick, but at the moment when something disappears, or appears, or changes, at that point you are seeing something, which your experience tells cannot be possible. And the boxes that you have disappear for a moment. At that moment you are closer to reality than at any other point.
That's a real moment of wonder. That's where you say perhaps there is more to the world than what you see. It doesn't have to be a real miracle. It just reminds you in your day-to-day life what you don't get reminded often and often. The way you live your life is just one way. The way you look at the world is just one way. And I think that if people can be reminded that there are more ways to look at the world, then perhaps what you thought was impossible is possible, then it might be a better world.