Fascination at Burning Man 2019

As lead artist of Fascination, I am delighted to announce that this interactive illusion installation will be one of the 71 Black Rock City Arts Honoraria projects at Burning Man this year. This post introduces the international team bringing this art to the playa from Montreal, provides some behind-the-scenes information, and lists ways in which you can get involved. The project took shape in my mind when I imagined creating a large optical illusion wheel and using it as a Cyr Wheel or a German Wheel. It became more of a reality when my grant application to the BLC Arts Honoraria program was successful and when Nextasy, the innovation lab of Cirque du Soleil, CRITAC, the research centre at Montreal’s National Circus School, and Concordia University decided to support it.


“Fascination” is defined by the OED as either the “casting of a spell; sorcery, enchantment,” or “the state of being under a spell.” Magic and optical illusions require interaction from spectators to exist. Fascination gives wanderers of the playa the opportunity to engage with it passively (by watching its magic effect from afar) or actively (by using their own muscles to power the illusion for others). Some may choose to try out both modes of engagement thereby switching between the roles of the magician (the illusion-maker or the fascinator) and the spectator (the perceiver or the one fascinated).


We are a team of Canadian, French and American artists, creators, engineers, craftspeople, and project managers bringing this interactive art installation to the playa this year. Five of us — Joe Culpepper, Marion Cossin, Louis-Philippe Dugré-Thibaudeau, Guillaume Jacques and Andrew Miller — will be traveling all the way from Montreal to meet up with Red Ryan, Steve Johnson and our project liaison, Katie Hazard. Gabrielle Pauzé and Angela Giunta will remain in Montreal to hold down the fort, but their hard work and thoughtfulness continue to play a huge role in making Fascination possible. We are also grateful to be camping with Ludus Symposium. We would also like to give special thanks to Patrice Aubertin, Phil Aubertin, Patrick Chassin, Danielle Clermont, Rino Côté, Marie-Josée Doyon, Marie-Eve Ferron, Line Giasson, Frank Helpin, Guillaume Jacques, Fay Anais Jutras, Richard LePage, Louis Patrick Leroux, Nathan Livni, Charlie Maréchal, Marie-Hélène Martineau, Maïté Martinez, Hugues Monfroy, Bernard Petiot, Diane Quinn, Jim Steinmeyer, Éric Tendi, Jean Thibault and Boris Verkhovsky.


Inspired by the history of optical illusion rings and interactive kinetic art sculptures by artists like Anthony Howe, I proposed a large-scale art installation for Burning Man that will be activated and powered by participants. The fascination wheel will be suspended ten feet above the ground and will be roughly seven feet in diameter and three feet wide. Our team has put a lot of time and thought into making the design of the structure that holds and rotates the fascination wheel as streamlined and efficient as possible. The following model (with one of it’s sections in Louis-Philippe’s right hand) captures the basic structure at a smaller scale:

The earliest record of the this core illusion (that I currently know of) is from Michel de Montaigne’s 16th-century description of rings of heraldry during the French Renaissance. Here is a modern English translation of the relevant passage from one of his Essais as translated by Charles Cotton (1685) and revised by William Hazlitt (1842):

“Those rings which are cut in the form of feathers, which are called endless feathers, no eye can discern their size, or can keep itself from the deception that on one side they enlarge, and on the other contract, and come to a point, even when the ring is being turned round the finger; yet, when you feel them, they seem all of an equal size” (280).

One of the most interesting visual records of this optical ring illusion appears a few centuries later during the Second Industrial Revolution when a rise in psychological studies of optical illusions and the production of optical toys occurs:

This illustration by L. Poyet is included in an English translation of a book by Gaston Tissandier titled Half Hours of Scientific Amusement Or Practical Physics and Chemistry without Apparatus (published in 1890). Notice the unusual three-band version of the second ring in-between the standard rings on the left and right pictured above. It is also worth noting the line that travels down the centre of the asynchronous “v” shapes that serve as the building blocks of these illusion rings.

Sometime in the early 2000s, an updated design of these optical illusion finger rings became available on the retail magic market. I believe that Rob Stiff of Magic Makers is responsible for improving and bringing them back into style. These commercially available novelty items have larger gaps within the same basic “v” structure, which increases the visibility of the illusion.

To create Fascination, we resculpted and remixed elements of all of these designs to adapt this optical illusion to meet the requirements of a much larger scale of kinetic art. The most unobtrusive turning mechanism requires bringing the central line back into the illusion. To do this elegantly, the contemporary “v” design was resculpted to blend this central line into the optical illusion (see the miniature model on the right-hand side of the following photo)

The arms of the v shapes on the right traverse into the centerline of the wheel model on the right compared to another design visible on the left-hand side of this photo.

This centerline is crucial for mounting the twelve sections of the optical illusion wheel (it must disassemble to meet international transportation and construction needs). Here is what two of the sections look like when joined together:

The line also traces out and hides the circular track upon which the Fascination wheel rotates:

The full wheel is currently being mounted for testing at an indoor studio. We’ll be bombarding Fascination with baby powder to simulate what burners call “playa dust” — the fine particulate matter that permeates everything at Burning Man. Any necessary corrections will be made during these tests before we disassemble it and ship it to Black Rock City in August. And this is where you come in!


Whether you will be going to Burning Man 2019 or not, here are some ways that you could help us out. It’s an enormous undertaking to bring art to Burning Man from another country and even with the help of a grant, we are still working on the following items. Many of these are simply an international transportation issue:

    • VolunteerSign up for a shift here! Fascination is looking for friends to help participants interact with the illusion during Burning Man.

Please email joe.culpepper@gmail.com if you have any leads on these items or other questions about Fascination.

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Magic at Montreal Completement Cirque’s 10th Anniversary

The spectacular Montreal Completement Cirque festival is on from July 3-14. I’m thrilled to be performing strolling magic and little street shows on Rue St.Denis at 6PM and 7PM on July 4, 6, 7, 13 and 14. This is part of the free programming of shows that the festival and its partners provide to Montrealers every year. Click the above photo or this link for more information about the fest and all of its indoor and outdoor shows. I don’t have specific locations to share with you, but I won’t be far from the excellent Terrasse Completement Cirque.

This year includes the premiere of a new interdisciplinary circus show that incorporates the discipline of magic. I look forward to seeing À Deux Roues, La Vie! / Life Cycle by Guillaume Doin, DynamO Theatre, and Yves Simard, which combines magic, acrobatic bicycle, physical theatre and more:

After seeing them in person this week, I also recommend Gandini Juggling’s show Spring (only two shows left) and Les 7 Doigts’s daringly intermedial show Bosch Dreams.

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The Golden Age of Stage Conjuring, 1880-1930 — Early Popular Visual Culture

I recently received print copies of the special issue on The Golden Age of Stage Conjuring (1880-1930) for Early Popular Visual Culture that I co-edited with one of my academic heroes who specializes in early film and magic history: Dr. Matthew Solomon (University of Michigan).

The issue is chock-full of original articles written by both established and emerging scholars of the conjuring arts. By clicking the image or the link above you can read our introduction, which includes a thumbnail sketch of each piece in this peer-reviewed journal. For those who are not EPVC subscribers or who cannot access this issue through their local research library, please message me at joe.culpepper@gmail.com and I will send you one of the 50 free copies of our introduction given to me by the publisher.

Those interested can access complete issues at Concordia University, McGill University, The University of Michigan, the National Circus School in Montreal and other research libraries with significant performing arts collections.

Here is a galley proof of the table of contents:

Special Issue: The Golden Age of Stage Conjuring, 1880-1930

Guest Editors: Joseph Culpepper and Matthew Solomon

111      Editorial

Andrew Shail


112      Toward a Historiography of Stage Conjuring: Are We Entering a Golden Age?

Matthew Solomon and Joseph Culpepper


123      The grand cycle of conjuring treatises: Modern Magic, More Magic, Later Magic and Latest Magic

William George Provan Houstoun

146      Indigenous illusionism and the global magic system

Graham Jones

157      Rupturing Illusionism: the bullet catch

Katharina Rein

172      Enchanted Masculinities: gender, modern magic, and nationalism in early twentieth century China

Tracy Ying Zhang

188      Stage Conjuring with Film: Influences and Legacies

Gwendolyn Waltz

Archive Piece

219      Behind the Bookcase: Houdini the Collector

Eric Colleary

Book Review

226     Illusions: the art of magic

Chris Goto-Jones

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Discount link for the ENC circus show at the TOHU

Friends, there are discount tickets tonight for the avant-premiere of — Où vont les fleurs? — at the TOHU tonight. Here is the special link: https://bit.ly/2JKkVq5. Congratulations to the entire team of this show! I already have my tickets for tomorrow night’s premiere and look forward to seeing friends there. The show runs from May 29 to June 9. Whichever night you go, be sure to keep an eye out for the amazing John Witte and Félix Martin who perform an original magic-infused juggling number that we worked on this year (I dropped a hint about this on CBC’s The Bridge a couple months ago, for those of you listening/watching closely). Bon spectacle!

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DIY Portable Magic Table

Done! Well, done for now. My new portable magic table isn’t flawless, but I’m pretty darn happy with it and look forward to using it for the first time at Concordia’s Black Box Theatre at Embodied Interventions this Sunday at 2PM.

For magicians, the size, functions and look of a magic table are extremely personal choices. My favorite ones are those beautiful, custom tables that you see in venues like Hollywood’s Magic Castle or the ones made by craftsmen like Tabman in the States. Sometimes you might get lucky and find an old one for sale on commission in a magic shop or an antique table in an auction catalogue. All of the high quality tables are pricey and can run anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

There is also a plethora of poor quality, overpriced, or simply unserviceable magic tables on the market that performers must wade through when searching for one that fits their needs.

I tend to construct my own, because I usually want to customize them to meet specific conditions. Here is a post about the last table that I made, which I still love and use frequently. The size of the performance surface is ideal (20″ x 40″). Card work on that table feels like driving a luxury Cadillac. It’s perfect for shows that I take a car to and where the table doesn’t have to move more than once or twice.

This latest, smaller table (pictured above), is more of a skiff. It’s a smaller performance surface (17″ x 21″). That’s still large enough to accommodate nearly all of my favorite props and effects, while also being infinitely easier to immediately pick up and move after a performance. The nearly invisible black bottom baseboard is a piece of 1/4″ thick birch. It’s covered with black stretch velvet, so the underside of the table looks presentable when I flip up the table and move it. Poker green surrounded by a gold frame round out the color-scheme chosen this time around. The base is also wood and feels warmer than the last one I purchased (a sleek, black metal keyboard stand). Both pieces of this table are the perfect weight for picking them up at a drop of a hat and folding an arm over them. This means that it’s infinitely easier to take them on public transit or even on a train, bus or plane.

Flight time will reveal the strengths and weaknesses of this latest table. For the moment, I’m simply enjoying the feeling of watching a carefully sourced and constructed project come together.

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Magic, Circus and Music for an interview with Nantali Indongo on The Bridge

About two weeks ago, I sat down with Nantali Indongo in a studio at the CBC building in Montreal to discuss why magic continues to fascinate us. In advance of the interview I was asked to choose four songs that represent different parts of my life, which was both a fun and difficult exercise. Imagine being able to choose any of your favorite songs that will be played on a CBC radio show that anyone can link to and listen to, at anytime, all over the world. What a special opportunity to speak about my love for the performing art of magic, some of the people who continue to inspire me, and some exciting projects. Nantali, Amanda Klang, and the entire CBC team were lovely to work with and I’m happy with the resulting episode. (<– clicking this link, or the image above, will take you to the interview). Below, I’ve included links to some more specific information that you may want to reference while listening to the show and links to some other favorite versions of the songs you’ll hear in the episode:

Song #1 — Nina Simone, “I Ain’t Got No – I Got Life”, ‘Nuff Said (1968),

Song # 2 — Blackalicious, “Deception,” Nia (1999),

Song #3 — Oliver Jones, “Hymn to Freedom,” Live in Baden Switzerland (feat. Ed Thigpen & Reggie Johnson),

Song #4 — Neil Young, Guitar Solo No. 5, Dead Man soundtrack,

Song #5 — Karim Ouellet, l’Amour, Fox, (2012)

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Magic Workshop and Performance in Waterloo, Ontario, Saturday, 16 March 2019

I’m stoked to be seeing friends and performing in the gala show at the University of Waterloo’s 27th annual juggling festival this Saturday. One of my contact juggling heros, Kyle Johnson (shout-out to Sacramento), will be there. He’s just one of many awesome folks who will be in attendance. It’s a great crowd and a small, intimate festival. If you’ve never gone, check out the festival website and carpool with somebody or find another way to get there. This festival holds a special place in my heart, since it’s one of the first places where I was able to test out a new magic-juggling idea years ago. I really like the informal and fun-focused structure of juggling festivals, which include best trick jams, juggling games (like volleyclub), passing, free workshops, and more formal shows like the one on Saturday night. There’s a beautiful lack of pretense at festivals like this one, which makes it much easier for object manipulators of all skill levels (absolute beginner to absolute pro) to exchange skills and learn new tricks quickly. I’ll be teaching a rope manipulation workshop at the festival on Saturday afternoon and am looking forward to all of the other activities too. The general festival is free for all (click on the link or the image above for details) and the gala show is great entertainment for price. Click here for tickets.

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Montreal Gazette Profile

Today, I’m grateful for this profile of my work in the wonderful worlds of magic and circus. Ever since Nathan showed me the first trick that truly mystified me, I’ve worked to learn as much as possible about how to create similar magical experiences for others. Why are we humans are so fascinated by displays of what seems impossible? What is magic? The exploration of these questions continues to be a meaningful journey. There have been many serendipitous moments along the way: discovering a magic shop in my hometown (Grand Illusions), seeing Quidam in Berkeley, California, at 16, meeting David Ben and Julie Eng in Toronto, meeting circus scholar Dr. Patrick Leroux at Concordia University, collaborating with Patrice Aubertin, Daniela Arendasova and Eric Langlois at the National Circus School, learning from Boris Verkhovsky at Cirque du Soleil, and benefiting from the wisdom and guidance of so many extraordinary people in this alternative universe that we somehow inhabit.

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Cirque du Soleil acquires The Works Entertainment

It’s a good day when the industrial partner you work for as part of your postdoc invests in a magic entertainment company. Sophie Haigney’s article for the New York Times reveals some of the thinking behind this acquisition. The Works Entertainment has produced shows like The Illusionists and Circus 1903, which feature a variety of magic disciplines (a comedy magician, an escape artist, a manipulation act, a stage illusionist, a mentalist, etc.). This model fits Cirque du Soleil’s variety act model, which contrasts with solo shows like David Blaine’s, Darren Brown’s, and Michael Carbonaro’s recent celebrity magician tours. Looking at this development in the entertainment world from the other direction of the sale is also interesting: The Works Entertainment has never only produced magic shows. Simon Painter and Tim Lawson’s production company also has Cirque Noir, Cirque Adrenaline, The Unbelievables, Cirque Paris, and A Magical Cirque Christmas under its belt. As the genres and disciplines of live entertainment continue to mix, overlap and mash-up, the amalgamation of these two companies and their magic/circus productions makes sense.

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Magic at the Edwardian Ball in San Francisco (Jan 25 and Jan 26)

I can’t wait to perform strolling and stage magic at the Edwardian Ball in San Francisco’s beautiful Regency Ballroom on January 25 and 26, 2019. If you’ve never been to this Paradox Media event or this historic venue, I highly recommend it. The Edwardian Ball celebrates both the Edwardian period as well as the delightful and macabre style of Edward Gorey. Click on the image above to experience what it’s all about and don’t forget to dress up!

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