Jugging and Magic Interview w/Nathan Biggs-Penton

A “Sleight-of-Hand” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a “dexterous trick or feat; a piece of nimble juggling or conjuring.” So, I was immediately intrigued when I saw that juggler and circus artist Nathan Biggs-Penton released the first of three club juggling videos with that title. Clicking on the next image in this post will take you to the youtube account of its supporter TurboFest where you can watch all four minutes of it.

Magic is a language. Sleight-of-hand is one of its dialects. What I love about this virtual number made during lockdown is how the micro-movement it focuses on is inspired by the physical vocabulary of magic as a performing art. Biggs-Penton manipulates two clubs effortlessly with his fingers, hands and wrists staying loosely in contact with them. There are some excellent toss juggling accents when clubs leave the body to be switched or trapped, but they’re so subtle and smooth that we almost don’t feel them. The emphasis remains on the hypnotic swinging of the clubs that is so light and open-handed that it often seems they manipulate themselves. This effect is particularly strong during sequences like the one from minute 2:20 to 2:25 when the juggler looks away and the objects carry on.

Jugglers and magicians are all object manipulators. And though its true that during the last 150 years or so the definitions of the word “juggler” and the word “magician” have become more compartmentalized and discipline-specific, it will surprise most to learn that from 1100 to 1857 in the English language “juggling” was defined as “the practice of trickery or deception.” For 757 years the name was shared and the connection remains. Look no further than the hand movements of Slydini manipulating two cigarettes (instead of two clubs) to some equally smooth jazz:

The takeaway, I hope, is that the aesthetics of close-up magic can be applied to other props and circus disciplines in an artistically meaningful way without making those props vanish, appear, transform and so forth. Though it’s great when that happens too.

Videos number two and three of Nathan Biggs-Penton’s series are also available on the TurboFest Facebook page . I hope that you’ll enjoy them as much as I do.

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Engl 398: Magic Languages at Concordia University

El malabarista o El juglar by Remedios Varo

In just a couple weeks, I get to begin teaching what would have been a dream course for me when I was an undergraduate.

“Engl 398 — Magic Languages: Written, Oral and Visual Traditions of Conjuring” is open for registration at Concordia University’s department of English.

This special topics course examines how individuals express and experience magic through various storytelling media. Texts related to conjuring by Reginald Scot, Shakespeare, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, Adelaide Herrmann, Jorge Luis Borges and others will be explored with conceptual tools from theories of adaptation, postcolonialism, cinema studies and performance studies. A special emphasis will be placed on the so-called Golden Age of stage conjuring in the West (1880-1930) and how scientific technologies, exoticism, and colonialism from that period are at once present and questioned by contemporary performance today.

I’ve spent over 100 hours designing this course, curating its reading list, and confirming the participation of experts from diverse fields related to everything from 16th- to 21st-century magic. I cannot wait to see how Concordia students engage with this material and respond to it with their own voices. If you know anyone who should be in this course, please share this post with them.

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Signor Falconi in Quebec City: A Conjuring Performance in 1808

Excerpt from theCourier de Quebec 26 October 1808

Today’s magic history find is evidence that Signior Falconi (1780-1816) gave some of the earliest stage conjuring performances as well as a phantasmagoria show in Canada when he visited Quebec City in October, 1808. Ads, reviews and letters from the Courier de Quebec newspaper indicate that he performed from October 15 to October 25 that year at the Union Hotel.

Falconi emigrated from Italy to Santo Domingo and performed sophisticated conjuring shows that showcased scientific principles in Mexico and the United States. This is the first evidence that I’ve found of him making his way to French-speaking Canada. I am indebted to the BANQ digital database, Charles Joseph Pecor and Harry Kuntz for helping me to learn more about him.

Union Hotel, Quebec City, c.1900
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Lost in Translation

This morning, I completed a longer annotated translation of a magic text from French to English. It’s only a first draft, but I’m excited to share this news as a glimpse into one of the projects I’ve chosen to focus on during the COVID-19 pandemic (the photo offers a tiny hint for magic fans).

As a kind of therapy for the cancellation of many shows, classes, conventions, collaborative projects and other in-person exchanges that were planned for these past five months, I’ve spent significant time happily lost in the act of translation. I’ll save the details and reflections on what I’ve learned from reading and thinking about the art of translation for the actual publication of the text (hang-in there, folks. The ETA is roughly one to two years from now). In the meantime, this is a short post to mark a personal milestone.

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Cirkaskina!

Cirkaskina is an awesome social circus event taking place this weekend in Montreal (January 17, 18, and 19) that’s been organized by Hors Piste and its partners. It will bring together 150 young people from across Canada to practice circus and social change all at the same time. I’m looking forward to performing and teaching magic for the participants all day on the 18th. Members and colleagues of the Montreal Working Group on Circus will be sharing important academic work on circus, society, and community on Friday the 17th with a showcase (tickets are already gone!) at the Tohu that same night. On Sunday, there will be more conversation, camaraderie and jamming at the 7 Doigts headquarters. Click the image above for more details about this wonderful event!

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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.

Description

“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).

Team

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.

Process

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!

Participate

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:

    • Volunteer — Contact Joe to sign up for a shift! 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

Introduction

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

Matthew Solomon and Joseph Culpepper

Articles

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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