Adaptation in the Age of Zoom

A screenshot from an ENGL 398.E Magic Languages lecture at Concordia University this fall.

2020 is a year of rapid adaptation for everyone. Like many, Zoom is now the default mode for my teaching activities. Right now I’m teaching at Concordia University and the National Circus School of Montreal (with some workshops and consulting thrown in). The first few online sessions were a challenge. A lot of technological juggling is required to connect to students, to deliver engaging content and to combat the Zoomified flattening of the teacher-student relationship. There have been some strange moments. I remember an embarrassing squeal of feedback caused by my computer at the beginning of a lecture. It sounded like a failed sound test at a rock concert traveling through a dystopian space-time continuum. I will also never forget watching a student join a course via smartphone while driving a car (“Are you driving?!” I asked. “Yes, but it’s fine . . .” was the response. I was able to convince this student to wait until getting home before catching up with us). We’ve all learned a lot since then. In a spirit of adaptation, here are three techniques that have brought more meaning and joy to my online teaching.

Meet Every Student

The first technique is a deceptively simple one that I learned from Dr. Linda Hutcheon (author of A Theory of Adaptation and intellectual force of nature). When I was a student crammed into one of her over-enrolled graduate seminars at the University of Toronto, I remember her preparing a sign-up sheet at the end of the first class for all of us to meet with her for fifteen minutes to get to know one another. “I want to know what all of you are working on!” She said. This act, going above and beyond the typical office hours to connect with each and every one of us, was a clear sign that she appreciated each one of us despite the size of our class. She wasn’t obligated to do this, she chose to. Do such one-on-one meetings demand extra time? Yes. If you multiply 15-minutes by 48 (the number of students enrolled in my ENGL 398: Magic Languages course), the result is an extra 12 hours of labor. The returns on that investment, however, are immensely beneficial for creating a meaningful relationship between teachers and students. I would like to thank Linda for modeling this for me when I was a graduate student. I would also like to thank Vice-Provost Sandra Gabriele and her Innovation in Teaching and Learning team at Concordia University for supporting faculty members as they pour many extra hours into their teaching efforts during this pandemic to ensure high-quality instruction.

Live Group Discussions & Google Docs

Another teaching tip that is excellent for building community in the online classroom, comes from Dr. Alexandra Kovacs (University of Victoria). After a 15- to 30-minute lecture providing context for a week’s readings and theoretical concepts, I share a Google document containing a question with all students in the course and give them the ability to edit that document. Participants are then randomly put into groups of 5-6 students to respond to that question and to record observations (one or two students typically become notetakers for their group). Students meet and engage with members in their community this way. The thoughts of each smaller group are visible to all of us in that document in real time, which means that they contribute to a larger collective discussion. This document can then be referenced later for inspiration when students are thinking through essay prompts. Perhaps the most important aspect of this, however, is the mixing, meeting and engagement of students with one another in class to alleviate some of the intense isolation resulting from the “new not-quite-normal” of 2020.

Visiting Experts

The last technique I’ll share in this post is focused on diversifying intellectual dialogue and comes from Professor John Mayberry at York University. When I was brainstorming online teaching strategies with colleagues this summer, I spoke to John on the phone who suggested inviting experts to join the class from time to time for a short 15-30 minute dialogue. This plays to one of the strengths of our current life online. It is much easier and more economical right now to transport ourselves anywhere in the world. Why have students listen to long monologues that risk Zoom fatigue, when I can introduce them to some of the very creative writers and authors whose work they’re studying? So far, I’ve had experts on Shakespearean witchcraft (Dr. Jennifer McDermott), colonial conjuring (Dr. Graham Jones), and the early trick films of Georges Méliès (Dr. Matthew Solomon) exchange with the students. These conversations are so intellectually meaningful and make me feel so good that sometimes I completely forget that I’m teaching online. More than a few times, I’ve turned off the computer feeling the rush of adrenaline that comes with being part of a live online panel, delivering a lecture, or interviewing a respected colleague in a way that I know is offering my students rare insights into specialized fields.

There they are. Three tips and tricks are crucial components of my current pedagogy. It’s also important to have good hardware for teaching online, of course. But rather than write about the gear that I’ve invested in, I want to share these fundamental communication techniques for digital instruction. We are all striving to connect with each other. These strategies are helping my students to learn and to exchange ideas online. What’s working for you?

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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.

Juggling, research and video : Nathan Biggs-penton in collaboration with Turbo 418 /
Images : Cami Lapage Acosta / Music : Dog Head (https://thedoghead.bandcamp.com/album…)

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. (A few more links mentioned in the interview are posted below . . .

***

Acting for Climate

“Paysages dynamiques” collective performance

Incredible Flying Objects in Winchester Virginia

Jay Gilligan’s juggling research

“Nightingale” by John Witte

A magical juggling act by Yann Frisch

L’École de Cirque de Québec

FISM – the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques 

The Magic Play teaser

In & Of Itself by Derek Delgaudio and Frank Oz

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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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