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Storyville: James ‘The Amazing’ Randi
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As if by magic last night I saw a documentary that very closely linked into a previous post concerning spirit photography and the issue of belief as a critical and divisive factor in it’s form and function. The documentary in question is Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds and focuses on James Randi, a very well known and respected magician, cult figure and debunker and demystifier of all things paranormal for the benefits of science and those exploited by egoists and con artists. He is also well known for his recreation and demystification of Houdini’s feats of escape, as Houdini himself became a debunker of mediums and psychics in the 1920’s. (The documentary is available on BBC iplayer until 2nd Dec 2014)

What fascinated me most about this documentary was not the revelation of how these cons are constructed (like magic tricks they tend to be blindingly obvious once you’ve seen how it works) and especially not the personal revelations about Randi himself. Instead it was interesting to see how those who had been deceived then denied their own personal deception so vociferously. In many cases their anger is directed towards one that identifies the hoax rather than one who perpetrates it. There are some great examples of a range of audience members and tv presenters reactions to Randi’s proclamations- in his words ‘they’d rather have the romance or the lies’. In the fraud trial against the infamous French spirit photographer Buguet in 1874, Buguet confessed that his photographs were frauds and described exactly how he had created them. Despite his confession many of the witnesses testifying for him still refused to believe his testimony. Instead they continued to cling to their conviction that it was their deceased children, spouses, parents featured in these phantasmic images. To acknowledge the deception means accepting and readdressing the flaws in one’s belief system. If those beliefs were created to compensate for other more fundamental and difficult issues then such wilfully distorted transactions or refractions of belief become crucially personal.

Magic: an art employing some occult force of nature
Magician: an entertainer who is skilled in producing illusion by sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.; conjurer.
Psychic: a person who is allegedly sensitive to psychic influences or forces; medium
Psychical: outside of natural or scientific knowledge; spiritual.
(dictionary.com)

Professional egoist (and self proclaimed ‘mystifier’) Uri Geller has been pursued by Randi for many years- indeed Randi undermined some of Geller’s psycho-kinetic feats either by secretly changing their conditions or by recreating then himself in order to demystify and undermine Geller’s true and very normal techniques. (A psychic challenged by a magician advocating science…) Geller argues that the outcomes of both the magic and psychic demonstrations may appear to be the same but the magician is simply creating an illusion that may mimic psychic phenomena by trickery whereas the psychic is genuinely paranormal. If a magician’s trick fails to suspend disbelief then the magician has failed, he is unprofessional. According to Geller, if a psychic fails to manifest his abilities he is ‘blocked’, he is having a bad day- he is only human which can only add to his paranormal authenticity rather than his lack of proficiency.

What if there is no magic? Can the paranormal exist without the fundamentally human, the flaws, the stuff of (our) lives? (In Geller’s case it is his intensely flawed self belief that has continued to propel his celebrity forward) The principle of contemporary magic is to suspend disbelief for long enough to obscure the true method of illusion:’how did he do that?’ If psychic powers are to believed then they are evidence of human ability to accessing powers of a profound nature for shared benefit: ‘I need to know that’

So what if we apply this principle to audio visual performance? We know the process of persistence of vision is a trick of the brain but we still enjoy believing the illusion. Do we not also have a compulsion or desire to apply what we are seeing and hearing to ourselves which also means we are projecting ourselves back onto the performance…

To be continued…

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