Cell Phone Magic

I know what you're thinking. The real magic would be if I could get one of these darned things to make a phone call! Hahahah, oh you rascal, you are bad

Sorry, I'm high... on life! (and copier toner)

I don't want to sound like Old Man Willoughby, but when I was writing my first site, magic with cell phones was barely a thing. It's easy for me to forget how things have changed. But we were a couple of years from the first iphone. Facebook didn't exist. Twitter didn't exist. Or netflix. In my day a mousepad was what you gave your mouse when it was menstruating. Flash mobs were called gang rapes. Black presidents were the stuff of scary science fiction. Mirrors were for rich people; we styled our hair by looking at our shadow. We didn't even think of ourselves as "single-celled" organisms, because what else was there?

Anyway, there are a few different ways people have incorporated phones into magic;

Physically altering the phone itself - There are effects where you move the logo, or twist the phone in half, or cause it to become clear. These all look pretty cool, but they're usually tied to a specific version of a specific type of phone, and by the time these gimmicks are ready to be released, that phone is on the way out. So I've never purchased one of these tricks. I can't imagine very many people do and they seem to have faded from the marketplace in the past couple of years.

App-based magic - There are so many magic apps or effects that utilize a quirk of the OS as part of the method. I'm very open to the idea of these and have spent 100s of dollars on them but haven't really fallen in love with any of them so far. I'm not one of those people who thinks people are automatically suspect of any trick done with a phone, but I just generally tend to get stronger reactions on things where technology is never brought into the equation in the spectators mind. 

You really need to find a sweet-spot when performing this kind of app magic. If your spectator is too technologically savvy they will be hip to things like voice recognition and accelerometers, or they will recognize inconsistencies in fake screens that are meant to replicate real screens on an iphone, for instance. But at the same time, if they don't have a grasp on technology at all, then everything about the phone is kind of amazing, and everything you do with it just gets lumped into "here's another thing he did with this technology that I don't understand." When you can point your phone at an airplane in the sky and get all the flight details about it, that can feel as amazing to someone as what a lot of these apps do. It would be like if I brought you into a quantum physics laboratory and I did "tricks" where I made hydrogen atoms vanish, appear, or change color, you would be like "All of this is crazy to me, so I don't even know which things I'm supposed to find particularly amazing."

But while I don't have a ton of enthusiasm about those uses of cell phones in magic, I do use mine quite frequently, but in a few different manners, one of which I want to go into detail on today.

One of my favorite ways of using my iphone is to record video of a non-magical interaction with someone that then becomes magical only when they watch it back on video. It's dual reality, but not the shitty kind between an audience and a lone spectator -- where if they compare "realities" the effect is ruined. This a dual reality between a spectator and a camera. Where the comparison of those realities is the effect.

Let me try to explain. Earlier this year I invited a friend over for the evening. I wanted to perform something that had the feel of the finale of a Derren Brown theater show, but do so in a one-on-one situation. I will try to explain it but there is one extra perspective you need to keep in mind. Normally you have the spectator's perception of what happened and what actually happened. In this case you're going to have the spectator's perception of what happened, what actually happened, and the camera's perspective of what happened.

So let me break down each of these three areas, then I'll tell you how I incorporated that into the full performance, and then I'll tell you what I do with these videos which is to me the really good secret. So first...

Her Perspective: We're sitting on the couch together. I have my camera out and I'm recording this interaction. I ask her to close her eyes and turn the other way. As her eyes are closed she hears me say that I'm writing a word on the card case. I'm writing the word very big and clear in all capital letters. She hears me narrating to the camera that this is the word I'm about to show her. I ask her to turn towards me and open her eyes and read to herself the word written on the cardbox. She reads the word, and as I said it's very clear in big capital letters, and it reads "LINGER." 

It's important to reiterate that from her perspective, nothing magical has happened.

The Camera's Perspective: On the video you see my friend cover her eyes and turn away. Then it goes down to the cardbox and you hear me talk about writing a word on the box, but I'm clearly moving the marker several inches above it and not writing anything. You hear me say, "Let me just darken this a little," but I'm not even writing. I'm spinning the marker around my thumb. I hold up the box to the camera and say, "This is the word I'm about to show her," but there's nothing written there. I turn the box towards her, she opens her eyes, and I aks her to read the word on the box. I ask her if it's clear and if she has the word locked in her mind. She says she does and turns away again. The box is turned back towards the camera and it's clear again that nothing is written on the box.

My Perspective: I bought the effect Offset, and set the box up so the word Linger would appear. Then I just made it show up when I turned the box towards her and made it disappear when I turned the box towards the camera. She doesn't see the effect and the camera doesn't see the effect. It's just a way of establishing two different realities. 

Putting it all together: We had been together for a few hours. Mainly just talking and hanging out, but I'd performed some tricks for her and some games/experiments, all part of "something I'm working on." The people I spend time with are used to indulging me in these sorts of things. Later in the evening I said I wanted to try one last thing. I took out my iphone and said I wanted to record this just to make sure it works. And then I recorded the interaction above. She closes her eyes, I "write a word," she looks at it. A non-incident.

When the camera is shut off I say, "What word did you see?"

She says, "Linger."

"Hmmm... interesting."

She scrunches her eyes at me accusingly, "What. What was that all about?"

"Look," I say, "Don't get mad. Would you believe me if I told you I never wrote a word on that box? That what you saw was in your mind and that you saw the word because you expected a word to be there? I know it sounds crazy. But since we met I could tell you were super-perceptive and I just kind of wanted to test that and see if I could get you to pick up on a word or concept without ever explicitly telling you to think of it."

She doesn't believe me. 

"Let's watch the video," I say.

We watch it and it clearly shows me not writing anything on the cardcase and showing her a blank box.

"What the fuck," she says. "Send me that video." After a moment she asks, "Wait, but why did I say linger?"

I then go on to show her:

  1. My email from a week before where the first letter of each sentence spells that word.
  2. My text from that morning that ends with that word.
  3. The lingerie catalog on my coffee-table with the folded over cover so it says, Linger-.
  4. The song that was playing when she came into my apartment, Linger by the Cranberries.
  5. How that nonsense phrase I asked her to record when played backwards says, "I'll see linger." (Joshua Quinn)
  6. How that random number we generated, when read upside-down reads "Linger." (Haim Goldenberg)
  7. And a few other places where that word was hidden in the environment or in one of the activities we engaged in earlier in the night.

The idea is, of course, that I've inserted this word into all these areas making it somehow psychologically attractive to her and that when I then show her the blank card case and strongly imply she'll see a word there, she will then manifest this word that's on the tip of her brain. Or something like that.

However she interprets it, she ends up rather stunned and won't ever be able to hear that word again without linking it to that night.

The Follow-Up:

I don't actually use the above routine anymore. It falls too much on the line of almost believable for some people. And I'm continuing to enjoy more presenting things that are clearly unbelievable. But I have about half a dozen other camera-dual-reality routines I am doing these days and they are a ton of fun to perform. But my favorite element of them is this follow-up that I do 4 or 5 days after the performance. 

People always want a copy of the video, which I text them immediately. Then a few days later I send them another copy of the video. This time with some simple iphone editing and music added, usually with the original audio cut out. Why? Because I want to recontextualize the video. The purpose of the original video is "proof." Proof that they were fooled, or that something strange happened, or whatever. It's proof first, and then something of a souvenir second. By stripping out some elements and adding others the video is now not intended to be a document of a specific moment, but more about the memory of what was hopefully a fun and pleasant experience for that person. It becomes a memento first but still carries with it the association to whatever strange experience you shared with them.

Below is the follow-up video I sent to my friend for the Linger trick.