Saving Magic By Eliminating Tricks

There's a low-key form of testing I like to do when I'm considering buying a new effect. It's something you all can do too. It doesn't cost any money and it's really easy. You don't have to own the effect. All you need to do is describe the effect to someone as if you're considering working on it and then ask if they have any ideas how it might be done. If, in this mental exercise, they immediately go to the method used in the actual trick—or even if they come up with any reasonable method that you can't eliminate in performance—then it might not be such a hot effect.

Recently, Ellusionist released a trick that I thought was a little weak. It's called Isolated by Keiron Johnson. It's a signed Rubik's Cube in glass jar effect.


Now, when I look at that I immediately think that I'm not seeing a signed cube in a bottle I'm seeing a signed sticker that happens to be on a cube. Anyone who has handled a cube knows it has stickers on it. So my first thought was that a spectator would guess that's the method. It seemed obvious to me. It would be like if you had a "Signed Chef's Salad in Jar" and it was just one of the cherry tomatoes that was signed. I think people would realize that maybe the only thing that wasn't in the bottle to begin with was that cherry tomato.

Again, I thought this was obvious, but I'm smart enough to know that I'm not so smart that I can always tell the way laypeople's minds will work.

So I walked through the idea of the effect briefly with some people and asked how they thought I might be able to accomplish it. Nobody mentioned the concept of sneaking the sticker off the cube and applying it to another cube in a jar. So it turns out it wasn't such an obvious solution. At least with the half-dozen people I asked. And so I began to think about purchasing this trick.

But then something happened that made me change my mind. Two of the people I asked about the idea had gone and googled rubik's cube in bottle magic or something along those lines and both sent me to the page where the trick was sold. You could say that I had encouraged them to google the idea because I asked about possible methods. That's conceivable. But I don't think the urge to google some idea I mentioned casually would be more intense than it would be to google the same trick if it had just fooled you badly and you were dying to satisfy your rabid curiosity. And this is a problem.

I recently got an email from Joe Mckay that said, "Another depressing thing is how easy it is to google magic secrets. Just type the basic effect into google of any card trick - and most of the time you will get a bunch of explanations telling you how the trick was done. You don't even need to know the name of the trick."

In actuality, I think card tricks are sort of the "safest" type of trick to perform in this respect. Most are so dull that no one is going to bother googling: "The trick where one ace is placed on the bottom of the pile and it goes to the top. Then another ace is placed on the top of a second pile and goes to the bottom. And then..." No one's going to bother googling that. Although some classic card effects that are simple to describe may be susceptible to a simple google search.

If performing magic that is anything other than a momentary diversion is important to you, this is a subject you need to be thinking about. This is not about the exposure of secrets, it's about the availability of secrets. There's a gigantic difference there. If Brian Brushwood exposes the invisible deck, that's an issue only if you're performing the invisible deck for someone who has watched that episode of his show. Exposure affects a very narrow section of your performances. But availability of secrets affects potentially everything you perform. 

Your spectator doesn't actually have to be able to find the secret itself. Just the idea that they can run a google search and see where they can buy any particular trick is going to weaken the moment for them.

And the unfortunate thing is that the more people are taken with your performance, the harder it fools them, and the more likely they are to try and satisfy their curiosity in regards to how it was done.

If things just progress as they're going, I think in a matter of years, the "mystery" element (the "magical" element) of magic will be almost gone. This isn't a bold prediction, this is just the way magic has evolved over the past couple hundred years. In ten years, when finding out anything will be almost instantaneous, I can see the mystery being entirely eliminated. Or at the very most it will be this very brief moment that happens before the secret is immediately revealed.  Magic tricks will be almost like the set-ups to jokes. And learning the secret will be the punchline. That will be the nature of performing tricks. I don't think this is a pessimistic point of view. I think it's not only realistic, but pretty much obvious. People will still like magic, but if will be a different sort of experience.

But then I suspect what will happen is that some magicians will start saying, "This is fun, but I miss the days when it was more about living in that magic moment for a while. When it was more about the sense of wonder and not showing them a puzzle and a clever solution." And then there's going to be a movement to move from magician-centric/trick-centric/secret-centric performances to experience-centric performances. Because they'll realize that when the trick is not the show-piece, but is instead fodder for the experience, you can reclaim that magic moment.

And someone is going to say, "Hey, I think I remember some guy mentioning a blog that existed years ago that talked a lot about this stuff. Like expanding the magic beyond the trick and beyond the performer." And then finally this site will be acknowledged and recognized for how important it is. I'm not the savior of modern magic. I'm the savior of future magic, you dummies! Sometimes it's tough being so far ahead of your time.

[You might be confused what I mean by experience-centric magic. It's confusing because a lot of magicians talk about creating an "experience" and then end up doing the exact same bullshit that everyone else is doing. There are many examples of experience-centric magic on this site, but I'll point you to the one in the post Young Reckless Hearts. It's the story of, essentially, a burned and restored playing card. But I can tell you she didn't go home and google "burned and restored card" because the effect was in service to the experience that was created. Or look at Multiple Universe Selection, which is a card change but no one googles "how to change one card to another" after it.]

If the experience is crafted the right way, you can almost hide the trick in it, while still leaving the residual mystery and wonder. Part of saving the feeling of magic will be eliminating the focus on "the trick." I realize this all sounds like some whimsical, flight of fancy horse-shit—especially if your goal is to impress people with your second-deal. But I'm telling you this sort of stuff is really possible and I think it's by far the most fun you and your audience can have with magic.

So if you're concerned at all about the steady decline of mystery in magic, I would say to take a serious look not just at the tricks written up on this site, but also the broad concepts, as they're all designed to go beyond the trick/secret dynamic. (In the meantime, there are some practical ideas in this post in regards to ways to make your magic un-googleable that you can implement today.) I'm definitely interested in hearing other people's thoughts on these subjects because I definitely don't have all the answers and I think it's going to be the defining issue for magic over the next 20 or so years.