The Artist Distracted

The Distracted Artist is a performance style for the amateur/social magicians that I first mentioned in the very early days of this site. It's a style of magic that happens outside the context of a performance. The name of the style comes from the idea that a drummer might tap out a beat on his hip while waiting for the subway, and an artist might doodle something on a paper-placemat in a restaurant while waiting for her mozzarella sticks—so wouldn't it be kind of interesting if you, as a magician, would casually and carelessly do magic tricks sometimes.

When a performance in this style really hits, it's incredibly bizarre to people. They assume magic is something that has to be done with intent. So if you borrow a quarter for the jukebox and, while you're talking with your friend, you "accidentally" make it disappear, and then you're like, "Ah, my bad. Sorry. I've been practicing this coin vanish for like a week and it's just, like, second nature now. Can I borrow another quarter?"  And then you take that quarter and pinch it really tightly and walk over and drop it in the jukebox... it's a very strong "what the F" moment for a spectator. You accidentally made a coin vanish and you can't get it back? What kind of magic trick is that? You can definitely do it in a way where they know you're joking. But you can also be so casual and low-key about it that it feels more real. 

The key to the Distracted Artist style is that there can be no moment in the interaction where there are any of the trappings of a performance. Anything you say related to "the moment" has to sound like an explanation, not a presentation. And you can't draw their attention to anything. It has to all be on the periphery. Because of this, there are times when "the moment" will be missed by your intended audience. That's okay. That's part of what makes this style fun.

There are a number of permutations of this style which I broke down in this post.

There's another performance concept that I lump in with the Distracted Artist because they are both non-performances, although this one is kind of the inverse of DA in a way. This is The Artist Distracted. 

The Distracted Artist = My art (magic) is happening on the periphery of my attention, while my main focus is taken up by engaging with you (the spectator).

The Artist Distracted = I am distracted by my art to the point that I'm not paying attention to you or anyone else around me.

With the Artist Distracted style, you're clearly doing something and your attention is focused on that thing to the point where you're not paying any attention to who might be watching you and seeing what you're doing. This makes it, I believe, the ideal way to perform for genuine strangers because there is no weird moment where you're asking someone you don't know to pay attention to you. They're choosing to do so.

The important thing about both is that they are non-performance styles. The idea of a non-performance is very disarming to people. There is a desperation and a neediness associated with magic in some people's eyes. The stereotype in pop-culture is often an incompetent, powerless idiot desperately craving real acclaim for bad demonstrations of a fake skill.

gob-trick (1).gif

A non-performance disrupts this idea because you're not asking for applause, acknowledgment or recognition. You're not asking for anything. The effect happens and you move on.

Let's take a look at The Artist Distracted in action.

Watch her reaction. It's very telling. He grabs the bubble and she starts to say, "Coooool" before she fully understands what happened. Then she realizes the bubble has transformed into a solid object and there's a little gasp and she looks at her partner. Then she gets that beautiful smile on her face and she says, "Magic."

Let's pause here. In a more traditional magic context, I think the reaction would be similar, but more muted (or at least more artificial). If he had introduced himself and said, "You know, when I was a kid, I used to think bubbles were the most magical thing in the world. And as an adult... I still do!" Or if he had turned to them after grabbing the bubble and said, "Thank you. My name is Johnny Bubble-O, The Bubble-Magician. Here's my card." If he had done something like that, I don't think you get such a purely joyous reaction. An unexpected "magical moment" is almost always going to get a stronger reaction than something that feels like a planned performance.

But let's go back to that gif. It's the last few frames that are the most interesting to me. This is where her reaction turns from joy to "What just happened?" It's a true look of bewildered surprise. That is the most profound reaction we see from her. And it only comes after the magician leaves. If he sticks around and says, "Thanks, I hope you liked my trick," I don't think we get that moment. The strongest thing he does presentationally is to walk away at the end.

There's a transactional element to a traditional magic performance. "I'll do something amazing and, in turn, you'll give me some recognition." This is certainly a pleasant enough arrangement, but I think it also releases the tension that is built up for a spectator by a good magic trick. It concludes the experience in a way. But if you just see something strange and no one is asking you for applause or acknowledgement, you have to live with that experience a bit longer. It works that way even if it's obviously a trick. But if you don't know the exact nature of what you just saw (maybe it was a trick, maybe it was some quirk of science/nature, maybe it was someone with a genuine "power," or maybe you imagined it) then that feeling you see expressed in the woman's face at the end of that gif can resonate even longer.