Designing The Magical #6: Political Magic

Recently, as part of a performance at HOME in Manchester, I succeeded in identifying the cards that two people were thinking of by listening carefully while they shouted the names of other random cards at me, the audience repeatedly chanted “FAKE NEWS!!! FAKE NEWS!!!”, and a band onstage with me played a rousing version of the Nixon-era song “Impeach The President” by The Honey Drippers. 

Since 2002, I have been performing and speaking about the links between political manipulation, magic, and technology.

When I was asked to propose a topic for the 2012 FutureFest that I thought would become increasingly important in the coming years I suggested Deception and created a performance that imagined a future where magicians and mindreaders have been replaced by technology. My current work with AI and robotics demonstrates that my performance was not as far-fetched as it may have seemed at the time.

In 2015, I created a performance called Season of Sleeps for the Venice Biennale. I drew on the true story of the Jeu de Marseilles, a unique deck of cards created in 1940 Marseilles, by eight leading Surrealist artists, while attempting to escape occupied France and getting ripped off by the gangsters of Marseilles. It seemed entirely possible at the time that the Nazi’s could destroy all Surrealist artworks and so the artists created the deck of cards as a way of encapsulating Surrealist thinking in a form that could be easily carried and easily hidden.

Many of my performances consider the political implications of new technologies. For a number of technology events, such as the Risk and Network Threat (RANT) conference, I have used a combination of Victorian mindreading techniques and mindreading robots to highlight the political and security risks of the Internet of Things and the emerging Thought Identification Technologies.

At the Being-There: Humans and Robots in Public Spaces conference in 2016, I demonstrated Parry, an A.I. that believes in magic, in a performance that satirises how our tendency to overestimate the capabilities of technology has led us to create A.I.s that appear to be politically biased, bigoted, and racist.

In a performance called Target Audience, I combine data from online poker playing with demographic data on Facebook likes and buying habits to predict what playing cards people will think of, what food they prefer, and what their political preferences are. In an age when elections and referenda are being influenced by data science organisations there is a serious and somewhat chilling aspect to these “tricks”.

All of these performances address contemporary political issues, albeit in very different ways, but I recently began to wonder whether I could play more with the small personal politics of a magic performance itself. Instead of being in total control of the performance, what if I could genuinely give away some of the control to the audience and allow them to make real decisions about what happens onstage?

So I ran a workshop where I taught 18 people the skills of Victorian muscle-readers and then, over dinner, we planned how they would to use their new skills as part of a public show that evening. They decided to demonstrate their ability to replicate unseen drawing and to find hidden objects. This became the middle third of the show with me opening and closing with other related routines. 

This combination of a training workshop and a show, that I call The Trick, needed a few tweaks (I think the Trainee Mindreaders would have liked a little more time to plan their performance) but it was an incredibly exciting and genuinely liberating experience where “we”, rather than “I”, created the magic. I now want to take The Trick to as many venues as I can as part of the One Thousand Mindreaders project.


Theatrical magic and politics have historically intersected in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

John C. Hulsman argues that the Delphic priestesses were the world’s first political risk consultants and I would add that there was a good deal of theatrical magic in their “consultancy”.

The Banū Mūsā brothers were three 9th-century scholars who lived and worked in Baghdad. They are known for their book the Kitab al-Hiyal, literally “The Book of Tricks”, a large illustrated work on mechanical devices, including automata. The book describes one hundred devices and how to use them. Most of the devices are recognizable by modern-day magicians and their principles are still used in illusions today.

We know that they did not simply demonstrate these devices, they performed them and they did so with an understanding of stagecraft. In the book, the brothers suggest that at a tricky moment the operator of a device “should occupy those with him by conversation or another distraction” or that they should “roll a ball inside the vessel to conceal the swish of moving water”. This is the first recorded mention of misdirection as a theatrical technique, the precursor of a modern magician’s artfully deceptive words and gestures.

As well as describing devices to trick people the brothers were aware of another sense of trickery in their engineering. The common translation of Hiyal as “trick” is based on the word Hila, a translation of the Greek μηχνή as used by Archimedes to refer to any trick that allows one to perform actions that go against the natural state of the world. In other words, they can trick nature itself. All machines are tricks that fool nature.

The Banû Mûsâ created their tricks for a number of reasons. They did so to earn their keep, to entertain their patron by filling his gardens with wonders. No doubt the sheer pleasure of play was something they enjoyed but their motivations were more complex than that. They were scientists, showmen, and engineers but by fooling important thinkers they were also challenging the prevailing philosophy of the day, a philosophy that valued pure thought over experimentation. By challenging this approach to learning they were raising the importance of the mechanical arts and inventing the art of invention. They were using illusions as a subtle, rhetorical, political weapon.

In 1856, Robert-Houdin was asked to cut short his retirement for a very unusual political performance. Napoleon’s army held control of French Algeria but had become concerned about the growing influence the Marabouts who influenced local political beliefs with fortune telling and other magical feats.

The French government sent Robert-Houdin to perform in an attempt to demonstrate that the tricks of the Marabouts “were mere child’s play… to show them that we are their superiors in everything, and, as for sorcerers, there are none like the French.” Robert-Houdin performed magic that demonstrated his invulnerability to bullets and his ability to take the strength away from the strongest warrior. Later, the Franch made it clear that these feats were not real magic but were accomplished by the art of prestidigitation. Theatrical magic has often been seen as a cultural force for skepticism about superstitious beliefs but, in his later life, Robert-Houdin regretted becoming involved in such a political stunt.

Jasper Maskelyne was a British magician who became heavily involved in the camouflage and illusion tactics during World War II. Part of a special unit focused on the action along the Suez Canal, Maskelyne was able to devise ingenious illusion systems that made tanks virtually invisible from the air, hid whole buildings full of ammunition and supplies, and even made an entire city vanish and reappear several miles away.

Other magicians have been involved in spying. Harry Houdini spied on the German and Russian militaries for Scotland Yard and at the height of the Cold War, the C.I.A paid $3,000 to the famous magician John Mulholland to write a manual on misdirection, concealment, and stagecraft.

The Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG) is a unit of the British intelligence agency whose existence was revealed in 2014 in training materials leaked by Edward Snowden. The documents are full of references to the techniques of magicians and reveal how JTRIG trained “cyber-magicians” in the use of “dirty tricks” to perform “conjuring with information” in order to “destroy, deny, degrade [and] disrupt” perceived enemies.

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