THE ART OF MAGIC AS A COMMUNICATION MEDIUM

By Nakul Shenoy

(Note: This paper was presented as the outcome of a Communication Research study at Manipal institute of Communication, in 1999).

 

Prologue:

The art of magic has been practised since the days of the pharaohs, and so the contemporary magicians have a spectacular and marvellous tradition on which to draw. Each new era has brought about inspired inventions, while the development in technology has added fresh possibilities to the magician’s repertoire.

Though lasers, electromagnets, high-tech electronic and electrical apparatus are being utilised to the fullest extent by the modern day magician, he has not forgotten the age old principles and tricks which enable him to perform dazzling effects.

It has often been claimed that the greatest performers have carried their secret methods to their grave. This is not really the case. Most of the magicians understand these techniques, and what really distinguished these performers was their skill, showmanship and presentation.

When Harry Houdini made an elephant vanish, or David Devant made a painting come to life, the audience gasped in disbelief. Such effects are beyond the scope and understanding of most magicians, let alone lay men. They require split-second timing and tremendous expertise, and more importantly elaborate and expensive equipment.

Only those who are willing to devote all their time and resources to this art can hope to master such sophisticated effects. Others can still achieve startling effects like producing a rabbit out of a hat (the traditional trick of a magician), or produce or vanish a lady.

The art of magic entertains and moves people notwithstanding barriers in age, sex, religion, nationality, etc. This very fact has made the magician believe that he can communicate to and influence his audience in a manner unlike any other media. And true to this belief, he is always on the lookout for new ways in which to project messages and get them across to the people through his presentation skills.

THE ART OF MAGIC AS A COMMUNICATION MEDIUM

Introduction:

Magicians have always tried to communicate to their audience in different contexts. Whether it was a master magician like Harry Houdini, who tried to dispel superstitions by exposing so-called mediums, or our own P C Sorcar Sr who tried his level best to tell people that the so-called godmen like Satya Sai Baba, were no more supernatural than he was – an exponent of slieght of hands, magicians have always fought for different causes. During the Second World War the services of Jasper Maskelyne, a magician was employed by the British government to ‘vanish armies’ – this was where the art of camouflage in modern warfare came into being.

Most of these prestidigitators have always performed a couple of tricks in their shows, which conveyed a subtle message to the audience – whether it was for family planning, AIDS awareness, or small savings in banks. The all time favourite with magicians in India has been the topic of national integration – either by restoring two pieces of rope into one whole piece, or by transforming three different silks into the tricolour – our national flag.

This paper intends to study how effective the art of magic is in communicating said messages to the audience. It also looks into whether the audience receives and understands the said messages in the way intended by the magician. The paper focuses on the effectiveness and efficiency of the art of legerdemain as a communication medium, while analysing the audience response to three specific magic acts. One part of the paper also tries to examine how the audience perceives the magician and magic, while another investigates whether language is a barrier in the communication of a said message.

The Experiment & its objective

The paper is based on an experiment conducted on 31 students, in laboratory conditions. Their responses to a questionnaire, which was supplied to them after they viewed a video, are the basis for the conclusions derived in this paper.

The subjects only knew that they were part of a research project, and had no inkling to what the experimenter was trying to establish or test. They were instructed to view the 10 minute video, which contained three magic acts, and later on asked to fill a questionnaire – that they had to fill a questionnaire after the viewing was made known prior to the screening.

THE VIDEO:

The video as mentioned earlier contained three distinct and different acts, which had no connection with each other, except that they were all performed by one performer. Though performed by the same magician, the venue, time, and the place where each act was performed was different. The acts were very distinct as they were performed in different stages of the performer’s life.

The first act featured an item called NEEDLE THROUGH TONGUE:

The performer displayed a knitting needle, which he proceeded to ‘pierce’ right through his tongue under the cover of his palm. When he uncovered his hand it was evident that the needle had indeed pierced through the tongue. The magician then proceeded to pull the needle out from the tongue. Surprisingly, there was no sign of any injury nor any sight of blood on the tongue.

The magician then went on to EXPOSE this trick to the audience. (The IMPORTANT thing here is that he did not say why he was exposing such a fine item!) He divulged that it was an ordinary knitting needle, except that there was a ‘U’ – shaped bend in the centre of the needle. It was only here that he moved the fingers covering this bend and then demonstrated how anybody could accomplish this seemingly impossible trick.

The part where the magician says why he is exposing this trick was not shown. The intention of the magician in exposing this trick is to convey that there is nothing supernatural about magic, and that they are nothing more than scientific tricks performed through misdirection and sleight of hand. The footage wherein the magician says that there are many godmen in India who claim to have supernatural powers – whereas in actuality they are performing magic tricks and deceiving their believers – was not shown. This was to be able to analyse the subjects’ responses.

The second act featured an item called the ILLUSION ACT:

The magician shows an empty translucent box, which looks like a huge lantern. He proceeds to lower a light bulb into it from a hole in the lid. An apparition materialises inside the lantern and very soon a demonic image is seen shadowed inside the box. The magician is attracted towards it, but has second thoughts the moment the demonic figure emerges breaking open the lantern. Two more demonic figures come on to the stage and tie the magician to a totem… but the latter manages to escape from his bonds.

Now they catch hold of him again and wrap him in a huge carpet… but when the carpet is opened after some time, a different person is standing inside it. This person runs off the stage, with two demons running after him. The third demon comes to the fore, and removes the mask… he is the magician!

This symbolic act is intended to portray how the youth (represented by the Magician) are attracted to evil habits like drugs (portrayed by the persons dressed as demons). The youth gets hooked on to one habit, and then even if he wants to get out of it… he is unable to and gets entangled in other habits. He succeeds in freeing himself from these, but then there is a relapse and the habits latch on to him again. The result is that he is no more the man he was, for now he himself was the habit or the evil!

The third act featured a ROPE TRICK. The magician displays three ropes coloured saffron, white and green respectively. The magician ties one end of the green rope to the white and the other end of the white rope to the saffron. He then winds the knotted ropes around his palm, and waves the magic wand around it. When he unwinds the ropes it is seen that the knots have vanished and it is one single tri-coloured rope!

The message portrayed is a patriotic one. In simple – “Unity is Strength” and “Unity in Diversity” are the messages intended by the magician.

The first act was accompanied by patter (talk) in English, the second act was set to music (silent act- no patter), while in the third – the magician spoke in Kannada, the local language. This was intentionally done for the first was to check the communication aspect of magic, the second dealt with non-verbal communication, while the third dealt with the aspect of language being a barrier.

QUESTIONNAIRE: 

After the viewing of the video the subjects were supplied with a questionnaire each. This questionnaire consisted of many questions and cross-questions aimed at establishing the subject’s knowledge and exposure to magic. Then there were ten questions, which form the basis of the entire study. The responses to these questions can be studied only on a qualitative level and not on a quantitative basis.

Methodology Adopted:

The subjects were selected on a random sampling basis and no systematic sampling was done. The subjects were shown the video as three different groups on different occasions. The first group contained 12 persons, the second contained 13, while the third had only six. It was seen that there was no communication as to the nature of the video or the nature and intention of the study both within and between the different groups.

That the viewing of the video and the filling of questionnaires were done under laboratory condition had been stated earlier. The video was screened in a closed room, where the subjects were comfortably seated. Any disturbance to the experiment was prevented by seeing that nobody entered into or departed from the room once the experiment had begun, until it culminated.

Further, no cross talk was allowed, while group discussion was prohibited. Each group silently viewed the ten-minute video, after which they were supplied questionnaires. They had no idea as to what the study intended to establish, for all they were told was that they will be required to view three magic acts on video, and then fill up a questionnaire.

What the video contained has been explained in detail in the preceding section. What was intended through the playing of each act and also why it was selected has been dwelt upon in the earlier section. Now let us see the structure, the contents, and the intentions for the same.

The questionnaire consisted of five sections – as can be seen in the enclosed copy (Pgs. 6a – 6d). The first section dealt with the name, age, educational qualification, occupation, place of residence, and place of permanent residence. This section was intended to provide a brief backgrounder of the subject. This would also have facilitated to a greater extent had a large-scale study been done – for then the difference in these factors could have been studied in greater detail. An inference on how age, education, sex, hometown, locality, etc., affect the subjects perception could have been a part of the study.

The second section asked the subject to rank the three acts that he saw in his order of preference, and also state reasons for the same. This was included to find out what kind of items or acts people like and why.

The third section was devoted to find out the level of the subject’s exposure to magic. In an ideal experiment, the subjects’ level of understanding of the experimental topic is brought to the same level by an introduction of the topic or an educational video or presentation. As I was unable to do something to this effect, this section was intended to give me an idea of the subject’s understanding of the topic at hand.

The number of magic shows seen by a person, and the ranking of the best magician (a) in India and (b) in the world by the subject were questions intended to check the exposure to magic. Then there were two questions on how the person perceived magic and a magician were asked, again to study his understanding of the topic.

Section three consisted of three sets of qualitative questions, which form the heart of this study. These were divided respectively on the three specific acts seen by the subjects – Act One, Act Two, and Act Three, and dealt with each act specifically. The questions were intended to examine the extent to which a person remembers a magic act after watching it, and which particular part does he remember most. Then there were direct questions that tried to analyse whether the person perceived the message that was conveyed or intended by the magician, and in which way was it perceived.

In the questions relating to the second act, the focus was more on trying to see whether the audience associates the images they see on stage (in this case the demons and the magician) with anything they come across in real life. The questions relating to the third act, was intended to see whether people perceive signs and symbols used by the magician in his performance. This deals more with the semiotics of the apparatus used and the magician himself.

The next section (fourth and the last) of the questionnaire was very businesslike and with specific intentions. The first question wanted to know whether the person considered magic as an effective means of communication, while the second asked whether the person thought that language was a barrier in communicating a said message. Reasons for the answers given to both these questions were of course asked.

The next question was whether the person understood Kannada, the local language employed in the last act. This was asked with a special reason and was connected to the earlier (language as a barrier) question – to find out whether the person understanding the language employed affects his perception of a said message in any way.

The next two questions were included to crosscheck the subject’s answers in the second section. The last question was a general question to find out whether the person had been exposed to any kind of social awareness drive involving magic, where and for what purpose.

Thus though many questions were quantitative in nature they were not the major part of the study, while some of them were intended to collaborate or strengthen the qualitative findings. As said earlier, the qualitative questions were the real life of the study.

Hypothesis Adopted:

The hypothesis adopted in this study is a null hypothesis. This is because I am trying to find out whether magic is an effective means of communication, and if it is, then is language a barrier in the communication of any said message through magic. I am neither making an assumption that magic is an effective means of communication nor am I implying that it is not. Whatever the study brings to light after due analysis, will be accepted as the conclusion of the study.

Analysis of Responses:

The quantitative responses that were collected can be tabulated as under for easier understanding:                        FIRST      SECOND      THIRD
Needle through tongue                15            11             05
Illusion Act                                 10            13             08
Three Ropes Trick                       06            07             18

How do you perceive a magician?
A common man         15
A con man               03
A supernatural being  00
others                     13 (Right)

What do you perceive magic as?
An art                           14
A science                       05
Supernatural phenomenon 00
Others (Right)                 02
Others (Science & Art)     10

Do you think magic is an effective means of communication?
Yes  28
No   03

Do you think that language is a barrier in communicating a said message through magic?
Yes  10
No    21

Do you speak/understand Kannada?
Yes  13
No   18

How does a magician perform magic?
Employing mystic powers 00
Misdirection                  12
Using science                15
Others (Right)               10
Wrong & unanswered      02

Magic tricks are performed to: (no. of tick marks)
Educate             13
Cheat                04
Entertain            29
Fool                  06
Others               01 (educate and entertain)

Do you remember any incident, where magic was used to educate people or create a social awareness?
Yes  10
No    21

NOTE: the total sample of subjects in the experiment was 31.

As seen in the preceding tabulation and the pie chart below, the needle through tongue trick was ranked first by 15 people, while 11 ranked it second. The illusion act was ranked second by 13 people, while it was ranked first by 10 people. The three ropes trick was ranked third by 18 people. The reason for this ranking is explained later, after analysing the reasons cited by the subjects.

Most respondents felt that the trick needle through tongue was very simple and effective, and so they ranked it first. But analysing what they remember most of this act – which is the exposure of the trick – I have come to the conclusion that in this particular trick what grasped the audience attention was the exposure of the trick.

I would like to substantiate this with a couple of examples of what I have observed over the years – both as a member of the audience and later on as a performer – which has been supported by the findings in this study. Magicians like to divulge one or two tricks in their performance and always have a couple of items which they ‘share’ with the audience. Most of these tricks are so designed that after exposing the trick, an added effect is brought in to convey to the audience that the magician has more things ‘up his sleeve’.

For example, the magician displays a card with one pip on one side and four pips on the other. The next time he turns it there are three pips on one side, and six on the other! The magician goes on to explain that there are only two pips on one side and five on the other side; and the illusion of the existence of one, four, three and six pips are created by sleight of hand – by either covering or uncovering a pip with the hand. Here, the audience is for a moment brought on par with the magician, but the very next moment he turns the card to show that he can make the pips really change to one, four, three, six and even to eight! Thus the audience is indirectly ‘told’ that there are many things that they do not know, and whatever has been divulged is just a very small part in the world of magic.

Then there is another trick in which the magician teaches the audience how to transform a silk into an egg – all that is needed is a blown egg with a hole in one side for the silk to go in! Then again, after divulging the trick, the magician proceeds to ‘peel off’ the red spot that can be seen on the egg (in reality the red silk inside the egg), and break the egg into two. The audience is left wondering as to where the silk went if the egg contained the yolk and the white of the egg that could now be seen!

It has always been an accepted fact between magicians that the audience remembers these tricks more than they remember anything else. This is substantiated through the above data, for people have stated that they remember the exposure the most, and have ranked this item the most preferred of the three.

Another aspect important here is that 26 subjects (84%) ranked the needle through tongue item either first or second, while 24 subjects (77%) ranked the illusion act the same way. Therefore, the subjects were very clear in ranking the three ropes trick was at the third place, for only four per cent placed it at the top rank. The reason cited was primarily that they had seen this trick before, while they were not as familiar with the other two tricks. Interestingly, it is in this trick that the communication of the message was perceived in the manner intended by most of the subjects.

In the second section, 90 per cent of the subjects have identified the magician as a common man or specified something that amounts to the same. (15 persons have termed the magician as a common man, while 13 others have called him a professional, an entertainer, a skilled being, etc.) Only 3 subjects have termed the magician as a con man.

But in the later cross-questions they have said that magic is achieved through misdirection, employing science. Two out of the three say later in the questionnaire with reference to question in section four that magic tricks are performed to educate, entertain, cheat and fool, while the other one says that it is to fool people. They have also identified magic as an art, thus meaning that they perceive the magician as a human being and not one with supernatural powers.

The question as to how do they perceive magic has been answered by 14 as an art, five as a science, and 10 as both a science and an art. The other two have termed it as a skill and misdirection, which again would constitute art.

90 per cent of the subjects think that magic is an effective means of communication, with only three saying it is not. Furthermore, 67.74per cent of the subjects thought that language is not a barrier when messages are communicated through magic. 10 persons disagreed on this count, among whom five spoke/understood Kannada, while five did not.

This is important when we look at the stimulus that was given – the rope trick performed in Kannada. Among the people who understood Kannada, 38.46 per cent thought that language is a barrier. This is interesting since 72.22 per cent of people, who made no sense of this very language that was used in the rope trick cited the same trick and its message – unity is strength – to say that language is not a barrier.

The question why magic tricks are performed was multiple answered, with 54 tick marks against the four categories. 30 people agreed that magic is performed to entertain, while one subject said it was to fool people. Most of the 30 people had multiple checked other choices and so 14 people also said that magic is used to educate, four opined that it is to cheat, while five joined the lone subject in saying that magic is also performed to fool.

It is pertinent to note here that 10 persons (32.26%) had come across incidents where magic was used to educate people or create a social awareness – ranging from AIDS awareness campaigns to environmental issues.

Now that we have a fair idea as to where the subjects stand with reference to their knowledge of and exposure to magic, and know what the quantitative data means – let us analyse the qualitative data collected in response to the ten questions in section three. We shall also try and see how and in what way, the quantitative data collaborates with the qualitative responses, if it does that is.

The responses supplied by the subjects substantiate that the part they recall most is the effect of the trick. By ‘effect’ I mean the actual occurrence of the trick – the surprise element, where the trick actually occurs. For example, in the first act what the subjects remembered was the needle passing through the tongue. On the other hand, there were persons who remembered the exposure of this trick the most. This again is because for them this in itself was the effect – the point when the element of magic and mystery was vanquished!

In the illusion act, there were four effects that together made up the act and the message. Here again, the respondents are divided in terms of what they remember the most. For a majority of them it is either the transformation of the magician into somebody else when wrapped in a carpet, or one of the demons removing it’s mask to show that it is none other than the magician himself. For others it is either the magician escaping the bonds, when he is trussed up to the totem, or the demon emerging from the empty lantern at the beginning of the act.

These examples serve to prove the fact that no matter what kind of magic trick, it is the effect that is remembered the most. Even if these people have not been able to describe the entire acts as they were, they remembered the effect they liked most, perfectly well.

The second act, as stated earlier, was intended to examine whether the audience associates whatever is portrayed on stage with anything in real-life, and whether they see a general trend and message in an inter-linked act. As said earlier, the subjects remembered most of the effects that were presented, and remembered the effect they liked the most to the last detail. But they failed to link up all the four effects that happened in this illusion act into one message. Though they got a general message they did not perceive the message in the manner intended.

The subjects associated the demons with evil and the magician with good, youth, or a man with powers to overcome the evil. Though they saw the act as a portrayal of good winning over evil, they failed to make a greater connection dealing with their daily life. They did not associate each of the demons with any evil in their life, and also failed to think in terms of what each demon represented.

Except for one subject who said: “the act had a resemblance to the ancient Pandora’s Box concept. The magician I think is saying that the root cause of all evils is man himself and that we try to point or victimise others”, none had looked from this perspective. But then this subject did not associate the various demons with anything in real life. Another subject had associated the demons as being “a part of oneself”, with each of the three demons representing “selfishness, jealousy, and lust” respectively. This establishes that in such acts for the message to get across and perceived in the intended manner, the intention of the act should be stated. The part where this was explicitly stated in the act was intentionally withheld from the subjects, to analyse the said effects.

In the third act, what everyone invariably remembers is the part where the three different ropes join and become one tri-coloured rope. But this trick also brings to light another angle to the inference. That is because most people remember the message portrayed perfectly well – as much as they remember the effect itself. All this facilitates another deduction, which is that if the message is accompanying the effect – it will be remembered.

As can be seen with reference to this trick, the message of national integration is communicated when the three ropes representing the tri-colour join and become one single rope. If we the people of different religions, castes, creeds come together with knots of harmony all over India, then these knots would not be needed to bond us, for we shall be one – is the message that is portrayed and perceived in this trick. The perception is on a greater level and more accurate here when compared to the other two acts. This is because the message is portrayed as part and parcel of the effect, and also due to the fact that the message is inherent to the effect.

Now that we have seen what the different questions meant, studied the responses, and even drawn certain inferences – it is pertinent that we try and make sense of the different inferences that have come about in this paper. We shall now also try to combine all these inferences and thus make a better understanding of magic as a communication medium.

Conclusion:

That magic is an effective means of communication can be safely said – for as seen in the chart below 90 per cent of the subjects said that magic is an effective means of communication, though the degree of agreement varied from person to person.

But more than the quantitative data which is based on this yes/no question, the inferences drawn on the basis of the qualitative data brings more things to light. It can be seen from the reasons stated by the respondents to their answer to this very question that magic can certainly put across ideas and messages in a way that no other medium can.

One said that “magic is something that fascinates the young and immature minds of children and hence they have a long-run impact”, while another stated that it was a means of communication “because it can be used to visually represent morals”. A better view was presented by a third who said “it appeals to the child in us”.

Taking his argument further, I would say that magic is one medium of communication, which can attract and communicate to each one of us… whether we are kids, teenagers, middle-aged, or even in our old age – it appeals to the child that is hidden in each of us, and influences it.

There are some that did not agree with this and their argument was more in terms of “it is basically a trick and nothing natural as such. So I believe it cannot convey much of information”. But the same individual in response to the question on whether language is a barrier in communicating a said message says: “The very act of magic is self expressive, which by itself is supposed to be a language – a kind of body language with accrued talents or tricks”. It is because of this reason that he says that language is not a barrier. The words of another take the argument still further when he says, “it does not require the help of any language. Therefore it can be understood by all (except the blind). It’s the act that is important. If the language is important then it is better for the magician to be a politician!”
Thus we have come to the conclusion that magic is a means of communication, and can be an effective medium if used in the right manner. The message should essentially be in combination with the effect for optimum effectiveness. If that is not possible, an explanation as to what the act (like the illusion act) represents should be made prior to the performance. Like many have put it magic is an effective means of communication because “it holds attention like nothing else does”, and to add to the merits, “it’s a largely visual form of communication” with not much importance to the language used.

Talking of language, as seen above, comprehension of the language is not that important in the perception of the message. Like I said at another instance, only 61.65 per cent of the people who understood Kannada said that language was not a barrier, while up to 72.22 per cent constituting those who did not make any sense of this language said this. It is apt to remember here that this question was asked keeping in mind the Rope act, which was presented in Kannada.

Thus, the objective with which this paper set out – to study whether magic is an effective means of communication, and therein analyse whether language is a barrier in the communication of a said message has been achieved. This has been achieved by establishing that the art of magic can be an effective means of communication and that language is not a barrier in communicating a said message – it is the audience’s willingness to receive and perceive the said messages that are more important. The paper has also established that the audience perceives the magician as a common man skilled in a difficult art and a thorough entertainer. The audience looks at Magic as a combination of science and art, a means of entertainment and education.

Epilogue:

I wish to say here that though every precaution was taken to maintain the accuracy and precision during this study – both at the time of the experiment and the analysis – there may be many loopholes which may affect the reliability of the inferences drawn and the conclusion arrived at. These could have been avoided if not or the greatest hindrance and obstacle during this study – the short duration of time in which it had to be completed – only a month!

This prevented me from going into a more scientific form of sampling like systematic random sampling or stratified sampling, which would have enabled me to represent the different stratas of the society. This would also have meant a larger sample of subjects, which I would have preferred for it would have given me a greater bearing with which to study the topic, and also helped me to come out with a stronger conclusion.

Another problem faced during this experiment was that this is the first study done so far on the art of magic as a communication medium. There have been no study conducted on magic, ad its connection with communication, and so there was no material available for reference. Even the Internet failed to come up with a solution to this, as no study relating to magic, let alone magic as a communication medium, was listed there.

This has forced me to make another inference that this must be one of the first few studies made on this subject. I hope that this study and the conclusions made herein promote and encourage more such studies in future. This I say not only as a Communication Research student, but also as a magician engaged in social awareness and national integration drives involving the art of magic. This is because any good communicator needs to ascertain and know whether the message communicated by him is being perceived in the manner intended or not.

Books for reference :
01. Christopher, Melbourne; Magic – A Picture History; Dover, New York (1991).
— For a detailed history of the art of magic from 5,000 BC to the modern day.

02. Dawes, Edwin A & Setterington, Arthur; Making Magic; Multimedia Books Limited, United Kingdom (1993).
— For a brief historical perspective of the art of legerdemain, and details about the performance of many magic tricks.

03. Library of curious & unusual facts – Vanishings; Time Life Books, Virginia (1991).
— For details of some of the greatest vanishes performed by magicians, and details on Jasper Maskelyne’s contribution to the use of camouflage in World War II.