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Paradise Found?

A Hasty Postscript to the Essential Magic Conference
Words by Jon Racherbaumer • Photos by Paulo Abrantes

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“When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.”
— John M. Richardson, Jr.

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It was an experiment worth doing, a game worth playing, a risk worth taking, and a dance worth dancing. There was plenty of worthiness to go around. The dancers and players numbered 33, not including the crackerjack technical crew that was “there” and “not there,” beautifully behind the scenes, in the shadows. (Here is an aside worth interjecting: Remember the historic, free Woodstock concert from the summer of 1969? It was also a three-day affair and, yes, there were 33 performers.) Over fifteen years ago, MAGIC published an article I wrote, titled “Magic Networks: Hype or Hope” [April 1995]. Its opening sentence was: “Most magicians desire access. They always have.” This has not changed. The same article added: “Today the access-adventurer’s dewiest dream can be realized. Total access is practically at hand, as close as the nearest computer keyboard and mouse — as long as they are connected to a computer that’s connected to the Internet or, better yet, to one of the magic networks.” Flash forward to July 2010. The 1,408 registrants of the Essential Magic Conference watched from home bases, and together they experienced — in high definition — 32 definitive talks. They also watched 25 performances strategically interspersed between the rhetorical talks, invigorating attention spans. All and all, they were categorically enlivened by variable visual rhythms. Even the talks were divided into history and theory and practice. Pure, fact-laden histories (like Mike Caveney’s “The American Zig-Zag Scandal” and Max Maven’s “Who Was the First Close-up Magician?”) were accompanied by interesting,

relevant visuals — photos, documents, clips — giving registrants a flavorful taste of invitation-only magic history conferences. To meticulously report the good and bad things that happened during the nine sessions is impractical in a single article. However, as far as I was concerned, the positives far outweighed the negatives. In lieu of a lengthy recital, consider the following scattershot impressions. • Gazzo floundering at first and then rallying at the end to win reluctant hearts and minds. In all fairness, he is out of his element at Studio 33. Gazzo needs an audience of street people to radiate their energy. Performing for only the 32 other presenters is like auditioning for a focus group from Fechter’s Finger Flicking Frolic. As Jay Marshall used to say about such spectators: “Lots of deep breathing and an occasional intellectual nod.” • Ponta the Smith, current purveyor of WTF moments, pushing the limits with coin moves and magic too outlandish to try. How is it possible to invisibly catapult a coin from a thumb palm to the back of the hand? • Wondering where Antón Lopez spent his childhood. Nevertheless, baby frogs weigh less than a cage full of doves or an overfed rabbit. • Feeling elation that Penn & Teller are not the only ones to figure out novel ways to present funny, irreverent, and mysterious entertainments

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without being clones. Barry & Stuart are weird and wonderful without dumbing down or trivializing magical traditions. Their contrapuntal patter, as they performed a brilliant, redemptive, and truly funny adaptation of the geeky nail-into-nostril stunt, was spot on. Also, there was no foreshadowing of the trick’s nature or intrinsic geekiness. • Enjoying the silly running gag involving Richard Wiseman’s trousers, courtesy of pickpocket Apollo Robbins. • Off-camera fidgeting and fiddling with decks of cards by veteran card workers William Kalush, Carlos Vaquera, and Jason England proves that practicing the diagonal palm shift never ends! • Thrilling to see two tricks that often underwhelm magicians these days: the Egg Bag, and the Sands of the Desert. Mike Caveney produces, from an examinable bag, dozens of eggs and a full-sized chicken, which causes even the most jaded viewer to have a change of heart. And our charming host Luis de Matos dazzles and deceives with an artistic performance of the sandy stunt. • Jason England, a dedicated gambling expert, standing alone — without a deck — and telling a heartfelt, illustrative story involving a small boy and Santa Claus. The Man Who Could Play Erdnase played Walt Disney to a tee.

• David Britland taking us behind the scenes of The Mind of Dr. Frost while reviving T.A. Waters before he became a ghost and a memory. • Rocking and Rolling to the irresistible beat of Topas emulating the strains of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” riffling a deck of cards next to a microphone. • Hearing Palino Gil from Spain explain how to produce successful, public magic festivals, proving they are possible and profitable. American producers of magic conventions should take note. • Carlos Vaquera validating Hofzinser’s epigram that “playing cards are the poetry of magic.” • Listening to De’vo — without ever seeing his face — talk about The Holy Shit Factor without executing a single flourish with cards! • Learning, courtesy of Paul Kieve, that Jay Marshall was a well-paid performer in a 1948 stage production called Love Light, yet was onstage for only five minutes every performance. A guilty pleasure is provided by Kieve’s explanation of “stage vomiting.” Forewarned is forearmed! On a drier note, he reveals how to inversely perform the DeKolta Chair.

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• The advisement that all nine sessions will be available as downloads to every registrant for one year, and a boxed DVD set of the entire conference will be mailed to everyone. This “replay function” is never supplied by other conventions. • Being wowed by veteran stage performer and godfather of invisible thread, Finn Jon. His speed-dialed explanations looked as good as his leisurely executed act. Who else performs to the haunting trumpet sounds of Miles Davis? • An appreciation why Cyril Takayama is at the top of his game, surpassing his accomplished precursors. His diction in English rivals Max Maven’s FM-radio articulations, and Cyril’s heartfelt tribute to his mentor, Mahka Tendo, is a humanizing highlight. • Gene Matsuura’s lecture on what exists “between the lines” of Lewis Ganson’s textual rendition of Slydini’s methods is like seeing his published annotations in living color. • Richard Wiseman’s jocular, incisive explanations of under-explained psychological principles, as related to deception, amuse and illuminate. His energetic delivery is a cross between Woody Allen and British psychologist Richard Gregory. In short, he puts the “agog” in “pedagogy.”

• Max Maven’s investigative talk on how he tracked and defined the “first close-up magician in history,” a presentation he debuted at the Chicago Magic History Conference in 2008, evinces as he convinces. • Being energized by Marco Tempest’s dulcet erudition. Because he is so upbeat and generously knowledgeable, you wish he was Bill Gates’ psychotherapist. He is the unrivaled avatar of 21st-century illusory engineering. • Encouraged by Dani DaOrtiz’s idiosyncratic approach to card magic. Clearly influenced by Juan Tamariz’s carefree, zany affect, his homage to Dai Vernon’s Triumph reveals how to preserve a classic motif while improving the method. • Miguel Angel Gea salvages the underlying aspects of the Okito Coin Box without using one. His Coins & Glass routine truly updates this classic, adding “ping” to Han Ping Chien. As stated at the outset, most magicians desire access. They still do. In today’s whirl of magic, digital natives remain restless and are voracious consumers of words and images, text and context. As I wrote fifteen years ago, we should be thrilled but circumspect about future technological advances. Our task and responsibility are the same. You must discover what is good and what is missing. Things have now

It was like watching fireworks: wonderful, exotic designs of streaming light, accompanied by explosions, streamed across a dark sky. Then they vanished. Then another display burst across the sky. Then another. And another.

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evolved to a point where magic conventions can be supplemented and complemented by unconventional conventions such as the Essential Magic Conference. They will be designed to service the wanderlust of cybernauts and ‘Net-heads who passionately seek anything new, immediate, downloadable, and visually alluring. In this regard, EMC was tailor-made. It was a virtual romper room where participants mentally paced, emotionally romped, and intellectually connected. Luis de Matos, Marco Tempest, David Britland, and their team had a firm finger on the pulse of the Next Big Thing. They brought to life concepts digital natives hold dear: connectivity, identity, quality, activism, innovation, and access to quick-fix content. Consider too the word conference, a yawn-inducing word suggesting something stodgy and musty. Badges, boredom, and fuzzy familiarity come to mind. Think about it. Don’t old-style magic conventions resemble family reunions? Aren’t they characterized by the four S’s — shows, shopping, schmoozing, and snoozing? The Essential Magic Conference, thank the gods of Google, was different. Beaming content to registrants in 42 countries, they stayed “on it” for 3 days, or 16 hours, or 960 minutes, or 57,600 seconds. In short, they relentlessly fed the insatiable. Afterward, registrants were polled. Ninety-eight percent approved. Figurative confetti was thrown. Chips were stacked as high as possible. Buzzheads buzzed. Buzzards circled. Celebrants celebrated until their “magic fix” wore off. Lists of plusses and minuses were made. True believers will now preach and planners

will plan. Know this: EMC is a work-in-progress. It is an open system. It does not end; it evolves. At this point you may be saying, “All of this is fine and dandy, but will all this so-called connectivity and communication usher in a new age? Is rational optimism possible?” I think so. EMC was imperfect. Keep in mind, however, that it was a first effort. Luis, Marco, and David were beta-testing a fresh approach to the modern magic convention, and they were reasonably successful — more successful than, say, Magic-Con — especially considering that for the modest registration fee of $75, EMC registrants got lots of bang for their buck. Being promised a forthcoming DVD set of the sessions, including behind-the-scenes material and explanations of individual tricks, is a plus. William Kalush offered all registrants another perk: he gave each a free month’s access to Ask Alexander, his research website. There will of course be naysayers and grumblers. Some will see only flaws. Some will insist that an electronic convention can never be the equal of a face-to-face gathering. Nevertheless, time marches on. As we march forward, EMC will be part of the our future magic landscape. But know this: they are not interested in replacing, displacing, or usurping conventional conventions. They’re interested in doing their own thing. So what is in store? Few magicians seem optimistic about the future of magic as we know it. We read too many remorseful obituaries about dying traditions. We hear repetitious lamentations about fewer club members and

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disappearing brick-and-mortar magic shops. We are told that conventions are becoming too pricey. EMC may not be a panacea, but they, using the unprecedented power of technology, are offering an affordable alternative experience. Perhaps the time is ripe to make new traditions. EMC 1.0 demonstrated that the e-conference structure is workable; it’s size, scope, and operational logistics are manageable. The team focused on innovation, and they adapted and responded on the spot. The feedback loop was vivacious. In the future, they will improve and further streamline how content will be delivered. As it stands, they provided more content in less time than any other conference, past or present. At first, I felt a bit like a captive in my “viewing bunker.” But despite the blitzkrieg of memes that soared into my brain, I never felt overstimulated. It was like watching fireworks: wonderful, exotic designs of streaming light, accompanied by explosions, streamed across a dark sky. Then they vanished. Then another display burst across the sky. Then another. And another. I eventually felt immersed in the virtual space —connected, a member of a tribe. When the conference finally ended, I felt as though I had been there with the others in the studio. We had asked questions, responded to polls, and chatted with one another. We were participants, truly participating — all connected by computers and never having to leave home. This brings us full circle. In the 1995 article in MAGIC, I wrote: “Many of us feel like naïfs, standing at the edge of a scary frontier.” Out here on the borderline of what is possible, we’re all strangers in

a strange land. Maybe that’s why, for the access-adventurers among us, it is exciting rather than scary. This new territory is ours to explore and we’re in it together. When EMC faded to black, I remembered why I thought magic networks seemed like a “paradise found.” EMC truly had paradisiacal moments. We may be strangers to this new world, but I still look both ways before crossing any threshold. The Essential Magic Conference took place from Studio 33 in Ansião, Portugal on July 15–17, 2010 and was attended by registrants across the globe. The 33 presenters were, in order of appearance: Luis de Matos (Portugal), Eric Mead (USA), Ponta the Smith (Japan), Dani DaOrtiz (Spain), Topas (Germany), Gaetan Bloom (France), Helder Guimaraes (Portugal), Stan Allen (USA), Marco Tempest (USA), Barry Jones & Stuart Macleod (UK), Richard Wiseman (UK), Cyril Takayama (Japan), David Britland (UK), Max Maven (USA), Gazzo (UK), Mike Caveney (USA), James Freeedman (UK), Apollo Robbins (USA), Richard McDougall (UK), Paul Kieve (UK), Lennart Green (Sweden), Miguel Angel Gea (Spain), Paulino Gil (Spain), Antón Lopez (Spain), Jason England (USA), Carlos Vaquera (Belgium), De’vo vom Schattenreich (Germany), Eric Eswin (Netherlands), Guy Hollingworth (UK), Finn Jon (Norway), Gene Matsuura (USA), Ton Onosaka (Japan), and William Kalush (USA). The dates for the second EMC are July 7–11, 2011.

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