A project Labex Arts H2H
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Deceptive Arts
Machines, Magic, Media

Scientific project

The apparatuses that seek to “unsettle the senses” are at the heart of this collective research. They have been the object of individual Studies of specific audio or visual devices, specific periods, and specific artistic disciplines (film, theatre, television, etc.).

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This project’s originality is in its interdisciplinary approach, which allows us to examine the ways in which the different devices fit together; in the re-evaluation of the role and importance of audio devices; in the will to create a dialogue between theoreticians and practitioners (through workshops and cultural events); but most importantly, in the chosen methodology, which uses magic as its frame of reference and "patron-modèle".2 Indeed, although numerous Studies have demonstrated the role of technology in the emergence of new artistic practices, rarely have magic shows been included in the body of works examined. Researchers have simply not taken much of an interest in magic as a cultural practice. Yet magic shows are often avantgarde in their use of technological developments. According to Jean-Claude Bearne, “technology and magic, regardless of the period, have suggestive similarities” Magicians—ever on the lookout for innovations that will allow them to create new effects—have always been early adopters of technological devices. Technologies are, by nature, always in development, always at the experimental stage in one way or another (Matthew Solomon). This was certainly the case of early film: “It is perfectly natural that a Superior Optical illusion like the cinema should find itself initially in the hands of conjurers, who are often experts mechanics, and are well acquainted with Optical trickery.” Another notable example, all the more so for being neither audio nor visual (in the sense of an optical illusion), is the use of electromagnets. Robert-Houdin’s “Heavy Trunk” trick, for example,  used a magnetized trunk that became impossible to lift once the electromagnet, hidden under the stage, was activated.

The relationship between technology and magic was also furthered by the incursion of magicians into scholarly circles where knowledge and technology were advanced and shared. This cross-pollination is embodied in several figures, from Chevalier Pinetti, erudite showman of the 18th century, up to Steve Jobs in the 20th (Nadia Barrientos, Rémy Besson). In the shows of Robert-Houdin and Georges Méliès, Abdul Alafrez, David Copperfield, Jim Steinmeyer, Marco Tempest, and others, the illusions evolve in step with the scientific innovations in optics, accoustics, electricity and, more recently, information and digital technologies. The magic shows born of these innovations and the technologies employed in theatre, film, radio, television, and so forth, have these principles in common: the secret, the metamorphosis, the double, and participation. For each of the devices considered in this project, these principles are evident in the performative and technical aspects of the works, which can be analyzed according to three parameters: body, apparatus, and performance.

In movies, these three levels are orchestrated by the Faustian figure—the great magician and sorcerer and metaphor for the director (Jean-Michel Durafour) in order to create illusions (Emmanuel Dreux, Sylwia Frach, Réjane Hamus-Vallée, Guillaume Lavoie, Mathias Lavin, Isabelle Le Corff, Maxime Scheinfeigel, Vivien Sica, Sylvie Thouard, Pierre-Olivier Toulza) or to unground audience perception using superimposed images, dissolves, deceptive editing, and disembodied voices (Emmanuelle André, Jean-Michel Durafour, Mélissa Gignac, David Faroult, Pietsie Feenstra).

Certain techniques, like stereoscopy, are essentially based on an illusion. Two slightly different images appear to the audience to be a single image, giving an illusion of depth similar to that produced by binoculars. From that moment, stereoscopy acquires a magical quality. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894), anatomy professor at Harvard, poet, and the inventor of the hand-held stereoscope, witnessed this experience, which he related in 1871 in The Atlantic Monthly: “To this charm of fidelity in the minutest details the stereoscope adds its astonishing illusion of solidity, and thus completes the effect which so entrances the imagination.” (Esther Jacopin, Pascal Martin, Morgane Nataf, Guillaume Meral.)

Magic shows are not mere technical feats; their performativity (as in theatre, opera, film, radio, television and so on) lies also in their rhetoric. The magical power of words is as much a factor as the magic trick being presented; technological innovations coexist with the archaic devices of persuasion through repetition and ritual. Philosophical, literary and anthropological texts have often been the intermediaries between archaic and seemingly modern forms of magic (Geneviève De Viveiros, Magali de Haro Sanchez, Cyrielle Dodet, Thomas Galoppin, Xavier Papaïs, Libera Pisano, Jonathan Sterne, Marcello Vitali-Rosati).




Edgar Morin, Le cinéma ou l’homme imaginaire (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1956), 90.

Jean‐Claude Beaune, Les Spectres mécaniques. Essai sur la relation entre la mort et les techniques (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1988), 271.

Paul Hammond, Marvellous Méliès (London: Gordon Frazer, 1974), 94.

Robert‐Houdin, Comment on devient sorcier (Paris: Omnibus, 2006), 865–869.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, « Sun-Painting and Sun-Sculpture: With a Stereoscopic Trip across the Atlantic », Atlantic Monthly, vol. 8, no. 45 (July 1861)

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A project Labex Arts H2H