Desperately seeking escapism: Pando goes to Magic LIVE (Part One)
Monday. The Orleans Hotel, Las Vegas NV.
It’s a little after 11pm and a white man with a shaved head is reloading his crossbow. Six or seven feet away, a woman dressed in black is holding up a flower, inches from her face. The man takes aim. Several audience members lift their iphones to neck-level, hoping not to be spotted.
About that audience: There are, by my count, at least as many fedoras or other non-baseball hats as there are women. Comfortably three times as many male ponytails as non-white faces.
A couple of guys behind me are talking loudly about a card trick. They know the woman will almost certainly survive. This is, after all, a magicians’ convention -- where everyone and everything is always fine in the end.
* * *
I mention all of this - the stark gender and race imbalance, the imperilled leather clad female “assistant” - not to judge, or mock, or even shame, the attendees of this week's “Magic Live” convention in Vegas. At times like this, it’s important to pick one’s targets carefully, and magicians hardly rank in the top million when it comes to threats to American democracy.
Rather I mention it to explain my own intense discomfort at attending such a dazzlingly white, almost exclusively male event on this of all weeks.
A few months ago, I revisted that old thought experiment about what you or I might have done to stop the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. “Whatever you’re doing today,” I wrote. “That’s what you’d have done.”
While Silicon Valley continues to struggle with the fallout from James Damore’s male supremacist manifesto, and his subsequent embrace by alt-Nazis… As torch-bearing fascists march on American cities and our leaders preach hatred and intolerance and brave protesters are being beaten and mowed down by cars…. I’m in Las Vegas, watching a dude firing a crossbow at a woman, surrounded by members of one of the few industries less diverse than tech.
So, what the David Copperfuck am I doing here?
The direct answer to that question lies a quarter century in my past when, like so many other pre-teenagers with similar chromosomes and melanin levels, I decided to learn magic. On my 11th or 12th birthday, I’d watched awestruck as a street magician made a small pile of coins appear and disappear in front of my eyes. I practiced that trick till I was blue in the fingers, before working my way through most of Mark Wilson’s Complete Course In Magic. Finally, around age 15, I turned my hobby into a bedroom business: Importing special playing cards and other small magical apparatus from America to resell by mail order to magicians in the UK.
It was around about the same time that I discovered Magic Magazine, which was exactly what it sounds like -- a monthly glossy magazine for magicians, published in Las Vegas, Nevada (which in those days might as well have been the moon.) I wrote a letter to the publisher, not bothering to mention that I was still a child, and soon became an official UK distributor for the magazine.
Fast forward an entire lifetime and, apart from the odd coin behind the ear miracle for Eli or Evie, my days as a magician are long behind me. But, still, time couldn’t entirely dull the pang of sadness when, a couple of months ago, I noticed a small news item on some media website or other announcing that Magic Magazine, like so many other print magazines, had published its final issue.
And then this kicker: To sign off in style, Magic would be hosting two final installments of its big annual conference -- Magic LIVE! -- one in 2017 and another in 2018, both in Las Vegas.
So that’s what brought me to the Orleans this week, officially: Nostalgia. Curiosity. A desire to pay my respects to a publication that gave my awkward teenage self his first physical connection to America and, of course, Las Vegas. Never mind the fact that it also helped him earn the money to buy his first car.
In truth, though, I also came to Magic Live looking for something else. Perhaps even a miracle.
I’ve written before about the devastating effect the tech industry has had on the magic industry. Not just because YouTube has made it easier to expose the method behind a trick, or because miniaturisation has rendered close-up miracles commonplace -- but, more fundamentally, because technology like smartphones and apps have provided a better, cooler way for nerdy kids (like I was) to impress their friends. And unlike a career in magic, a career in building cool tech toys can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. I can think of several tech entrepreneurs who used to be magicians -- Aaron Levie, Tony Hsieh -- but very few who made the journey in the opposite direction.
And yet. What technology still struggles to replace is the pure escapism that magic provides. A good magic trick -- that is, a really good magic trick - can transport you, even if just for a second, to a world in which miracles really are possible. One where there are no problems that can’t be solved at the snap of a finger, nothing that is broken that can’t be instantly repaired, nothing lost that can’t be recovered. That sounds cheesy, and it is, but it also stands in stark contrast to the technology industry which seems determined to pursue a path of disruption, destruction and unfiltered, uncensored ugly reality.
Like most people who value their sanity, I’ve spent the past few months desperately trying to balance my obsessive CNN watching and news site reading with… pretty much any kind of healthy escapism. I’ve devoured novels, I’ve binged watched TV shows, I’ve listened to music and I’ve spent hours walking and cycling and trying - in vain - to put as much distance between myself and reality.
And so when I saw that small mention of the Magic Live convention it might as well have been a flashing neon sign: ESCAPISM GUARANTEED.
Of course I knew, even as I paid the $400 registration fee, that I was setting myself up for disappointment. Trying to recover the sense of wonder - of safety and innocence and un-Nazi-ness -- I remember from my early teens was always going to be an old fool’s errand. And by the time I landed in Vegas -- just hours after the horrific events in Charlottesville --- it started to feel like full-blown dereliction of civic duty to be huddled in a Las Vegas casino with a thousand or so white dudes, hiding away from reality, at a time when every one of us should be running towards the fight.
That guilt only intensified as I stood in the registration line, surrounded by the fedoras and the hawaiian shirts and the cellphone holsters; every dorky white male cliche packed into a single conference room. Again, I say that not to judge: I was standing in the exact same line, no less excited by the prospect of seeing slight of hand stars like Johnny Thompson or David Williamson or - be still my teenage heart -- Richard Turner.
It’s easy, living in Silicon Valley, or indeed on Twitter, to assume that the entire world has become more sensitive to issues of gender or race. Twenty minutes at Magic Live will assure you that isn’t so. Never mind the jarring dearth of women or people of color, but I’d defy even the most tone-deaf tech worker not to at least raise an eyebrow at the persistent objectification of female “assistants” or the moment one audience member let out an honest-to-god wolf whistle when a rare female attendee was invited on stage to assist with a card trick.
As if the role of women in magic - and the establishment's blindness to it - weren’t already clear enough. Here’s how conference organizer Stan Allen introduces Magic Live's official program…
A Note of Awareness:
Just about four months ago, two magicians approached me suggesting we open up a conversation about women in magic at this year’s convention. The two magicians happened to be women in magic, both well known, At first, I listened politely but not at all intrigued. And then everything changed.
One of the ladies casually mentioned that she tries not to go to the Magic Castle by herself. Wait you’re a member. You’re a performing member. Still, when she’s alone she just doesn’t feel comfortable at the clubhouse… at her clubhouse. She added that it was the same at local club meetings and magic conventions.
The more women I talked to, the more it dawned on me that magic, as a community is not quite the welcoming and nurturuing envitronment I thought it was.
Well holy shit, Stan, that’s quite the “note of awareness.”
Recall, this is the man who, for 25 years, served as editor of Magic Magazine. It has apparently taken a quarter century - and direct intervention by two “well known” women - to make him realize something that was glaringly obvious from standing in the registration line, or hearing that first wolf-whistle.
Still, at least Allen got there in the end. At least he was able to add a panel on gender in magic to this year’s conference, right?
There is no such panel; no formal programming whatsoever dealing with gender, race, diversity or any other glaring reason why more than 50% of the population might feel excluded from this already struggling art form and industry.
Instead, Allen simply invites attendees to “Ask women in your local club, or women at this convention. Find out if they do feel uncomfortable, and if so why?”
...because nothing will make a female attendee more comfortable than a dude in a fedora and a hawaiian shirt marching up to her and asking why she feels uncomfortable.
“Next year at MAGIC Live, I will be inviting some women and men to talk about how things have changed over the year.”
That outta fix it.
For every moment during those first few hours at Magic Live that made me feel certain I’d made a terrible mistake in coming, there was an equal and opposite moment that sucked me back in. Some of those moments were small...
After collecting my registration badge and official conference t-shirt, I joined my fellow attendees at my first official session -- the so called “Close-Up Experience”. Surrounded on three sides by an audience of his peers, a magician by the name of Garrett Thomas reminded me of everything I used to love about watching and performing magic as he made a spectator's drivers license disappear and then reappear inside his own wallet. Then the wallet itself vanished - seemingly into thin air - leaving behind just the ID. It’s hard to render the impact of that, or any, magic trick in print, suffice to say there were audible gasps, even from the wizened old wizards in the crowd. Similar noises were prompted by South Korea’s Yu Ho-Jin’s stunning playing card manipulations.
Then, a few minutes into the show, another audience volunteer, seated alongside the performer, casually - and without any indication he was making a statement - removed his overshirt to reveal a t-shirt bearing a cartoon of a jailed Donald Trump and the slogan "Lock Him Up." For a second, on the giant screens magnifying the performance, unreality and reality were captured in a single shot. Escapism vs Donald Trump in a jail cell.
Other moments were more plainly monumental...
Later on Monday afternoon, in the midst of a general programme of presentations about how to get paid better and how to combat YouTube critics (my answer: be glad you’re a magician, dude, and “you suck” is the worst thing anyone will ever say to you on social media), a speaker was introduced by the name of Abbey Goldrake. A promotional video rolled: Goldrake swallowing swords and dancing, and eating fire under her stage name of Viola LaLa Mia. So far, so Magic Live.
But then the video ended and a spotlight illuminated Goldrake, seated downstage in a simple black wheelchair. Goldrake explained that, two years earlier, while performing a levitation illusion that should not have been in the least bit dangerous, a technical fault sent her plummeting several feet to the ground. The C3 and C4 vertebrae in her neck were broken and doctors insisted she would never breath again without the use of a tube. Just the fact that she was sitting in front of us, clearly breathing and talking, was enough to put every other magic trick at the conference to shame.
For the next thirty minutes, Goldrake told the story of how she proved those doctors wrong. How in a ludicrously short time she not only learned to breathe again, but then to move her toes, then her fingers and finally her legs.
The presentation ended with Goldrake urging the audience not prioritize career over “taking the occasional side road” -- before rising to her feet and walking off stage under her own power. The audience rose too, in a sustained standing ovation. When I was 14 years old, I sat in the front row of Earls Court Arena with my dad and watched David Copperfield fly: Even with the benefit of nostalgia, the moment had absolutely nothing on watching Abbey Goldrake stand up from that chair.
The next presentation was an illusionist who complained that YouTube spoilers were ruining his expensive tricks. “For the cost of this one illusion, I could have bought a pretty nice Tesla,” he joked.
* * * *
I walked out of the crossbow act, before the show had ended. Call me a triggered snowflake but that particular unreality - a leather-clad woman risking her life so a skin-headed man can garner applause from other men - was just a bit too real, a mite too on the nose.
Back in my hotel room, I turned on the television for the first time in almost 24 hours. Donald Trump apparently had finally, grudgingly, pretended to denounce white nationalism. Jeff Sessions was promising a civil rights investigation. Reality as unreality, with too much of both.
There’s no getting around the fact that there are few things less important than Magic Live and few groups less worthy of your attention this week than a thousand dudes swapping tips on how to force cards or palm coins. The escapism offered by Garrett Thomas or even the inspiration of Abbey Goldrake is no match for the horrifying reality of neo nazis on the march. I can talk about escapism, or a search for deeper meaning, but I’m still the guy reviewing a punch and judy show while across town the forces are massing for Kristallnacht.
But if there’s escapism to be found here - some connection to the simplicity of my half-remembered teenage years, before social media and tech bros and President Trump and the alt-right -- I remain determined to find it. Per Rupert Brooke...
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
I’ll have more to share in a couple of days. But now I have to run to the first session of day two: A presentation by a reknowned gambling expert named Darwin Ortiz.
Its title: Creating drama through conflict.