Seth Raphael’s Magical ComputerSocial Things
Seth Raphael brings our some of the most interesting magic props I have seen.
The trick, performed together with James Randi, may have been an April Fools joke in some ways but it was still a fascinating show.
Randi’s foundation has promised to pay $1 million to anyone who can, under proper testing conditions, show evidence of having a supernatural ability. The stunt, performed on the 1st April 2008, casts Raphael as a contestant, standing up to Randi’s intense scrutiny and proving that his computer does indeed have supernatural mind reading powers.
To me this premise is fascinating. Both Raphael and Randi are professional magicians and the result is a show of some ingenious high-tech trickery. The tricks themselves are interesting spins on fairly standard mind-reading routines, what helps to set them apart, however, is the is the narrative. Raphael does not claim to be performing the tricks himself – the real magician is the computer. This form of personification of a technical artifact used to drive the narrative of the performance is something I have noticed with Stuart Nolan’s Ideobird, and it does seem to tackle an interesting problem. It has been pointed out to me on multiple occasions that technology is positioned as the polar opposite of magic. Using a piece of software to perform a trick reinforces the idea in the heads of the audience that what is happening is not magic at all – it’s just computer science. This happens even if the audience’s proposition of how the trick is done would require actual magic to work.
I believe that a narrative element helps dispel this scepticism. Bringing attention to the fact that the audience is dealing with a piece of technology and outlining its limitations can ground the performance while taking the burden of performing the magic away from the magician and casting an object in their role creates a sense of mystery around the object, which the audience can start to perceive as sentient – adding to the magical effect.
Rafael takes this idea further by adding multiple artifacts, some of which are hiding technological interventions from the audience while others serve no other purpose than to enhance the narrative on stage and distract the audience from what really is happening. A personal favourite is the mind-reading helmet.