Change and Deception: the Future of Magic
My guest is a young Frenchman who defines himself as an offbeat magician. His passion for sleights of the hand led him to become, not only a professional illusionist, but a keynote speaker on familiar themes such as change and creativity.
Watch the Interview (in French)
Off the Beat with a Card up his Sleeve
When I ask him who he is, Butzi answers that he “still wonders” with a quirky smile. “More seriously, I studied economics while doing some magic as a hobby. Once I graduated came hesitation: I didn’t want to start a two years long master degree yet had no particular project.” Instead, Butzi went to Latin America. He spent 9 months backpacking. “The first nights, I knew where I would sleep. The nights after? Not so much.”
At this point Butzi started using his past-time as an exchange currency. “Upon arriving at an inn, I would do a bit of magic in return for a meal.” 4 months of travel after, he crossed the Equatorial frontier and kind of settled down as a resident magician in a bar where he would perform up to four times a week.
Back to France, Butzi took the plunge as a self-employed magician. Years of striving and refining his tricks got him hired at weddings and corporate events.
Then he felt the need to make up his own tricks.
As it became my work instead of a simple passion, the passion waned out. I found myself doing the same things over and over. My art was less of an art, it had lost meaning… Magician mentors and friends told me I should try something else. Thus I started doing it anew: create my own scenarios, characters.
However, being a creative magician is not that simple:
A painter has a lot of freedom to create. He can paint in the style he wants, choose his characters, his message. Even if he wants to just throw painting over his canvas, he can do this, provided it makes senses to him. The magician is a different case: he’s half-painter, half-entrepreneur. He can make up his own parts, yet the show must still please and impress an adult public. I still have to trick grown-ups whose senses are sharp.
This structural constraint led Butzi to take interest into acting. The latter practice has common ground with magic: an actor must be creative and immersed into what he is doing while also respecting a—sometimes stringent—frame. “Invisible manipulations”, along with this, “structured my work: then I decided to share the tools of magic with the largest number.” Hence, finally, the change from juggling to keynote speaking and write a book for magician and others: Creativity for Magicians: The Ultimate Guide to Growing Your Own Ideas. Implying, of course, a change of frame, as those who expect to be merely entertained by the magician want to learn something and be inspired when the man in the spotlight pretends to speak.
Magic, Butzi says, should be considered as a monopoly for the typical prestidigitator. There’s no need to have much predisposition for sleights of hand in general, or to wear the usual glittered suit, false-bottomed hat and hollow stick attire. “Anyone can become a magician.”
Is crazytivity a crazy notion?
To be creative, as he needs to be in order to come up with original tricks, Butzi believes there are two key ingredients. The first is the mindset: “magicians retain the spirit of their childhood.” They accept maintaining an inner child-like attitude, which they combine with the experience and abilities of a trained adult. The second ingredient is a what if? pushing: always asking oneself what would happened if, or how such and such outcome could happen, and so on. In other words, to not be afraid of questions.
“When your inner child is strong, your ego is weak and ideas can flow.” Free imagination allows the magician to twist his tricks and routines into impossible things. Which is the point, as magicians strive to create the illusion of impossible things happening before everyone’s eyes. Of course, the impossible per se cannot be performed. Perhaps it could happen at a certain degree, though, a degree sufficient enough so that a show-like trick happens. This is impossible, unless we do that, and that… from this first step, keep exploring: the ideas open up to further reflections and ideas.
This process, which Butzsi considers a key part of his “crazytivity” concept, looks like a wild relative of agility. It’s also the name of his latest book: Creativity for Magicians: The Ultimate Guide to Growing Your Own Ideas. According to him, it is underestimated. “People want the good idea, the next big thing that’ll revolutionize the market. We magicians are not looking for that. We just want to open doors that open to other doors.”
The explosive alliance between a child’s wild imagination and an adult’s life knowledge would thus allow one to reach the “magic zone where we become creative.” He adds, “this is more of a vision than of set tools, but when you get the vision, you end up getting the tools as well.”
In real terms, what does it look like? Butzi tells me of a trick he twisted after having learned it. During a magic show, a spectator signs a card; said card is mixed among other cards; then the magician opens a TV control and the signed card flows out. “I loved this one as well as the magician who created it, but this wasn’t mine.” Butzi’s want for meaning compelled him to make the trick something more than another man’s sleight. This, it seems, is what would make the magic craft into an art.
The twist consisted in having the signed card reappearing, not in a TV control, but in a teddy bear. “That’s impossible, because the technique used to quietly transfer the card into the control” wouldn’t work with a teddy bear. Unless I change that… Butzi had to change the whole order of his show as to change the context, but he managed to make possible the transfer of the signed card into a stuffed toy.
A magician’s creativity lies in being clever. If a magician sneezes, he is actually performing a trick. If he says “let’s get started”, this means everything has already been set into place and the trick has almost ended. “Some magicians are cunning enough to ask to go to the bathroom when they are invited, and then they hide a card or something behind a painting, just in case someone asks them to perform a trick.” (Note to the reader: Butzi did not do that at my home. I know because I checked behind my paintings. Who knows?)
From entertainment to deception
Does all this make crazytivity a school for politics? As bumbling as it may sound, Butzi’s preparation looks like what conflicting agents may do: checking the place is akin to what spies would do before bugging or trapping it, and the everything-ready-before-the-trick bears a clear analogy with Sunzi’s idea that the best war is the one that you do not even need to fight.
Thus, it came naturally to my mind that an accomplished magician must have a peculiar perception of what has been called conspiracy theories and fake news. This means, apparently, deception and manipulation used for other ends than diversion. Do politicians use the same tricks than magicians do?
According to my guest, yes. Politicians tend to repeatedly use the same vocabulary, to present themselves as holding a specific role—akin to NLP “anchoring” practices and using non-verbal cues to trigger particular emotions. To a magician, Butzi claims, some of these practices are obvious. Unfortunately, people would be more suspicious of a magician than of a political con man: “when a magician comes on stage, the public tries to spot what he secretly does, pays close attention to his hand”, whereas the politician would benefit from an aura of fame, experience and purported good intentions. Shouldn’t the public be more suspicious of a power-claimer than of an entertainer?
Here Butzi mentions mentalism: pretending you can read people telepathically and foresee the future. In truth, mentalism is about telling and retelling constantly what is happening, to keep controlling the frame without being too obvious.
If you wrote something on a paper, you believe it’s secret, but it’s not. Then I will use it a certain way to “reveal” its content. I can influence you into thinking of a certain number, then guess it, then tell you the story again so that at the end you are really framed into thinking it happened this way.
I tell the public: you thought of any number between, say, 1 and 40, and nothing was pre-arranged. Right? Well, when I tell you this, I’ve already re-written the story, for in truth you have put your paper on the table, I did this and that, but I’m ignoring all these details, I tell you that you thought of X and I just guessed. It suggests that telepathy just happened, but what I’m saying is not the whole story.
Thus, politicians may act as information brokers: they manipulate information, re-write the story as it suits to their interests or agenda, and frame it a certain way—using trigger words, emphasizing some aspects while ignoring or downplaying others, presenting themselves on a flattering light, and so on. What they say may not be strictly speaking false, but could be understood as a string of lies of omission, because they forget inconvenient details.
When a non-magician tells me of a trick, I just want to laugh. Non-magicians forget about ninety percent of what actually happened! He’ll say, I had my card at hand, then it got out from the TV control, whereas a thousand other things have happened between these!
Benevolent Manipulators and Undefeated Zetetics
But take away the power to define context, to tell and retell the story, and the house of cards falls down. James Randi, a famous illusionist during the 60s and 70s, embarked on a crusade to prove that claimed supernatural powers were bullshit. (Too bad that it did not thwart the rise of the “bullshit jobs.”) In his own TV show, Randi offered $1.000.000 to anyone who could prove he or she had paranormal powers. For example, to someone claiming she could see people’s auras, Randi would put 5 individuals behind closed doors, mix them up, and allowing the claimed magus to see them through. Apparently, the paranormal powers never caught on, and the prize remains unoffered up to this day. Randi always kept his frame, controlled his show as much as a scientific experiment, and thus prevent his guests to skew the narrative and retell the story.
James Randi had a French counterpart: Gérard Majax. At a time when many magicians had launched themselves, up to the point of some pretending to be endowed with real supernatural powers, then celebrated illusionist Majax made a point to throw off their mask. Likewise, Butzi does hardly believe in supernatural powers but knows that “there are a thousand ways to get information from someone”, then tell and retell the story, without arousing suspicion.
How someone dresses, his non-verbal language, way to talk, gesture and other more or less subtle details allow the attuned mentalist to guess his or her emotional state, what he or she may want, or what he or she may be anxious about. Sharpened senses, imagination, and some smooth talking can go a long way.
This practice is known as cold reading. Entire books were written on how to do it well. “I tell you that you studied. Perhaps in letters?” I’m an engineer; I may not say anything, but the attuned mentalist will notice me becoming colder. Then, “I won’t tell you I failed at guessing correctly, but instead will redirect myself to something else until I perceive you start lighting up. I can read micro-details on your face, eyes, body to know when I fail or when I get closer to the truth.” From the interviewed’s positive micro-reactions, the mentalist gets closer and closer to his true thoughts, one step at a time. The best mentalists are very fast-paced in such steps. Then, when the magic trick has ended, the interviewed only remembers what the interviewer guessed correctly while quietly forgetting about the failures and half-truths.
To make the process smooth, a magician or mentalist can remember lots of routine sentences, catchphrases, train to freely associate ideas… a magician with good interpersonal abilities may conceive and put forward solutions to the problem he has uncovered. If said solution fits the individual, such trick works almost like coaching or therapy!
This may be less deceitful as it sounds. Butzi has a good example of benevolent mentalism: giving someone a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. Someone is stressed, anxious, goes to a fortune-teller who predicts him success. He believes in the prediction: because of this inner change, he may be more enthusiastic, willing to work, open-minded, and he will have more chances to actually succeed. If things happen this way, why reject what looks like a benevolent manipulation? “I have witnessed the extraordinary power of the placebo effect”, Butzi mentions. People may be cured from cancer by sugar pills or formulas chanted on their photos. These people want to believe in what’s happening, and this is of course a key part of the process. It doesn’t matter that the belief itself is true or false; what matters is that people believe, because beliefs have (real and barely supernatural) effects.
People who believe may reframe the story by themselves, without the magician even doing the effort of telling and retelling them, because of their desire to believe. Butzi remembers of an alleged healer who claimed to use “Indian shaman” techniques on an old, sickly woman, to cure her. She was shaking, and someone else was shaking her. There was an audience, too, yet the audience did not notice the shaker because they wanted to believe in the healer’s “magic” efficacy.
Ready for the Future
Obviously, knowing of these techniques can show useful to spot those using them, especially outside of entertainment. As Butzsi says, such people barely use these with him, perhaps because “you don’t deceive a deceiver.” More often, though, friends would tell him of this or that person managing to perform miraculous feats of fortune telling or healing but not being famous. Perhaps these aren’t famous because fame would make harder for them to control the story told…
Beyond this, Butzi brings one potent advice on how to be ready for the future:
Many are those who fear change, because they fear the unknown. In the unforeseeable future they project risks, liabilities, bad trends or events. Well, one can mitigate these by having at least a ready solution to potential problems, however it would be even best to improve one’s imagination and ability to freely associate ideas, potentialities and so on as to come up with ideas instead of relying on frozen plans.
To know more about Butzi’s magic or ideas, check his website (in French).
Butzi’s books in English: