A Bmoreart Interview with Cara Ober

This Friday, December 27 David London will perform a new incarnation of ‘Magic Outside the Box‘ at The Baltimore Theatre Project.  London’s act combines magic with storytelling, comedy, puppetry, and a surrealistic philosophy of creative acts. Rather than trying to explain it myself, I invited the artist to discuss his inspiration and process in an interview with Bmoreart.

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Cara Ober: How, when, and why did you start doing magic shows?? 

David London: I performed my first magic trick when I was seven years old. My family was invited to an event that was a black tie affair, for which I had to rent a tuxedo. While at the tuxedo rental place, I insisted on also getting a top hat and a cane with white tips. At the event, my family was invited up for a ceremony, and afterward they all returned to their seats, but I stayed standing. Once everyone’s eyes were back on me, I took off my hat, reached inside, and pulled out a rabbit. I consider that to be the first day I knew I was a magician. That was nearly 25 years ago. From that point on, I had found my passion.

CO: Are the ideas of magic and performance necessarily intertwined for you? Can you have one without the other? For example, is it as exciting to do magic tricks at home for the cat or does the presence of an audience make the experience more magical?

DL: First, let me say that I view magic and magic tricks as two completely different things. I see magic as an expansive experience, whereas magic tricks are illusions that can mimic and foster the experience of magic. Yet the two are completely intertwined. Magic tricks present us with impossible scenarios which defy the rules of logic and physics. In this way, the magic trick gains its power. So, a magic trick could absolutely exist without an audience, but the magic itself would not exist if someone was not there to experience it.

There are certainly those moments, especially when practicing sleight-of-hand, that the magician can get fooled by their own trick. It’s quite magical when you have worked really hard to master something, and though you know how it works, you don’t see it working. That’s its own kind of magic, and when it happens, you know that its ready to share.

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In terms of performance I believe that what makes live performance different from any other art form is the direct exchange of energy between audience and performer. The most beautiful thing about that exchange of energy when it comes to a magic show, is that even though I know how the “tricks” are done, I am granted the privilege of experiencing the magic through the audience. We laugh together, we think together, and I am granted the privilege of sharing in their wonder.

Finally, The creation of magic tricks as a whole is quite a magical process, as it requires the magician to work in two opposing realities simultaneously. One reality is the world of dreams and imagination, where anything is possible. The other reality is the world of logic and the laws of physics, where the “inner workings” of a magic trick emerge. Perhaps this is not different from any other form of creation where something is imagined and then brought into reality, but when creating magic tricks, these polarities are pushed to an extreme. First, you must imagine something impossible, and free of any restrictions, limitations, rules, or logic. Then, you must figure out not only how to make it happen in the real world, but do so in a way that the workings are completely invisible.

CO: Although you are a magician and there is a magic bar here in Baltimore, you prefer to perform in art spaces – theaters, art galleries, performance art festivals, and other spaces primarily used by ‘fine arts’ practitioners. How does this context change what you do? Why does this feel like the ideal setting for your work?

DL: I have landed in these art settings mostly out of choice. I accepted many years ago that my work is far from what most people think of when they think of a magician. Because my shows are based in a more conceptual and abstract realm than those of other magicians, I prefer to present my work in settings that foster and celebrate creativity and showcase artistic expression.

Magic tricks inherently hold some awesome power, and for many magicians, that is enough. They never move beyond the trick and delve deep into the magic. Personally, I am interested in taking that inherent power of illusion and playing around with the places that it can be directed. I use magic tricks to express myself, explore ideas, challenge notions, play, and often times, to reflect on the nature of magic itself. I have intentionally sought venues and performance settings that not only understand, but embrace my exploration. I find that these venues also attract the audiences who are seeking and open to such a journey.

All that being said, I have had the privilege of performing at Illusions Magic Bar before, and could not speak more highly of the beautiful space, the wonderful audiences, as well as of Spencer Horseman and his father Ken.

CO: If you had to label yourself within a fine arts continuum, would you consider yourself a performance artist? Or do you see yourself as a hybrid of two distant worlds – the fine art world and the magic community?

DL: Truthfully, I have never had much luck finding a community in which I perfectly fit in.

If I was forced to choose a label from the world of fine art, then indeed “performance artist” would be the closest, as in fact, I do explore ideas and express myself through the medium of live performance. All that aside, the term “performance artist” comes with many assumptions that I choose not to battle, choosing simply to call myself a magician.

Both the terms “Performance Artist” and “Magician” come with their own weight, as each evoke preconceived notions of what the words mean. When people hear “magician” they often think rabbits, hats, giant illusions and scantily clad women. When people hear “performance artist” they often think strange, inaccessible, and self-serving. When I first discovered the world of “Performance Art”, I found myself suddenly presented with other performers who were taking risks, trying new things, and exploring high concept ideas through performance work. I can say that I relate more to performance artists than most magicians, but feel deep down that in fact, I am a magician. I have accepted this to mean that I have committed my life to understanding, experiencing and facilitating the experience of magic for myself and others.

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CO: Like most artists, your shows and techniques evolve over time. What inspires your work? What ideas, events, or concepts are currently influencing what you do? How is your newest performance different than those that came before?

DL: Almost all of my shows have evolved out of a deeper exploration into the nature of magic, creativity, imagination, dreams and consciousness. This has taken various forms as my interests in passions have shifted over the years. I had one show, …Art of Dreams, which was a theatrical exploration of the hypnagogic state — the state just as you are waking up or falling asleep. My family show, The Adventure to the Imagi Nation, personifies the human imagination as if it was an actual place filled with strange characters, bizarre happenings, and lots of magic and fun. I have one character I am developing named Dr. Finius J. Nodnol III, Esq., who is a traveling snake-oil salesman. His product is Dr. Nodnol’d Imagination Rejuvenation Tonic, which is a completely imaginary tonic, but when you drink it you can feel its actual effects.

The current show I am working on is a Creative Spirit Seance, which is a seance designed not to summon the dead, but rather to communicate with and conjure up the Creative Spirit. This show, which will premiere at Single Carrot Theater’s new location in Remington in May 2014, will be presented for just 12 attendees per show, and include a combination of demonstrations, interactivity,  as well as direct engagement in the creative process. The show will culminate with a Victorian-style parlor séance as we attempt to contact the Creative Spirit in a completely different way.

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CO: Aside from magic show, you have also explored magic through interactive performances and experiences. Can you talk about this?

DL: Certainly, in a quest to understand magic, one must be led to explore such a profound state of being through mediums other than just magic tricks. I would say, however, that almost everything I do is interactive in one way or another.

Once, I partnered with my dear friend Katy Nielsen, dressed up from the 1920’s, and pushed a vintage baby carriage around Chicago. The carriage was filled with carrots that we then handed out to people. In a similar vein, I also did one performance where I transplanted carrots into banana peels and then sewed them back up. I was really interested at that time in my life with what happens when we start imposing dream logic into everyday life.

At a time when I felt like I needed a deeper understanding of the state of Wonder, I spent 6 months facilitating the construction of Wonder Bread Sculptures. I would go to an event with 20+ loaves of bread and encourage people to make things. I realized through this experiment that creativity – the actual act of making—is a more direct path to a magical experience than any magic trick will ever be.

This led me to create the IMAGINE (Integrated Mechanical Apparatus Generating Images Nearly Existing) Device, which is a fully-interactive, handheld video teleidoscope. This project, too, encourages play, creativity and co-creation. Later, in collaboration with my partner, Jeramie Bellmay, the IMAGINE device transformed into the Scoposcope, which is more like a techno-zen rock garden.

To me, being a magician means that I get to play with reality. How I do this and what medium I choose to explore with may shift based on the needs of the specific vision I am trying to fulfill. Be it a trick, a festival, an interactive installation, or a piece of street performance, I pursue whatever seems to fit the best for any given interest or exploration.

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CO: You cite Surrealism as one of your most significant inspirations. How does Surrealism relate to magic?

DL: Though most people today know Surrealism as an aesthetic movement, in fact, Surrealism was first and foremost a philosophy and literary movement. In dozens of books, Andre Breton and his comrades laid out a vision for life that sought to blur the dichotomies between dreaming and waking, conscious and unconscious, imagination and everyday life. In these books, and these words, I found the first system of magic I had encountered that looked at everyone and everything as a potential magician– able to transform the world through the interplay and intermingling of the inside and the outside.

I quickly learned that, unlike what we are taught in Art History class, Surrealism was not another dead art movement from the early part of the 20th Century, but was rather a living and breathing thing.  I was living in Chicago at the time and was amazed to learn that the Surrealist Movement of the United States was based in the Windy City, and I quickly found and contacted Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, the founders of the Chicago group. The Rosemont’s had traveled to Paris in 1966, where they met Breton, who instructed them to start a group on America. So there I was, hanging out with direct descendants of the original Parisian Surrealist Group. I spent a little over three years with the group— learning, playing and exploring.

Surrealism was critical in my life in that it expanded my vision in terms of magic from looking within the world of “stage magic” or even just performance, and shifting my magic outlook to all layers of reality. To this day, I feel as though my Surrealism is the one system of thought I have discovered that aligns nearly perfectly with my own ideas, ideals and understanding of reality.

CO: What is your personal definition of magic? How does this affect how you see the world around you?

DL: I have both steered away from this question for many years, while simultaneously asking it to thousands of other people. I have also explored the question of “What is Magic” in a publication of collected answers, an interactive video installation, and given talks on the question. In fact, I believe this question to be the first and most important question in the life of any magician.

What I have learned through these explorations, is that there is not one definition of magic. That being said, what all definitions of magic seem to have in common, is that in one way or another, the experience of magic is directly tied to the expansion (real or imagined) of possibilities. The quest to know magic is at the very heart of my artistic practice. I am not sure what would happen if I every actually found out, as the quest itself keeps me going.

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More Links and Videos to Explore:

The Baltimore Theatre Project for Tickets to David’s Show: http://www.theatreproject.org/Shows/DavidLondon’sMagicOutsideTheBox/
20 Minute Excerpt from Cabaret Show: https://vimeo.com/29967722
Magic Sampler: https://vimeo.com/11220176
What is Magic Talk from Ignite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6kZffiItpE
Imagi Nation Full Show: https://vimeo.com/66248232
IMAGINE Device: https://vimeo.com/78437318
IMAGINE Device 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gihqse9n58
Scoposcope 3: https://vimeo.com/57771104
Scoposcope 2: https://vimeo.com/33349842

Photo Credits:
David London Devil by Philip Laubner
David London as a child Magician by his mother?
David London Imagi Nation Snow by Second Glance Photography
Dr.Nodnol by Philip Laubner
Cards SMALL by Theresa Keil
Brain Hat Illustration by Charon Henning
David London Tops by Philip Laubner