Monday, March 22, 2010

Perfect Nonsense

Mark Mitton is a meta-magician, a sorcerer’s apprentice. He is interested in how the mind makes patterns in a pre-conscious way. Magic is like mimesis—a revolution in the history of thinking. The magician, Mitton points out, must always understand what his subject is thinking. In this sense, his theme is epistemology. He teaches cause and effect to scientists and artists alike, and he is a figure in Manhattan’s nightlife, being a regular at Serge Becker’s exclusive club, The Box. Mitton wears a bow tie and suit and slicks his hair across his forehead like an English don. He’s a Haverford graduate who was born in Canada.

In one trick, he convinces the spectator a wine glass is falling through another, when it’s just a matter of timing and lowering. But is this a theory of mind, or a theory of the autonomic central nervous system? Consider the hypno-disk. During a recent performance at a Soho loft, he asked everyone to stare at an object that looks like one of the dream sequences designed by Salavador Dali for Spellbound, the classic Hitchcock film that also deals with illusion and reality. After staring into the twirling disc for thirty seconds, the audience was asked to turn their attention to Stuart Firestein, a biologist from Columbia who specializes in olfaction and has worked with Mitton in other performances that combine science and prestidigitation. Those in the audience who had never taken mushrooms or LSD experienced what seemed like a hallucination out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, as their contracted eye muscles unwound and Firestein’s head appeared to explode—an unforgettable moment that would inevitably make its way into dreams.

There was another trick.  Mitton is very democratic and freely gives away selected secrets. Everyone got a bag. The sound of an imaginary ball falling, he revealed, can be created snapping fingers against the side of the bag. Mitton does for magic what Derrida did for literature. He deconstructs while remaining one step ahead of his patient, so that despite all reason, a large element of irrationality, and hence awe, still prevail. “It’s got to make perfect nonsense,” he said, invoking the famous quote about the structure of comedy. 

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