DMC: Magic for Change

Curator's Note

We often think of magicians as flashy and spectacular, even campy (David Copperfield), or as possessing ironic dry wit poking fun at magic (Penn and Teller), or for "guerilla" tactics and major stunts (David Blaine). I wonder if there is also something like "populist magic" or "social magic" too? If so, then the young British magician Drummond Thomas Money-Coutts, otherwise known as DMC, might fit this category. 

DMC is something of a world traveler, performing street magic in places like south India, Tanzania, Beijing and Kenya, producing documentary shorts through his company DMC Pictures, Inc. His minidocs are very low-budget productions shot with a miniDV camera, often using direct address narration from DMC himself, intercut with montage sequences depicting his street performances. 

DMC's minidocs have social messages beyond self-promotion. For example, his feature-length documentary titled Kenyan Conjurations (2008) shot with friend Tom Lyon, raised money for a new school in a Kenyan town. He slept on the streets of london for Homeless: Where the Heart Is, in order to raise money and awareness for youth homelessness. And he made Tanzanian Devil in order to draw attention to the negative effects of superstitious beliefs in impoverished countries, particularly for women for whom witchcraft becomes a 'legitimate' excuse for punishment for their (often sexual) transgressions.

In a minidoc titled, Why Do We Believe? DMC asks why do we still today in an "age of evidence and proof" hold on to these archaic beliefs? (Interestingly, he groups together witchcraft and creationism wedding together First and Third worlds). In a subsequent minidoc titled, What is Magic?, DMC argues that magic is nothing more than "the momentary creation of the illusion of a possibility." He is firmly against the notion of "real" magic, upholding instead scientific empiricism. In short, he says, "magic is simply the illusion of magic." He continues, "real magic is not found in card tricks... to me the real magic in this life is [found] in all those thousands of moments that, if even for a second, make your heart stop."

Interestingly, What is Magic? is shot primarily in Cairo after the Arab Spring. In the video one of his characteristic montage sequences is interrupted by a close-up shot of the sign outside the National Council for Women in downtown Cairo. The camera zooms out to reveal that the building has been burnt, the brick exterior is charred and black. The minidoc gives no commentary on the events nor the significance of the burned out building, it simply returns to its overall narrative about everyday magic. What is interesting are the implicit claims of this video, which suggests that the participatory nature of magic provides a space for connection and new understanding. One has to have an open mind to enjoy magic, but one must also be critical, to "watch carefully" in order to expose the trick, because as DMC reminds us, it is only an illusion. Perhaps the video is suggesting that there are more things in life that are illusory, that we must adopt detached critical distance in order to truly understand the world around us rather than relying on the false beliefs that keep in place patriarchy and ignorance. Unfortunately, he never really mentions issues like neocolonialism, lack of health care and education, political instability, and unemployment. Oh well... 


Thank you, in particular, for raising what is an extremely important question: does "social magic" exist? Because I am currently researching intersections between magic and circus as performing arts, I chose to run a quick Google search experiment this morning in response the question posed. The number one hit produced by a search for "social magic" returns the LinkiedIn profile of a guerilla marketing firm that employs the iconography of magic to sell their services as a social media publicity firm. In contrast, the number one hit produced when searching for "social circus" returns a Wikipedia article that clearly that term as a contemporary social movement. Other hits, of fairly legitimate organizations dedicated to using circus as a means for social change follow that web search result for “social circus.” These two, albeit brief searches, encapsulate one of the challenges that I see facing magic as a performing art when it comes to helping others and engaging in sustained social work: the obstacle of the individual performer as the traditional source of the magic. The fact that, traditionally, magic shows have focused on the performances of one individual and his (more often than her) seemingly supernatural achievements makes it very difficult to place the focus of even the best intentioned community service work onto the community rather than the individual performer. I can think of exceptional organizations that overcome this difficulty in my personal experience. Magicana (a Toronto-based charity organization) runs "My Magic Hands," which teaches magic to local at-risk youth. The Conjuring Arts Research Centre in New York organizes a similar program called the Hocus Pocus Project. Project Magic, a program designed by David Copperfield to pair magicians and occupational therapists in California to improve patients' recovery time, is another example. All of these instances of social circus, however, are dedicated to teaching the community members involved sleight-of-hand as a means of self-empowerment. The focus is on the community members becoming magicians. The Social Circus programs that I have encountered tend to have an easier time involving a larger number of community participants in social work, because circus traditionally forefronts performance as a team over the performance of the individual. Hand-to-hand, human pyramids, multi-person juggling acts, and musical acts are all integrated into a performance in which solo performances are included, but are not focused on as the individuals whose importance trumps the value of the teamwork required for a full circus show. There are very few solo, evening-length circus shows. I suspect that this greater emphasis on teamwork as a performance necessity is what has led to various Arab-Jewish youth circus programs in Jerusalem (working toward peace through cross-cultural teamwork) and the Tohu, La Cité des artes du cirque in Montéal (whose mandate includes environmental sustainability and economic growth in a local, low-income neighborhood). Social magic is an exciting possibility and has the potential to liberate magicians from their self-aggrandizing tendencies. Many efforts made to create it, however, seem to celebrate the individual performer at the head of such a project rather than the community participants of the social project in question. Perhaps that is why it is currently appears to be less successful as a cohesive movement than social circus does.

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