Magicians are fascinating people. As a kid I was always stunned by what some of them manage to pull off. Learned some small tricks myself. Chris Bordet, earns his living with sleight of hand. We meet for an interview at the Central Station of Amsterdam and find a bench near the water. While we watch birds and boats pass by, we talk about the ins and outs of his work.
Chris lets me know that the English word magician is deceiving because it raises the impression that the tricks are real. He prefers the Dutch word ´goochelaar´, etymologically linked to ´joke´, and the French word ´prestidigitateur´, literally meaning finger artist. He also likes the German ‘Tasche Künstler’, ´pocket artist´.”I am not a magician” he says “I play the role of one”. The difficult part is to believe what you do and trying to project that to the audience. Body language is very important.
The common 52 card deck can be seen as a model of our world. The two colours, red and black, represent the principle of duality. There are the four seasons for clubs, diamonds, spades and hearts; the 52 cards represent the 52 weeks; there are thirteen cards in each suit, representing the 13 moons in the year; if you add up the numbers of all cards, you get 364 and if you add the joker, you have 365. “It´s a story magicians use to mystify their act, to get people in the mood and distract them from the technique. First you create a frame, then you can play with it.”
Magic works in the same way as humour in the sense that it aims to surprise the audience. He explains: “it´s playing with the unexpected.” as he grabs a match from behind my ear. “You start with something very easy and then you go further.” He´s now holding three matches. “And maybe at the moment, because it´s surprising, it can be a little mind-blowing. That´s a big word, but it´s the goal of the magician”. The matches disappear behind his lifted hand.
“Let me show you a trick to illustrate how it works” He gives me a deck. “Pick your favourite card”. I check his deck and take the Ace of Spades. I return the deck, and give him my card. He puts it somewhere in the middle and shuffles. He takes out some cards and counts them, showing them one by one from the back. Four cards. He passes me the deck back, I keep it in my hands. Then asks me if my favourite card might be among the cards in his hand. I say I´m not going to tell him.
“Okay … I’m the magician, Let´s check if it was among them”. He turns around a Ten of Diamonds, ponders a little and says: “It was not the Ten of Diamonds.” He takes a look at the second card and says “No, it wasn’t the Eight of Diamonds either. He shows me the card. He takes a look at the third card and says: okay, maybe it´s the Ace of Spades. He puts it back, reveals all cards in his hand and says: “well the Ace of Spades always has the weird habit to fly back into the deck.” There are three cards there, no Ace of Spades.
I check the deck in my hands. The Ace of Spades is in the middle, up side down, smiling at me. Damn… It flew back into my hand, and I missed it.
He explains the trick this time. First, he showed me four cards from the back, but one was counted twice. He gave me the deck back and asked if my card was among his cards. The question served as a reminder that there were four. By making me think of that number, he made me strengthen my own belief that indeed, there are four cards in his hands. The Ace of Spades was already back in rest of the deck that I was holding in my hands. “Not a big deal” explains the prestidigitateur. There were in fact three remaining cards. He first revealed the Ten of Diamonds saying”Ten of Diamonds”. Of course I didn’t notice, because he was pretending to be figuring out if that was the one. The second time he looked at it first, then said “Eight of Diamonds”, and showed it to me as a confirmation that he was speaking the truth. The third time, he just said “Ace of Spades”, causing me to create the image of the Ace of Spades in my mind which was enough to believe it was there in his hand. “It´s all about images.” Chris says. “It´s conditioning. I have manipulated you to believe that I really had this card in my hand, but it was in your hands all the time.”
“Film and magic are a very similar arts. Just like with comedy, it is often the visual effect that makes people laugh, not what you say. People miss out on the point where they should look, they´re always a few steps behind. That´s how it works . An important principle of magic is that we shouldn´t do things that seem too impossible, because otherwise people will see the solution. For example, if you are working with a secret companion and the things you do are too big, they´ll know that this person was your companion.”
The dark side of magic
Chris knows magicians who pretend to be the real thing. One of them always has a crow with him. He wears his magician clothes in the street. He plays the role non-stop.
Have you figured out any of his tricks?
“Yes, yes of course. He attended the Uri Geller show in Germany once and he won, because a lot of people just believed him. They want to believe in something like that. He´s a spooky person. He told me once that when he was a child, he took his church robe on a skateboard to scare the old people into the belief that he was hovering over the street. It´s funny that people like that exist. Once when I was visiting him he made his crow fly in a circle around me, touching me very gently, and then it sat in front of me. I don´t know if it was a trick, but for a moment I thought: “this is pretty impressive”. I think he uses his tricks in conjunction with some gift he has or something. But it´s about demonstrating power, it´s not the kind of magic I like. He is playing with people’s fear.”
Most magicians tend to distantiate themselves from the tricks others take too far. Magic clubs debunk people such as Uri Geller. It also happens in politics and religion. “You could say: wow, the twin towers are destroyed, now we have to go to war, but nobody knows what exactly happened. It could be a frame, made by somebody who has interest in propagating those ideas. The ancient Greeks moved their temples with the use of hydraulics to make people believe that their preachers had more power than they actually had. Mass hypnosis.”
Can you as a magician steer other people?
I think every human can do that, yes. I think we are all one, and if we put a little bit of love in what we do, and pay some respect to each other, we automatically guide each other to the goal that is the right one. It has nothing to do with magic in that sense.
A miraculous paradox
How do you feel when you do magic?
“I feel good, because people are sometimes really happy. They feel so surprised at that moment, that they become like a child again, like the first time you see snow for example. Then I have achieved my goal, because they had this feeling for just three seconds, and I gave them a bit of happiness. There can be really loud laughter. Once or twice, I´ve seen a girl scream. I think they were too open for this kind of thing. One of the reasons why I do it is to show people that not everything is like they think it is. Be carefull with what people make you believe.
Do you know tarot?
I ask the question because Chris reminds me of the fool card.
“Well, I´m always interested in mystical things, but more with the view of a magician, a goochelaar. I´m curious to see what´s the trick, because I don´t really believe it is real. In a sense I believe it is real, because by asking the question, you already have the answer more or less. It doesn´t really matter which card comes out, because either way it will give you a perspective on your question. The question is the important thing.” Chris enjoys watching tv shows where people call clairvoyants, who shake some nuts and an answer comes out. “It´s really entertaining, but it´s really sad for the people who believe it is real. The performers listen carefully to what a person says, then use psychoanalytical tricks to satisfy them. It´s pure coincidence which card comes up. You could use how the bird flies, or how the bird shits, or whatever.”
Does it make you feel better to know how these things work?
“No. It makes me feel more stupid, actually. We know nothing. It´s games. We try to find the truth, maybe, but we´re never going to find it. It´s not important to know everything. But of course we want to know. That´s why we have scientists. We want to know. But we don´t. Or at least, we don´t know the whole thing. Maybe it would be easier if we just lived.”
Wouldn´t it be nice to forget all of it from time to time?
“That´s the gift we magicians have, actually. We are able to perform as if we would be doing it for the first time. When another magician shows me a trick, and I think: WOW, then I want to transmit this initial feeling I had to other people. When I perform, I always look for the experience I had when I saw the trick for the first time, otherwise it doesn´t work that well. And that´s a perspective only magicians must have. I realised this when I worked with theater makers. Some directors forget about the impact something can have the first time when people see it. It´s something magicians are really good at. I know how I felt when I saw the trick, and I know how I should behave in a way that others have the same feeling. I believe it myself while I perform.”
With your knowledge about the tricks of life, do you believe in miracles?
Well of course I believe in miracles. The fact that we are sitting here the sun is here, it´s warm and next to the water, that already is a cool thing. I can be in control of myself, that is a real miracle. Sometimes things happen that put you back on a path of life. I have had it a few times that I wanted to do something big, but it was not possible, because I had an accident for example. Those events are like guides in your life. In that sense I do believe in miracles.
As I bike home, I digest the curious paradox Chris revealed today. His skill is that he is able to believe things that are not true, and he uses it to show others that they shouldn’t believe things that aren’t true. In fact, he doesn’t want others to believe him. By manipulating his own mind, he conveys the ease with which that can be done. By always approaching illusions, he takes a distance from them. Magicians are fascinating people.