Spirited Away

Lecture by Martin Reinhart
At first sight the fields of magic and science do not have much of an overlap. This notion however is completely untrue for the fairly long period between 1860 and 1930. A surprisingly high number of scientists and inventors of this time were fascinated by spiritualism and believed in the existence of paranormal forces.

Marie Curie for example regarded mediumistic séances as “scientific experiments” and thought it possible to discover in spiritualism the source of an unknown energy that would reveal the secret of radioactivity. Thomas Ava Edison for his part announced an extension to his phonograph in 1921 that would extract thoughts and feelings from dead bodies in order to store and play them back. He claimed that this was possible due the existence of “life units” – tiny energy particles that are the scientific proofed equivalent to the human soul. Some years later Manfred von Ardenne – one of the fathers of German pre-war television and the Soviet atomic bomb – came up with a device that could transfer thoughts in order to substitute the telephone. Like him, quite a few of the broadcast pioneers took it as a given that sooner or later radio waves would allow us to communicate with worlds beyond understanding.

Away from ideological judgement these examples illuminate an interesting crossover between the utopian vision of a boundless technology that helps to reveal even more mysteries of the immaterial world and an anti modernist thought-space that is filled and nourished by ghost stories, an animistic world outlook and a dazzling array of esoteric philosophies. In this context the praxis of the commercial magical show plays a very interesting and intermediate roll that connects and correlates these two assumed opposite spheres.

For his stage trick the professional magician uses up-to-date technology and makes the latest scientific discoveries look like magic. He plays with the notions of the impossible and the unreal in order to demonstrate the very contrary: Repeating the paranormal phenomena every evening in front of hundreds of witnesses IS the very definition of a scientific experiment. But what does it proof?

The answer to this question is more complex and ambivalent than one might expect. It basically describes a sibling rivalry of different concepts of the world – the grey zone of phantasm.

“The Prestige” – a 2006 British-American film directed by Christopher Nolan – perfectly illustrates this point of view. The film does not only visualize the close relationship between turn of the century technology with the popular magic-biz, but also introduces a meta-discourse about cinematic truth and the will to believe the impossible. As it turns out in the end the film itself is a magical trick and he leaves the spectator/witness with the two folded feeling to be cheated and enlightened in the same moment.

Martin Reinhart is a filmmaker and historian of photography and fi lm, living and working in Vienna. He studied at the University of Applied Arts, and lectures at the Art University Linz. He is co-owner and CEO of several media and technology companies (Blank Mind Productions HOB-Technology, Actimoto) and also runs a precision mechanical workshop in Vienna. Martin trained as a camera technician in Munich and Hollywood, and is also a media planner for museums and exhibitions.