MONEY & MAGIC... on GIFT, GRIFT, and GRAFT
by Mark Wagner
THE GLUE THAT BINDS US
My friend Ryan Oaks is a magician... a performer on both stage and screen as well as in other more intimate settings. Ryan claims no mystical insights, nor preternatural abilities. Instead he is capable of discrete manual manipulations... capable of making relatively common objects behave... or, er, misbehave... in ways difficult for laypeople's eyes to follow or their minds to comprehend.
Ryan introduced himself because he saw the connection. We share a job description. We both use dollar bills in our act. We make them do weird things. For example, we can both make money disappear in ways besides spending it. We both aim to delight. We both use money to make an audience pause and reassess their perception of the physical world.
Ryan came for a studio visit and gave us a little show. We showed him some of what we do to do what we do. Turns out our jobs both involve esoteric equipment and material preparations. Ryan gave me a pair of trick scissors. I gave him a baggie of bill parts he'd otherwise be at pains to fake.
THE TRICK SCISSORS
Those scissors were a great addition to my scissors collection. The technical term is a "gaff"... a specialty prop, often appearing to be a common object, used to help a stage magician sell an illusion to the audience. In the trade the scissors Ryan gave me are referred to as cut-no-cut scissors. I'm not going to tell you how they work, because I might want to play the trick on you someday. A tiny hand-scratched inscription on them reads "Modified by WB in 1982." Digressively... I never identified with Batman, nor Robin, but with Alfred. I never wanted to go out on missions, but to work on useful gadgets in the basement and keep the house in order.
THE EXTRAORDINARY CASE OF THE DISAPPEARING ADHESIVE
There are ten... no eleven... important adhesives in my life. I'd lost track of one. I'd come to use it so sparingly that my one remaining can had lasted for several years past the date the original manufacturer had stopped making it.
I wrote in an email:
A funny thing happened today. I was doing some online research looking for info on an old favorite adhesive of mine (3M ReMount Repositionable Adhesive to be exact) that stopped being manufactured in North America years ago. I was looking for a suitable replacement or wondering if any of 3M's other products might work for me. So, I googled the name and poked around at some of the hits looking for genuine information and not just wishful speculation.
So much product information can't be trusted out there. Company reps just want to sell you their product, so they'll claim it does whatever you're looking for. There are so many craft people and art people out there who are either mindlessly brand loyal, or not discerning enough that you can't trust them either. But I came across this one group discussion that was really really helpful... a conversation among sensitive craftsmen who appreciated somewhat nostalgically the specific qualities of the 3M ReMount adhesive that I too had appreciated and missed. This conversation successfully guided me away from a bunch of bad products and eventually toward one that behaves in exactly the same way: Krylon Easy Tack Repositionable Adhesive. I was reading for like fifteen minutes. I thought... "these are my people." The only weird thing was, I couldn't figure out why it was so important to the list's participants that the adhesive work silently.
Turns out it was a discussion group of magicians.
Hey, thanks for coming out the other night. And for performing! It was super fun telling people there would be a magician at my opening. I know my sister Mary, and my friend Kurt's daughter really loved your part in it! Maybe I can take you out to lunch or buy you some beers sometime as a further thank you!?
MARK'S MAGIC GLUE
One of the most frequent questions I'm asked is “What kind of glue do you use?”
One curse of contemporary capitalism is the belief that there's a material solution to your problems. Pathologically speaking, adverse materialism manifests in a number of ways. There are those who suffer from "getting ready disease." Others who obsess about the archivality of their art. Still others who avoid using materials they've purchased because they don't want to spoil them. I myself am a highly functioning material addict. I've indulged for years and at considerable expense. I hold (I don't say hoard) materials pretty much only to assure myself that it’s never the lack of materials getting in my way. It's a heavy burden. I own a palette jack.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right... certainly. But the opposite is just as true... if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing wrong. I hand my kids whatever materials they ask for... folly though it be. Then I laugh at them from across the room in their glorious mess, paper scraps stuck to foreheads, great pools of glue spreading overtaking project and tools alike.
For friends and colleagues, I never hesitate. I'm not a guildsman protecting secret knowledge. Why should Colin or Jon wade through the research into rigid panels, their varieties, preparations, and uses when I've sooo done that already and can save them time and expense. I have intentions to make a materials manual in one of these zines... a boring tell-all of mix-ratios, tool resources, and personal best-practices.
To one's own people, one's own students, one's own kids you can indulge or expound and eventually expect to indicate the crux. But to the casual attendee at a lecture what can you hope to convey in a 30-second response? It's not about the glue... hell it's not even about the dollar bills. It's like a Penn and Teller routine... I can tell you all my tricks and you still won't know how I do it.
Sometimes I just want to be a prima donna jerk.
"What kind of glue do you use?"
"A magic glue that only makes good art."
LIGHT OF HAND
I’ve never stopped being a remedial reader. Certainly, one of the reasons I gravitated toward visual art was because the reading load was light. The main reason I know anything about what's inside books is from incessant listening to audio books while I work. Many of my own keenest poetic insights are born from reading and listening confusion... misapprehension or misentendre.
I love love love the phrase "sleight of hand." Love the skill and subtlety implicit in it. Love the delicate, fractional, barely-effable degree imparted by the word "sleight." The particular preposition employed: not "...in the hand," not "...with the hand," but "...of the hand." A thing altogether more integral and attuned.
The phrase comes originally from the French "legé de main" meaning more literally "light of hand." Sometimes "light of hand" does appear in English, but more often it slurs or drifts to "sleight of hand" and gains by it. This is similar to the way that "card sharp"... one clever in the manual manipulation of cards... often transmutes to "card shark"... continuing to embrace the sharpness, while connoting also the predatory nature of gambling cheats.
More on cheating later.
HARRY HOUDINI VS HARRY POTTER
For added gravitas English-speaking showmen continue to use the French phrase "legé de main." But for decades I never knew it was French. I thought they were saying "Ledger Domain" and referring to some Dungeons & Dragons shadow-realm-like paralleled dimension. You know... a "dominion" on the edge (or "ledge") of our own world that's filled with spirits and mysterious powers the performer could tap into. This seemed only natural to me, considering the connection… in the use of the word "magic"… between stage illusion and sorcery. "Sorcery?... Source-ry"?
We're talking actors and actresses versus witches and wizards. Magic-tricks versus magic-magic. The one camp brings convincing illusions born from manual dexterity, misdirection, and stagecraft. The other camp offers preternatural manipulation of the world through will extension, spirit intervention, and other quasi-religious forces.
Money is integral to both camps of magic.
Misguided magicians from Midas to Faust have been preoccupied with wealth acquisition. So have those dotty old uncles of sorcery and science, the alchemists, who sought after that ever-elusive transmutation to gold. Tales of fairy gold abound: hoards of gold, gold at the end of the rainbow, fake gold, the generating of gold... as with a spinning wheel. Werewolves and vampires thwarted by silver. A fairy servant's offense at the offer of payment.
MAGIC & MISCHIEF
There is an obvious connection between card tricks and card cheats. An ancestral connection between stage magicians of the vaudeville carney tradition with three-card monte throwers, grifters, pickpockets, and other con men. The carnival's midway with its mild games of chance and skill over kewpie dolls is just junior gambling.
A stage magician likes to use a thing of value: a treasured object, a photo, ring, or watch because it is something the mark has already invested with importance. You can see why money might become the go-to object here. And how... in a different setting and with slightly different application of skill the "performer" might just pocket the money at the end.
I was taken in by a con years ago. I lost maybe six bucks to a man who riffle-counted me change for a twenty at the Port Authority Bus Terminal... appearing to transfer bills from one hand to the other as he counted and snapped the stack, though actually only transferring about half. It pissed me off at the time, but in the end is a memory worth six dollars. And the guy did direct me to the bus I would otherwise have missed
But then swindling and delighting go hand in hand, and it’s not always easy to tell the good tricks from the bad tricks. We think of lying as a bad thing, but in a very real sense all theater is just an elaborate lie. Because Play and Pretend are the precursors and foundations of Art, Art never really stops being a fakery. Art, performance, magic, money, cards, gambling, grift, and con all slur together.
Thus, it is only natural that Rickey Jay... actor, Vaudeville historian, and magician... writes a blurb for the back of my friend Harley's book on currency collecting ("Keep the Change,” Harley Spiller, Princeton Architectural Press, 2016). And that some years back, my magician friend Ryan used to host a “reality” television show working cons on hidden camera.
THE MYSTICISM OF FINANCE
Now we come to a different kind of "Ledger Domain"... that of the business ledger. A two-dimensional mint-green country defined by tidy columns and rows ruled by bursars and bankers and finance-deal-makers. And they employ yet another kind of magic here... a sort of anti-magic-magic of tediousness.
Befuddling your audience with mysticisms is standard human behavior. It is perhaps most familiar in religious endeavors and their tangential confusion but is in no way limited to that sphere.
Just as the term pornography is too useful to be reserved for strictly literal use... and referring to say design-porn, food-porn, or typography-porn is useful shorthand. So, mysticism is a useful subclass of all possible bullshits. The mysticism of the meteorologist standing in front of an incoherent weather map. The mysticism of political pundits discussing voter demographics. As well as the mysticism of the church service performed in Latin to a congregation of English or German speakers.
I have an intimate hatred for the mysticisms of my own field... the various flavors of artists and their commentators willing to mask work with words: the art-speakers and the caca-demics... the inspiration-ists and the esotericists. All those who willingly under-know or over-blow themselves.
Back to bureaucratic mysticism... the mysticisms of tax regulation, investment banking lingo, disclosures, waivers, scroll-through read-our-usage agreements, contracts and legalese in general. These encode an erstwhile specialized knowledge in esoteric jargon that amounts to so much mumbo jumbo, hocus pocus for the layperson.
All lawyers will tell you that you need a lawyer to understand it. All attempts at explanation produce further bafflement. Like the telescoping rites and secret scriptures of a mystery cult, it promises that all secrets will be revealed should you attain the next degree.
IN JOHN WE TRUST
Another magician friend of mine... I mean my tax guy John Cunningham... is “an adept” from this world. I'm tempted to refer to him as a sort of cabalist scribe... connect a line between tithe and tax and work up some schtick about how treasuries used to be housed in ancient temples. But nah.
It's obvious that John takes satisfaction... even delight from the system. John studied not just tax preparation and accounting, but tax law at a for-real lawyering school. He is thoroughly prepared to geek out on the subject. His eyes light up with every digression. And we launch into the landmark court case in which Wrigley had chewing gum reclassified as a dietary supplement (rather than a candy) in order to save a bundle. Even when the session takes twice as long as it needs to, it's worth every shekel.
The game of chess has a rich history spanning continents and centuries. There are players who practice for eight hours every day. Chess games can click by at lightning speed while players pound at a double stopwatch. Or games can crawl along for hours with twenty minutes between each move while an audience stares in rapt attention. Distinct styles of play hinge on attack or defense, sacrifice or attrition, material or position.
To chess enthusiasts it is an endlessly subtle craft of strategy and tactics. For the uninitiated chess is thirty-two pieces of plastic on a checkered board. Of course, you can choose to be a nonplayer of chess. But it seems you cannot choose to be a nonplayer of finance.
When asked to accept without the ability ourselves to comprehend, we must trust in our experts. In a system that is stacked and game-able in the small print, legal thieveries are a daily occurrence among rules unevenly understood, unevenly monitored and unevenly enforced. Like criminals among the carnies there are good actors and bad actors... services and scams.
Ryan performed for Bernie Madoff only weeks before we peeked behind his particular curtain.
Consider for a moment Rain Man (MGM Pictures, 1988). Rain Man rocks back and forth telling us how many toothpicks have fallen on the floor. And though his count of the toothpicks be accurate and his ability to count them astonishing, doesn't his preoccupation with counting prove that something is amiss about him? Incidentally (not coincidentally) the only use found for this ability in the movie is to cheat at cards.
Is this not the stuff of all bankers? We've hired an entire class of bean counters to run the world for us.
COUNTING DOESN'T COUNT
Economists have got it all wrong. Smart people agree with me on this. Adam Smith is wrong. John Mills is wrong. Marx is wrong. John Maynard Keynes is wrong. Piles... stacks... entire yards of book shelves are wrong. Cases of books, whole wings of libraries have missed the point. They try to make a dry mathematical science out of an inherently wet social phenomenon.
Of course, the whole of the monetary system is an illusion... a massive conjurors trick. Call it an inter-subjective construct if you want to sound more science-y about it, but the thing the tedious magicians are trying to conceal from us is the fact that money is spiritual, mythical, and magical in nature. And I mean all these words not in some vague, hippie-dippy, touchy-feely sort of way... but literally.
Money is SPIRITUAL. As in "of the spirit" it is intangible, incorporeal, imaginary. The money you have "in the bank" isn't "in" or even "is" in any common sense of those words.
Money is MYTHIC. It is deeply rooted in our history and our subconscious. It is an expression of congregated mankind and a communal instinct bred into our species hundreds of millennia before we learned to count.
Money is MAGICAL. Like primordial goo, or stem cells, or undifferentiated tissue, it is an ur-substance that can be transformed into any other substance simply by spending it. Watch closely as I turn it into candy, comic books, food, entertainments, intoxicants, etcetera. Presto!