Monday, 26 October 2009

Updates on Projects

The question that I have received most is ‘Why have you stopped uploading videos of your work?’ I have not stopped making the videos, they simply have not been uploaded yet. The reason for the delay is that I have been using different methods of filming other than time lapse photography and the results require more time in editing them into short videos. The reason for the change was to obtain a better quality of picture in the videos. The camera and software being used had a setback of a low resolution when in time lapse mode. It is a bit of an oddity considering all the other modes have a high resolution.

I have tried editing together a series of photographs for several oil paint portraits and the results are okay. Because the paintings take more than one day, it is a reasonable method to use but it is of no use when concentrating on a drawing or ink sketch which can be finished in an hour or two. It is too much trouble to get the right amount of photos, it interrupts my concentration and prolongs the task in an unacceptable way.

For these reasons, the time from the picture being completed and the video of the work being uploaded is now much greater.

Another reason, as far the project The Dead is concerned, is that the videos have been held back until after this year’s Remembrance Day. Although it was explained that the project is for Remembrance Day 2010, based on only one video from the project being made available there has been continual questioning from people regarding its use this year. Therefore, as stated above, no more videos from that project will be uploaded until sometime in November.

The only other piece of news is that the project Magicians has been given a longer time scale for completion due to the list of portraits required being lengthened.

Thursday, 22 October 2009


by John Helvin
(with apologies to W. H. Auden and his poem Night Mail)

This is the mail train not crossing the border,
Not bringing the cheque nor delivering mail order,

No letters for the rich, no letters for the poor,
The Royal Mail is on strike and what is it for?

Streamlining and cutbacks are to be had;
Most of the workers regard this as bad.

Computerisation and potential less hours;
Management and union relationship sours.

I’d rather my mail was hand sorted whatnot,
Than expertly bungled by the new ‘I, Robot.’

But are these the issues? Is this the debate?
The news simply repeats that our mail will be late.

There’s no documentary. What are the details?
Will Christmas post consist only of emails?

Will the news be the same old tales of yore,
That the Royal Mail is failing – we’ve heard it before.

The postal worker’s story is yet to be told;
Will any film-maker make as so bold?

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Georgian House in Bristol

About a week ago I took Jill to visit the Georgian House Museum on Great George Street, just off Park Street in Bristol. Jill is avid about all things Georgian, especially if related to Jane Austen or gives an insight to the period in which Austen lived. She said she preferred this house to the one in Bath - No 1 Royal Crescent. There are differences, such as the museum in Bristol is free whereas No 1 Royal Crescent has an admission fee. I think both are excellent. I can see some differences due to a fee being charged for the Georgian house in Bath. They can afford to finance a shop, guides and so on. The lower amount of funding for the house in Bristol is apparent if you know what to look for, or rather to look for what is missing in terms of staff, brochures, a shop and so on. Even so, a lot of care has gone into making the Georgian House in Bristol well worth a visit (or more than one).

One point to mention is how easy it is to miss the correct street. On a prior visit to Bristol, Jill and I were directed to the wrong George Street. This time, before setting off, I made a point of using Google Earth to be absolutely sure of finding the place when we arrived in Bristol.

The man who had the house built was John Pinney. Here is a portrait of him in one of the rooms. Pinney was a wealthy slave plantation owner and the house has a room dedicated to the subject of slavery during the Georgian period and its connection to Bristol. It is not often that I see a house museum highlight, in any way whatsoever, the human cost that made the original owner wealthy enough to afford such a house. Even when a house was built by someone who had no direct connection with slavery, it was still a period when William Blake justifiably wrote of some working conditions in Britain as being within ‘Dark Satanic Mills.’

The house has on the walls, besides portraits of Pinney, paintings from the Georgian period including one by a relation of Sir Joshua Reynolds. In the dining area is one that has a detail that may be of interest to magic historians. It is of three children and one is building a house of cards. Look carefully at the cards and you will see that the backs of the cards are blank and the corners are square and not rounded. Similar cards are on display on a card table in another room. Packs of cards which are reproductions of those from around that period can be bought from The Card Collection. I bought a deck for Jill last year. What is interesting from a conjuring point of view is how very different the physical quality of the cards are from modern day ones and how much that affects using sleight of hand.

I could find no information as to who the artist was; the style reminds me of Gainsborough but if it was him the museum would have had a note somewhere stating that detail. If anyone can let me know who the artist is I would appreciate it.

The museum has four floors to explore and overall it is very atmospheric, informative and enjoyable.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Stupid Gifts

Well, Christmas hit the shops last month. The local supermarket has Halloween items on display next to all the Christmas items (and the growing amount of toys). Christmas won’t get a mention in my bookshops until the 1st of December. Even so, it is present buying time for me from now until Christmas because of anniversaries and birthdays. Looking for sensible presents that people might actually want to receive is a tiring business and so I tend to have break and check out the weird gifts for a while.

I assume the manufacturer obtained permission for this one, the Maggie Thatcher Nutcracker. Says it all about the politics of yesteryear.

For anyone who wants a large tattoo but does not want the pain of getting it done, you can now buy tattoo sleeves. Just slip them onto your arms and pray that no one will notice the fabric.

For any film buffs who are a bit, or quite a bit, of a 'lack of taste' nature you can buy the blood bath shower curtains in homage to Hitchcock's Psycho.

There is lots of weird stuff out there in internet land so I won’t go on and on. There are just three more that, as opposed to the above three, I would actually consider buying.

The first is carpet skates. Yes, that is right, carpet skates. I am getting too sedentary and need the exercise. Their plain stupidity appeals to me; nevertheless, I will fend off temptation and not buy a pair.

I am more likely to buy one of these watches. The Einstein Relativity watch or the Dali watch. I need a new one and these are in my top ten choices. On the Relativity watch the numbers move round. On the Dali watch, Dali's moustache is the watch hands and the ant moves round marking the seconds. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Duck Egg Meccano and David Copperfield: ancient theatre and modern magic.

Duck Egg Meccano, that is how I have heard the latin phrase deus ex machina pronounced by someone. More properly the classical Greek should be used theos apo mechanes. Both mean the ‘god from the machine.’ That is a phrase which has taken on a whole range of subtleties during the last two and a half thousand years but in Athens of the fifth century BC it was, quite simply, a wooden crane that held an actor, usually playing a god, aloft in the air above the performance area as if floating or flying.

It could be described as a very basic, crude and simple version of ‘stage levitation’ with little in common with the more sophisticated and mystifying methods of a magician who performs levitation or flying on stage. It also seems that there was no attempt to hide the method used from the audience and the extent of its use in ancient Greek drama is debatable. It is supposed that the audience’s attitude may have quickly become somewhat jaded towards its use or possible overuse and Aristophanes made fun of the device in his comedy Peace as a reference to its use in Euripides’ play Bellerophon.

It is interesting to note that in its early phase of use the mechane was a novelty. Its use was mostly at the end of a play as part of the denouement to the story. Some modern commentators view its use as a means of resolving matters when the writer had put a character in a sticky situation and did not know how to extricate him from it. However another view by Oliver Taplin, which reads the texts more carefully, shows that the main issues raised in the plays are concluded prior to the appearance of any use of the theos apo mechanes. It is therefore possible that for its early use, it provided a spectacle as a grand finale to a play.

This possibility has not been given as much discussion as perhaps it deserves. The reason is that mentions of the mechane in near or post contemporary writings are negative but we should bear in mind that they were written when its use and function had lost its popularity and it had become a theatrical cliché.

Modern performers face a similar dilemma regarding stage effects or even magic effects. Way back in 1994 David Copperfield performed at Earl’s Court in London and part of the act was him ‘flying.’ This might not sound a big deal because most magicians can perform levitation tricks of one sort or another. The thinktank behind Copperfield’s act added a bit extra. In an age when most audiences can speculate as to how a levitation trick might be done, Copperfield got into a large clear Perspex cabinet, had the lid put on and then floated inside the cabinet.

It was a touch used to confound those who thought they had correctly surmised the method behind it all. It was an important touch in an age when audiences know quite a bit about the workings of magical performances - because without a moment of that feeling of ‘okay, I’m not sure how that was done’ an illusion is not only not much of an illusion but the word magic loses its lustre in connection with it. If the method was made obvious or explained during the performance then a great deal of the entertainment value would be diminished or more probably simply cease to exist. It would be no more entertaining than watching someone swing across the stage on a thick rope like Tarzan and daring to call it magic or interesting. Who would go to see the next performance? That is a question that is to be asked of the ancient Greek mechane.

When the mechane was first used at the end of a tragedy, despite all its workings being on display, it was probably a surprise and a wonder for the audience. The same might not be able to be said after the same ancient Athenian audience had seen a whole load of plays end with the same spectacle over a few days during the annual dramatic festival. Oliver Taplin suggests that in the early use of the mechane most of the device was in plain view of the audience because a skene (a background building used as scenery) may not yet have been built. The moment the audience saw what we would call stagehands start to work the mechane, they would know what was coming. It would be as enjoyable as going to a three or four day dramatic festival of whodunits where in every single play ‘the butler did it.’

If it had been possible to add some mystery to how the mechane worked, rather like in modern magical acts which also continually reinvent the presentation of levitation, it may have maintained a better reputation for longer in relation to ancient Greek drama. It was impossible to do so however. The Greek dramatic festivals were a sort of community project. There were no professional actors. Each year, ordinary Athenian citizens were chosen to participate in staging the plays. There was no opportunity for professional secrets and there was no attempt to hide the mechane or its workings.

While the mechane was no mystery to ancient Athenians, it has provided a mystery for modern scholars. Apart from the debate on when and if the mechane was actually used in this or that play, a bigger puzzle is the design of the mechane itself. Modern works on the subject describe it as a wooden crane with a system of pulleys. It is not entirely a satisfactory suggestion (based on details from writers from after the period in question). I have not read of any modern engineering recreation which achieves the feats the mechane may have been used for in some plays – such as lifting a chorus of twelve to fifteen people into the air (a weight of about one ton) and swinging them onto the performance area, a horse being presented as the flying Pegasus, a chariot with riders, Medea in a chariot pulled by two dragons and so on.

I do not know for sure, but the puzzle of how the mechane would achieve such feats without breaking could be what inspires scholars to prefer interpretations of the ancient Greek theatre that do not involve the use of the mechane – hence the debate on when and if the mechane was actually used in this or that play. For me, that shows the mechane had potential for use in mystifying an audience. After all, consider the position that modern scholars are in; they have had the end effect described to them, the performance, but are at a loss to be specific about the method and the mechanism used. Saying a wooden crane with pulleys was involved is as vague as saying that you can build a cabinet by sawing wood or saying that a card trick is done by sleight of hand. It does not really tell you how it is done.

We are therefore not in a position to truly gauge its limitations in a useful way. We cannot, based on our present day designs of a wooden crane with pulleys as interpretations of a mechane, believe that a mechane could lift and move over a ton in weight (a chorus of fifteen people). However, I am not aware of the suggestion having been put forward of three mechane lifting five people each. Or five mechane lifting three people each. Or that the modern designs put forward for the mechane may not have any resemblance to the ancient mechane, which may have been able to lift and move a tad more weight than ours. It is one levitation trick where the real secret, the design of the mechane, was and remains known only to ancient Greek theatres and their audiences.

[Here are the books which helped inspire the above discussion: The Greek Theater and its Drama by Roy C. Flickinger, The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens by A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens by A. Pickard-Cambridge, Greek Scenic Conventions in the Fifth Century BC by Peter Arnott, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus by Oliver Taplin.]