Monthly Archives: May 2012

Stage Magic and the Artistic Process

   In the 2008 New Yorker article “The Real Work”, author Adam Gopnik takes us on a tour behind the scenes of the stage magician’s craft. We learn several things about magic, such as the training and preparation that go into what must ultimately look like an effortless display, and most importantly, we learn that magic is an artform of outwitting the audience. Magicians have names for their techniques, a language which is known to other magicians, filled with terms such as the “Miser’s Dilemma” and “the shift” – but this technical jargon is not known, for the most part, to the spectators. The spectators see only the craft and its execution. Knowing the technique would ruin the illusion. Magicians master the art of making their illusions look “casual” to the spectator.

In this, there is much to the practice of any art form that resembles stage magic. When one opens up a magazine or browses a website and sees the beautiful, accessible material within, they do not see the graphic designer’s actual process: ideally, the finished product looks effortless. When I’ve finished a piece for a client and it hits production, the end viewer will not see the preparation, planning, and thinking that goes into my work nor will they see all the failed attempts nor will they see the “comps” (comprehensive layouts) that were exchanged between me and my client; they certainly will not see the time I’ve spent training at design principles, art technique and computer software. The end viewer can’t see this process any more than a magician can reveal his tricks; it would ruin the illusion and distract from the information that I am presenting. They will see the InDesign template I used or the photo editing I did; the best typeface selection is that which doesn’t call attention to the fact that I’m using a typeface but instead communicates the message my client wants to get across.

Ceramic art, like graphic design and any other artform, also has much in common with the practice of stage magic.

First of all, there is “natural handling” – the practice of “making every move look casual rather than ‘presentational’,” as described by the article. In the case of ceramics, the “spectator” (the person who is viewing the end result, in this case) is not seeing the tens to hundreds of pots and pieces that necessarily preceded the work they are viewing, using, or holding. They are not seeing the mistakes or kiln “blow outs” or the times that the artist gave up and put his or her creation back into the lump of clay from which it emerged, they’re not seeing the time it took for the artist to learn to properly work with the clay. Ceramics is an art of process as much as end result, like magic; the artist practices endlessly so that the end result can look unpracticed and casual and so that the arduous, often tedious process is not experienced by the end viewer.

Gopnik goes on to tell us that “all grownup craft depends upon sustaining a frozen moment from childhood”. This is especially true in an artform which depends upon tactile manipulation as well as exploration and play. Any artist must engage his or her medium with a large spirit of exploration and experimentation, and in any artform, this exploration is the difference between art and repetitive replication of the same material over and over. In order to remain engaged with my medium, I find I must retain that childlike sense of wonder and experiment with different tactile properties and techniques.

Finally, most importantly, Gopnik tells us about the “Too Perfect” theory of magic: when an illusion becomes too improbable or astounding, the spectator loses the willing suspension of disbelief. “What makes a trick work is not the inherent astoundingness of its effect but the magician’s ability suggest any number of possible explanations, none of them conclusive, and none of them quite obvious,” he informs us. I find this true in working with the “organic”, imperfect forms that I love, and in the Japanese “wabi sabi” aesthetic of perfection in imperfection. Hours upon hours of labor and many scrapped mistakes go into making a single item which looks “imperfect” and “unstudied” and in fact there is a tremendous amount of study involved. One must still create an object which survives the firing process and holds up to everyday use, and there is the natural tendency for the objects to become smoother and more “perfect” as one works, so in the end, an “organic” and imperfect look (while still being well executed) can actually be quite painstaking. Balancing the intentional and the unintentional is a tricky prospect.

What distinguishes it from other artforms is that in ceramic art, the artist is able to create functional objects of day to day living, and thusly, engages with the spectator in a way that is personal and intimate: the artist has the capacity for entering the spectator’s everyday life in a way that other artforms don’t approach, and thus, the spectator is not merely a spectator but a participant in the artistic process, engaged in a direct conversation with the artist. Like stage magic, it requires empathy and anticipation of what the experiencer will be experiencing via the ceramist’s craft. It is an act of illusion to place a cup or bowl into someone’s hand and give them the experience of the thing without involving them in the process itself.



Guest Post: Thoughts About “Cool”

This is a guest post by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous. Enjoy!

This is quite possibly the silliest, most vacuous thing about hipster-bashing I’ve ever read.

Which is impressive really, because ‘hipster’ is a pretty vacuous concept. It’s hard to pin down, like ‘cool’ is hard to pin down. But what annoys me about things like this is that she talks about hipsters, and by extension, coolness, as if it’s a real thing that’s really important.

I’ve done my share of thinking about coolness, and I’ve come to a conclusion. Coolness is having made the right consumer choices, as defined by a particular peer group. Any peer group. Doesn’t matter, as long as it’s the peer group you’re hoping will think you’re cool.

See, I own a couple of Star Trek tee-shirts. Among most people, probably not cool at all. Among some other people, perhaps cool in a ‘nerd is in’ or ‘ironic’ way. At a sci-fi convention? Cool, but nowhere as cool as that shirt from ThinkGeek.

I however, love them both.

See, I don’t like the idea of having to subject my tastes to anyone’s approval. I have both Led Zeppelin and Lady Gaga on my iPod. I also have Corvus Corvax. Chances are you’ve heard both of former, but not the latter. There are definitely people in the world who will think less of you depending on what’s on your iPod or your bookshelf. They’ll disdain the sorts of people who will think less of you for the labels you have on your clothing, but no matter. The people who will disdain you for the labels on your clothing will run screaming at what’s on your iPod or your bookshelf. Perhaps they’ll even run screaming at the fact of how overloaded your bookshelf is.

I think it’s a fallacy to think that your personal tastes are somehow indicative of anything about you but your personal tastes, and to some extent, what you’ve been exposed to. I don’t own any zydeco because I don’t know anything about zydeco and I’ve never been curious enough about zydeco to find out more about it. Maybe I should though, since “zydeco” is kind of a nifty sounding word. It seriously doesn’t mean anything about me that I like both some Led Zeppelin songs and some Lady Gaga songs, or that I like Star Trek. Oh, but the last one stung, doesn’t it? I mean, you’d like to think my Star Trek shirts meant something, but honestly, what do they really mean? Mostly that Star Trek is a comfort food of a TV show for me, because my oldest brother sat me down and made me watch it at the age of twelve, and I remember that fondly as one of the notable times in my childhood that someone was actually interested in getting to know me. What, you think I watch it for the quaint, retrograde portrayal of gender roles?

Which brings me back to hipster-bashing. Oh sure, maybe a few people bash hipsters because they’re just meanies who always resented the cool kids and the fun good times they always seemed to be having, but I don’t think they’re even close to the majority. I think most people bash hipsters not so much because of anything about hipsters themselves, but more the very idea of ‘hip.’ Hipsters are simply the latest group of people to come along and deliberately try to be cool in public. People who think they’re the greatest because they knew about that obscure band before they become famous? Trust me, those types have been around long before the current hipster phenomenon. People who feel a need to loudly proclaim a particular identity through distinctive fashion? Hello, welcome to the goth scene. Leave your suntan at the door.

The thing is though, after a certain point in life, most people can’t really sustain that kind of lifestyle, even if they were ever living it at all. And so they become ‘uncool.’ And then a funny thing happens. They discover that they’re still people with a valid point of view, and that life really isn’t so bad. And hey, what do you know, there’s freedom here. Freedom to listen to whatever you like without worrying about what your friends will think about it. Freedom to wear sweatpants in public, just because they’re comfortable. You discover that even when you’re not loudly proclaiming your identity, somehow you’re still a person with real live opinions and everything.

And then you see ‘hipsters,’ or whatever those dang crazy kids are calling it now. And you giggle, because they’re trying so damn hard to be individuals, and it’s hilarious. And really, it’s almost like they’re making fun of themselves, just by existing and taking themselves so damn seriously.

Dating: You’re doing it wrong.

On a couple of my various internet communities, I’ve run across the fact that many, many people just do not know how to date.

It generally goes like this (especially on the part of many straight women).


Initiator: “So, do you want to go out sometime?”
Initiatee: “Sure.”
Initiator: “How about if we go get a pizza and see The Avengers on Friday?”
Initiatee: “Sure.”


Here is how it more often goes.

Initiator: “So, do you want to go out sometime?”
Initiatee: “Sure.”
Initiator: “Alright, I’ll call you.”
Initiatee: “Sure!”

Initiator never calls and the whole thing falls through the cracks. Initiatee complains that nobody ever wants to date them, that nothing ever happens.

How I do things

I’ve never had a problem with this (I say this as someone who’s been both initiator and initiatee and as someone who’s dated both men and women).

Initiator: “So, do you want to get together sometime?”
Me: “What did you have in mind?”
Initiator: “We could get pizza… or Chinese. Is there a movie you’d like to
see? I haven’t seen The Avengers yet, have you?”
Me: “Pizza sounds great… The Avengers sounds great. When did you have in
Initiator: “How about Friday or would Saturday be better for you?”
Me: “Friday is fine, when did you have in mind?”
Initiator: “I can pick you up at six”
Me: “Sounds great!”
Initiator: “It’s a date then!”
Me: “Sounds fun, see you Friday at 6!”

Now, is there anything wrong with doing it like this? 

What planet are we on that you can’t close the deal and or ask a person to clarify what they want?

 If I’m the initiator, then I typically
tend to ask them on a specific date (“do you want to go see ‘The Avengers’ with
me?”) and if they’re the initiator, I tend to ask what they had in mind and
narrow them down and close the time and day.

It’s a natural thing, I don’t give it a lot of thought.

But it seems like a lot of us here have some different ideas of how things should be done; what’s your preference?

Nerd edition: Star Trek II… Prose and Khans

It seems unavoidable that I’m going to blog, at times, on geeky matters.

It’s recently been announced that Benedict Cumberbatch will portray the iconic character Khan Noonian Singh in the next Star Trek movie. No, I am not bothering with spoiler space because it’s already been announced on IMDB and confirmed in the news.

I’m going to ignore the nerd rage for a moment – “should we retread this” – and I’m going to PARTIALLY ignore the social justice issue – “should Khan be played by a white guy” – and look at this from the two sides in my conflicted mind, and finally, address a third issue.


Let’s consider something Abrams has done with his reimagined Star Trek universe: he’s gone to the meat and marrow of the characters and gotten past the original actors’ portrayal of them, treating the characters as their own literary canon. He treats the characters as another director might treat Shakespearian characters, looking to the source material for reference but not trying to ape any particular actor.

Now, Cumberbatch is an extremely talented actor. He would not be Ricardo Montalban’s Khan… but if the writing and casting of the previous film is to be any indicator, Cumberbatch would be a new vision of Khan, while still remaining true to the essence of who Khan is. Is Khan his muscles and ponytail? In fact, over and over, in Space Seed and in The Wrath of Khan, Khan was treated as a “superior intellect”. Cumberbatch-Khan might be a different sort of Khan – a chess master type of villain. Something we really haven’t seen in Star Trek in a long time.

And why not Khan? The Star Trek films have attempted over and over again to create a Khan style of villain, so why not Khan himself? Every attempt to create a new Khan-clone has taken one single aspect of the character – his physicality, his rage – while ignoring one of the most important things that made the character iconic: his superior intellect.

So, if this is who the new Khan is, I’m fine with that.

Another thing… Khan was a conqueror from an era we already know. We’ve already lived through it. Canonically, he existed in the 1990s. So as much as Montalban’s Khan is iconic, we still can’t get over the fact that the character is now coated in a really thick layer of zeerust.

A more understated, genius, chess master version of Khan – someone good at maneuvering things from behind – would be the only believable revisiting of the character. 

That’s the kind of Khan I imagine when I imagine Cumberbatch in this part. Superior intellect, as opposed to superior pectoral cleavage.

Besides, I am a HUGE fan of understated villains, and the popular culture is already accustomed to different takes on the same characters. We have “Spiderman” vs “Ultimate Spiderman”, for you comics enthusiasts. We have Jack Nicholson’s Joker vs Heath Ledger’s Joker. 

This seems to be what they attempted with Malcolm McDowell’s character, Dr. Soran, in Star Trek: Generations… someone bent on vengeance, but more the understated and brilliant type of character. 

If we’re going to keep ripping off Khan anyway, why not simply write a story about Khan himself? Seeing the character through a new lens, with emphasis on different and canonical aspects of his personality, actually lends a kind of depth to our understanding of him. 


Why is Khan a white guy? Originally they wanted to cast Benecio Del Toro, who backed out of the role. But I see that as a mistake, too. 

The character is Indian. In fact, he’s Sikh. This is not speculation. He is not “someone with a little Indian blood”. He is Indian! There are plenty of Indian actors who could portray him. Perhaps in the sixties, it was justifiable to have him played by Ricardo Montalban, but the same casting choice wouldn’t be justifiable now. 

And the oddness of casting a white Englishman to fill the shoes of a Mexican playing a Punjabi… is what brings me to the third point.

It could be BS.

Has anyone considered this?

Perhaps it’s disinformation.

Abrams’ choice of Cumberbatch as Khan is totally inconsistent with his other casting choices. He hasn’t whitewashed or race-bent the rest of the crew, so why would he do so with Khan? He’s tried to remain remarkably consistent with canon. This would be the first time he hasn’t, so why would he stop now?

Secondly, let’s look at the costumes.


That does not resemble any outfit that Khan wore in Space Seed. The black shirt even has Starfleet insignia.

Furthermore, look at that pasty complexion… Abrams isn’t even trying to make Cumberbatch look remotely Indian. If he’s Khan, he’s not a white guy playing an Indian guy. He’s a white guy playing a white guy with an Indian name!

Here is my thought. My money is on disinformation.

The only supporting evidence of Khan is that Spock is trying to give him the neck pinch, and all he’s doing is making the guy mad. 

So, the man is clearly the product of some kind of genetic engineering, right?

Or wrong?

What if this character’s abilities are enhanced via some other means, rendering him immune to the Vulcan nerve pinch?

Are you as geeky as I am?

If you are, you are thinking what I’m thinking, right?

My money is on Gary Mitchell.