Archive: Technology is the New Magic

Curated by Betti Marenko, this one-day symposium explored the link between magic and technology and its role in contemporary culture. A range of experts addressed the themes that tie magic and technology so closely together:

The influence of alchemy on contemporary technology and material culture…

Jussi Parikka began the day’s discussion by highlighting the intrinsic relationship between technology and magic. He noted that magic appears to cheat the laws of nature and noted that this is also technology’s primary use. They are both ways in which we carry out tasks that are beyond human powers.

Suggesting that there has been a ‘metamorphosis’ between magic and technology in contemporary culture, Parikka argued that devices that once seemed magical, like audio-visual media, have become intrinsic parts of our society. Parikka also explored the use of social media and advertising by the corporate world and the way in which companies manipulate the idea of magic and alchemy in order to engage consumers.

The impact of magic on the development of new technologies…

Phil van Allen discussed the use of animistic design in modern technology. He described animism as a ‘metaphor for magical things’, and referenced some of his own work and the work of his students at Art Centre Pasadena. Van Allen used his project, ‘The Anythings’, as an example, demonstrating how new inventions could potentially allow devices to work as if they have a magical life of their own.

Discussing where animistic design can go, van Allen spoke of the need for a new set of values for designers based on the developing relationship between things and people. Further, he considered how the role of the designer would need to alter, suggesting that with expanding technology, designers will become ‘magical curators’ in a sense that they fuse technology and the mystical powers of animistic design.

The parallel relationships between software and illusion, and magic and illusions…

Discussing his own work, Stuart Nolan spoke of how mind-reading design is an increasingly important discipline that connects emerging technologies with the magic tradition of performance mindreading. To demonstrate this, Nolan split the audience into pairs and revealed how understanding tiny muscle movements can allow someone, or something, to carry out a form of mindreading. He added that this understanding could be used within technological inventions, referencing his own project ‘Ideobird’. Nolan ended by highlighting the important contribution magicians can have within technology and society as a whole, to de-bunk myths and help shape the future of technology.

The supernatural relationship between technology and magic…

Reading extracts from his book ‘The Bright Labyrinth’, Ken Hollings quoted Thomas Edison and noted the link between technology and death, referring to examples such as spirit photography, voice recordings, and even the typography used for Ouija boards. Hollings made further reference to William Burroughs and Brion Gysin to establish this relationship between technology and magic. Finally, drawing upon contemporary references, Hollings explained how the computer game Assassin’s Creed’s marketing strategy can be seen to demonstrate the omnipresent nature of magic within technology. The game uses the Hassan I Sabbah quote “nothing is true, everything is permitted”, showing how new technologies relate back to, and rely on, ancient magical references.

“Art is Magic…”

Quoting Theodor Adorno, Simon Hollington introduced his discussion by stating his definition of magic. He provided the audience with a brief introduction to film theory and described how ‘The Arrival of a Train’ by the Lumière brothers and ‘A Trip to the Moon’ by George Méliès could both be understood as forms of magic. He went on to discuss the fetishisation of magic within contemporary culture, noting trends within street artists and observations he has made from responses to his own work. Discussing the trend of levitation, Hollington drew upon examples from the work of contemporary magicians such as David Blaine and Dynamo and demonstrated the importance of technology and misdirection to these professional magicians.

Visual reality as a form of magic…

Finally, Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu focused on ‘Datum Explorer’, a project that Lugojan-Ghenciu has been working on with Universal Assembly Unit. He spoke of the importance of simulated reality in understanding the relationship between magic and technology. ‘Datum Explorer’ perfectly recreated a forest in East Sussex as a 3-D exploratory digital environment filled with elusive animals. Lugojan-Ghenciu considered how such projects allow the viewer to become totally absorbed, manipulating their perception of reality. Arguing that ‘magic happens when you are playing with perception’, Lugojan-Ghenciu suggested that projects such as ‘Datum Explorer’ were related to magic. Further, Lugojan-Ghenciu noted that on a basic level, the sheer complexities of such digital projects could also be interpreted as magic. Lugojan-Ghenciu ended by suggesting that we cannot escape this form of developing digital culture because our human instincts are attracted to the magic behind it.  

In conclusion

Betti Marenko invited the guests to form a panel in which they discussed the key themes of the symposium. They focused on the questions surrounding the persistence of magic within the digital devices we can’t live without and the implication and ethics behind this digital enchantment. The panel ended by developing a wider conversation about artificial intelligence and the potential for the relationship between magic and technology to continually develop.