In 1991, Spanish artist Juan Muñoz met British musician Gavin Bryars. A year later, they became accomplices in the creation of an experimental audio piece that explores the intricate nature of deception. Titled A Man in a Room, Gambling, the work is comprised of a series of ten, five-minute recordings conceived to be broadcast late at night, on the radio. Backed by a musical score composed by Bryars, each episode involves the narration of detailed instructions concerning the execution of card manipulation tricks.
Scripted using fragments from S.W. Erdnase’s The Expert at the Card Table (1902)—a famous manual on the art of sleight of hand—the piece focuses not on the kinds of tricks a listener might want to try at home to amuse friends. Instead, Muñoz directs our attention to a series of promising ploys that can be used to cheat when gambling. As appealing as this may sound, though, the piece deliberately frustrates. The instructions are too technical, too convoluted, to follow by hearing the voice alone. Take for example this excerpt from episode I, in which Muñoz explains how to deal from the bottom of a pack:
If you have already fixed the bottom of the pack, let us move on to today’s subject: which is dealing cards from the bottom…
Hold the pack in your left hand… but don’t grip it… The middle finger and thumb will do all the work… now push the top card out a little with your thumb, as if you were offering it for your right hand to deal… at the same time, bend your ring finger backward until the nail rests on the edge of the bottom card… don’t worry—this will be hidden by the card sticking out at the top… now… force the bottom card slightly up and sideways with your thumb, pushing it out a little… the top and bottom cards will be left jutting out of the pack in the same way. The upper card will conceal the bottom one perfectly.
Pay close attention because it only takes a second… move your right hand as if to take the top card… At the moment when your right-hand reaches your left, at that precise moment… pull your thumb back and draw back the top card, at the same time that the fingers of your right hand are taking the lower cards… did you see?… did you see?
Despite the complexity of the script, the music, rather than complementing the narration, muddles it. Bryars’ cinematic soundtrack involves a string quartet that adds dramatic suspense to the voice while creating misleading moments of emphasis. The composition is contrived to lead the listener astray: “placing your attention in the wrong place at the right time, or in the right place at the wrong time” as Bryars would admit in an essay years later. Bryars also confesses that he convinced Muñoz—rather than an actor—to narrate the scripts because “his obviously ‘foreign’ Spanish accent” would create in the predominantly English speaking audience “a feeling of distrust.” Ultimately, much like the deceptive card tricks it sets out to expose, A Man in a Room, Gambling, employs a strategy of misdirection to produce a dubious sort of perplexity.
In conversation with Paul Schimmel, Muñoz justifies this sly approach to art making, deeming it a reaction against the modernist principle of sincere material specificity. “The difference between [modern artists] and myself,” he says, “is illustrated by Frank Stella’s famous remark, ‘What you see is what you see.’ For me, what you see is not what it seems to be.”
Some years ago, deriving from a pursuit unrelated to magic, I became interested in a trick commonly performed by street magicians that has survived despite persistent attempts at debunking. In its basic form, this illusion consists of a person who appears to be floating in thin air. The effect, as has been explained ad nauseam, is achieved with the aid of a concealed mechanical prosthesis.
An early recording of this trick dates from 1832 in which an engraving depicts Sheshal, a Brahmin, levitating above a small stool. In the nineteenth century, colonialism imported this trick to the West, mostly through the accounts of travelers and writers. In Lives of the Conjurers (1876), a book about the history of magic, Thomas Frost exposes the trick—with a hint of skepticism—as follows:
The mystery was supposed to have been solved when Sheshal, commonly known as “the Brahmin of the Air,” exhibited the trick in 1832 in Madras. It was observed that his stool was ornamented with two inlaid stars, and it was suggested that one of these might conceal a socket for a steel rod, passing through the bamboo, and that another rod, screwed to the perpendicular one and concealed by the piece of hide, might be connected with a mechanism of the same metal, passing up the sleeve and down the back, and forming a circular seat.
Soon after, the levitation trick became a staple of most stage magic spectacles. Magicians hurried to monetize the new fascination around “Orientalist mystique”—which was received with a mix of captivation and distrust. And even when exoticism became unfashionable, the levitation trick remained popular. The idea of a body defying gravity was appealing to the Western public, so variations of the trick continued to be perfected technically and theatrically. In 1992, David Copperfield “flew” across the stage carrying a member of his audience in his arms. By then, the public’s reception of the trick had also changed. Nobody believed that he had (fraudulent) supernatural powers. Spectators were blissfully aware that the illusion was performed through meticulous choreography and, above all, a complex system of wires.
Audiences at a stage magic show are willing to engage in the temporary suspension of disbelief required to enjoy the spectacle. However, when the traditional levitation trick is encountered in the street—where today’s magicians still use Sheshal’s cantilevered technique—the spectator’s response is somewhat unpredictable, often occasioning belligerent skepticism. Some are not only unwilling to suspend disbelief and go so far as to engage a personal crusade against the illusion.
Instances of this reaction abound online. On youtube alone, we find many videos devoted to debunking the levitation trick. Take, for example, a video titled The Floating and Levitating Man. TRICK REVEALED (step-by-step)! where we see footage of a street magician being spied on, early in the morning, as he sets up the infrastructure that supports his illusion. Uploaded by a user named “settime2588” in 2013, the video has over 21 million views. Its description reads as follows:
There is a steel plate on the pavement, covered with a grey carpet. In the corner of the plate, there is a rod sticking out. Into this, the there [sic] is a steel platform, on which the performers sits [sic]. The steel tube which holds the platform runs up his left sleeve.
Motivations behind this spontaneous interest in truth-seeking can be observed in the video’s comments. Some users are merely curious and appreciate the unveiling, while others celebrate the boycott of the trick, arguing that these sort of street activities are illegitimate and parasitic.
Disbelief, a fundamental task of critical thought, is here employed as a misdirected reactionary weapon. It seems as if somebody misunderstood what it means to take the “red pill,” and see the truth behind appearances. Far from revolutionary, efforts to unveil levitation tricks are a purposeless fuss often grounded in various forms of prejudice. Furthermore, the material evidence provided—be it in footage of an early morning hidden camera, drawings that highlight the form of a concealed structure, or in efforts to describe it with words—simply attests to its creator’s naivety. As will be seen, debunking requires both a wide lens and a sharper tool.
There is a crucial difference between the expositions given by settime2588 and those of Juan Muñoz. Whereas the former appears driven by a distorted sense of justice, the latter uses his explanations as material in the creation of a new artifice, namely, the work.
(Muñoz believes that the real gambler shouldn’t have an end, shouldn’t seek profits. “He is driven exclusively by his love of the act of gambling, while others are motivated by greed.” Ideally, he claims, the techniques he exposes will “allow the gambler to increase their winnings only so that they can fritter them away.” This looping inconclusiveness I find inspiring. Ultimately, it is a quality that ennobles the activities of gamblers, and hopefully those of art practitioners as well.)
I have attempted a similar strategy with the drawings that accompany this text, which once aimed at resolving a mystery and now may exist as a new one.
In episode IX, Muñoz describes an artifice called trile that, like the levitating man, is usually encountered in the streets:
We will start today’s program, if we may, with an apology. We have lost the text that we intended to read but… anyway… seeing that we promised it earlier… we are going to explain the game that the courts and the police have really got it in for… the one known as the ‘Three Card Trick’, or sometimes also as ‘The Mexican Row.’ Basically the trick is just a card-switch… a card-switch that everyone has seen at some time on their town’s central streets.
The narration is accompanied by sounds recorded in the streets of Seville. The narrator’s words are also repeated, stubbornly, by a voice with an accent, as if a tourist was listening to the secret, and trying to learn.
There are several variations of trile. It can be played with cups and balls, with matchboxes or, in the version explained by Muñoz, with three cards. The trilero places each of the cards on the table, one of which is always an ace, making potential victims aware of each card’s location. Following this, the cards are turned face down, and the trilero mixes them up. When the shuffling is finished, it will seem obvious to victims where the ace has landed. However, somehow, they always choose incorrectly. As Muñoz says: “We wouldn’t advise you to bet, because your chances of losing are a hundred percent.”
Now people know that this game is a confidence trick and that it is impossible to win. Most of us are wary, and would never engage. What some people do not know is that the trick itself is often a misdirection in a larger, more complicated scheme. For example, this is how I have seen trile played on the Rambla, a pedestrian boulevard in Barcelona that is regularly busy with tourists:
It all happens suddenly. A folding table is produced and—instead of cards—three cups are turned upside down, one of which hides a little ball. In a loud voice, the trilero challenges the crowd while quickly rearranging the cups. “Do you dare? Are your eyes fast enough?” It does not take long before someone is cajoled to play. A bet is placed and, in the first round, the bettor wins. The happy customer continues to play, and their luck rolls on. As excitement builds, a crowd begins to form. Occasionally the bettor loses but, overall, they win. More spectators congregate, and in the drama they jam themselves around the little table, trying to figure out what is happening. Then, as suddenly as it began, the act dissolves. The bettor walks away. The trilero disappears, carrying the discrete table under his arm like a folder. Eventually, the confused crowd will dissipate too. They suspect the trilero was scared off by police. And while this could be the case, more commonly, there is another reason for the act’s sudden vanishment.
Camouflaged in this scene are at least two accomplices. The first is obvious. The bettor who always wins is there to make the game look easy, to coax a cocky tourist into making a bet. The other is more clandestine. Stalking the crowd, taking advantage of the distracted audience, is a pickpocket whose task is to steal the tourists’ wallets. When the loot is in hand, a subtle signal suffices to trigger the band’s dissipation before the perplexed spectators realize what has happened. When they do, it is always too late.
Just like settime2588, our poor spectators misdirected their skepticism. They believed they were safe because they were, as usual, cautious and alert, so that nobody would take advantage of them. In this case, however, they were being wary about the wrong thing. Trile is just a pretext. The strategy, here, as in most everything else, transcends the realm of trickery—games are played on a scale much larger and sophisticated than we sometimes realize. Only by becoming familiar with such complexity can we accurately combat everyday deceitfulness.
(Once, in Spain, a gentleman bought thousands of card packets wholesale. He went to the trouble of marking each one before selling them underpriced to all the gambling venues in Havana. He then moved to Havana, frequented those casinos, and always won. The downfall of the operation came when an astute citizen discovered the scheme and blackmailed him to split the earnings.)
Juan Muñoz’s A Man in a Room, Gambling was pitched to the BBC and rejected. Only later was it broadcast on a small Canadian radio network. Years after the 1992 recording, Bryars and Muñoz performed it again at the studios of BBC radio, this time with more complex music, and with Muñoz reading from a small and barely illuminated table in the background. All the paraphernalia of a radio broadcast was activated, so the audience believed it was, indeed, being broadcast live. The truth is, it never did.