The fabrication of illusions, and the revelation of these as mere tricks, is a central preoccupation of modernity, in particular of the nineteenth century. In this period, the topos of illusion connects the seemingly disparate realms of philosophy (in the work of thinkers like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Mach), the human sciences (in the overlapping fields of sensory physiology, neurology, and experimental psychology), and popular entertainment (in various proto-cinematic devices, stage magic, commercial trompe l’œil painting, spirit photography, early sound recordings, etc.).
This international workshop aims to analyze forms of willful and playful illusion and the circulation of material support for these illusions between laboratories, theatrical stages, and printed media of all kinds, primarily in (but not limited to) the long nineteenth century. Within the framework of the IKKM research program, “operative ontologies”, operations for the creation of various illusions, can be regarded as an essential part of human culture. Austrian philosopher Robert Pfaller argues that illusions in general, as well as fictional and dream worlds of all kinds, which he calls “second worlds” (Zweite Welten), are in fact necessary ingredients of modern culture. They are crucial to our existence in the “first world”, i.e. everyday reality, as the two worlds constantly counterbalance one another. Thus it would seem that the need to develop operations of illusionism is something different modes of existence have in common.
The current annual topic of the IKKM, “appearing/disappearing”, is closely intertwined with illusionism. Illusions make something appear different than it is; sometimes making something appear that does not exist at all – for instance, mythical monsters in paintings and phantasmagoria shows, or impossible worlds in films, made possible by special effects techniques. Illusions of appearance and disappearance can be found particularly in those areas of culture dedicated to entertainment: The theater is a place purpose-built for various seen and unseen appearances and disappearances, made possible not only by the visible stage, which is in and of itself a display for the appearance of objects and persons, with its lights, curtains and scenery. It also encompasses hidden technologies such as trap doors, lifting platforms, mirrors, screens, pulleys, winches etc. All of these serve to frame the actors’ and actresses’ performances to create the illusion of a “second world”, appearing before the spectators’ eyes. A prominent example of illusionism in a different medium, are optical illusions such as anamorphosis and trompe l’œil in painting. These techniques date back to Greek antiquity and continue through the history of visual arts, occasionally gaining prominence, especially during the Renaissance and again in the nineteenth century. Here, the relationship of figure and ground plays a central role, as elements appear to stand out or stretch into the depth of the painting, making a three-dimensional space appear within a two-dimensional surface. In literature, fictional worlds emerge by means of their description in language, which has often been regarded as an agent, not only describing reality, but bringing it into existence. The percipient’s immersion into a fictional universe can also be experienced in computer games which create “second worlds” through which players can move, in which they can communicate or take action via virtual avatars, while a player's immediate surroundings disappear from their perception. This immersive world adheres to certain rules, as do those experienced within ritualized contexts, such as religious practice or entertainment, which also create “second worlds” that seem to be based on rules other than those in reality. One of these “second worlds” in entertainment is stage magic – a set of practices that inform much of the discussion of illusion but has thus far received little academic attention. Combining technological knowledge, mechanical craftsmanship, and sleight of hand in addition to a performance practice, nineteenth century magicians operated on a heterogeneously structured field bringing together theater machinery, techniques borrowed from physics and physiology laboratories, ancient temple apparitions, curiosity cabinets, fairs and the circus.
While the relationship of scientific optics, optical amusements (such as panoramas and tachyscopes), and the emergence of cinematography have received much academic attention, the singularly rich relationship of stage magic to both the experimental sciences and early film has yet to be fully explored. This workshop will endeavor to trace the material and cultural history of modern illusions and illusionism in diverse forms, including but not limited to the illusions of stage magic.
List of Speakers (in alphabetical order):
- Katherine Boyce-Jacino (Baltimore)
- Alice Christensen (Princeton)
- Joyce Goggin (Amsterdam)
- Gabriele Gramelsberger (Berlin)
- Tom Gunning (Chicago)
- Thomas Macho (Berlin)
- Katharina Rein (Weimar)
- Wladimir Velminski (Zürich)