It is the first night of Fix Festival 13 and artists and attendees are gathered in a pub, unaware that the day’s events are not quite over. The pub is full, but not uncomfortably so.
I find myself in a conversation in which I’m trying to explain the difference between stage and ritual magic to a fellow drinker, who believes that there is no essential difference between them, seeing them both as a kind of trick. Although not an expert on either, my attempts to argue for their difference are made all the more difficult by the clouds of Lynx deodorant that hang in the air. This intoxicating scent, unleashed upon the mostly unsuspecting pub audience, is the work of David Fagan, and refers to the copious use of the deodorant used by teenage boys to attract a partner. The paradox of masking ones’ own scent in order to attract others, is that attraction is the recognition of another’s singularity, whereas the masking of individual scent means all are rendered the same, in that tense tribal sense of the teenager. The other pub-goers, one imagines, mutter amongst themselves at the strong stench, while simultaneously being carried back to teenage discos of youth.
Another unsuspecting audience might have dreamed, on the four o’ clock bus from Belfast to Larne, heads against the cold glass of the bus window, until continuous flashes of individuals wearing red and white hats invades their consciousness. One, and then more, in a series of co-incidental appearances in a performance orchestrated by Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell. Even on the liminal roadworks of the motorway, where the fresh clay lies peeled back waiting for the new road to be laid, heads in the seats in front of mine whip back at the sight of these unexpected doppelgangers haunting the verges. The conclusions this captive audience comes to in the privacy of their own minds, or as they talk amongst themselves, we will never know.
The conversation in the bar continues, with my fellow conversationalist and I still trying to differentiate the two forms of magic, stage and ritual, to conclude this disagreement in a way that is satisfactory to both. She reveals that she comes from a non-religious background, and therefore sees any kind of belief system, or inner practice as a trick, rendering stage magic and the ritual kind all alike. However, there still remains, to my mind, an essential difference.
There is also a difference in insulting an enemy with a clever putdown in the heat of the moment, and providing a favourite putdown at the invitation of Janks Archieve, who are making a worldwide collection. Visitors to the project struggle at first to call one to mind, a putdown is not usually on the tip of the tongue until the moment it’s needed for deployment, however given a little time, they eventually warm to the task, providing many colourful examples – Your Ma’s your Da! Is there no mirrors in your house?
Time and space, and the co-ordinates of both, are both essential components of magic, both stage and ritual, and they both require transformation of different kinds, whether through illusion or through inner practices. Music is transformed in Phil Hession’s performance, where he etches phrases of singing with a special record-cutting lathe, taking theses fragments, and along with visuals, loops them until the fragments of his own voice repeat with those of others singing an old ballad, ‘And she went over her father’s hall and she heard the dead bell ringing,’ creating a new aural dimension that reverberates through the space, time caught inside time.
Space, cold utilised spaces transformed by activity of Charlotte Bosanquet and Colm Clarke, in an unused swimming pool, the sound of boxers skipping hisses like rain, their sweat contributing some small liquid to that chalky place. And space, a gusty elemental day pulling at the edges of a car-park, marked subtly by a series of small acts, and at the end, white paint flying off the artist’s outstretched hands.
Time, in the belly of the gallery it unfolds, in the shadowy half-light of Amanda Coogan’s performance, hands move under vast swathes of fabric, cutting holes to poke through until she emerges to full height, to make mysterious signs to the slowed down bellow of Beethoven. Here is also time defined in Triple AAA’s obsessive shredding of accumulated documents from their own past, or the length of time an obsessive fan, performed by Nora Jacob, can scream at solitary audience members, thrust into momentary fame.
Back in the pub conversation, under the heady scent of Lynx, a satisfactory conclusion is reached at last; the difference lies in the intention of the practitioner – the stage magican intends to entertain an audience through the power of their illusions, while the ritual magician, whatever ones own beliefs, is intent on an inner path of power and knowledge.
Knowledge as revealed by Tonya McMullan’s secretive stories, told in almost whispers in a small castle replica within the Disney store, with shop security leaning in, a story that reveals structures within structures, of power and politics within the Disney Kingdom. A different kind of knowledge is imparted in Mitch Conlon’s pub parade, one that draws in both willing, banner-carrying participants with casual pubgoers in a celebration of wild pub nights out and their grim aftermaths, ‘Time is Only a Human Construct’, a surreal and carnivalesque journey through anecdotes and the city.
Like stage magic, Live art prefers a live audience, even an unknowing one, and can also entertain, as those who felt the wet slap of spaghetti during FoodFight 3# will contest, in that wild Bacchanalian feast of excess and forgetting. However Live art is also the slow unfolding of the artist’s practice in real-time, in this way it is both stage magic and ritual magic’s intentions crossed, it is both performative and the artist’s inner practice of exploration all at once.
It is many things, it is a branch balanced precariously on a head, fish hanging like thoughts. It is white sugar spilling from stockings. Forgetting is like opening a bird cage. It’s anecdotes from a wild parade celebrating drink culture through streets, through pubs, a performance based on the kind of anecdotes from those nights when conversations unfold in stuffy bars with a whiff of Lynx and the loud murmuring of voices that make one have to raise ones’ voice a little to be heard.
– Suzanne Walsh 2013