Posts Tagged ‘veil of ignorance’

2013: An Intense Year

kiev-2Last year in December I was in Kiev working with a citizen group wishing to improve the quality of democracy in Ukraine. The members of the group were very motivated, energetic, and excited about the prospects of making a difference in the future of their country, as well as the prospects of Ukraine making closer ties with the European Union. This December, the Government of Ukraine has turned its back on Europe, which has provoked popular outcry and unrest from pro-European groups. Many see any gains from the Orange Revolution as being finally extinguished.

The trip to Kiev was part of my work as the Director of the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution at the University of Essex, which I maintained until 1 August when I became the new Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. The new role has meant an expanded set of responsibilities, deeper engagement with campus life across all aspects of the academic endeavour: education, research, finance and people. I work with superb team in the Faculty and other colleagues who make the job exciting, engaging and rewarding.

The higher education sector is going through profound and unprecedented change at the moment here in the UK. The government rolled out a liberalization process that has culminated in expanding the student market during this recruitment cycle by 30,000 and then by opening up the market completely from 2015.

fss-1My work involves creating the kind of value proposition for our students that is attractive, competitive and meaningful. Our strategies are geared toward achieving excellence in education (‘a transformational educational experience’) and excellence in research (maximise our performance in the research excellence framework 2014 and beyond). The Faculty of Social Sciences features top social science departments in the United Kingdom with a critical mass of academic staff carrying out cutting edge research that is data rich, methodologically rigorous, and practically applicable across many different policy sectors.

The early part of the year involved work on The Westminster Consortium for Strengthening Parliaments and Democracy, and other projects associated with the IDCR, including the wonderful joint project with the Mackman Group, Thomson Reuters Foundation, The Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO-Mexico), Human Rights Centre and ESRC: The Human Rights Atlas. The Atlas work involved a wonderful visit to FLACSO-Mexico for a workshop on measuring human rights, as well as a visit to the Circle of Mexican Magicians!

After Mexico, I found myself in Brussels for a series of meetings with the EU’s External Action Service with some of my colleagues from Kiev. I also had the opportunity of a lifetime to finally go visit Christian Chelman, one of the world’s most foremost bizarre magicians at his famous Surnateum.

 

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In April I went to San Francisco for the annual meeting of the International Studies Association and spent a great day with Christian Cagigal, a bay area bizarre magician who showed me the Mission area and the Castro. I saw my friend and colleague Edzia Carvalho marry Sam Mansell in Sheffield. I also had the honour of lecturing to the MA in Sustainable Leadership at the University of Cambridge.

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In May I got the new job and started with the preparations almost immediately. I also made my annual sojourn to Whitby for the Doomsday bizarre magic convention where I had the honour of performing in the Gala show and running a workshop on the final day. June and July were spent getting up to speed on all matters in the faculty.

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After a lovely visit from my amazing mother, I had the pleasure of presenting a full day workshop on democracy for staff at the EU’s External Action Service in Brussels, where we looked at stylised facts, concepts and definitions, theories and explanations, and implications for EU policies in the area of democracy building.

On 22 July, I was delighted to host an evening of mentalism at the prestigious Magic Circle in London, which featured many of the talented members of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers. We had mind reading, memory stunts, tests of suggestibility, and a packed house with over 70 people.

In September I was delighted to publish my new book Human Rights and Democracy: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals with Bloomsbury. The book charts developments in democracy and human rights over the last 60 years, and reflects on my last 20 years working with democracy assessment, human rights measurement, and capacity building around the world.

The month also saw the roll out of an experiment run in our Essex Lab, which tested over 150 respondents on their attitudes to transitional justice through direct reference to the trial of Rios Montt in Guatemala. The results are promising and will be written up in 2014, and preliminary results presented in a talk at the University of Dundee in February.

This year saw the debut of my new stage show ‘Lifting Veil of Ignorance’, which is a show inspired by John Rawls and includes an exploration of deep philosophical questions through the medium of mind reading. I did parts of the show in Whitby in May, and then the whole show in Bath in September, Wivenhoe House and University of Huddersfield in October, and Southend in December.

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At the November Tabula Mentis meeting of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers I was presented with the Chancellor of Mystery award by the membership for service to organisation as one of its founders and the main organiser for 14 Tabula Mentae meetings since 2007.

In research terms, I was awarded two new grants, one from the Economic and Social Research Council for the extension of our Human Rights Atlas project and one from the Technology Strategy Board for a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Glowinkowski International.

As an exciting year closes out, I am really looking forward to 2014. My academic work continues at Essex with the Faculty and with new research endeavours on authoritarianism and human rights, while in the magical world, I am pleased to announce the forthcoming book The Magiculum, which will be published by EyeCorner Press. The book is a wonderful collection of essays from lifelong magicians reflecting on the different ways in which magic has been part of their lives.

Finally, I wish to thank my lovely family Melissa, Sophia, Oliver, Briony, and all our furry friends for making home life so wonderful, full of love, and never short of surprises. This is where the true magic lies.

 

 

Exploring the Outer Edges of the Mind

I had the good fortune last week of working with the School of Music, Humanities and Drama at the University of Huddersfield last weekend. The event is part of my role as a Visiting Professor of Performance Magic, which involves contributions to the Journal of Performance Magic, working with drama students, and performing my own material in evening shows.

This year, I worked with Nik Taylor and David Wainwright (FRSA) during the day with drama students in filming four short videos that explored a little known syncretic religion from Mexico, the medieval symbolism of the Tarot, the power of history through inherited objects, and the magical morality of Plato’s Ring of Gyges.

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La Flaquita explores the Mexican cult of Santa Muerte through offerings, transformations, and yielding to important messages. I had been exposed to this phenomena while in Mexico last January and became further intrigued after reading Andrew Chesnut’s fascinating Devoted To Death. I arranged for Andrew to give a talk on his book at Treadwell’s bookshop this summer and developed my own magical exploration as a result. A connection is made through the use of a pendulum, a coin mysteriously vanishes, tobacco transforms into wine, a prayer disappears over a candle to leave an uncanny message, and concerns of a young woman are revealed through direct  communication with La Flaquita.

The true origins of the Tarot are unknown, but many believe that the cards evolved from a game of the court to a set of medieval archetypal images that represent different phases in our development (the Major Arcana), accompanied by ongoing forces relevant to our daily lives (travel, health, romance, adventure, material wealth, etc. as articulated through the Minor Arcana). My own exploration of these ideas involved two young people, free choices and contemplation, which made themselves known to me, perhaps from the shared community of human minds. In the event, a the radiance of The Sun and the compassion of the Queen of Wands were revealed in a truly inexplicable fashion.

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I explored the power of history through a set of inherited objects: a small book, a silver coin, a key, a ring, and a gold watch. These objects are introduced in the context of my grandfather from Leiden and accompanied by his photograph and letter. The letter explains that each object has a deeper set of meanings that transcend their immediate physicality. The book is a miniature version of The Tempest and signifies knowledge and magic, the silver coin is a Morgan dollar and signifies material wealth, the key signifies secrets, the ring symbolises trust and commitment, and the watch stands for time, order and progress. My helpful participant ordered them thus: watch, key,  coin, ring and book. He was keen to focus on the orderly aspects of life before using the key to unlock opportunities, before looking at issues of wealth, trust and commitment, and the hidden world of knowledge that awaits him. Other participants made hidden selections which were divined, and the final selection was predicted in the letter, but nonetheless chosen by our final participant.

ring of gyges

Deep within the pages of Plato’s Republic is a thought experiment on morality called the Ring of Gyges. The ring is found within the belly of a bronze horse and renders its wearer invisible. The question for Plato centres the kinds of immoral acts one would commit while invisible and the temptation to wear the ring knowing the immoral acts that are possible under such circumstances. Two participants were given the choice to put the ring on (out of sight) or to leave it in the box (and shut), while my own powers of perception divined their true intentions.

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The day was capped off with a performance of my show Lifting the Veil of ignorance. The Milton Theatre was full for an evening of magical exploration of fundamental ideas such that concern us all: epistemology, morality, justice, human rights, language, the nature of the modern state, and the role of practical wisdom. The evening was hugely enjoyable with many wonderful surprises from the audience as they made choices, imagined outcomes, and engaged with my mind games with a view to delivering a serious message about what constitutes the good life.

 

Staging magic…

Holbein, The Prestige and Venice

Over the years I have taken great pride in my magic stage sets for my various shows and wanted to share a few insights for those who are curious about designing sets for meaningful magical performances.

Overall, my set design choices have been heavily influenced by particular paintings, films, and styles. The key painting has been The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. The picture is simple and complex at the same time. It uses beautiful colours that are typical of the Renaissance period. It has symbolic references to a large set of perennial concerns of humankind. It is a large painting and it evokes mystery, wonder, other worldliness, science, travel, life, death, religion, war, politics, and power, among many other enduring concepts.

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The greens and the reds have featured heavily in my use of background images (and are consistent with colours in my family’s coat of arms), while the table littered with objects has become a mainstay feature of my shows. I have learned that a table full of props (artefacts) provides curiosity as my audiences sit in wonder throughout my shows thinking about what might happen with the different objects on the table.

Stage set from the Milton Theatre, University of Huddersfield

Stage set from the Milton Theatre, University of Huddersfield

The most influential film has been The Prestige, both in terms of the structure of routines (i.e. the pledge, the turn and the prestige), as well as the look and feel of the Victorian stage. Indeed, I grew up with Hoffmann’s Modern Magic and have always loved the illustrations of the boxes, vases, and props in that book. Between that book, the film and Holbein’s painting, I have sought to create my own ambience on stage, which evokes mystery, intrigue and maybe even a touch of fear.

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My final influences come from Italy. I taught for seven years in Venice, where as a Visiting Professor, I was given my own flat near the Grand Canal, rode the vaporetto to the Lido and lectured in the magna aula of the San Niccoló Monastery.

Our graduation ceremonies in Venice always took place in the Palazzo Ducale adjacent to St. Mark’s Square, and I used to love sitting on the dais with the other professors in our robes surrounded by the Tintorettos on the walls and ceiling. Life in Venice teaches one about real magic and the power of history, while the architecture, food, coffee, and labyrinthine streets and canals provide a feast of influences for any serious mystery entertainer.

My latest work is grounded in philosophy and imagines a ‘philosopher’s box’ that would be used to instruct pupils to think about life’s deeper questions. The show draws on political philosopher John Rawls and is called ‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’, which is being staged at Wivenhoe House Hotel on 17 October 2013 and the Milton Theatre at the University of Huddersfield on 26 October 2013.

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