Thursday, March 22, 2007

An Open Letter to the Genii Forum - UPDATED

Backstory: An extraordinarily talented young magician I know named Chris Brown has a video up on YouTube which has garnered over 2 million views, an astonishing number in the YouTube universe and a sure sign that he did something right. Needless to say, many magicians hate him.

The Genii Forum, one of the most influential online forums for magicians, has a whole long thread of pompous deconstruction (no really, don't bother) about why Chris' video is terrible and pointless and why Chris needs to consult with them so he can learn how to really do magic like a pro. Okay, it's not entirely all about that, and there are some voices from people who actually get it, but in the subtext of the thread that description pretty much sums it all up.

Anyway, as one of his many mentors (and probably his biggest fan among us), I felt the need to respond in a public way to the whole thread. If you're not into magic you may want to skip this. On the other hand, if you're interested in hearing some inside dish about the magic community, read on.

UPDATE: 3/22/07 - After you read this, you may want to check out the follow up, which I posted directly to the Genii Forum here.
UPDATE: 3/23/07 - And another one here.

UPDATE: 12/16/09 - Apparently, most of the names on the Genii Forum have been "anonymized, so my posts no longer can be identified as mine (nor can Chris' responses, except where he identifies himself). I have therefore added my follow-ups below.


Hoo Boy, I just had to write in on this one. It's amazing to read such a typically clueless discussion as has characterized much of this thread. I'd almost wager money that most of those so upset about Chris' YouTube video aren't big fans of David Blaine either. When you don't know why the successful are successful you don't really understand your own art.

2 million hits on YouTube doesn't happen by accident, folks. It just doesn't. 2 million hits happens because you struck a chord with a lot of people by showing something, unfiltered by traditional media filters, that moves them in a deep and personal way. And they have, in turn, done your marketing for you, driven by passion -- theirs -- to share with all their friends whatever it is in your clip that moved them in some new way.

Chris' clip is more amazing than most of you know, and better magic, too. His technique is fine, and he's the most gifted natural performer I've encountered in many many moons.

He has a vision, guys. He's young and he's raw, but he has a vision, for himself and for magic. And he's got the cojones to pull it off, too.

People -- a lot of them, obviously -- saw the video and thought the magic was amazing. That's why they recommended it to their friends, and that's why he has 2 million hits. He has a lot of fans because they can feel that he's real. Not a prefabricated fake like Copperfield, but a real person who loves to make magic happen for real people.

And the humility! Chris has real humility. He's cocky as hell, but deep down he's a serious soul. Read his comments on the thread. It's all about gratitude for your opinions, about respect for his elders, about not wanting to start any fights, about his love for magic and his desire to express himself through it.

He learned from the Master, folks. He's a disciple of David Blaine all the way, and David Blaine is the most important magician since Houdini. By far. David Blaine saved magic. He's the reason really cool, hip, artistic kids now are attracted to magic.

I've been in magic well over thirty years and it was never the cool, hip, artistic kids who did magic. Never. To be a magician was to automatically not be the cool, hip, artistic kid.

Now, thanks to David Blaine, we have more amazing cool, hip, artistic young magicians than ever.

The aging magical chattering class hates the Blaine style, so snootily dismissed as "Street Magic," precisely because it has the actual "street" in it, as in real people, in the real world. The idea that magic should be something that happens in their world, on their streets, in their lives, is anathema to the dysfunctional paradigm in which magic has stagnated for the last hundred years.

Like the aging rock and roll chattering class that hates and fears Hip Hop -- which similarly emerges from and expresses the feelings of the street -- magic's aging chattering class has quite convinced themselves that real magicians work gigs for money, like birthday clowns, or work live in theaters. Getting someone to pay you a lot of money to do only the magic you really, really want to do, is obviously not a path a serious artist would ever take. That's why the best and wisest actors are the ones who do commercials and amusement park shows rather than those slackers, like Robert DeNiro, who become movie stars. That's why the band that played at your wedding is obviously a more "serious" bunch of musicians than Radiohead. Or U2.

The chattering class' slide from mediocrity into irrelevance will only get worse...

And to mix your magic with Hip Hop -- quelle horreur!

Hip hop is the lingua franca of youth, my friends, and it's a language in which youth are fluent. You want to express something meaningful to kids and young adults, in a way that's hip and cool, you back it with hip hop. And Chris does just that, not because he cares about being cool, but because hip hop is his lingua franca too, it's the music that expresses how he feels, in a language he understands.

How great for all of us who love magic that the art is being saved, day by day, by the people the old guard hate and fear the most. This is absolutely the best time in a hundred years to be a great magician, a golden age. And Chris is lucky and honored to be riding in the vanguard right now.

Just be grateful for our front-row seats.


Follow-up Comment

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful responses. My own post emerged from what I saw as a deeply and unfairly stacked deck on this thread. Pete Biro posted the YouTube link, whereupon a whole slew of people saw fit to insult Chris, his video, and YouTube magicians in general. Most of the attacks came from a predictable if, in my opinion, flawed paradigm which states that young magicians making cool magic videos are somehow to be hated and dismissed.

Brad said, "If they spent half as much time reading "Our Magic" as they do reading their 'Final Cut Pro' manuals, magic would be a better place."

And: "In art, a mannerist period is defined as a time frame in which the means of expression become so pervasive nothing ends up being expressed. Today's younger generation has found themselves in/created for themselves a mannerist period."

Is it possible, Brad, that something important IS being expressed but that you simply can't read the language? That paragraph makes you sound exactly like those old folks who claimed that rock and roll was useless noise ("You can't even understand the words!") and that those kids who loved it were therefore idiots. History has not been kind to that particular viewpoint -- although patronizing kids remains as popular as ever.

Asking Chris to clarify his point is like asking a painter to explain a painting, or a musician to explain a song. The expression speaks for itself, and it either works for you or it doesn't.

But don't assume there's nothing there.

Chief mouthpiece Richard Kaufman saw fit to weigh in with three -- three! -- insulting comments, including:

"What's different now is that places like YouTube provide a location where everyone can strut their underdeveloped stuff for all the world to see.

"All I can say is, YUCK."


"I disagree, Tom. I would rather they NOT be performing publically [sic] for millions of people around the planet to see when they are fit only to practice in front of a mirror."

(Gee, Richard, just what in Chris' video do you think is only fit to practice in front of a mirror?)


"I don't recall what Eugene wrote, but I would say that performance without an audience is called practice."

(Oh. I guess 2 million people isn't a big enough crowd to be called an "audience?")

And finally, on his 4th post, Kaufman writes:

"I should add that I have not watch [sic] the clip in question on YouTube, merely commenting on the general phenomenon."

In other words, Kaufman has just pontificated 3 times about a clip he hasn't seen. He is admitting publicly that he is prejudiced (as in, "pre-judging") against magicians on YouTube, which automatically disqualifies his opinion from serious consideration.

And he's not the only one.

David Alexander: "YouTube and its clones have given an outlet for the ignorant and self-absorbed who have no business stepping away from their mirrors. The number of viewings for some of these videos is sad news in that a great many people are being educated as to what magic is, not what it can be in the hands of a competent performer."

That's some pretty broad hating without any specifics.

Brad Henderson gives props to David Blaine, finally. But where David Blaine trumps those who have followed is in his deep, spiritual quest for meaning. Not even the merely super-talented, like Cyril and Derren Brown, can touch that. Brown, in particular, falls back on his pseudo-scientific explanations, that old "combination of magic, psychology, and intuition" bullshit so favored by mentalists these days. Don't get me wrong: I love Brown and I think he's quite brilliant, but he doesn't project a transcendent search for meaning the way Blaine does.

Magicians get so wrapped up in technique, in history and crediting issues, that they fail to see the organic way in which all arts grow and change. Chris is driven by a vision -- not yet fully formed, I don't think -- but he has a real vision in the same way Blaine does. He's a truly modern magician, with multiple streams by which his fans can respond and interact with him.

How many people on this forum have motivated their audiences to make fan art?


Final Follow-up Comment

The magic community has shown a lot of hostility to the YouTube generation. But I'm surprised that a lot of people on this forum don't basically think Chris' video is cool, shows some pretty eye-popping (if standard, to all you pros) magic, and demonstrates nothing but respect and love for the art and craft. Same planet, different eyes, I guess.

I happen to think Chris' video presents magic in a great light -- the tricks all look great, his timing is good, and the music is modern and hip. There aren't that many magic clips I want to watch more than once but Chris did a great job with this one and it survives multiple viewings.

Of course, I'm quite partial to progressive Hip Hop, too, and the Cannibus song is very cool. Chris knows his music, and he communicates a lot by the choices he makes.

It seems as though a lot of non-magicians were impressed with the video as a demonstration of magic, too. That "Twins do magic" video linked to in an earlier post is a loving tribute by a couple of girls who were impressed by Chris' magic. You can either feel contempt for the uneducated laymen or you can ask what you can do to reach people the way Chris did.

Blaine wannabe: hogwash. Yes, Chris and many other magicians of note under 25 are the children of Blaine, no question. Chris would be the first to acknowledge this. Blaine created a whole new paradigm of magic for the 21st century: wear normal, hip clothes, take it to the streets, do it for real people with real objects in real situations...

And thank god for him, too. Blaine single-handedly stopped magic's slide into artistic irrelevance. I was getting pretty tired of magicians dressed like waiters doing tricks with gentlemen's hats and silk scarves and canes -- turn-of-the-century accouterments with little meaning to modern spectators.

I exaggerate, of course, but only slightly. How many magicians before Blaine can you think of who were as hip and contemporary as, say, The Red Hot Chili Peppers? Or Nicholas Cage? Or, for that matter, Criss Angel?

Angel wears jeans and tee shirts and performs in the streets, too, with cool music video-style editing. Is he also a Blaine wannabe? (Wait, don't answer that.)

Blaine provided a language; young magicians now use that language as a starting point for wherever their art needs to go. Chris is no more a Blaine wannabe than Channing Pollack was a Robert Houdin wannabe just because he, too, dressed in formal evening wear.

It was Houdin, in fact, who said that a magician should dress in the appropriate contemporary clothes of a gentleman. These days, gentlemen wear jeans and t-shirts far more often than tuxedos. At least the cool ones do.

Making a video after only 2 years in magic? Yup, a lot of us initially encouraged Chris to wait a while. But he's young, ambitious, and energetic and he wisely chose to ignore us older naysayers. After all, who are we to try to nip the blasting energy of youth in the bud? Chris will not be dissuaded by anyone; he has vision and drive, and I applaud him for it.

"You won't be young forever." Andy Warhol.

More power to you, young brother Chris. Take it all the way!


Opie R said...

Hoorah....It is refreshing to see someone go to the aid of the young/new magician who is out there doing his thing. We should all be mentors to those who display the cojones to be criticized, in order to improve their skills....

I have been reading your blog for some time, and just wanted to let you know that I admire you frankness and willingness to say things like they are.....opie

PeaceLove said...

Thanks for the kind words; they made my morning!

Anonymous said...

You don't think your opinion is perhaps colored just a bit by the fact that he lists you as a mentor? (Note: rhetorical. It *must* be colored by such a relationship. If you deny it you're blind.)

And why an open letter here? Why not post there, where the discussion is happening?

PeaceLove said...

I spotted Chris early, first as a very talented beatboxer in a stage show I MCed (which is where he first got interested in magic) and soon after when I started noticing that he was performing a lot of fairly difficult close-up stuff with a level of confidence and gall (2 very important elements of successful close-up) I hadn't seen in years.

We do a monthly show for about 50-60 people and Chris is a frequent performer in walkaround and at at our formal close-up show. 8 or 9 months ago I watched him perform an impromptu set with 3, count em', 3 deck switches, all of which sailed right past the audience (and most of the magicians in the room, too, I'd wager). No special routining here; just killer timing and the ballsiness of youth.

So yes, my opinion is colored by the fact that I've been watching him learn magic for two years and I haven't often seen such astonishing natural talent. And I think that, unlike 99% of the other magicians I know, even the great ones, Chris has real vision. He's working it. Give him time.

As far as posting it here: I did post the first part of it on the Genii Forum, with a link to the full post and an invitation to all to read it. Unlike some people, I didn't think it was necessary or appropriate to dominate the forum with a thousand-word opinion post.

Andster said...

First of all, Amen on the post. I didn't read the Genii thread, but I'm pretty sure I don't have to.

Secondly, this guy is good, plain and simple. I watched a few of his videos (I'm at the library with no headphones, so there's no sound) and he's got skill and is entertaining and funny.

I can't wait to see more of his work, and wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see him going far in this business.

Anonymous said...

I've figured out what it is about your blog and your writing that bothers me; you're so sure of your own opinions and so willing to dismiss those who disagree with them that you fall into the very camp of those you dismiss. "has a whole long thread of pompous deconstruction"? Point me to a specific post whose point was pompous deconstruction. Would that you were as accepting as your young friend.

jb said...

PeaceLove, I always enjoy your writing and this is no exception. Thanks for the well written post which more clearly articulates the power of what Chris is doing than anything I could have written.

Joshua said...

Great post. Chris is paying no attention to Genii or any of his critics (Willfully naive?). He keeps looking upward. I look forward to some of the projects we have lined up...

Anonymous said...

To the contrary, he said he is paying attention to them, so I'm not sure where your comment came from. And I commend him for doing so, and would recommend you reread his responses.

PeaceLove said...

What Josh meant is that Chris doesn't let the dismissals and negativity get to him. He reads the comments in the forum in order to learn from others, but no one will sway him from his own vision or convince him that he's wrong.

Anonymous said...

What Josh *said* is that Chris is "paying no attention to" them. Not that he's not letting the negativity get to him.

Good of you to spin for him, though.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I'm waiting for that bit you've pulled before where you ask here in print, "Isn't that really what you meant?," so he can say, "um, yeah, right, that's what I meant."

You have some clever tricks, Mr. Magic Guy.

opie said...

I think we should all encourage mranonymousman to make a U Tube contribution. A short one would okay, if he can do a short one....tsk tsk...


The Magic Utopian said...

"ballsiness of youth"

Very nice, PeaceLove. You always amaze us with your perspective (in a positive way).

Magic Utopia

PeaceLove said...


I think you're just being silly in your beef with Josh's wording. Josh and Chris are friends; Josh knows that Chris has read and responded to the Genii Forum. It's obvious to anyone who's not silly that when Josh said Chris is "paying no attention to the Genii Forum" he meant exactly what I said, that Chris has his vision perfectly clear and he won't be derailed by skeptics and critics.

Thanks to the other commenters for the kind words, too. Much appreciated.

"Ballsiness of youth." Yup, absolutely. Some young magicians get away with murder because they don't know they're not supposed to be able to get away with that.

For example (without going into a lot of detail on this basically public blog), Chris will segue right from a bunch of card tricks and flourishes into the Invisible Deck without batting an eyelash; I think a lot of magicians watching him miss his "work" because they don't realize how naturally talented he is at making his "work" disappear into an off-beat. He's very disarming, in his way, partly by being much smarter than he appears.

Anonymous said...

Not a beef. I took Josh at his word, rather than (oddly enough) taking Josh at your word, which, in my opinion, would indeed be silly.

Thank you for playing.

Jeff said...

I'm glad to see that Chris' video got such a great reaction. It's not easy creating a good internet meme.

I tuned out of most of the Genii conversation early.

Tell Chris "good job" for me.

The Conjurer said...

A few thoughts...

I watched the video and read all of the posts. Well, at least up to about 12:00 PM Pacific 3/22.

I guess I am confused. I am not sure why the posters began by beating it down - unless its another case of the magic board "Lord of the Flies" syndrome.

However, I did feel that some posters like Brad Henderson made some good points about the direction of magic. There is a lot of magic - both old and new - that has no intention. This has always concerned me.

PeaceLove said...

I agree about the lack of intention, which has plagued magic for half a century and is the reason magic is still portrayed as idiotic in much mainstream media coverage. I think the art is changing, however. Many young creative artists are choosing magic as their tool, and the results are shaking magic to its very foundations.

About time, too.

opie said...

And the bullys are at it again, tra la; the bullys are at it again.....This time, a young forum chief is being hammered, because he is sponsoring a poll vote of "best" magicians. The big rub seems to be his use of the word "Oscars"..... When are we going to allow the kids a full head of steam? opie

Anonymous said...

Not sure where to put this comment, so I'll throw it here. Seems as appropriate a place as any. Feel free to move it to a more (or less) prominent place as you see fit.

I am cooking tonight. On the menu: crow. You see, I am one of the people who has had some disagreements with you regarding a lot of rap due to sampling and other techniques with which it borrows from previous works.

Well, tonight on the drive home from work I happened to put on Manfred Mann's Chance. The first cut on that 1980 release? "Lies (Through The 80's)". Two things stood out in that piece - in one spot, they creatively worked in "pull out the trees, put up a parking lot." Yep, the line - in tune - from Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi (the Counting Crows abomination hadn't been conceived yet). In another place they seamlessly work in the line, "and another generation will...Talk about their generation." Yes, folks, straight from The Who's "My Generation" (with the word "their" substituted for "my").

I was marvelling at how creatively these were used, then I remembered or ripostes on this blog, and how I stated it was the antithesis of creativity to lift from another artist into your own work. Well, it would be intellectually dishonest for me to admire that in Manfred Mann and condemn it in Chamillionaire, so I owe you an apology. Consider this that apology.

I suppose the reason I consider a lot of rap not creative is that a lot of rap isn't creative: Sturgeon's Law and all. A lot of rock isn't creative, a lot of jazz isn't creative, a lot of blues isn't creative, ad nauseum.

I still think you miss the mark a time or two, such as in this post where you claim aging rockers fear rap. Since I am an aging rocker I'm curious where you get your data. If you have nothing to back up that statement, then, well, I apologized to you...


a former adversary

PeaceLove said...

Dear Former,

Thanks for your mea culpa; I'm touched. I'm happy to hear of your conversion of sorts, not because crow's on my menu (I'm a vegetarian, in any case), but because I'm always glad to welcome new people who grok the aesthetic potential of sampling.

My "aging rockers who hate and fear Rap" is, of course, somewhat of a broad statement (I know, I know, I didn't specifically indicate so in the post). Nevertheless I can hardly remember the last time anyone over 40 told me they like or appreciate Rap, and I regularly hear contempt and dismissal from over-40 friends and colleagues, both liberal and conservative. I also maintain that Rap continues to be denied a place at the table in mainstream discourse about contemporary art, where it obviously (to me) belongs. Once in a while some pseudo-progressive outlet like NPR will do a fawning, "aren't we hip and modern" profile of someone like Ludacris (oh, wasn't he in that liberal, anti-racism film Crash?) or a Hip-Hop artist like Mos Def (Oh, right, he's an actor, too). Seldom are Rappers highlighted and honored for their work in Rap.

Of course, that's just my observation and opinion. You're welcome to disagree; maybe you have a bunch of middle-aged Rap-loving friends. If so, I'd love to meet them!

Anonymous said...

"Fear" was the verb I specifically had problems with.

And I do think your statement is a bit too broad; I think Andre Benjamin is a bloody genius.

Chris Brown said...


I'd like to thank all of you. I am forever greatful for the support that you all have taken part of. I think we get too wrapped up in the "trick", the beef, the controversy, the competition...and we forget more and more about the core, universal, value in this art. I don't have to go in detail, you should already know. So again, thank you and stay tuned.

Chris Brown

Anonymous said...

There is a kid doing Multum in Parvo on youtube right now. There is no presentation. Just a puzzle of pouring water in a glass. He has almost a million hits. Does that mean he "struck a chord with a lot of people by showing something, unfiltered by traditional media filters, that moves them in a deep and personal way"?