Deception's his tool (but he's no politician)

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One of the first things you notice about magician Jamy Ian Swiss is how quickly time passes when he talks.

With a New York accent marinated by decades of touring the world, Mr. Swiss didn't have to resort to sleight of hand to make 45 minutes disappear effortlessly during our recent phone interview.

Armed with stories about everything from Houdini's crusade against psychic frauds to the contemporary magic of Penn & Teller, it's obvious that one of his greatest talents may be an ability to regale you based on his standing as someone who has seen and done it all.

On this Halloween weekend in Pittsburgh, the renowned magician and mentalist will be in town for a Saturday afternoon workshop on critical thinking and an intimate magic and mind-reading show at the Carnegie Science Center tomorrow evening.

As much as an audience wants to believe otherwise, Mr. Swiss admits that he doesn't really have the ability to violate the laws of physics by retrieving bits of data from someone's brain.

There is a rational explanation for how he is able to do the things he appears to be doing -- but he's not interested in sharing it with you. That would be going too far.

"I'm an honest liar," he said, explaining the universally accepted credo of his profession. "Deception is the tool of my artistic medium. I'm here to fool you. If I didn't tell you first, I'd be in advertising or politics."

His explanation is subtle, but one worth wrestling with to better understand the fascinating world illusionists travel in.

"I'm trying to do mind-reading illusions in the same clear context that we do magic," he said. "When you say 'magic,' you're really stating the social context. You're saying: 'I'm going to fool you,'" Mr. Swiss said.

That's not the same as claiming to have special powers, he added. "When an audience sees a magician passing a hoop around a levitating woman, they understand it is a trick, even if they don't know how it's performed. The magician doesn't have to state the obvious.

"Once you're playing with illusions of the mind, it's not so clear," he said. "Many performers try to exploit that. When people see someone apparently 'read' someone's mind, we know less about the methodology.

"The biggest ally of lousy mentalists is the audience's willing suspension of disbelief," he said. "Unethical mentalists prey on the audience's willingness to believe. I don't think that's very interesting or ethical."

An example of an "ethical" magician who does amazing things without claiming to have special powers is illusionist Criss Angel, a flamboyant young performer who has his own cable series.

"[Criss] says 'I'm here to deceive you. That's my job,'" Mr. Swiss said of his young colleague. "If you equivocate about having psychic powers, you're actually dabbling in very cheap religion."

As much as Mr. Swiss deplores the dishonesty of some in his craft, he is equally contemptuous of scoundrels like the Masked Magician, the renegade who exposed other magicians' illusions every week until his show was canceled.

"The problem with [him] is that he's only putting [technical stuff] out there. After a while the audience goes 'this is dull.' That's why they aren't flocking to the library to get all those free magic books that are readily available," Mr. Swiss said. "It's like reading a computer manual. Nobody cares how a computer works; they just want to play games," he said.

"As long as the claims of the performer are ethical, it isn't my job to say anything other than 'great show.'"

Jamy Ian Swiss is equally passionate about the long-standing relationship between magicians, rationality and critical thinking. The title of tomorrow's afternoon workshop says it all -- "Science, Magic and Skepticism: A Natural Relationship."

"The first book ever written that included magic instructions in English was a book called the 'Discovery of Witchcraft' published in 1584," he said.

"It was a book written to debunk the witch burnings. It explained illusions. It was written a few years before King James took the throne [in England]. When James became king, he ordered all copies of the book burned."

Magicians D.J. Grothe and Rick Maue will be giving him a hand. The workshop is sponsored by the Center for Inquiry. The performance tomorrow evening at the Science Center is called "Heavy Mental" and has an age restriction: no child under 8 will be admitted.

Mr. Swiss is up front about what the audience's attitude should be: "Come prepared to be deceived."

For more information, go to centerforinquiry.net/pgh.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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