Have you ever been seized by the historical weight of an object? Experienced an incomprehensible bond with an artefact? Or feel that a thing was silently questioning you? Suddenly, the material does not appear as inert as it should be, but it has something. A soul, perhaps? In this article, researcher Thibaut Rioult takes you on his quest for "charged objects".
On the eighteenth and nineteenth-century fairground, a place full of oddities and marvels, fascinating objects could be found. The carnival barker called the public to come and see the wonders of talking heads, fortune teller machines, stuffed monsters, exotic props or new technologies. These living objects were neither true nor false; they appear to be 'charged' with an obscure part that perplexes the spectator. Welcome in the realm of wonder!
My encounter with a charged object
In my research "Charged Objects: Performing the Soul of Things", I explore the mysterious life of things in history and contemporary performances. Like many research projects, mine is also rooted in a personal experience. In the 2000s, when I was a 10-year-old boy, we went on a family vacation to England. As a game collector, I bought an old cribbage board in an obscure antiques shop. This board had the enigmatic inscription "3/9 – Princess Alice – 1878" on the back.
A first inquiry only raised many more questions: on September 3, 1878, the Princess Alice steamer sank. It was the worst waterway shipping accident of UK history with more than 600 losses. Further investigation revealed that there was an English tradition to use the wood of boat wrecks to make objects like boxes or bindings.
This led to a fascinating conclusion: this cribbage board was not only symbolically linked with, but is concretely and mysteriously the Princess Alice steamer itself. However, why someone decided to make a cribbage board remains a mystery until today. Objects are the secret keepers of the past. This discovery taught me that some objects sometimes have a secret (hi)story to tell, in the shadows of History.
Fantastic Illusionism, or make illusionism magic again
In the same years, reading about English mentalist Derren Brown was a shock that prevented me from doing magic in the classical way. Indeed, by conditioning magic to a true "experience of wonder" he broke with the traditional repertory of illusionism. Reflecting on what could be real magic, he proceeded to a merciless selection of materials, props and effects: the magical wonder or nothing. However, Brown’s very modern conception of magic – disconnected from magic traditions – left me unsatisfied.
Researching magical objects, I discovered by chance the Surnateum website. First it appeared to me as a wonderful repertoire of fantastic stories and objects that could be adapted into magic tricks. Only afterwards I understood that this was the website of the Belgian illusionist artist and collector Christian Chelman. He was exploring new ways of merging magic performances, storytelling and antiquities. As the founder of the Fantastic Illusionism movement, his goal was to recreate in real life the feeling of "the fantastic" inherited from literature and cinema. Combined with genuine objects, the illusionist effects performed by Chelman aim at achieving what I call "a meta-effect": suggesting the existence of a magical world, beyond ours.
Since then, I have been studying the potentialities of Fantastic Illusionism, combining my personal fascination for charged objects with my academic interest for all pioneer approaches of illusionism. Combining practice and theory, I’m notably engaged in a long-lasting artistic collaboration with Antoine Leduc (one of Chelman’s few students) and the Antre-Cave society: in performative hands-on experiments, we investigate the dynamic between objects, performer and spectator.
Performing charged objects to re-enchant the world
Concretely, as soon as the performer put an authentically magical object on the table, just in front of spectators, everything changes. The entire classical framework of both illusionism, objects theatre and storytelling are subverted by this special presence. The charged object is not a theatrical symbol but (at least apparently) a physical evidence of the supernatural. Recuperating the cultural codes of lecture, museography, documentary or scientific demonstration, the performer increases the "effect of reality" of his/her storytelling.
Imagine the curator of a strange cabinet of curiosities, who has been carefully collecting objects linked to magic, the supernatural or myths. Just in front of you, he opens a leather doctor’s bag from the end of the nineteenth century and takes out a mix of medical devices (e.g. a haemocytometer) and religious ones (e.g. a crucifix). Then, he carefully pulls out an old phial of dried blood and an eerie piece of a broken jawbone with a huge canine. A few phonograph wax cylinders remain in the bag, on which the doctor, "Schlemihl", has recorded a very strange testimony.
Lowering his voice, the curator begins to tell his story. He explains you how Schlemihl was implied in the discovery of blood transfusion. Then, he focuses your attention on a silver holy medal. He approaches it slowly to the phial and the jaw fragment. All of a sudden, something strange happens: the medal begins to tremble. Wait! Is the dried blood liquid again?
Convinced by the story, bewildered by supernatural phenomena, but anchored in reality by the objects, we enter the twilight zone between fact and fiction and experience the hesitation that characterized "the fantastic". Only one question remains: What dark forces did the doctor Schlemihl awaken in his desire to advance science? (Full story published in Chelman and Swolfs, Rhésus, Brussels: Brüsel, 1999).
Researching wonderworking objects' impact on performing
After having dedicated 10 years to the study of the history of illusionism, it was important for me to confront more contemporary performances. Indeed, my personal experience of these singular objects raised many questions. From this starting point, I decided to study the influence of objects on performances
My research interests resonated in many ways with the research at the University of Antwerp on early media, the magic lantern, science performance and spectacular exhibitions at fairgrounds. Driven by these common interests, we set up the project "Charged Objects" in the framework of the EU-funded project Science at the Fair.
I want to explore the objects as performing agents and the materiality of wonder in magic performance. We will discuss the questions raised by the insertion of objects between performers and spectators in a research symposium (20-21 April 2023). The research results will be published in a book. This way, we aim to develop a shared theoretical framework that could feed researchers’ and artists’ reflections.
A Promising Research Field
Of course, the research has to go beyond the specific case of Fantastic Illusionism. More interestingly, the illusion does not have to be perfect or incontestable: in 1842, Barnum kept the United States spellbound with his fake "Feejee mermaid", thanks to a complex performative communication strategy. Not always magical, charged objects could also belong to the realm of
- religious worship (like relics or masks)
- new technologies (with the invention of electricity, photography, the phonograph)
- natural science and curiosities (like wax figures)
- or history (testimonies of historical figures or events)
Breaking with the rules of daily life, these unnatural objects blur the border between reality and imagination. All fairground people and sideshow demonstrators mobilize different techniques to present their oddities, leveraging the curiosity of the public and tying it to the experience of wonder. Performers – becoming wonderworkers – fill the world with wonders and marvels and widen the perception of the public. Another world is always possible. As Plato and Aristotle already understood: wonder is the progenitor of thought.
However, as of today, there are still many grey areas I want to enlighten. How to stage and perform charged objects in order to create an emotional link between them and the public? Through this study I hope to help set up a new area for performance and to feed the contemporary creation.
Be ready, because after this project, you'll never look at objects the same way again!