Ahead of the premiere of ‘In Plain Listen,’ the artist joins Document to examine the meaning of her medium, and make a case for its potential for cultural prowess

“I can’t do Tuesday,” I texted my group chat. “I’m attending a magic show.” My message elicited an array of r u serious–esque messages and eye-roll-adjacent emojis. The cultural connotations of the event inhibiting my availability for dinner required justification. In the mid-1800s, my magic show plans would have carried the same prestige as an evening at the ballet, and would have required no social exculpation. But present-day understandings of magic call to mind on-screen witches and wizards, pay-by-the-hour birthday entertainers, and big-budget Las Vegas theatrics.

In its most technical sense, magic is defined as “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.” That apparently is what differentiates our fantastical understandings of magic from the actual craft itself.

Jeanette Andrews has been a practicing magician since she was four years old, but she is perhaps better-described as a performance artist—and that’s only because it’s hard for modern minds to associate illusion with art. Her practice really is rooted in magic, in finding and leveraging gaps in our realities to challenge perception. Magic isn’t supplemental to her art; it is her art.

Andrews’s understanding of magic is bibliographic—each of her musings weighted by academic studies, written and oral histories, and real-life experiences. In her hands, magic is a creative pursuit and a mode of philosophy. And she has accreditations from all angles: Siegfried and Roy sponsored her membership to the International Brotherhood of Magicians at just 14; her institutional collaborators include Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt, the International Museum of Surgical Science, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Her latest act, In Plain Listen, enacts the sensory anomalies that have solidified her reputation as avant-garde in the field. This time, she takes to the auditory, translating one of the Western world’s oldest magical secrets (pulled from Reginald Scot’s 1584 Discoverie of Witchcraft) into Morse code, from which, through a musical notation system she developed, she composed a cello arrangement. The sonic translation will be performed live by Iva Casian-Lakoš, accompanied by Andrews performing a sleight of hand illusion coded into it. And there will be fire.

Ahead of In Plain Listen’s June 6 premiere at the National Arts Club in Manhattan, Andrews joins Document to examine the meaning of magic, and make a case for its potential for cultural prowess.

Megan Hullander: In a field where secrecy is required, how do you innovate?

Jeanette Andrews: There are two major components to what I do: technical magic, and then performance art, sculpture, and sound art. Typically, the collaborative process comes with the [latter] pieces. All that to say, a lot of it is generally very collaborative.

Magic, as a technical field, is one of the few left that is still primarily shared, and handed down person to person and in print books. For example, In Plain Listen—the first written instance where we see the particular piece of magic [it’s derived from]—is from 1584. It was by a man named Reginald Scot, who wrote this epic work as a direct refutation of the Inquisition. It’s the first time we see technical secrets of magic actually written out in terms of, like, Move your left forefinger and your right thumb together. A lot of people [were] falsely accused in the Inquisition of various things, like witchcraft. Part of what he’s showing in this book was that some things that look supernatural, are actually technical skills. And that piece of magic [he outlined] evolved and evolved and evolved among magicians for hundreds of years. This is still how things function within the magic world.

One of my main mentors growing up [performed] this piece of magic in which he used a single spool of thread. It was one of his signature performance pieces, and he insisted that I learn it. I went through the history of the texts on this piece. And, obviously, my performance of it is completely different [from his].

Megan: At what stage did you introduce the interdisciplinary aspect of your practice?

Jeanette: I grew up very squarely within the magic performance world. I had been performing quite a lot—it was all I was ever doing, a million hours a day. When I was 11 or 12, a mentor of mine, Arthur Trace, made a passing comment to me: ‘You can use magic to express other ideas.’ And within the next two or three years, I started getting really interested in the history of magic, and its cultural positioning and evolution. I grew up in the ’90s when magic was the ultimate kitsch, which, truthfully, was very frustrating. I saw the technical back end of what I do, and how magic, within itself, is very interdisciplinary in a way that most people in the public don’t know. It’s very odd to be part of an industry where you inherently can’t talk about how complicated it is. There’s a lot of material science that goes into what I do. And there’s an insane amount of psychology. There’s a lot of writing, there’s choreography, there’s math, sometimes there’s engineering. Hundreds of things have to happen flawlessly under the surface that no one ever sees or knows about.

At the same time, I was getting really into philosophy. I was reading all these investigations into perception, ontology, and truth claims—and they were asking these questions through the lens of visual art, and contemporary dance and music. [I realized that] these same questions are at the heart of magic: How do we perceive an object? How do we have ontological commitments about things? How do we understand what is true or not? How do we form knowledge? So why is magic not viewed through the same lens? And then [I began exploring] how to re-situate magic within the cultural sphere, and how magic can function as an artistic medium through which to view these questions.

Megan: Because there is so much technicality to it, what does magic actually mean from your perspective? What’s its function?

Jeanette: Every second is mind-blowingly amazing in a way that we don’t truly experience, because we can’t. So much of magic is based upon mental shortcuts—how the brain adapts to experience. Like, the whole time we have been talking, until right now, I have been completely unaware of the fact that I’m sitting in a second-story building. There was an immense amount of engineering to be structurally sound enough to counteract gravity, to be supporting my body. That’s amazing. The fact that I can have thoughts in my mind that turn into vibrations, and go through whatever the hell the internet is, into the vibrations in your ear, into your brain. That’s a miracle. The fact that we are speaking and understanding each other—that there are thousands of things that are going into making that happen—is mind-bending. Magic, for me, is about trying to narrow in on the amazing components of our experience. Magic is an odd form. It uses the gaps within your experience to actively point out that you have those gaps.

“I saw the technical back end of what I do, and how magic, within itself, is very interdisciplinary in a way that most people in the public don’t know. It’s very odd to be part of an industry where you inherently can’t talk about how complicated it is.”

Megan: Those gaps sort of speak to the sense of innocence that’s broadly understood as necessary to experience magic. I don’t think innocence, in that regard, necessarily means inexperience or gullibility. But do you think that, to experience magic, your audience has to make a conscious effort to be open-minded to it? Or is it your job to dissolve psychological barriers?

Jeanette: Tamar Szabó Gendler, who is the dean of philosophy at Yale, has this concept of a cognitive state she calls alief, which I feel is really relevant to magic. Essentially, if you understand that you’re seeing a magic performance, there’s almost a mental frame: You’re seeing something through a very certain way that people have, for better or worse, cultural underpinnings to understand. Most people understand that what they’re seeing is some sort of skill, that it is a performance; if I make an orange appear or disappear on a stage, you understand what that is, as opposed to if I do it in the grocery store. Suddenly, that’s something else. Magic has this very certain sort of cultural trope that people are going to see it through. They understand that what they’re seeing is—to quote another philosopher, Jason Leddington—something that should not be possible, yet is happening anyway. It seems pedestrian, but it’s really not.

Alief is a cognitive state of rational understanding of one thing, with a sort of contradictory, visceral experience of another. Gendler’s most famous example of it is the skywalk at the Grand Canyon, that has a glass bottom. Rationally, people understand that it’s an architectural structure that had millions of dollars poured into it, and it’s not going to be there if it’s not safe. It’s probably safer than my neighbor’s second-floor back porch. But people walk out on that glass-bottom walkway, and clutch the sides, freaking out. When my neighbor’s walking out onto her unsafe back porch, she’s not doing that. We understand what’s happening, but we’re having a separate visceral response. And we’re holding these two cognitive states in the same time and space. It’s not cognitive dissonance or self-delusion. You’re aware of both. That’s essentially how magic functions.

Megan: Something that strikes me as unusual about magic, in the context of other art forms, is the singularity of the consumption it’s built for. Especially now, with streaming, when it’s more of a cultural norm to rewatch shows and listen to pieces of music on loop. How does that shape your positioning of it, in trying to elevate cultural understandings of magic to the same level as those mediums?

Jeanette: One of the things that is interesting about magic is that it, ultimately, is an ephemeral form, because you are seeing something that contradicts expectations and models of the world. Generally, there’s a feeling of—or, at least, there should be a feeling of—specialness to it: You saw something that happened in this very specific framework, and you’re not sure if it would happen like that again. If I hand a deck of cards to somebody and they shuffle it, statistically, it is basically impossible for it to be shuffled the same way twice, ever. It’s 52 factorial. There’s very much a feeling of, like, This has never happened before, and it will never happen again. I feel like that is one of the strengths of magic—that you’re not sure if something is replicable.