Illusionism and Technology: Notes on Interactivity and Deception


Session Title:

  • Virtual Illusion

Presentation Title:

  • Illusionism and Technology: Notes on Interactivity and Deception



  • The subject of the lecture is the development of some techniques related to illusionism and their social and psychological effects on the audience in general and on the spectator, in particular.These illusionistic techniques and theories are invading the concepts of today’s discussion about interactivity and virtual reality.

    Starting from the Baroque age — when certain political and cultural shifts drove to new models of communication, both in the artistic and political realm, based on the idea of continuum space where spectators couldn’t avoid feeling integrated within the urban and architectural scenario – the idea of spectacle has developed as a tool for social powers to channel their policies and to avoid critical approaches to them by the audience-public. Not in vain, those shifts happened due to important scientific changes and discoveries: from the baroque time, science and tools are no longer separated.

    Illusionism, as we know it today, began to take shape in the XVI and XVII centuries. In the art world, the increasing importance of visual tricks, such as anamorphosis, trompe-l’oeil, infinite architectural perspectives, etc, defined the new approach of artists to the idea of reality and to the idea of subjective perception. These techniques and cultural approaches are part of our cultural reading and social behavior nowadays. Benjamin, Foucault, Debord and other social researchers have explained it already.


    On the other hand, sleight-of-hand, conjuring, prestidigitation were the forerunners of current spectacular and representational techniques like photography or cinema. As a matter of fact, most of the first developers of cinema were illusionist before they adopted cinema as the ultimate trick. The appearance of cinema engines was directly related to the mechanisms used by magicians to perform their seances. Cinema, and afterwards, the efforts to turn original screens into wider screens – such as the Panorama or the Cinerama during the 50’s and 60’s – enlarged this old idea of evolve the spectator in a total spectacle, forcing him/her to become unavoidable part of it.Television’s perceptive techniques have always focussed this issue as a main topic. Cable and interactive television seem to reinforce this idea.
    Magic is based on the idea that the trick can never be seen by the audience. This is the main guarantee for the success of a show. Moreover, this idea is based, in its turn, on the fact that if people knew or saw the trick the whole spectacle would be gone overnight. Magic only shows the results, the outcome, not the trick. The whole idea of the spectacle relies on the idea that the public itself don’t want to see the trick; they are in front of the stage to get the illusion, not the mechanism that creates it. Digital technology today is based on the same optics. Mechanical technology was abled to be understood by the general audience. But not digital technology, which is only dealt by high-skilled technicians. People just use it, but without understanding it. The outcome is visible, but no the internal process behind the screen. In this sense, digital technology and magic are intimately tied up.
    Virtual Reality environments represent today the latest application of this techniques. Not only in psychological terms, but also in scientific ones, since one of the approaches to VR by scientists and programmers, for example, is the very idea of “anamorphosis7o create a world where the spectator is an essential part of it, legitimating the very function of the machine, seems to reproduce this institutional will of incorporating the public in a dream that don’t belong to them, given that it’s been programmed in advance, following certain patterns, external to the very idea of the engine.With this, the paper doesn’t want by any means to demonize technology of VR in itself, but to raise several questions that can be useful in developing a critical sense of this fast-growing, evolving and interactive technology.

    The lecture will trace an historical perspective of the techniques and theories of “interpassive” illusionism, from the Baroque Age to now, crossing boundaries with magic, political institutional projections, the birth of modern spectacle and the rise of interactive technology, with the aim of describing how the spectator has always been targeted to become part of the social representation, with the danger of losing any critical perspective.