Close-Up With Jonah Babins
If you met Jonah Babins, you would probably think that he’s just your average mathematics major who hangs out way too much in Jeffrey Hall. If you looked closer, you would also find that you’re very wrong.This is the nature of the relationship between a magician and a spectator, and in this case, Babins really is a magician and mentalist (as well as a Jeffrey Hall dwelling mathematics major).
We’ve all had encounters of some sort with magic and illusions, but it’s not very often that one comes across a person who is capable of magic beyond your typical store-bought party trick. With “Coincidence”—his first show in Kingston— fast approaching, Babins sat down with MUSE (at Jeffrey Hall, of course!), and offered his unique and inspired insight into the seemingly impossible world of magic. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to it than pulling rabbits out of hats.
What sparked your interest in magic?
My uncle did enough magic to impress his nephews and nieces but never performed any shows. I was totally taken aback by him; he was pulling coins out of my ears, and for my kindergarten “show and tell” I brought in my uncle. From that point on, I’ve been doing magic. I started falling in love with magic as kids do, and have since unraveled all of the interesting ways that it relates to regular life, and mirrors our surroundings. That’s what has kept me in it.
Describe a typical magic show by Jonah Babins. What kind of magic do you perform?
Most of what I do is walk-around magic, or what’s called close-up magic. It’s done in front of a spectator. The spectator takes part in it;, they use their hands, they have a conversation with me. That’s how I’ve grown up learning magic. I’ve done magic shows here and there, too. I’m getting into being able to reach large crowds, and it’s been a really cool experience doing magic in a different setting, and relating to the masses as opposed to a single person, or a few people. I’m just now getting into the idea of giving everyone a miracle, and not just a small amount of people.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Magicians do something that musicians also do, and we call it by the same thing: it’s called “jamming.” For magicians, jamming is comparing moves, tricks, ideas and psychology—you discuss and learn from each other. I’ve had the opportunity to do that with high-profile magicians from around the world, and especially high-profile magicians within Canada. Toronto is an awesome city for magic. Browser’s Den is a cool magic store in Toronto, and a lot of magicians jam there. There’s also a magic summer camp that I went to called Sorcerer’s Safari. The guests that come in to speak at that camp are world-famous, and I’m now a staff member there. Those are two places that I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with high-profile magicians. These are the places that I find my inspiration.
Magic seems to be so rare, and yet you mentioned to me that it’s an art form that’s written about all the time. Why do you think that is?
Magic has a very important quest for knowledge. The books published in magic are immense. The discussions are huge. It’s this quest for knowledge and the ability to discuss in-depth subjects with people… the learning process is so attractive to me, because intellectuals are the kind of people that I want in my life. Because you’re doing impossible things, there needs to be answers as to why you’re doing it, and what you’re intending your audience to believe. Some magicians really want their audience to believe they have mystic powers. Some magicians want to be a bit more honest with their audience members. There’s a lot of writing on the subject, because there’s so much learning involved with it magic. Magic being secretive isn’t so exciting to me. But magic requiring effort, study, discussion, and intellect is a very attractive property.
What do you believe makes a “good” magician?
I believe that what makes art, art, is its ability to leave someone thinking. In my opinion, this is why some abstract art is the most incredible. If you get people talking, you’ve created meaningful art. Or if a film leaves you asking questions … that’s art. This is something that I’ve worked out for a long time. A big question about magic is whether or not it’s an art or a craft. All signs, in terms of practice, point to craft. But my definition of art is how I validate good magic being an art. Good magic is an art. But not all magic is.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about magicians?
One misconception – which I don’t hate, and I’ll explain why—is that when I tell someone I’m a magician, they say something like: “My four-year old son would love that!” or, “My seven-year old niece loves magic!” It’s not that there aren’t magicians out there targeting a younger audience, but people assume that magic is innately childish. It’s partly out fault though. We refer to magic as tricks… and what are tricks? Tricks are practical jokes, or the act of fooling people. That’s not the image of magic that I want be portraying. I do my best, and I avoid the world “trick” because I think that it puts people in the wrong mindset about what I do. But to explain why I don’t hate this misconception: I’m okay if people think lowly of me before seeing what I have to offer. I would rather people be delightfully surprised by me, rather than see exactly what they expected. I’m happy to change people’s misconceptions about magic being a children’s game.
So I know that you’re majoring in mathematics. How do you think this aspect of your life interacts with being a magician?
The two ways that math and magic relate: the first is from a creative point of view, which is that for a mathematician you are solving problems. And high school math doesn’t show this, but higher-level math – you learn that there’s not necessarily one way to solve every problem. There’s creativity in math in how you approach a problem and how you begin to solve it. In magic, it’s the same way but the only difference is that the problems are innately impossible. What you are solving is an impossible thing. To put it simply: David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear, which means that at some point in his life he must have said: how do I make the Statue of Liberty disappear? That to me, is very cool. The relationship between taking something and solving it go together very well. I think that I am better at both of them [magic and mathematics] because of each other. All I do with my life is solve problems. They’re both very much channels for that. Another way they relate is that for both math and magic, you’re either an insider or an outsider.
I think I fall under the category of being a total mathematic outsider.
Right? You either get math, and you feel like “Yeah, explain something to me and I can figure it out.” Or you look at math and think: “This is gibberish for me. This is nonsense.” For magic, it’s the same thing. Rarely do people look at magic and think: “I get this.” You’re either a magician, or a spectator, right? I think the duality of those two things is very interesting. Most importantly, about this idea of the “insider,” is that both math and magic have a sea of knowledge, study, written work, and history—and all of those things make it so hard to be an insider versus an outsider. I think that’s really cool.
And what about the relationship between acting and magic? I’ve seen your close-up magic, and I can tell that you’re a true performer.
Magic is acting. I’m pretending. There’s a famous quote by Robert Houdin, and he says: “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” It’s a really accurate point, because even if the character that you are as a magician is yourself, you’re still someone. And just like a character in any play, you need to be a whole, well-rounded character. Magic is no different. You need to decide what it is you’re trying to say, and who is saying it. Innately, if you’re doing magic, you’re an actor.
Okay so tell me about your show coming up next week. What can audience members expect?
This show is all about your mind and your emotions, and which one of those to trust in the magic of your everyday life. We don’t know that we experience magic, because either our mind or our emotions tell us otherwise. The most simple example is this: When you’re sitting in your car thinking of a song, and it happens to be the next one on the radio. Some people blow that off as a coincidence, and others will never forget that kind of moment. I’m not saying whether it’s one or the other. What my shows presents is a very open channel for people to make that decision for themselves. Also, I will tell you that there will be money on the line.
How are you prepping for the show?
I need to get a really good feel for the answers and the actions that I believe the audience will take. For that, I need to do a lot of thinking, surveying, and research. But there are absolutely things in my show that are left to chance.
Does that scare you?
It absolutely does. For some of them, I have all of my eggs in one basket that they will work out. In terms of how I prepare – I start deciding what it is that people are going to do, and how I can get them to say the right answers and do the right things, with the least amount of push.
Do you feel like you’re giving away too much there?
What I’m doing is mentalism. You won’t see any doves appear, or ropes changing length. What’ll you’ll see are people making decisions, and for all intents and purposes, those are their decisions. And you’ll know those are their decisions because I’ll give them an opportunity to change their minds. Yes, I’m telling you in advance that I’m trying my best to pre-determine my show. But I’m also telling you that at any point, if someone feels that I have forced them to do something, I’ll give them the option to change their mind. That’s what makes this a real magic show.
What about the design of the show—how do you structure a magic show?
Structuring a magic show is like writing a play, or telling a story. All of the rules that playwrights follow, magicians follow too. The show needs to develop, and thoughts need to become increasingly interesting. It can’t get less impossible. It needs to make a statement, and say something.
As a magician, you get to experience the feeling of completely shocking people, and blowing their minds. A lot of people can’t say that they’ve ever genuinely been able to do that – to leave someone in true awe and wonder. What’s that feeling like for you?
It’s awesome. It’s awesome to give someone a moment of astonishment, and to allow someone to witness something impossible in your presence. To me, it’s important to remember that I’m not the cause of it, but rather the channel or catalyst that has allowed them to experience something magical— I don’t fool people. When someone is having a magical experience, I do whatever I can to eliminate myself from the equation. I need to be there to allow it to happen, but when they’re experiencing a magical moment, it would be rude for me to tell them how it was happening. I would be robbing them of that experience.
So for those interested in performing magic: where is a good starting point for beginners?
I have two answers. The first is: go to Browser’s Den and tell them Jonah sent you (laughs). And tell them why you want to do magic. And tell them you want a book, and that you want to read and learn about magic. If you buy a trick, you’ll do that trick and know only one trick. You’ll be a trickster, and you’ll be feeding into the misconception and not learning what magic is. When you start magic, you do have to start by doing silly tricks. But you have to decide how it is you want to portray your magic. You will not be able to start magic as an all-knowing magician. But it’s important to be well studied, as it is for any subject with intellectuals and a lot of literature. If you’re starting magic, you do have to start small.
My second answer: find a mentor and learn from them. Chat with them, have conversations. To not stand on the shoulders of giants would be a great waste of your time, in any subject.
Last question: I know that a magician never reveals his secrets, but in one sentence, could you tell me something secretive about magic?
In one sentence, I can’t tell you how anything works. But in terms of insider information, I can tell you this: the magician designs magic in the best interest of the spectator.
Check out the Facebook event for Jonah’s show at BLU Martini here, and make sure to grab your tickets before Monday: https://www.facebook.com/events/1565862923689083/
Abi Conners, Creative Director
*this interview has been edited and condensed.
Photograph by Sahib Purba