When the ground becomes sand – an interview with Stuart Nolan

It all began with a trick that his dad never did. And, ever since, Research Magician and NESTA Fellow Stuart Nolan has continued to chase impossibilities...

By: Amie Knights,   4 minutes

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It all began with a trick that his dad never did. And, ever since, he’s continued to chase impossibilities.

Research magician, NESTA Fellow and Applied Magic graduate, Stuart Nolan, collaborates with others to apply techniques, tools, and insights from the arts of performance magic to a variety of other creative arenas including architecture, installation art, visual design, game design, software design, media and sport. He’s worked with everyone from LEGO to the European Commission, the BBC Innovation Lab to the V&A and many more besides. But what really makes this trickster tick? And what’s all this about weighing our imaginations? I tapped into the magician’s mind and subsequently had my own blown.

In his TedX talk Not my Dad’s Best Trick, Nolan remembers (or imagines, as it happens) his dad performing a trick when he was 5 or 6. A trick he apparently never did. So when I asked whether it was science or magic that first piqued his interest, there was no real competition. But it wasn’t just the tricks that captivated him – he also has strong memories of his reaction to it.

“What I recall feeling was a very physical sensation,” he explains. “I remember a logical thing happening and then a very illogical thing. And when this illogical thing happened, it wasn’t just something that was illogical in my brain, it was something my whole body experienced.”

Ever since, he’s been fascinated with the way people physically react to magic, including his own performances. “Sometimes they scream, sometimes they clutch their chest. Sometimes they cry. It’s as though the ground suddenly becomes sand.”

His interest in this bodily response has peppered much of his research and performances. It’s something I hadn’t really thought about before. To me, magic has always been something I’ve linked with the mind and psychology, not the body. So the question of why we gasp or scream or run away from a trick left me tongue tied. But Nolan’s explanation makes perfect sense; it’s a kind of shock that occurs in certain kinds of magic. A sort of mirroring is your body’s way of learning. So if you’re watching a body and your body is copying it, and then that body does something your body can’t follow, it’s like hitting a brick wall mid run – all of a sudden you’re at a stand still and more than mentally, you’re also bodily confused.

“Sometimes they scream, sometimes they clutch their chest. Sometimes they cry. Its as though the ground suddenly becomes sand.”

This interest in bodily response led him to develop the IdeoBird device a magical, mindreading creature – on his iShed project at Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio. Held gently in your palm, the IdeoBird can sense the small subconscious movements of your hand and arms and so divine your secret choices, hidden intentions, preferred directions, and buried desires. Through delicate movements of wings and tail, it will lead you to any object you are thinking of, wherever it may be in the room, building or city. Through this incredible device, Nolan explored the cognitive science of the mysterious ideomotor response, and create a subtle biofeedback Brain-Computer Interface to manipulate the unconscious and create an enchanted and unique magical performance.

Having spent much of his career in the way you expect more magicians to – alone – Nolan has been relishing the perks of working freelance on collaborative projects. Having more than one mind specialising in different aspects has allowed him to expand his shows and also led him down new paths. But there’s one difference between a magician’s mind and most others – the search for the impossible. “Often when I work with designers, I have to design impossible things.”

Now I don’t know about you, but when brainstorming ideas I’m aiming for something that will work. As soon as an idea becomes impossible, it’s written off. Not in Nolan’s world.

There, it’s the impossible that is always being chased. It’s not about making the impossible happen, he explains – it’s simply about imagining the impossible. “It’s like the technique writers use called ‘morning papers’, where you write three pages in the morning. You’re not supposed to think that there’s anything in it, you’re just writing. We change that slightly. We draw six boxes for six cartoons, telling a six frame story. I ask people to come up with impossibilities; six impossible things before breakfast.”

“Within a week of someone suggesting that there might be a link between attention control in magic and attention control in sport, I was sat in a room with Sir Clive Woodward.”

The way he works has changed over the years, and so has the way he generates and sifts through ideas. Having worked in universities as a research fellow for some time, he had to be a lot more logical and planned about what he did. But freelancing has given him a lot more freedom to operate “an awful lot more on whim”. And this whim has lead him to great places – like working with Olympic athletes. “Just within a week of someone suggesting that there might be a link between attention control in magic and attention control in sport, I was sat in a room with Sir Clive Woodward.”


Being guided by whim can also be quite scary, but Nolan uses Keats’ idea of negative capability to reassure us. “Keats mentioned that negative capability is something that poets and artists need to have; it allows you to be OK when everything is chaotic. It’s the ability to not freak out, just because nothing seems to fit right now. It’s the ability to carry on without, what he called, being irritable, reaching out for meaning.” A reassuring thought – and a skill I’ll be attempting to hone in the future. 

This hunt for the impossible has lead to the creation of things seemingly impossible to most – magic. And at Raft, Nolan will be demonstrating the intricacies of our minds and our bodies (our bodily responses to experiences) as he uses his research and performing prowess to weigh our imaginations – unveiling the real capability and possibility lying within us all.

>> Join us on board the boat on 3 October.

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