An artistic gift that failed
By Christopher Michael Sullivan
I imagined myself as David Blaine skillfully performing street magic. Not so much the flashy Blaine frozen in Times Square, or the ripped, glowering Blaine who held his breath for 17 minutes on Oprah. I would be the benevolent, unfettered Blaine, the one who wields a simple deck of cards, and who then might suddenly, quietly levitate for an audience of one or two zaftig tourists on a boardwalk. The Blaine who doles out intimate acts like the transformation of a playing card’s color; a delicate trick that brightens the day of the few people fortunate enough to witness it.
As an artist, my deck of cards would be a paintbrush, and my trick would be the transformation of restaurant receipts into paintings. My magic would brighten the night of all the servers who stumbled upon it. It would be my gift to the service industry.
The trick was supposed to work like this. When dining out, after finishing my meal, I would ask for the check and hand the server my credit card. The server would return with a black receipt folder containing my card and the receipt. The server would see me take my card, sign the receipt, and leave. When the server came back to collect the receipt, she would discover that – magically! – the folder now contained two identical receipts: alongside the paper original was an exact replica, meticulously hand-painted onto the inside of the folder.
The term trompe l’oeil would earn its keep, as the dazzled server studied the painting, rubbed at it, and then realized they had been benevolently deceived by an artist with a subtle wit and masterful hand. The server would be inspired to share this miracle with coworkers and customers. “Gosh, it’s amazing – it’s actually painted in there,” the server would say, holding the folder open to those clamoring for a peek. “That’s not possible,” the other servers would say. “The date, the amount – they’re all just right! Who could have painted such a thing so quickly?” They would all spend the evening speculating who could have done such a thing, with more than one remarking, “I bet it was Banksy.”
I have spent the past two years performing this trick and can assure you that no one has mistaken me for Banksy. In fact, eight “receipts” have been dropped at establishments all around Portland and not one has conjured any excitement whatsoever. They have, without exception, been completely overlooked. After a cursory glance, the painting is mistakenly thought to be another receipt. The work of art, and the magic, are wasted.
My tragic magician’s tale began (as so many tragic tales once did) at the now-defunct White Heart Bar & Cocktail Lounge on Congress Street. Two things at the White Heart can be credited with inspiring this erstwhile artist to dabble in the art of illusion. One was the Monday drink special: half-priced bottles of wine. The other was a receipt folder that arrived at my table one Monday night. It had a Bollard sticker plastered on the back, to which my ego responded, “Why isn’t my name on a receipt folder?” My ego must have been thinking aloud, because the colleague with whom I’d been drinking replied, “How can you get your name on a receipt folder?”
Being a relentless self-promoter (visit christophermichaelsullivan.com) and credit card enthusiast, I was inordinately excited by this challenge. However, after some sober thoughts on the subject, I began to question my motivation. For whom would I be creating this work? The answer was: myself.
No stranger to hubris, I was not concerned about being perceived as selfish. In fact, most of my artistic projects during this period were unapologetically self-promotional (visit christophermichaelsullivan.com for some examples). I once set up a telemarketing call center, the sole purpose of which was to resell U.S. currency emblazoned with my name.
My concern with this project was that art, like sound, cannot exist in a vacuum. Art requires an author to make the work and an audience to experience it. While I do not apply many rules to my work, I hold this formula as sacrosanct. Furthermore, I didn’t want this act of art to be performed at anyone’s expense — I pictured servers peeling Christopher Michael Sullivan stickers off receipt folders all night — so I abandoned the branding and focused on ways an art experience can be a gift. This musing brought David Blaine to mind, and that’s when it hit me: street magic.
Over the course of several weeks and half-price bottles, I studied the rhythms of the White Heart, noting prices, the servers’ work schedules — even the time it took to pour and deliver a drink. I gathered all the information I would need in order to create a convincing facsimile of the receipt I would be given. Then I went to work in the studio, meticulously painting a receipt onto the inside of a folder just like those used at the bar.
After a week of painting, I was ready. With the folder concealed beneath my coat, I returned to the White Heart, ordered and drank wine, executed the switch, and left. A secret magician’s assistant, planted elsewhere in the bar, stayed behind to observe the server’s reaction. He picked up the folder. He entered the totals into the register. Then he put the folder on a stack of others behind the bar and went to take another order.
Maybe the White Heart was the wrong venue, I thought. Two more bars, two similar reactions. Two restaurants, two similar reactions.
Maybe it was a lack of complexity – perhaps the painting wasn’t dazzling enough. I made double receipts, folded and creased receipts, wine-stained receipts, stapled receipts. Nothing. The most notable response was, “Wow! It is really stuck down.” Each time, the work was tossed aside. The hours of preparation, the sleight of hand, and the artifact were all lost on their intended recipients. The work wasn’t received as art. It continued to be perceived as a receipt, and thus failed to manifest magic.
My action was the equivalent of installing Duchamp’s urinal in your bathroom and then being surprised and disappointed when you pee in it. I had performed a trick, but not an illusion. I could have anticipated the servers’ reaction had my formula been adjusted: Art needs an author to create the work and an audience that is ready to experience it as art.
Magic works the same way. It asks you up front to suspend your disbelief, preparing you for what’s to come. This is why David Blaine opens with card tricks before he levitates. It primes the audience to look for the impossible.
I opened my act with a bottle of wine – and primed my audience to look for a tip.