(Photos by Bryan Derballa and Mike Belleme)
Last weekend I got majorly creeped out by David Blaine. That’s not to say he acted like a creep by trying to teleport his finger into my anus or anything like that; our hour-long conversation on the ground floor of his offices in Chinatown was nothing but cordial. Still, I left with a feeling of unease.
I had come there with the intention of discussing ELECTRIFIED, David’s new performance piece that consists of him standing inside what basically amounts to a massive version of one of those static electricity balls you used to fondle in Spencer’s Gifts in the mall way back when. As I write this David is being blasted by bolts of electricity produced by seven giant Tesla coils situated around him on a metal trellis erected on Manhattan’s Pier 54. I’ll probably be chided by some smarmy art Nazi for saying this, but I don’t think what Blaine does is all that different from much of Marina Abramović’s work. They both rely on testing the limits of the mind, body, and audience. It would be shortsighted to label David as just a magician. In fact, he may be the only person in the world who stood at chance at outlasting Marina during her 2010 MoMA retrospective-cum-paticipatory-staring-contest The Artist Is Present, which might be why he considered ending the performance by ax-murdering her.
Before the interview David tried out a few new card tricks out on me, all of which were inexplicable and made me think he was reading my mind (or was at least capable of moving so fast my eyes couldn’t track it). Things got especially weird when he asked me to initial a card with a permanent marker, erased it while it was in my possession, and then transferred those initials to a completely different card that he had asked me to think of but not say aloud. It made me feel strange.
By Monday evening, David will have been standing inside this static-electric monstrosity for a total of three days and three nights—72 hours—eating nothing, forgoing sleep, and peeing through a catheter tube while roving packs of curious onlookers gawk and point. There’s also the mysterious Monday-evening finale that has been advertised. What’s more, the event will be live-streamed throughout its entirety.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must point out that VICE helped facilitate ELECTRIFIED’s funding through its creative services division via Intel, and while I and other editorial staffers are frequently asked to write about branded content we usually deny these requests. I wanted to meet this guy.
VICE: You’re what, 39 now?
David Blaine: Yeah.
When’s your birthday?
April 4th. When’s yours?
Whoa. [David rolls up his T-shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo that bears the numbers 1, 2, 3 in a vertical line.]
1, 2, 3. What is that to you?
The day my mother died. It was the most important day of my life other than my daughter being born, which is January 27th.
Does January 23rd have any other significance?
It was a day that changed the way I thought about the world.
Your mother died shortly before you started really gaining…
She died before I’d done anything, but she already knew.
She had no doubts about doing whatever I wanted to do. She was very confident and supportive and believing.
And she passed on January 23rd?
Yep. Her death was tragic, but that day was very important in many ways. And I believe she lives stronger than ever now. So it’s not like the end of her actually being there, because she was so incredible, she was so amazing, that it’s like she’s everywhere at all times.
It seems that you have a different relationship with death than most, which makes me wonder: What’s like your life-insurance policy like these days?
I just got it. I needed it protect my fiancée and my daughter.
Yeah, I just activated it last Friday. Usually I insure each stunt, but now I’m just getting life insurance.
I bet that was fun to work out.
Man, it was expensive.
How does an agent even begin to draw up a policy for someone like you? Was it solicited?
It was a nightmare. No, I had to go and approach them.
I laugh when I picture an insurance agent drafting up paperwork to cover “standing inside a field of 1 million volts of electricity for three days without food or sleep.” I was doing some research to see how much you had spoken about the conception of “ELECTRIFIED,” and came across an article in Interview where you say that your experience swimming with Great Whites, when they glided past your eye, was like standing next to a bolt of lightning.
Did I say that?
That’s funny. It’s been in my mind, yeah. The way I had wanted to do it originally was I wanted to be in the center of a plasma ball; I wanted it to be like Hellraiser, because I knew to get the electricity to come off you would need a point. So I imagined a bunch of pins coming out of my face, and people could touch the exterior of the glass ball and the electricity would shoot into their fingers. But then in research I found out to do that you’d have to be in a vacuum, so that wouldn’t work. Then we found ArcAttack, and I said, “Can we make it in a huge sphere [with Tesla coils]? And can we do a bunch of them? And can we have them all pointing to the middle?” It’s like the high school science project I never got to do.
How have the tests gone? Does it make you feel like Thor?
It was like being in the water with the Great Whites; it was that same exact feeling, because you are in the middle of something that feels beyond your control. It’s like everything your brain has wired itself over millions years to stay away from, and you’re suddenly in it. Your brain functions in a different way because you’re overriding your impulses. It’s like being in a part of nature you’re not supposed to be near. I said, “I want coils shooting from all directions into the center, and I’ll stand in the middle and go for as long as I could possibly stay there,” which I estimated to be 72 hours. The longest I’ve done was 63 hours and that was in the ice, and it became a nightmare.
In the press leading up ELECTRIFIED, a professor at MIT was quoted as saying the concept wasn’t very dangerous. He’s 69 years old and was like, “I’d do it.” What did you make of that?
Well I think he’s thinking about it in terms of like, “Yeah, I’ll get in there.” But I don’t think he’s thinking about the accumulative effect over 72 hours. So it’s like, “Yeah, I’ll get in there,” but it’s a little different. It’s like, would you actually put your granddaughter in there for 72 hours? And his answer would be, “Under no condition, circumstance, or anything in the world would I do that.” So therefore, it is extremely dangerous, but accumulative. And it’s only dangerous if something goes wrong. If everything goes fine, it’s not dangerous. But anything can go wrong; there are so many variables.
Which falls in line with many of your other performances: testing the unknown.
Obviously it’s never been done before, but we do have the best team—a competent one that I believe in. You know, I told them all of my concerns. I spoke to all of my favorite scientists and doctors and physiologists out of NASA, and got as much feedback as I could.
And you’re wearing this chainmail suit, a Faraday suit, which allows the current to flow around you. I imagine yours has gone through quite a few iterations.
Yeah, it’s been changed a bunch.
But the actual electrical current isn’t necessarily the most dangerous aspect, correct? Its byproducts could be far more harmful.
Well, you can only be in an electro-magnetic field for such a great length of time before ozone radiation kills you. Radiation can have long-term effects in as little as two hours. Tesla discovered the X-Ray because he was like, “Oh these arcs can actually penetrate matter and create an image [left behind by the radiation].” There are things like UV and corneal abrasions—which will make you go blind—that could easily happen. Or something could happen in ten, 15, or 20 years from now as a result of the radiation, and that’s the real risk. It’s the unknown we’re not prepared for. And, by the way, the neurons and electrons that control your brain are going to be shooting differently because you’re in an electro-magnetic field.
What was the longest you were able to stay in there during testing?
Every time we’ve done it we’ve had to shut it down.
Things that were completely wrong. They had to shut it down at some points—clear the warehouse. Technically, I hope that guy from MIT is right. I pray that he’s right.
Do you believe it’s the most dangerous thing you’ve done?
I personally think it is, because with the others--aside from me being out on the pole--if something went wrong they could solve for it. With this one, it’s like you don’t know what happens at the end of three days or ten years from now.
ArcAttack specializes in making musical Tesla coils, and part of this performance involves a rotating cast of musicians performing on MIDI instruments that can “play” the coils. Where did that idea come from?
John DiPrima made the first musical coils. I thought it was a really cool idea. Over the course of three days and three nights, it adds some variety. I thought it would be a nice break for the people.
Does your mind go to another place during these feats of endurance?
You have to. You’re forced to. You put your mind elsewhere and imagine that you’re in some other environment. The problem is that paranoia starts to come in, and then the brain starts to have dreams while you’re awake. So your eyes are open and you’re dreaming. It’s similar to a nightmare, but you can’t tell if you’re awake or sleeping. The line gets blurred.
Like lucid dreaming?
It would be like if you were having nightmares and dreams in your eyes right now, right here. So maybe I’m like doing weird things in front of you, or I’m appearing on that side of the room, melting into it. You don’t know, “Oh God, is this really happening, or is my brain doing this? Am I going to return to normal, or am I going to be in this place forever?”
Sounds sort of like I’d imagine hell to be.
Well it’s not necessarily hell. It’s like a fantasyland that gets scary.
Any hints as to what you’re thinking up next?
I want to build this tour; I want to build this show—the same way I did with Street Magic—and bring it to the people. So it’s not like they have to fly to Vegas to go see a big magic show. I’d rather bring it to people across the country, and then across the world.