BROOKE GLADSTONE: The presidency will be decided in four weeks. Syria is in flames and Spain is on the economic brink. But that’s not why representatives from the Associated Press, Reuters, CBS News, The Today Show, Time.com, USA Today and ten other news organizations filled a press tent this week on New York City’s Pier 54. No, as Bob discovered, they were onto something shocking.
BOB GARFIELD: That was the sound of electricity arcing around David Blaine, the human endurance virtuoso. He stood on the platform in a Faraday suit, named after the 19th century pioneer of electromagnetism. The get-up is basically 27 pounds of chain mail, a wire helmet and a pair of steel-plated work boots demonstrating the marvel of high-voltage, low-amperage alternating current conceived of in the 1890s by Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. [BUZZING] Just a quick zap or two.
This was a preview of Blaine’s attempt this weekend to stand upright and sleepless for three days, with a million volts of electricity coursing around him and mini-lightning bolts sparking colorfully outwards from his extremities.
[JOURNALIST TALKING IN BACKGROUND]
And the press was duly impressed, among them, Mohammed Awad [sp?], cameraman from Reuters Television.
MOHAMMED AWAD: You know, I think I covered David years and year, and I’m not first time cover him.
BOB GARFIELD: And is he still interesting to you, or is it just ah, another David Blaine?
MOHAMMED AWAD: No, it’s interesting. This, this story, amazing story now, with electricity, it’s really dangerous.
BOB GARFIELD: Ostentatious danger has placed David Blaine, famously, at the nexus of performance art and publicity stunt. Whether being frozen for nearly 62 hours in a block of ice or standing for 35 hours unsecured on a 10-story high pillar, or being dangled for 44 days in a Plexiglas box over the Thames, he knows how to attract attention. Though the media are supposedly wary of manipulation, in this press tent skepticism and world-weariness seem to have taken a holiday.
I spoke, for instance, to Sonia Rincon of:
ANNOUNCER: All news, all the time. This is 1010 WINS. You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.
BOB GARFIELD: When you got the assignment, did you go, oh? Or did you go, oh cool?
SONIA RINCON: The latter. I, I definitely thought it was cool.
BOB GARFIELD: Right. One quick follow-up question: Are you lying?
SONIA RINCON: No! [LAUGHS] I do think it’s cool.
BOB GARFIELD: But why? This, I inquired, of Terry Pose of Time.com. What do you suppose it is about human beings that we are drawn to sights of other human beings in extremis?
TERRY POSE: You know, just the classic freak show, like P.T. Barnum. We want to see people doing weird things that we wouldn’t do, and we want to look at them and almost like a zoo. You know, we want to put everything on display like that.
BOB GARFIELD: What if he dies?
TERRY POSE: It’d be really great news.
BOB GARFIELD: You mean, not great news, but great news?
TERRY POSE: [LAUGHS] Sure, yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s just assume Blaine will survive three days of zapping, just as he survived the block of ice, the perch on the 10-story-high tower and the 44 days imprisoned in Plexiglas. A few other questions remain, including the obvious one I posed to David Blaine:
BOB GARFIELD: Does your mother know what you do for a living?
DAVID BLAINE: For mothers, I think it’s good to bring the kids and explain to them, explain who Tesla is, explain why he’s amazing, explain what alternating currents are. How is this possible? Who’s Faraday? What is a Faraday suit? I think there’s a lot of good things that mothers could show the kids.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah-ha, so it’s not just dare-devilish, it’s also educational and interactive. Through the miracle of Internet streaming, people in cities around the world, even as I speak, are standing at installations of Intel computers and participating in real time.
DAVID BLAINE: You know, we have these computers, the Ultrabooks that Intel gave us to control the entire environment, so you can push buttons and you can affect the arcs, you can affect the power, you can affect the electricity, so –
BOB GARFIELD: Please touch Electrocution.
The idea was born at a Hollywood dinner party, where Blaine met Intel’s Johan Jervoe, where commenced a collaboration to captivate the world. The artist gets underwritten to do what the artist does, and Intel gets to promote its Ultrabook, the notebook/tablet hybrid that to date has failed to electrify the marketplace. The theme of the whole spectacle is Always On, referring both to three days of constant electrification and the Ultrabook’s ultra-long battery life. It’s a match made in heaven, so long as the Blaine-ness of the stunt doesn’t drown out the Intel-ness. But Jervoe said – no chance of that.
JOHAN JERVOE: The whole project is created with Ultrabook and is run by Ultrabook. I think you will see that the content that is created and how people are consuming and involved will get equal excitement on both David, obviously, him being, you know, the performer of this, as well as for Intel.
BOB GARFIELD: He’s probably right, although the dynamics of spectacle, public fascination and artistic desire aren’t always in sync. When I asked Blaine to muse on the attraction of his exploits, he invoked the Franz Kafka story titled, “A Hunger Artist.” It was about a sideshow performer whose talent was being locked in a cage without access to food for weeks at a time.
DAVID BLAINE: And he slowly starts to disappear. At the end of the “Hunger Artist” they’re all looking and nobody’s in there and nobody’s in there, ‘cause he’s dissipated completely [LAUGHS], but everybody’s there to see it.
BOB GARFIELD: Actually, in the story he’s still in there, but dwindling and dying and is eventually buried with the straw in his cage. By the time he dies, no one is there to see it. The crowds have long since lost interest. Happily, there’s no chance of that this weekend.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Magician David Blaine gives a preview of his most shocking stunt yet, using his body to conduct one million volts of electricity.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: He might not say much but David Blaine has an electric personality, and now the bright spark is planning his latest stunt.
SONIA RINCON: He’ll have a doctor monitoring him and EMTs standing by in case he gets electrocuted, which he says shouldn’t happen, as long as he doesn’t touch his face. Sonia Rincon, 1010 WINS at Pier 54 on the Westside.
BOB GARFIELD: In other words, it’s not just the Ultrabook battery and 72 hours of Tesla coiling. When a classic freak show is in town, the media too are always on.
[MUSIC/UP AND UNDER]
QUESTION: Are you worried that for – it was ice, it was water, now it’s electricity, that you’re gonna run out of places to be hungry and tired in?
DAVID BLAINE: I don’t think I can ever top this thing, I – ever.