David Blaine Preps for ‘Electrified’ by Getting Hit With Tesla Coil Currents
How does David Blaine prepare in the days before being encircled by 1 million volts of electricity, emitted by seven Tesla coils, for 72 hours? Only by getting hit in the back of the head by said electric surge of course.
“So in the last rehearsal, the visor that they put into the helmet to protect my eyes from the UV electromagnetic radiation — which will cause corneal abrasions and possible blindness — was put in wrong,” Blaine told Wired.co.uk, the night before the Electrified stunt’s Oct. 5 launch at Pier 54 in New York. “So when I lowered it, it snapped on my nose drawing some blood, and then my head jolted backwards and touched the actual wired helmet, which is pretty exposed. The electricity arc hit me right in the head, almost knocking me out so we had to shut it all down.” The jolt left a bloody mark, but no Harry Potter lightning bolt scar, sadly.
And what does it feel like to get sucker-punched by a Tesla coil? According to Blaine, “like somebody is punching you as hard as they can at the back of your head.”
“Normally when I get electric shocks [an everyday hobby for us too, Blaine], it’s usually some sort of magic trick and it’s a shock. But this was different.”
The stunt will be Blaine’s reprisal of the endurance feats he’s best known for, the last one being his 2009 Dressed for Dinner dive with great white sharks (for your day’s bizarreness hit, check out this clip of Blaine puffing down on a Cuban while monsters from the deep circle him). From 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 5, the magician will stand atop a 6-meter-high platform, wearing a 12.25 kg chainmail Faraday bodysuit and helmet that conducts the electricity, thus protecting him from the volts. Aside from the visor, he’ll also have noise-canceling headphones to protect him from the noise, a tube to suck water through and a catheter to urinate.
According to his doctor, Stuart Weiss, the main danger (aside from someone putting him in mortal danger by fitting the suit/helmet incorrectly again) will be exposure to the nitrous oxides produced by the plasma (generated by the electricity separating electrons and positive ions in the air). He does, however, also have a ventilation system, so he should always be breathing fresh oxygen. So, really, since all possible dangers have been taken care of, what it comes down to is: Can he stand still for 72 hours?
“Part of it is actually what you’re saying — standing in one place without sleeping, no food, wearing 27 pounds of chainmail and trying to make it through that,” Blaine told Wired.co.uk. “The other part is that it’s an environment we normally shouldn’t be in. It’s like when I did the dive with great white sharks — you’re in this part of nature where you don’t belong, and the brain sends signals saying you shouldn’t be here. But, at the same time, it’s beautiful and intimidating. Anybody can do these things — it’s just for how long.
“It would be really effective as torture — keeping somebody awake for 72 hours, extremely loud noise, extremely bright lights breaking the circadian rhythm, plus standing on a small pillar, plus no food. Psychologically you have to override something to get through it, but we all could.”
Beyond the spectacle and drama of it all, the project stems from Blaine’s desire to instill the pure sense of wonder, fascination and curiosity that science and art instilled in him as a child.
“My mother was a teacher and when she wanted to show me art and literature and science, she’d take me to museums, parks and free exhibitions. That’s what I like about doing things in New York — you give it for free and then kids can come and see it like I did.
“I used to go to Coney Island and see somebody doing something that was unexplainable or unique, and I would wonder about it, which led me to find people like P.T. Barnum and Houdini. In a strange way, I’m trying to recreate that same thing that made me imagine or wonder as a little boy. Somebody who wants to see something different, interesting, scientific or mystifying can come look and then ask questions — research is so easy on the internet, now you can find out what a Tesla coil is, alternating currents, a Faraday suit.”
This is where the coil’s inventor, Nikola Tesla, comes in — Blaine describes him as a “Ben Franklin kind of a guy” who “created reality out of impossible ideas and invented things that people thought would never exist”.
Tesla had been on Blaine’s mind for a while, appearing on a postercommemorating a decade of his endurance feats along with four other historical figures he admires.
“He was always in the background, I just wasn’t sure what to do. I started thinking about ways to create something that was similar to that plasma ball I loved when I was a kid, where the electricity goes to my finger when I touch it. So I decided to make a big version using seven Tesla coils around the perimeter of the sphere, then they would shoot into the middle.”
Blaine refers to Tesla as an “artist/inventor/magician.” It’s this same crossover between science, art and magic in Blaine’s endurance feats that explains his fascination for them and his idea of how they fit into a magician’s repertoire. He says, as far as he knows, no one really does endurance spectacles, comparing it to Houdini’s introduction of the escape routine as a new form of magic.
“There’s another part of me that likes to do things that are real, I like the endurance angle. As a kid I used to hold my breath longer than anybody else, and then I heard stories about people accidentally underwater for 45 minutes — how do you recover from that? It’s not a miracle. Something allows us to survive. Then I found free divers were actually doing eight minutes. Something like that feels like real magic — but there’s no deception to it, it’s just learning the formula to how to make it possible.”
Blaine says most magicians he knows like the “maths, science and logic side of things” and, for him, on top of this, it is of course the crowd’s reaction he enjoys most.
He might regret this come the event kickoff. The public will be able to control the sound and light intensity of the Tesla coils via laptops set up at the pier — Electrified is a collaboration with Intel, and the coil frequency and current is controlled via their Ultrabooks.
Control stations will also be setup in Beijing, Tokyo, Sydney and London (at the Truman Brewery from 7 p.m. on Oct. 6). Blaine says he’s “prepared for as much and as little people want to give,” and if singer Andrew WK’s words are anything to go by, everyone will be cranking it up to full. “I’m absolutely electrified and terrified by the opportunity to play a keyboard solo with so much energy, and to use this incredibly powerful device to send a musical surge through David’s brain,” WK told Rolling Stone. The musician will be controlling the coils via his music on Oct. 7. “I just hope he can withstand my high-powered party piano playing.”
The public can also tweet Blaine messages, which he says he’ll try to answer (presumably he’ll be fed the messages via headphones and have a microphone). Apparently the coil intensity can be increased the more people tweet #Electrified, and “special features” will be unlocked after 10,000 uses. We’re hoping that means we can control the platform stability.
If Tesla coils don’t rock your boat, join us in speculating what his next feats will entail. Blaine told Wired.co.uk to check out the four other historical figures featured on his poster for clues: Steve Brodie, Hadji Ali, Harry Houdini and Chan Canasta. Now, one of these figures supposedly threw themselves off Brooklyn Bridge in the 1880s and survived, and another was best known for swallowing foreign objects and regurgitating them in an order chosen by the audience. We know which one we’d like to see, and he also went down in the history books for swallowing kerosene and water before acting like a human flamethrower and fire extinguisher, respectively. Fantastic.