Insure Against “Loss of Mystery”

Our Museletter contributor this month is long-time Magic & Mystery School member Byron Gray. Byron addresses a subject at the very heart of magical performances – mystery – and shares how we can reclaim this powerful concept and bring it into the lives of those we entertain.

“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” – Francis Bacon 

For this month’s Museletter I’m going to tie some loose threads together from my previous Museletter entry, and my recent appearance on Mystery School Monday. And then, I have a question and an idea for you.
After appearing with Franklin Williams on episode 675 of Mystery School Monday, I received a question about my fictitious insurance company “Newling & Grey” that insures against “loss of mystery.” What’s that all about?
In 2006, U.K. artist John Newling created the “Preston Market Mystery Project.” Newling set up a stall in an outdoor market in Preston, Lancashire. In three days, he  collected 280 mysteries from curious market-goers. Their personal mysteries touched upon strange coincidences, paranormal encounters, lost items etc. In exchange for their mystery, they received a jar of coins, and a certificate insuring the recipient against  “loss of mystery.” 

A sample of some of the mysteries collected

This was only one phase of a three-phase project, and the details leading up to this project in itself would make for a great read and inspiration. But “why?” In the book The Preston Market Mystery Project, Newling states: 
“In each (mystery), the human instinct to give reasons and to try to rationalize the event is evident. It is a primary instance of survival to be able to detect causality…in a society that has profoundly moved towards the audit of our activities. The market place seems a fine context to sell insurance against loss of mystery.” (Newling)  
Please keep in mind that this was published in 2008 before the social media boom and “the big blue machine” that is Facebook and Meta! “The audit of our activities.” Eek! 
Fast forward almost a decade. I was practicing giving answers for a classic Q&A act, and I was just not happy with my feelings about it. (I’m also in Wyoming, and trying to sell this act to local markets was not panning out.) When I heard about this project, the idea of being a trustee of my audience’s mysteries appealed to me, and so I thought that revealing mysteries as a Q&A act would be a compromise.  
Being the ethical person I am, I felt I needed to get Mr. Newling’s blessing to elaborate on his initial premise. Much to my surprise, he gave me an emphatic “Yes” (and a few other arrangements to make sure he wasn’t forgotten.) And so, “Newling & Grey” was born! 
To date, a handful have “collected on their policies” in their time of need. Their personal mystery is a reminder that in the darkest of times, a light can be found in the form of something inexplicable that happened to them.

The 281st Mystery

The Preston Market Mystery Project was one of the books mentioned in my previous Museletter entry regarding favorite books, albeit very vaguely, so now you have the  complete story! So, with all that preamble, I’d like to touch upon two ideas concerning “mystery.” 

1. Ask yourself “What does ‘mystery’ mean to me?”

Sometimes asking Google and ChatGPT this question might leave you cold. Great! When that happens, you must dare to look inwards and find the answer yourself. We’re all magicians and it should come as no surprise that we are in the “mystery  business.” We are the ambassadors of mystery. We’re supposed to be that most welcome wrench in the cogs of the mundane machine. Asking yourself this question can help inform your role and your approach to magic.

2. Become a Trustee of Mystery!

You certainly don’t need to go to the lengths that I have to be a “trustee of  mystery.” A fun exercise for creating new presentations (and in turn giving your viewer a slice of mystery) is writing down all the wonderful mysteries that have happened to  you. Now, ask yourself if you can replicate that mystery live through a similar magical effect.  

Three of these mysteries are in my show and I consider them to be “forever pieces.” It’s in these performances that I hope my audiences will be consciously aware of  wonder and mystery in their lives (instead of looking down at their phones all the time). As you can see, mystery means a LOT to me!  

Until next time, may your lives stay filled with mystery. 

– Byron Grey 

Newling, John. The Preston Market Mystery Project, Harris Museum & Art Gallery, 2008, p. 15.

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