The Many Sides of David Blaine’s ‘Above The Below’


Please note – this post presumes that the endurance feats described did actually happen and were not fundamentally an illusion themselves, and also does not comment on the moral aspects of an unnecessary starvation for no particular cause or officially-stated reason. If this is a problem, I suggest thinking of it as a story about an interesting fictional character who is perhaps trying to convince the world of the illusion that he actually exists.

New York-based American magician and illusionist David Blaine was born in 1973 and grew up in Brooklyn, spending most of his childhood fatherless and very attached to his Russian- Jewish-descended mother. At 4, he saw a magician performing magic on the subway and a lifelong fascination was sparked. Always ‘a strange kid’, he felt isolated from his peers, a classic loner who allegedly once shut himself in a closet for 2 days to test his endurance, needed braces on his inturned feet and suffered from asthma. He found through magic a way of gaining popularity, just as other famous misfits such as Orson Welles and Woody Allen had before him. He moved to Manhattan at 17, dated Madonna at 19, and got his first T.V. special in 1997, called ‘David Blaine’s Street Magic’. It gained attention not only for Blaine’s ‘loping charisma’ but also for the fact that it tended to focus as much on the reactions of ordinary people on the New York streets as on the tricks themselves, these reactions transcending colour, social status and other social divisions.

In 1999, he began to perform endurance stunts, which appeared to be a sideline to his career as a magician and ‘illusionist’, a term never quite defined (or particularly applicable to Blaine) outside the obvious illusion of magic itself.  His first stunt involved entombing himself in an underground plastic box underneath a 3-ton water-filled tank for 7 days with nothing but water to sustain him, a feat he found so difficult that he immediately got himself a ‘seven days’ tattoo after he’d finished. He declared himself ‘a changed man’, the solitude and pain having radically altered his perspective. As with his street magic, people of all walks of life surrounded him and became interested in the spectacle. In 2000, he encased himself in a massive block of ice for nearly 3 days, this time confined to a standing position as well as the other deprivations and discomfort. On this occasion, the stunt’s finale was televised but cut short when Blaine appeared to lose his mind temporarily and was cut out of his ice prison. In 2002, he was lifted by crane onto a 100-foot (30-metre) high and just 22-inch (half-metre) wide pillar in a park, where he stood for nearly a day and a half with only 2 retractable handles on either side of the pillar as a lifeline should he lose his balance (In fact, Blaine was battered by high winds and unusually cold weather for the month of May). Unlike the previous 2 stunts, this one had a specific finale. Barely able to feel his legs, Blaine finished by jumping down onto a platform of cardboard boxes, which had been constructed towards the end of his time atop the pillar. All 3 of these events happened in New York and all followed a similar pattern of Blaine surviving deprivation, receiving water through catheter tubes and other devices and finishing off being taken to hospital in a weakened state while being filmed by the media and cheered by adoring fans.

In recent years, he has performed more stunts of varying effectiveness, all in New York, such as being submerged in a water-filled sphere for a week and then attempting to break the world breath-hold record, being shackled to a spinning gyroscope for 52 hours before jumping 30 feet onto a wooden platform, spending 60 hours hanging upside-down (in fact, he briefly stood every hour for medical checks) before a ‘dive of death’ that went wrong due to adverse weather after the finale was delayed for a speech by President George W. Bush, and a rather ludicrous stunt where he was atop a pillar wearing a conducting suit that came in handy since 7 Tesla coils were discharging one million volts of electricity on the pillar through the 72 hours Blaine was there. The repeating pattern of Blaine pronouncing prior to the stunts that he is ‘cheating death’, not eating prior to and during the stunts, and the finale of hospitalisation and a closing speech to his adoring and cheering fans, has become repetitive and boring. Blaine has also been criticised for his love of celebrity and seeing no problem doing magic to and hob-nobbing with such dubious characters as Henry Kissinger and the aforementioned President Bush. However, between the ‘Vertigo’ pillar stunt and his more recent events, he did his one and only endurance challenge in London, which he called ‘Above The Below’, an event I personally found interesting and worth discussing and writing about and which involved Blaine isolating himself in a box for 44 days with no food and only pure water.

Once again, I’d like to stress that there is a possibility that this was an illusion, and in addition there was undoubtedly a rather silly celebrity/reality T.V. element to it. However, anything can potentially be learned from, and Blaine’s writings while in the box and comments during and after the stunt, as well as my own observations, may make for thought-provoking reading. The box was plexiglass and just big enough for Blaine to stand up or stretch out, with about 1 foot of wiggle room lengthways and 3 feet across. The box was suspended 30 feet in the air attached to a crane near London’s famous Tower Bridge. He brought a couple of blankets and numerous small items, including one which I’ll mention at the very end which may hold the key to Blaine’s motivation. He went in the box on Friday 5th September 2003 and came out on Sunday 19th October, both events filmed for T.V. specials as was the entire stunt, captured by a webcam which offered 24-hour access to Blaine, who ‘slept with the light on’ throughout the stunt.

Here is a short video giving a flavour of the stunt.

The public reaction was a mixture of titillation, as they found yet another alternative to sitting in front of the television, bemusement, cynicism at the apparently dubious authenticity of the stunt when practised by an ‘illusionist’, and a certain degree of anger and hostility. The great British public and others in the capital threw various items at the box, usually eggs which made quite a loud sound as they smashed into the side of the thin glass, and one joker used a remote-controlled mini helicopter to dangle a hamburger

tantalisingly close to the starving Blaine. Women bared their breasts at him and men their behinds. Unlike his other stunts however, this one was extremely long, just shy of a month and a half, and those with shorter attention spans soon grew tired of it. So, Blaine just lingered and the power of nature, physiology and psychology began to take hold.

The Physical

Starvation is a process, and as the body experiences low energy intake, it enters into a series of metabolic modes which miraculously serve to reallocate resources and defend the body by buying it time before it finds its next food. When we’re eating normally, we use as our main fuel source glucose produced by the body breaking down the energy molecules known as glycogen after each meal. The stored energy is allocated to the brain, muscle tissues and red blood cells, this glucose-burning mode normally lasting around 6 hours. After glycogen stores have been used up, the body turns for energy to fatty acids, which also miraculously fuel the brain after being broken down into ‘ketone bodies’. In this metabolic phase, the body’s required level of glucose drops considerably. After about 3 days, all the body’s cells start to break down protein which releases amino acids into the bloodstream that are converted by the liver into glucose to maintain brain functioning. This stage involves your body cannibalising itself by chewing away its muscles, which then start to waste away. In a nutshell, your body eats through its fat, muscle and tissue in order to supply the brain with glucose, a little like a chess player sacrificing their pieces in order to protect the king. The extreme deficiency of vitamins and minerals profoundly weakens the immune system, and death can come from infection or from a heart attack brought on by tissue degradation or severe electrolyte imbalances. Sensibly, David Blaine had stocked up on fat reserves and looked distinctly chubby when he entered the box. At around 20 days, he reported a taste of pear drops in his mouth, which was the taste of the aforementioned ‘ketone bodies’ produced by the body’s burning of fatty acids. Skeptics noticed some bloating in Blaine’s stomach, which caused many to doubt that he was genuinely starving himself, but in fact the metabolic starvation phases can involve an enlarged liver causing a bloated stomach. Blaine survived, looking remarkably weak and having hardly moved for the last 3-4 days, his blood volume sharply decreased and his heart having shrunk. After arriving back from his perspex prison, he was weighed and found to have lost 24.5kg, over a quarter of his original body weight, and his BMI had dropped from 29.0 to 21.6. The refeeding process was delicate, involving first liquid food, which caused Blaine stomach cramps and a sleepless first night, then finally solids. After the stunt and before refeeding, Blaine allowed doctors to take blood samples from him to be used for research into vitamin deficiencies by those in the nutritional medicine field. The results were published by The New England Journal of Medicine, thus providing a functional value to the stunt.

The Mental

David Blaine is a person who always looks either very happy or very intense, at least in public. Through the ‘Above The Below’ event, he smiled a lot, often to himself, and appeared in good humour. However, he also displayed the obvious effects of the kind of extreme isolation that 44 days in a box entails, despite being physically so close to vast crowds of people, a curious ‘so near but yet so far’ situation. We have to add to that the effects of starvation on the brain and try to find what causes what.

Firstly, studies in starvation have found that this alone can bring about both relatively mild effects like increased irritability, apathy and lethargy up to full-blown depression, hysteria and severe emotional distress. There is also the undeniable fact that virtually all food eaten in urban areas is in the broad sense ‘processed’, so there is the ‘drug withdrawal’ factor to be considered, as I found myself when I experimented with a diet of 80% raw food a few years ago. Add to that the sheer strangeness of not eating, and there is no doubt that it has a profound effect. After a few days of initial trauma however, there is also a sense of calm, which has been mentioned by Blaine and also Christian Bale, who took on the extreme diet of one cup of unsweetened coffee and an apple or can of tuna a day for 4 months for his role in ‘The Machinist’. I myself felt the same during my diet, suffering pangs and withdrawals initially and then finding the truth that industrial food and the modern diet was as much a habit and a comfort as a genuine source of nutrition.

Regarding isolation, the magazine ‘Psychology Today’ states that human contact plays a similar role to food in that we function better and are instinctively drawn to it. Of course, some prefer ‘alone time’ more than others, and spiritual practices like meditation and religious faith can undoubtedly provide an alternative to external contact, often more effective in fact because the spirit tends not to have the kind of specific needs and wants that often compromise and limit person-to-person interactions. However, isolation will in some people expose them to increased stress hormones, erosion of arteries, high blood pressure and diminished learning and memory. There is also an emptiness and ‘breakdown’, a word and concept which usually has negative connotations but is actually encouraged as necessary by those who have experienced spiritual awakening, either sought or inadvertently found, for example Eckhart Tolle, the author of ‘The Power of Now’. In a sense, it is the same ‘no pain, no gain’ ethos that those in the field of physical health and exercise constantly espouse. Deprivation of both food and human contact simultaneously will no doubt heighten the senses by removing the ‘dulling’ and overwhelming aspects of both processed food and mundane human interaction. David Blaine told Dr. Powell-Tuck, who supervised his refeeding programme, that he had had mystical experiences while watching the dawns and sunsets from his lonely vantage point. As is detailed below, the deprivation leaves a person open to things without distraction, and from the list of books Blaine has quoted from and recommended to others on his website, it’s clear that he’s the kind of person naturally drawn to heightened awareness and experience.

Performance Art as reflection of culture

‘Performance art’, along with its cousin ‘conceptual art’, is a broad art form covering a vast range of areas but in many cases centres on a direct and changeable relationship between performer and artist, often provoked and expressed with little direct coaxing by the performer and with a totally open forum to create or continue this relationship. Many scoffed at the notion of this stunt being ‘a performance piece’ because Blaine was essentially doing nothing but waving, drinking water, writing in a notebook and on the inside of the box and occasionally having conversations (and a game of chess) with those in the crowd below. The main devotees cheered when he got up to do some stretches and urinate, reflecting the modern culture of cheering ‘heroes’ for mundane acts, and this element was ripe for criticisms of its ridiculousness. However, performance art is about provoking reactions, and the fact that Blaine’s inactivity maddened some in the crowd to the extent that one tried to cut off the pipe supplying him with water may tell us something about modern culture’s nervousness about apparently ‘doing nothing’. Of course, Blaine was actually doing a lot, watching the crowd and their reactions, meditating, reflecting and writing. Perhaps the crowd could have asked themselves why they needed to be constantly entertained. As a person who has twice taken silent 10-day meditation retreats, I can attest to the fact that doing nothing for long periods of time nowadays is remarkably difficult but worth it for the insights it can bring in a person so inclined.

Another way that this ‘performance’ was effective was in reflecting certain aspects of the British character. By nature, or perhaps cultural conditioning, British people tend not to like lofty pronouncements, such as the aforementioned ‘performance art’ claim and Blaine’s other comments about his ‘love’ for the crowd and the exercise as a ‘spiritual journey’, a phrase that the self-help book genre has successfully reduced to a fatuous cliché. Whether there was any racist element to this ‘Yank’ coming over and garnering so much attention is open to question, though some of the insults I heard yelled late on a Friday night on my one and only visit to the site did include references to his country of origin.  As the stunt went on and Blaine clearly weakened, a more heartwarming British trait of sympathy for the underdog took hold, and most of the original detractors either stayed away or begrudgingly commended his endurance. The hysteria on his release from the box was a curious and quite inexplicable thing, while his ‘rock star’ status to some young girls in the crowd was strange but more understandable. One very young lady caught his stinking blanket when he threw it down to the crowd just prior to the box being lowered, and clutched it to herself while being interviewed, saying she’d never wash it as she wanted ‘David’s smell’ close to her. (This girl is now in her late 20s, one wonders if she still has the blanket or if she’s at least washed it!).

A changed man

I always thought that David Blaine was simply trying to survive this stunt in order to prove to himself and maybe others how much a person can tolerate and survive, so I was surprised to hear him say, about 30 days into the stunt, that ‘I’m learning in here’. Suddenly, the spiritual aspect made sense, as he found what those on meditation retreats find after a few days and many hours without obvious stimulation, namely that a new perspective appears. You suddenly find how utterly meaningless and absurd most of life is. Are the things you own important, or is your home ‘a museum for your stuff’, as author and educator Dayna Martin has observed in many houses? Is your career important? Perhaps at the time you’re in it yes, but in the film ‘About Schmidt’, the recently-retired Jack Nicholson goes back to visit his former workplace a week later, perhaps thinking that they are somehow falling apart without their ‘valued employee’ of 20 years or more. Schmidt instead finds that his young replacement is already fully-trained and the company has quickly moved on, his 2 decades of service reduced to a memory in a matter of days. Blaine wrote down a lot of his observations while in the box, unfortunately declining to publish them, but he will have found that the magic of sunsets, sunrises and smiling faces is only a cliché because of overuse, and that connection with nature and others is probably the greatest source of happiness available to us in this realm. The opinion I’ve just given almost certainly has a name, a label, but names and labels appear to be a protection against direct confrontation of an idea that appears to be challenging but ultimately true. The courage to confront the possibility of something profound and go through the pain to find it is for me the ultimate personal reward in life.

After a week or so of recovery, Blaine rushed fairly quickly back into his hectic modern life of money, celebrity, glamorous girlfriends and his 2 mobile phones, happy that he’d written down everything he learned because he’d already started to forget it. Like many charismatic characters, he is a contradiction, an innately spiritual person embracing shallow celebrity, said to be irritable with subordinates and as prone as anyone to attention-seeking. Perhaps our British equivalent is Russell Brand, who is also charismatic, slightly mysterious and straddles the line between profundity and absurdity. The claims that Blaine’s motivation was purely money were well-countered by him pointing out that he could have made the same money doing a few magic events at high-profile dinners and events rather than starving and freezing in a lonely box. Blaine certainly likes to take things away from himself, such as food, space, privacy and even air, to achieve an end that is familiar to some but may be something unknown to the man himself and always just out of reach. He gave a TED talk about his endurance activities in 2011, focusing particularly on first the preparations and then the throbbing, tingling, ear-ringing, heart-jumping rigours of his record-breaking 17 minute (oxygen-assisted) breath hold, and broke down at the very end as he remembered that place he went to, where the pain is unbearable and you simply have to relinquish control.

Perhaps the key to it all lies in one of the few possessions David Blaine had in his perspex prison – a picture of his late mother, Patrice Maureen White, who died when he was in his early 20s. He’d always been close to her and regarded her as something of a saint, a single mother who took multiple jobs to keep food on the table for her children. She’d suffered a long bout of painful cancer that ultimately killed her, and David had watched her accepting her fate and her condition for months on end without any anger or bitterness. Was he perhaps playing out his version of this as a kind of sustained bout of grieving? Perhaps.

some interesting links: – street magic – David Blaine and Moonlight Sonata –  David Blaine TED Talk