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Photo: © Sarah Van Looy

Unveiling the Vanishing Lady Illusion: Intersections between Theatre Studies and Media Archaeology

In the mesmerizing world of nineteenth-century magic, stage magicians wielded mirrors, trapdoors, tables, projection, and giant cups to astound audiences with the disappearance and reappearance of women and children. This lecture traces the origins and evolution of this captivating illusion from the early nineteenth century, with a particular focus on the pivotal roles played by women performers and media technologies in shaping this trick. Beyond merely reflecting the gender dynamics of the magic realm, the Vanishing Lady embodied the paradoxical nature of modern secular magic—a performative practice that simultaneously conceals and exposes its own mediality.

Media artifacts are not mere dead remnants but tangible traces of past interactions between living bodies and technology. In the hands of present-day collectors and researchers, these artifacts come alive once more. In this way the facilitate a shift from linear historiography to the exploration of forgotten events, untold stories, and overlooked media users. This dynamic interplay between past and present reshapes our understanding of media history, emphasizing the significance of live encounters in the ever-evolving relationship between performers, audiences, and technology.

My contribution will not only unearth untold stories from theatre and media history but also advocate for the development of a framework that enables theatre and performance studies to actively contribute to and engage in media archaeological excavations. By integrating performance into the cultural histories of technology, this interdisciplinary exploration will bring into play the crucial condition of liveness. The inherent live quality of media-based magic performances in turn necessitates an interdisciplinary lens, considering both their material remnants and their discursive traces.


Nele Wynants, Ph.D., is research assistant professor focusing on the interplay of performance, media, and the history of knowledge at the University of Antwerp (ARIA). She has published on the popularization of science, technology and visual media in theatre and popular culture in the period 1800–1914 and on contemporary interactions between art and science. She is the principal investigator of the EU-funded project »Science at the Fair: Performing Knowledge and Technology in Western Europe, 1850–1914« (www.scifair.eu); member of the Board at B-magic, a research project on the magic lantern and its impact as visual mass medium (www.B-magic.eu) and member of the Young Academy of Belgium (Flanders). As editor-in-chief of FORUM+ (www. forum-online.be), she is also involved in research in the arts at various Flemish and Dutch Schools of Arts.