Performing art combines magic and psychology

Jean-Christophe Celestin and Chris Kwong are practitioners of mentalism, performing art which combines magic with psychology

Mentalist duo We Are Confidence's Chris Kwong and Jean-Christophe Celestin say they are conmen.
Mentalist duo We Are Confidence's Chris Kwong and Jean-Christophe Celestin say they are conmen.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAY

They say that with magic, seeing is believing.

In the midst of this interview, mentalism duo Jean-Christophe Celestin and Chris Kwong correctly guessed a number on a die (it was two) chosen by this reporter.

Sure, one could chalk it up to a lucky guess or a question of probability. "Women usually choose even numbers and men odd numbers," Celestin, 34, says.

But they also correctly guessed the name of this reporter's loved one, which was written on a card and then put away.

The pair - together, they form We Are Confidence - are practitioners of mentalism, a type of performing art which combines magic with psychology, giving the illusion of mind-reading or psychic abilities.

Their name is a reference to confidence trickster - with an emphasis on the "con", they say. After all, Kwong, a Singaporean, and Celestin, an Australian, unabashedly admit they are conmen. They will be pulling the wool over audience's eyes in their show - The Dirty Room Project (Extended) - at Canvas, a nightclub and creative space in Upper Circular Road, on Sept 24.

Despite somewhat blowing this reporter's mind just minutes before, the duo maintain that they want people to develop a sense of healthy scepticism and not readily accept what they see.

Kwong, 27, says: "We tell you that we're going to lie to you and then we lie to you. We hope it makes us honest people."

One technique they employ is cold reading, using powers of observation - such as reading body language and asking a series of questions to invoke certain reactions - to appear to know more about a person than they actually do. This, they say, was how they knew which number this reporter had picked.

It is a technique they say that people who claim to be able to read minds - such as psychics - use. Employing the same method, they hope to make the audience question the alleged abilities of these people.

We Are Confidence's act, done solely for entertainment, also involves magic tricks, storytelling and showmanship.

"We take real science and push it with trickery to exaggerated lengths," says Kwong.

While they did not want to furnish details about their upcoming show, they reveal that "from the moment people walk in, everything is planned" and "everything comes together in the end".

The show, which runs for about an hour, involves a lot of audience participation as well.

An earlier iteration of The Dirty Room was performed at the Esplanade's offbeat Flipside festival in June. All six slots for that show, which was not ticketed, were fully subscribed.

Celestin, who is from Sydney, got into magic after receiving a magic kit when he was 12. He became interested in mentalism five years ago and moved here after marrying a Singaporean.

Kwong performed his first magic show at age 13, having grown up with cousins who were magicians. The bachelor studied psychology in university and tried to fuse what he learnt with magic.

He and Celestin formed We Are Confidence about 11/2 years ago, after the latter's brother-in-law saw Kwong's show and suggested they meet up.

Initially, their acts as a duo were confined to YouTube and they gained popularity with a series of videos titled Celebrity Mind Games, which featured Singapore celebrities having their minds read or choices guessed. One video, featuring social media personalities Munah and Hirzi, attracted more than 83,000 views.

Earlier this year, the duo, who also do corporate gigs separately, appeared on the English-language variety show, Not The 5 Show.

As their shows expand in scope and scale, the pair hope to help elevate the status of magic, which is usually seen as a fringe or novelty act.

"Magic isn't considered an artform," says Celestin. "The We Are Confidence shows are what we consider art - we take our audience on a journey."

They say that during one performance, a member of the audience refused to believe that they had used trickery to perform an act, insisting instead that a higher power was involved.

Celestin says: "There are some people who, even if you tell them otherwise, they'll still believe in some sort of... ability."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline 'Doing it with Confidence'. Print Edition | Subscribe