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Out of Body. Susan MacWilliam

I was invited by IMMA to respond to their exhibition, As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics, and to work with Alice Butler and Daniel Fitzpatrick of AEMI to develop a screening for the IFI in conjunction with IMMA’s Talks and Public Programmes. The resulting programme – Out of Body – features films by Maya Deren, Mairéad McClean, Jordan Baseman, Paul Sharits, and John Smith, alongside a selection of my own work. These films consider the psychic and physical spaces of body and landscape; they explore automatic, subliminal and unconscious states of mind. Multiple viewpoints, strobing, and repetition draw attention to our perceptual senses, and to the very act of looking, and of being observed.  Out of Body took place at the IFI on Tuesday 25 July 2017 and you can listen back to the introduction and discussion here.
I was commissioned to write a text to capture this curatorial process, my thinking behind the selection and my relationship with IMMA.

The end is the beginning is

Three years before the turn of the 21st century, and sparked by a television documentary, I became captivated by the activities of the séance room, ideas about the psychic medium as producer of image (ectoplasmic emanations etc.) and the role of the camera within the séance room as observer and document maker. The collision of the birth of modern spiritualism (1848) and the popularisation of photography fascinates me. It’s now twenty years since I first picked up a video camera and began using the fields of psychical research and the narratives of the paranormal, as my subject matter. My films have investigated materialisation mediums, ectoplasm, trance, hysteria, table tilting, clairvoyance and telepathy.

While I frequently present experimental and artist film to my students, this invitation has afforded the opportunity to screen films within a cinema setting and to work with AEMI and IFI to access work in a range of formats. I knew early on that I wanted to include Maya Deren’s Witch’s Cradle and John Smith’s Om, and these works became a starting point for our conversations.

 

We discussed which of my films to include and agreed firstly on Psychic Edit. Out of Body commences with this 14 second looping film as the audience enters the auditorium. The subject of Psychic Edit is the Irish medium Eileen J. Garrett. It features family movie footage and an image of Garrett’s smile. Garrett is said to have possessed a charisma that would warm any room she entered. Psychic Edit sets out to lodge images of this magnetic personality in the viewer’s mind. My friendship with Eileen Garrett’s family has opened many doors for me, and she has become the ‘glue’ that connects much of my work.

Webs, strings and interconnectedness

I first encountered Maya Deren’s films in 1999 when living in New York during my residency at PS1 Center for Contemporary Art. At the time, having seen very little artist film I was working within a limited context of knowledge. In New York I saw Nam June Paik’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, Martha Rosler’s solo show at the New Museum, and film and video programmes, curated by Chrissie Iles at the Whitney, that included Maya Deren, Yvonne Rainer, Gary Hill, and Bruce Nauman. Deren’s interest in consciousness and altered states resonated with me.

Shot in Peggy Guggenheim‘s The Art of This Century gallery, Deren’s Witch’s Cradle features as the central protagonist a woman, Ann Matta Clark, and a male figure, Marcel Duchamp. The landscape they occupy is littered with objects, sculptures and string. The female figure moves through the space as if trying to make sense of, or control the strange forms. Objects move as if by their own accord, by magic or via unseen forces; a string moves up Duchamp’s leg and across the nape of his neck. The words ‘the end is the beginning is’ encircle a pentagram marked on the woman’s forehead. I see strong visual parallels between Deren’s film and my film, The Last Person, which depicts the phenomena of the séance room.

Higher Beings Command

Sigmar Polke’s Higher Beings Command, a series of 14 lithographs exhibited in As Above, So Below, depicts both Polke and various inanimate objects taking on the form of other things. I find them peculiar and intriguing in a similar way I do the spirit photographs I’ve worked with in my own research. Higher Beings Command, Witch’s Cradle and The Last Person share sculptural and performative connections.

Psychic and psychedelic

Eileen Garrett is often referred to as the world’s most famous psychic medium. She was deeply inquisitive and supported many in the fields of parapsychology, literature and the arts. She was supportive of Maya Deren and her interests in the spiritual and the occult. Deren’s essay, Religion and Magic, is published in Garrett’s Tomorrow magazine (Haiti issue, Autumn 1954). Aldous Huxley was amongst Garrett’s eclectic circle of friends, and with him she experimented with LSD to see if it might enhance her psychic abilities.

Following our initial conversation Alice, Daniel and myself corresponded via email. I proposed a number of works and Daniel suggested Paul Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus. Alice and Daniel worked on the running order, and Alice was instrumental in the logistics of accessing screening copies from LUX, London.

 

Ray Gun Virus is a structural flicker film. MOMA, said of it, “…with films like RGV, LSD may become obsolete.” In the 1950s at one of Eileen Garrett’s Parapsychology Foundation conferences, the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond drew comparison between mediumistic experiences and those of patients under the influence of LSD. In the early 1960s, Brion Gysin, with Ian Sommerville, built the Dreamachine, a rotating cylinder with cut outs and a light bulb inside. Placed on a turntable and spinning at 78rpm it is viewed with the eyes closed. The light flickers at a similar frequency to Alpha brain waves. Gysin was fascinated in consciousness and perception and Eileen Garrett was said to have been of great influence upon him.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structural_film
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreamachine

Brion Gysin and William Burroughs with the Dreamachine. Photograph by Charles Gatewood
Brion Gysin and William Burroughs with the Dreamachine. Photograph by Charles Gatewood

Out of body

My first connection with IMMA was when I was there as artist in residence in 1998. Shot in the grounds and interiors of IMMA, Faint, explores ideas about trance, mesmerism and hysteria. When Faint was exhibited recently at the Swedenborg Film Festival, London, I had the sensation while watching it, that the girl in the film (myself 19 years earlier) could be my niece, and myself her aunt. This feeling of familiarity yet disconnect gave me a peculiar feeling of being ‘out of body’. Faint shares with Mairéad McClean’s State of Mind remix #4 the image of a female figure in the landscape. State of Mind explores whether experiences carried in our memory can come back to haunt us. A sense of anxiety is conjured through its use of imagery and sound.

Water, mist, smoke and ectoplasm

Landscape is concealed and revealed in Mountain Mist. The steam is echoed by the ectoplasm in The Last Person, by the wisps of smoke in Om, and the billowing smoke in State of Mind. Jordan Baseman’s intensely silent and intensely visual The Black Sea is visceral and bodily; it feels like a breathing organ. Baseman processes his 16mm film in buckets; the images of the sea materialising with the ebb and flow of the chemicals. The material physicality of this low-tech process is worn into the surface of the film. Baseman uses a fixed camera position as does Steve McQueen, whose Running Thunder, is presented at IMMA. In Running Thunder the dead horse no longer breathes, while the grass around it moves gently in the air.

The Black Sea, Jordan Baseman, 2010/2013, UK|USA, 3 minutes. Courtesy of Jordan Baseman and Matt's Gallery.
The Black Sea, Jordan Baseman, 2010/2013, UK|USA, 3 minutes. Courtesy of Jordan Baseman and Matt’s Gallery.

John Smith’s Om brings to mind the saturated photographs of Kenneth Anger at IMMA. Om plays with our sense of perception. It forces us to think about how we read an image, how we consider belief systems, and how we make judgments. Like magic, can we really trust our eyes and ears?

The end is the beginning is

The screening ends with The Last Person. For me this is where it all began. Made in 1998, this was my first film. It features me reconstructing the phenomena of the séance room and acting as the medium Helen Duncan, who in 1944 was the last person imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735. In 1998 it screened in First Cut, at the IFI (IFC), and the following year was nominated for the IMMA Glen Dimplex Artists Award. The circle has turned a full revolution as The Last Person returns to the IFI through an invitation from IMMA.

Out of Body – List of Films

Psychic Edit, Susan MacWilliam, 2008, Ireland, DCP, 14 seconds looped
[vimeo 146763776 w=640 h=469]
Learn More on susanmacwilliam.com
Witch’s Cradle Outtakes, Maya Deren, 1943, U.S.A., Digibeta, 10 minutes
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkMfRVaA6fs&w=640&h=480]
Learn more on lux.org.uk
State of Mind remix #4, Mairéad McClean, 2005, Ireland, DVD, 10 minutes
Learn more on maireadmcclean.com
Faint, Susan MacWilliam, 1999, Ireland, DCP, 4 minutes
[vimeo 146335465 w=640 h=480]
Learn more on susanmacwilliam.com
The Black Sea, Jordan Baseman, 2010, U.K-U.S.A., Blu-ray, 3 minutes
Learn more on jordanbaseman.co.uk
Mountain Mist, Susan MacWilliam, 2002, Ireland, DCP, 8 minutes
[vimeo 146487860 w=640 h=480]
Learn more on susanmacwilliam.com
Ray Gun Virus, Paul Sharits, 1966, U.S.A., 16mm, 14 minutes
Learn more on lux.org.uk
Om, John Smith, 1988, U.K., 16mm, 4 minutes
Learn more on johnsmithfilms.com
The Last Person, Susan MacWilliam, 1998, Ireland, DCP, 11 minutes
[vimeo 146335448 w=640 h=512]
Learn more on susanmacwilliam.com
With thanks to the artists and LUX for providing copies of the films.

Further Information

Upcoming IMMA & AEMI, IFI Programme

IMMA is delighted to continue its collaboration with Aemi Projections, when invited artist Vivienne Dick curates a screening programme to coincide with her show at IMMA. This takes place at the IFI on Tuesday 10 October 2017 more details are available here.

About the Artist

Susan MacWilliam’s touring solo survey exhibition Modern Experiments, which features her films, video installations and sculptures will run at Uillin: West Cork Arts Centre, Skibbereen from 9th September – 18th October, and at Butler Gallery, Kilkenny from 28th October – 17th December 2017.

Susan MacWilliam. Born in Belfast and currently based between Belfast and Dublin, where she teaches at the National College of Art and Design, Susan MacWilliam has exhibited nationally and internationally with solo shows in New York, Dublin, London, VictoriaB.C. Northampton and Derby. MacWilliam has worked with prominent parapsychologists and psychical research institutions, including poltergeist investigator William G. Roll, the New York family of Irish born medium Eileen Garrett and the Dermo Optical Perception Laboratory of Madame Yvonne Duplessis, Paris. She has worked extensively with historical archives including those of the Parapsychology Foundation, New York; Hamilton Family fonds (spirit photograph archive), University of Manitoba; Parapsychology Laboratory Records, Duke University; and Rhine Research Center, Durham, NC. Learn more about Susan MacWilliam on her website. 

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