IMPONDERABLE, a film by Tony Oursler @MoMA
www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions: Imponderable is an immersive feature-length film inspired by Oursler’s own archive of ephemera relating to stage magic, spirit photography, pseudoscience, telekinesis, and other manifestations of the paranormal. Drawing on these objects, Imponderable weaves together a social, spiritual, and empirical history of the virtual image that overlaps with the artist’s own family history.
…and those histories together with related belief systems are episodically navigated in the film’s environment of five dimensions, among them, 3D space.
A popular stage illusion of the late 1800s, Pepper’s Ghost, is re-visioned as a film effect: 3D space visible to the unaided eye, materialized with present day technology and imagination.
Stylized performances eclipse a familiar approach to acting invoked and favored in many many films wherein actors impersonate human behavior, frequently called “realism.”
CDJ as Madam X
Imponderable abounds with artifice: A 2015-16 chapter in the artful stratagems that have inhabited such works as – L7L5 a 1984 immersive installation; The Influence Machine a 2011 an outdoor installation sited in public parks—two works from Oursler’s investigations at the borderland of fiction-nonfiction, science-bunk, latest technology-cardboard & paint, and, perhaps more important, from his enduring many decade investigation of the moving image at the illusion/actual/virtual border.
The interplay between fraudulent psychics, debunking magicians, and surrealistic seances forms the core of Oursler’s phantasmagorical cinematic experience, which delves into an unlikely interplay between empiricism and the mystical. (From liner notes to the film’s soundtrack CD)
Imponderable’s abundant and considered artifice is the viewer’s expanded realms of involvement/the film’s reach into five dimensions manifest in settings, imagery, in Jim Fletcher at film’s end performing a modern Prometheus via Mary Shelley’s book, via earlier films, via an improbable emotive Oursler song…ah yes, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, but this serenading evocative version of the creature delivers a deep-register conclusion to the episodic excursion that is Imponderable.
Jim Fletcher as Frankenstein’s creation
2015 in advance of the film’s production and book’s release*, Tony Oursler and CDJ in conversation on related subjects and content:
TO: Let’s start right off with Kate Fox.
CDJ: It’s 1848. One night, a twelve-year-old girl and a fourteen-year-old girl, Kate Fox and her sister Margaret, hear strange rappings in their bedroom. There’s immediately a rapid escalation in their notoriety, first within their little upstate New York village, then in Albany, and then throughout the United States. How does that happen? I can’t crack the mystery surrounding those two girls having that first rapping moment.
CDJ: They were isolated people in a small village. How did it occur to two children to say they heard rappings? And to identify the sounds, almost immediately, as coming from the dead? And the next night, or very shortly thereafter, they invited neighbors to witness the spirit rappings. We can understand their eventual notoriety because of the older sister, Leah; she became their producer-manager and toured them.
TO: To me that moment exists in the larger context of the implementation of the telegraph between New York and Boston, which happened the same year. The Fox sisters’ rappings from the dead were a naive folk interpretation of a technological advancement. My feeling is that there was a sort of rupture of perception. Up to that point there had always been something about the experience of time, and that changed when information could be transmitted over a great distance instantaneously. That changed our perception of everything: perspective, time, distance, travel. It was the beginning of modernity; all events are collapsed into one space.
CDJ: Yes…the parallel grown of telegraphy and the growth of the spiritual telegraph. But I don’t know if the Fox sisters would actually have known about the telegraph, that Morse had sent the first message.
TO: What do you think about the two girls as performers, as agents of creativity? They were flattening notions of patriarchy; that was an important thing.
CDJ: Yes, the prevailing notion was of women as passive vessels; they receive, they don’t produce. Spiritualism was part of what changed that notion of women, at the same time as the suffragettes were meeting in Seneca Falls and at the time of organized abolitionism. There were well-known women abolitionists. There was an accumulating voice of women, and then here are the Fox sisters, who may have been a kind of fraud, but who were in the progressive midst of suffragettes and abolitionists in upstate NY.
I think for some of the suffragettes it was complex. While in principal they may have supported that the Fox sisters were traveling of their own initiative and that they were public figures commanding audiences. But, ideologically, contact with the dead didn’t factor into the suffragettes’ agenda; I think they rejected the premise, they knew it was a piece of entertainment.
TO: Well, some did and some didn’t.
CDJ: Then you fold in the Civil War memory, the impact of so many deaths. There’s a congruence of otherwise separate agendas, from abolitionists to the suffragettes to the spiritualists.
TO: The idea that a woman could receive transmissions from the other side and take that position of authority away from the cleric is what always interested me. There was a confluence of all those factors you’ve mentioned that made it just the perfect time for that to happen.
CDJ: Yes, that was one of the disruptions: here comes the voice of women speaking about something theological, the afterlife. And from a scientific perspective, scientists, mostly male, went insane. They were not having it. They were going to die proving that what the Fox sisters were doing was not scientifically possible.
TO: Now looking back, a lot of people talk about Spiritualism as though it was Christianity or it was Mormonism or Quakerism. But it’s a little sad that “spiritualism” became a catch-all name for a whole variety of mystical activities that fell outside main religious traditions, including magnetism, astrology, or any sort of cult, activities that involved anything that was basically out of the main religious traditions.
CDJ: I always think about the manifestation of invisible things. We can’t see magnetic fields, for example, but—through some agent—magnetism is made material, as are other invisible phenomena that come through human agency and become part of our realm.
TO: That goes back to Imponderable, which is the title of this exhibition and book. The material dates from Isaac Newton to today, and shows many ways that people have tried to define the outer edge of science. The invisible is revealed in science with the X-ray, infrared photography. And then there’s gravity…
CDJ: Force fields, magnetic fields, and electricity were used analogously all the time…
TO: …for life force. There still is no way to really define what a life force is, you know.
CDJ: Our present-day life force conversation involves fetal tissue and stem cells. I always imagined it was Leah Fox who devised and brought onto the stage the manifestations enacted by her sisters—spirit writing and mirror writing. Leah was never a believer. She was a producer of the act and manager of the touring show, the money, her sisters. Mirror writing on stage was a way of mystifying a written message received from the dead. Spirit writing couldn’t just be plain writing, easy to read.
TO: It had to be interpreted.
CDJ: And Kate was the one to do that. She had the gift. On stage she received written messages from Benjamin Franklin—very subject-appropriate if we’re talking about electric force fields and magnetism. The Fox sisters started with rappings—a very concrete, audible way to manifest the invisible dead on stage. Leah kept modifying the act.
TO: That’s interesting because one of the parts of this project is the interplay between stage magic and real magic, and how that keeps happening, the drift back and forth. The Fox sisters went from real magic or real mysticism to stage entertainment. In the end, I see all these mediums as performers.
CDJ: And Kate is somewhat iconic—a teenage celebrity who’s out traveling the country. Wild fans are waiting on the train platform in ecstasy because here comes Kate. It’s prescient of our contemporary youth celebrity craze. And for her entirety, she lived a very out of the mainstream life. Through the pressures put upon her, Kate Fox became something of a drunk. That’s always appropriate behavior for a celebrity…
TO: It’s an occupational hazard for artists.
CDJ: But where I’m going is that Kate Fox entered a second chapter of manipulation and celebrity when she went to a clinic, for detoxing. Through the strange, perhaps bogus, exercise of spiritualism, Kate ended up in the strange, perhaps bogus, environment of electric light and water therapies at a place called the Swedish Clinic in New York City. And the people who ran the clinic become so taken with her ability to contact the dead that they exploited their patient. They had Kate conduct a séance every night.
TO: She was a celebrity.
CDJ: Parlor séances had spread coast-to-coast, as a family activity. What does that say about belief systems? Was it an after-dinner game? Was it a real expression of people trying to reach “beyond” in a spiritual way?
TO: It’s people trying to reach beyond the banality of everyday life. They try to jump a level: “Okay, here we are. I’ve been out on the farm or down at the office or cooking, and now we’re going to jump to another zone. We’re going to have a mystical event, and we’re in control.” They could get mysticism at church, but only in a processed and very restricted way.
CDJ: Yes, the agency of it being right there in your parlor, and not passively received.
TO: The lineage between occult activity and the origins of talk therapy is pretty interesting. People were spirit writing and trance speaking not long before the notion of the unconscious was developed. In the case of Carl Jung, he was channeling different characters in the same way trance mediums did; he was directing the unconscious to unlock people’s suppressed inner personalities.
CDJ: I haven’t ever thought of that or come across it.
TO: I’ve thought a lot about it, especially the connection between William James and the automatic writing of the Surrealists.
CDJ: Yes, Surrealism isn’t far removed from that time period.
TO: It overlaps, and it’s well known that some Surrealists were looking at mediums. But how does that connect to the spirit writing?
CDJ: I think in some ways spirit writing is just very crude and obvious. The identity of a person is in their words and in their script, their handwriting; so spirit writing is a very concise consolidation of a being.
TO: I love that. But spirit writing is often so incredibly banal.
CDJ: It’s an interesting ploy. Instead of saying something spectacularly profound or suggesting that once you’re dead you know the secrets of the universe, spirit writing simply transmits that the dead are having a good time, they’re surrounded with flowers.
TO: It’s palliative. People think of death as so traumatic.
CDJ: I think the spirit writing messages are normalizing.
TO: That’s really funny.
CDJ: They’re just like us, and going there is just the same…
TO: …and it’s just as boring as it is here. Although…
CDJ: “…our clothes are woven from light and we live in beautiful houses that we just have to think of and we can make them appear.” That’s a published spiritwriting message. Seems the point is…you don’t have to work.
TO: Earthlings re-writing Heaven. So you’ve got …
CDJ: Nice houses, really cool clothes that kind of glow.
TO: Any kind of food you might need at any second.
CDJ: Doesn’t seem to be a lot of petty conflict, that’s all over.