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Ectoplasmic Cinema

Karen Beckman


Zoe Beloff's The Ideoplastic Materializations of Eva C. offers us the chance to simultaneously experience the cinemas of past, present and future. This four-channel stereoscopic surround-sound DVD installation throws its viewers into a state of temporal disorientation, and challenges us to grapple with what cinema has been, is, and might eventually become. The project has its origins in a series of ten séances held between 1910 and 1914, each one carefully documented with scientific reports and photographs by Baron von Schrenck-Notzing in an era when photography was still regarded as a magical medium of truth, capable of making visible the invisible and immaterial dimensions of human experience. Playing on the double meaning of "medium," as both a vehicle for producing images and a figure capable of moving between this and other worlds, Beloff's work insists that visual technology is never neutral, and explores how the machines we invent to represent ourselves both reflect and actively shape who we are and how we see. [1] .

This hybrid installation combines early twentieth century melodramatic theatricality, pre-cinematic aesthetics such as stereoscopic images, with cinematic projection, contemporary surround-sound and DVD technologies. In entering this space, we become participants in a cinema of mourning and desire, a cinema that yearns simultaneously for what we have lost and what we might yet create. Through her work, Beloff draws attention to a split that occurred as cinematic practices developed in the early part of the century, highlighting the tension between what she has called "cinema as a window on the world" on the one hand, and "cinema as moving images or apparitions within our own space" on the other. [2] At a time when our understanding of the idea of cinema has become largely aligned with the former, with the idea of a medium that allows our own bodies to disappear as we view the stories of a world that exists on the other side of the screen, Beloff reasserts the continuum between our world and the world of the cinematic ghosts that flicker before us. She aims "to connect the present with the past, to create new visual languages where modern media will again be invested with the uncanny." [3] By establishing this connection between past and present, Beloff opens a gateway to future manifestations of the medium, and reminds us that cinema has always been inextricably and philosophically bound to the problems of time, space, presence and history. Though Lumière may have famously declared his cinematograph to be "an invention without a future," avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton reminds us that only with the growth of a cinematic past does the future of the medium becomes a possibility in previously unimaginable ways: "It is only now, I think, that it begins to be possible to imagine a future, to construct, to predict a future for film, or for what we may generically agree to call film and its successors, because it is only now that we can begin to construct a history and, within that history, a finite and ordered set of monuments, if we wish to use T.S.Eliot's terms, that is to constitute a tradition." [4]

In viewing the future of cinema through the lens of the historical legacy Beloff reanimates, however, it becomes immediately clear that the "monuments" of film history are anything but "finite" or concrete; indeed, the line she traces between past, present and future is characterized by its fluidity, or, better yet, by its ideoplasticity. In attempting to reconnect with the ghosts of cinema, to recapture this earlier cinema's consciousness of the medium's uncanny qualities, its ability to make absent bodies present and present bodies seem absent, Beloff has repeatedly turned to the figure of the female figures from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whether it be the English medium Elizabeth d'Espérance in Shadow Land or Light From the Other Side, the schizophrenic Natalija A. in The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A., or Eva C. in this current installation. These spiritualist mediums offer us a particular way of re-imagining our relation to technology. As Beloff writes: "If we want to understand cinema not simply as a technology but as also a kind of mental apparatus, I think it is instructive to think of these women as living 'cinematic bodies' specifically in relation to the photographic machines that were documenting them." [5] Eva C. was, according to Arthur Conan Doyle, "the first materializing medium who can be said to have been investigated with scientific care," and in 1930 Theodore Besterman confirms that "it was the phenomena produced by Eva C. that first decisively drew the attention of scientific men on the continent of Europe to the so-called 'ectoplasm'...alleged to be extruded from the bodies of certain specially endowed individuals known as mediums." [6] .

But what exactly is ectoplasm? What is it this substance that turn-of-the-century mediums were capable of manifesting? The American Heritage Dictionary offers us four definitions: "1) Biology. The outer portion of the continuous phase of cytoplasm of a cell...2a) The visible substance believed to emanate from the body of a spiritualistic medium, during communication with the dead; 2b) An immaterial substance, especially the transparent corporeal presence of a spirit or ghost; 3) Informal. An image projected on a movie screen." This surprising range of definitions reminds us that to speak of ectoplasm is, in some senses, always also to speak of film; though the strange substances that emerged from the body of Eva C. may seem only like freak reminders of our predecessors greater gullibility, they also mark our own contemporary alienation from photography and cinema's rootedness in experiences of loss, desire, haunting and mourning. By resuscitating the spiritualist medium and her bizarre ectoplasmic manifestations, Beloff recalls the intertwining of the human and technological unconscious, as well as the intricate exchanges that occurred among the spiritualist movement, the development of photographically-based technologies, and the women's movement, each of which was provoked and shaped by the other. [7] .

All three of these "movements" responded in different ways to the losses and longings of an era on the brink of modernity. As we enter the darkened room of the installation, donning our 3D-glasses in testament to our willingness to see differently, the sighs, heartbeats, giggles, and moans of Eva and the ghosts she manifests sonically interpellate us into this cinema of mourning, materiality and desire. As the interior sounds of the cinematic bodies surround and immerse us, our awareness of our own corporeal presence and process is heightened. Disrupting our tendency to experience cinematic viewing as a gradual process of disembodiment, a process that allows us to "lose ourselves" in the world onto which we gaze, Beloff's cinema materializes not just ghosts, but spectators too. The theatrical mise-en-scène, combined with the effect of the stereoscopic projection, further collapses the distance between screen and audience, making us feel that we are participants in, rather than observers of, the scene before us. And if we remember that one of the definitions of ectoplasm is "an image projected on a movie screen," then, in fact, we are witnesses to the manifestation of ghostly bodies from a past moment. Beloff actively foregrounds this overlap between spiritual and technological manifestation by depicting Eva, in the opening scene, hand cranking an early projector, a reminder that the space of cinema is always, in some senses, the space of the séance.

Awakening technological as well as physical ghosts from the past--the nineteenth century stereoscope and the 3D cinema with which Hollywood desperately tried to reanimate a dying studio system in the 1950s--and incorporating them into the apparatus of "new" media, Beloff offers us a new way of experiencing the possibilities of "the medium" by combining history, memory and longing. As three-dimensional phantom figures move beyond the space of the screen into the darkened space of the room that we consider ours, the material distinction between Eva's ghosts and the embodied actors on screen breaks down, just as the security that cinema offers the invisible spectator also starts to crumble. Vivian Sobchack, drawing on phenomenological philosophy, reminds us, "Technology never comes to its particular material specificity and function in a neutral context to neutral effect. Rather, it is historically informed not only by its materiality but also by its political, economic, and social context, and thus it both constitutes and expresses not merely technological value but always also cultural values. Correlatively, technology is never merely used, never simply instrumental. It is always also incorporated and lived by the human beings who create and engage it within a structure of meanings and metaphors in which subject-object relations are not only cooperative and co-constitutive but are also dynamic and reversible." [8] Reconstructing the intimacy of the séance's domestic space within the space of the contemporary art gallery, Beloff resists the notion that film-related mediums must necessarily and inevitability produce alienated consumers of mass culture. As Eva, impinging on the forgotten space between screen and spectator, cradles her ghostly photographic manifestations on her lap, or stands with them cheek to cheek, skin to skin, we are challenged to meet the medium half way, to enter into a process of mutual embodiment. Watching and listening to these sighs of technological, sexual and spiritual longing, we may wonder whether we have fulfilled or betrayed the desires and visions of these ghosts from the last century, and ask ourselves what sighs and longings of our own we breath, or might choose to breath, into the future.

1. For a full discussion of how Beloff imagines her own work, enter her world at http://www.zoebeloff.com.
2. Interview with Zoe Beloff, November 13, 2004. For further discussion of this split between early cinema and its later narrative manifestations, see Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Cinema, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde," Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser (London: BFI, 1990): 56-62.
3. Beloff, "Towards a Spectral Cinema," unpublished manuscript.
4. Hollis Frampton, "An Invention Without a Future," October 109, Summer 2004: 64-75; 74. This lecture was delivered at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979.
5. "Towards a Spectral Cinema."
6. Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spritualism (New York: Arno, 1975): 102-103; Theodore Besterman, Some Modern Mediums (London: Methuen, 1930) 71.
7. Two excellent books detail the important relationship between Spiritualism and women's rights in the nineteenth century: Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Nineteenth Century England (London: Virago, 1989), and Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1989).
8. Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) 137.