Phantasmagoria, an audio-visual dialogue between the dead and the living
Since the beginning phantasmagorias were built upon mythological stories, political, sociological and religious propaganda as reflections of the zeitgeist. In 18th century the famous phantasmagoria stage magician Robertson performed the myth “The Opening of Pandora’s Box” in one of his shows.
My installation set as a goal to reimagine the metaphor of this myth and draws a link to our current times, where the dark web becomes the “Pandora’s Box” as reflection of our zeitgeist. Through the Post Digital Immersion Revolution people are becoming more individualistic and isolated – a shadow of their existence caught in filter bubbles and echo chambers, that are run by big corporations and governments.
The work aims to reflect upon this phenomenon, not as a solution rather in form of an counter experience. Thus the storyline of experience takes the audience through different mental states and climaxes from fear till excitement, from individual till collective experience for rediscovering new ways of interactions of ourselves and reconnect to senses in form of an spiritual experience.
Eigengrau, the title of the audiovisual installation is derived from German origin meaning ‘dark light’ or ‘brain grey’. In 1860 the German psychologist Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887) introduced this term to denote the disorganised motion of greyish colour seen in perfect darkness. The project focusses on investigating the formal possibilities of the phenomenology of the dialogue between darkness and light derived through perceptual psychology. Here several aspects such as the perception of time in vision adjustment, spatial perception, and variations of darkness and light by crossing it with sound perception will be considered for an embodied experience.
This performative work will communicate through atmospheres, and is designed to immerse the viewer into an unnerving experience – a multi-sensory abstracted space, that embraces our feelings of anxiety, invokes the power of the invisible and changes our perceptions through space, light, smoke and sound. Since Phantasmagorias are deep-rooted from entertainment purposes–my goal is to position the installation into the contemporary club context.
The choreography of Eigengrau results from continuous experimentation formats through perceptual psychology elements with several LED lights, lenses, mirrors, smoke and spatial sound from the laboratory setup in a dark room of Willem De Koning Academy building in Rotterdam. Experiments were undertaken by test persons and their participation was noted:
- How did they felt during the several climax moments of light intensity moments?
- Do they experienced afterimages?
- Do they felt disoriented during the test?
- Where there moments, when they had uncanny experiences?
Following perceptual psychology elements are implemented as technology of Eigengrau: mental cleanse; total darkness, perception of time in vision adjustment; spatial perception; variations of darkness and light by crossing it with sound perception; disembodied spatial sound; eigengrau; spatial disorientation; laws of gestalt; afterimage - flicker effect, and total brightness. These will be illustrated in depth through the ‘mise en scène’ a few lines below. Before understanding the relationships between Eigengrau within the history of Phantasmagoria’s and perceptual psychology we need to a closer inspection at the Media Archaeology of this phenomenon.
During the turbulent years of the French Revolution (1789 – 1799), the writings of Athanasius Kircher inspired the Belgian inventor, physicist, and showman named Étienne-Gaspard Robert, known as Robertson 26 described in his 1830–34 published book “Mémoires récréatifs, scientifiques et anecdotiques”. He presented the his first “fantasmagorie” at the Pavilion de l’Echiquier in Paris, whilst calling himself as a creator of this “scientific effect”, notwithstanding, he never disclosed his discoveries. 27 The true fact is that he did no more than borrow and exploit a method used by several other skilled projectionists well before him. Although he certainly fine-tuned the technology and made it to a commercial success, which ended in a course of a trial due to plagiarism.
To be able to understand Robertson’s “invention”, we need to learn about the etymology of the word “Phantasmagoria” in Oxford English Dictionary: "a shifting series or succession of phantasms or imaginary figures, as seen in a dream or fevered condition, as called up by the imagination, or as created by literary description." 28 The term was derived from the Greek phantasma, ‘ghost’ (derived from phantazo, ‘I make an illusion’) and agoreuo, ‘I speak’; an etymology which suggests a dialogue between the audience and the ghost called up by the magic lantern. An alternative derivation, indicating ‘gathering of ghosts’ (phantasma/agora) may also be possible. (Manoni,) 29
Tracing back the time around 1774 to Leipzig, Germany, whether the ‘ghost creator’ (Gespenstermacher) 30 and freemason Johann Schröpfer organized shows of necromancy, in which ghost of the departed was called up. He was a legendary illusionist, who used a special repertoire of tricks including projection with mirrors, thunder sound effects, assistants dressed up as ghosts and his audience had to fasten three days ahead before the contact could be established with the underworld. Inspirations he took from the French projectionist Edme-Gilles Guyot, who has been using smoke instead of a textile curtain for projection purposed described already in 1769–70. Manoni is giving a light about this technology: “Guyot used a type of brazier, with the beam of the lantern directed onto the smoke which emerged as a sheet through the top of the brazier casing: ‘That which appears extraordinary, is that the smoke does not alter the shape which is represented there, and it appears as though one could grasp it with the hand.’ Guyot could also make ‘a phantom on a pedestal’ appear, thanks to a small magic lantern hidden inside a wooden chest. This projected its pictures onto an inclined mirror, which reflected the images onto the smoke screen gave off by a simple stove located above the chest.” (Manoni) 31 Guyot’s technique made the images float more organic and real above the terrified visitors.
Other German laternists such as Christlieb Benedikt Funk in 1783, Johann Samuel Halle in 1784, and Johann Georg Krünitz in 1794 were described and adapted Guyot’s technology. Halle had visited one of Schröpfer’s ghost-shows and made a note about the performance:
“The supposed magician leads the group of curious persons into a room whose floor is covered by a black cloth, and in which is situated an altar painted black with two torches and a death’s head, or a funerary urn. The magician traces a circle in the sand around the table or altar and asks the spectators not to step over the circle. He begins his conjuration by reading from a book and making smoke from a resinous substance for good spirits, and from foul-smelling substances for bad ones. In a single instant, the lights are extinguished by themselves, with a sharp explosive noise. At that moment the spirit called appears hovering in the air above the altar and above the death’s head, in such a way that it appears to want to fly up into the air or disappear underground. The magician passes his sword through the spirit several times, which at the same time emits a plaintive howling sound. The spirit, which appears to rise up from the death’s head in a thin cloud, opens its mouth; the spectators see the mouth of the skull open and hear the words pronounced by the dead spirit, in a husky and terrible tone, when the magician asks questions of it. During all this ceremony, flashes of lightning across the room . . . and they hear a terrifying noise of a storm and rain beating. Shortly afterward the torches relight themselves, while the spirit disappears, and its farewell perceptibly shakes the bodies of all members of the audience . . . The magic performance comes to an end, while each one seems to ask of his neighbour, with a livid pallor on his face, what opinion he is inclined to draw from this interview with the underworld.” 32
Moving towards to mobile back-projection technique, it is significant to reveal the real inventor of it, who is the mysterious figure in the history of Phantasmagoria’s called Paul Philidor or Philipsthal. 33 It is unclear how many aliases he had back in the days, therefor it is difficult to draw a clear line about his existence. Philidor was driven by the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and claimed to be debunking popular credulity towards sorcerers, prophets, visionaries, exorcists, and other charlatans (including priests, monks, and popes), although at the same time he was somewhat ambiguously exploiting the public taste for the occult. (Manoni) 34
Philidor delivered always the following ‘scientific’ speech before the beginning of his shows: “I will bring before you all the illustrious dead, all those whose memory is dear to you and whose image is still present for you. I will not show you ghosts, because there are no such things; but I will produce before you enactments and images, which are imagined to be ghosts, in the dreams of the imagination or in the falsehoods of charlatans. I am neither priest nor magician; I do not wish to deceive you; but I will astonish you. It is not up to me to create illusions; I prefer to serve education.” 35
It is interesting to conclude how the elements of promising or demonstrating something scientific morphed into black magic and mysticism to impress and frighten the audience. Being acquainted of the black magic desires of his zeitgeist, Philidor advertised his ghost shows in Parisian newspapers asking the public, if they want to get in touch with their deceased ancestors? If new show visitors were interested, they should take a photograph or drawing in two days advance to the magician. In the meantime Philidor would let his assistants to paint the portraits on the slides to be able to play and trick his audience in his upcoming performance. During the séance he made his audience believed, that he conjured up the spirits to establish contact with the deceased relatives. Philidor was performing his ghost-shows with his lantern mounted on wheels, that allowed increasing and decreasing the size of the projected image. The supernatural characters could be made to grow or shrink in front of the frightened audience’s eyes. Through the introduction of the Argand oil lamp, a significant improvement in artificial lightening, Philidor achieved that the spectators, who were sitting further were capable of seeing the projections still very clearly. 36 Probably at one of his Parisian shows Robertson was part of the audience, who adapted most of his tricks.
Immersion is a model for the ‘‘manipulation of the senses,’’ as well as when art and image apparatus creates one consensus: 37 the viewer’s perception blends in totally to the artwork. The message and the medium form an almost inseparable unit, so that the medium becomes invisible. (Grau, ..) 38 Grau established an thoughtful relationship between Phantasmagoria and immersion: Phantasmagoria connects with death through immersion and spiritualism to overcome the separation from one’s ancestors through the medium. (Grau, ..) 39
By diving deeper into Robertson’s phantasmagoric shows we understand, how he could acquired in a short period of time the oeuvre of his predecessors and his work becomes almost the representation of mobile back projection history, which was the most popular media object until the arrival of cinema in 1895. A few years after his spectacular success in the show business of phantasmagorias, he understood the influential aspects of perceptual psychology, and the site-specific context of his performances, hence he moved them to the dark atmospheric location of a discarded Capuchin monastery.40Every aspect of his ghost-shows with a parting speech and a macabre coup de theatre 41, was planned into the smallest fraction. By using thunder sounds, total darkness, eigengrau, projections onto smoke, flicker-, and strobe effect, which created after-images in the brains of his visitors. All these effects are referring to perceptual psychology and manipulated the audience to leave behind the reality and to immerse with the supernatural subjects.
Starting about the entrance of his “ghost-monastery”, which could be pass onto only through a cemetery. 42 Entering a somber room painted black, 43 the audience felt immediately disconnected from the real world and disoriented, since there was “no foreground, no background, no surface, no distance, only overwhelming, impenetrable darkness”, as Grau has put it. 44 After a few minutes the human vision adapted to the darkness and created a specific dark grey tone visual noise illusion to the brain called “eigengrau”, own grey or brain grey called. This effect was later scientifically discovered by the German psychologist Gustav Theodor Fechner in 1860. 45
Multiple senses were triggered through sensory illusions by hearing the noise of thunder, a funeral bell calling forth phantoms from their tombs, and Franklin's Glass Harmonica, a form of musical, water-filled glasses, provided a haunting sound.46 After the music introduction, Robertson appeared in front of his curious audience recalling practically the same sentences of Philidor’s speech:
“That which will occur shortly before your eyes, Gentlemen, is not a frivolous spectacle; it is created for the thinking man, for the philosopher who likes to lose himself for a moment, with Sterne, among the tombs.” 47
Since the medium was hitherto unknown to the 18th century society – the magical effects appeared to be scientific.48 Robertson produced electrical sparks, which he called fluidum novum, that ‘‘for a time could make dead bodies move.’’ Thus, ‘‘the other side,’’ the new medium of electricity with its utopian connotations was linked with sensory illusions so that the audience was in the right scientific and magical frame of mind as they entered the projection room. Here, Robertson announced, the ‘‘dead and absent ones’’ would appear. (Grau,) 48 The Belgian “inventor” refined Philidor’s mobile back-projection techniques to a next a level for creating stronger illusions and disorientation for his guests. X. Theodore Barber is describing Robertson techniques in details: “While moving the lantern, Robertson not only had to be careful to adjust the focus so that the picture would always be clear but also had to manipulate a special shutter mechanism over the lens that controlled the amount of light passing through the slide. Because the lantern had to be close to the screen to create a small, seemingly distant figure, the image produced was bright, contrary to the optic expectation that a far object would be faint. Therefore, Robertson had to cut down the light in this instance, and as the picture grew he had to increase the illumination. Robertson's slides were painted with transparent oils, and careful attention was paid to shading and detail that would show up fairly well when projected with the Argand lamp. An essential element to his slides was that each image was surrounded by blackness, so that, when screened, it seemed to float free in the air without any background or unnecessary light around it.” (X. Theodore Barber) 49
At the climax of his words demonic figures started to be visible on the smoke, and the crowd received little electronic shocks attacks into their chairs underlining the terror of the pre-romantic program. The rapid successions between the ghostly vignettes 50 evoked figures that continued to appear in the visions of the audience, called as retinal after-images. Robertson created a metamorphosis, one shape rapidly transforming into another – an effect easily achieved by doubling two glass slides in the tube of the magic latern over one another in a quick, deft manner. (Terry, ) 51 They seem to be so real that the visitors wanted to hit them above their heads and run out of the claustrophobic gothic environment but he locked the doors to achieve a stronger terror outcome. A similar dramatic reaction was achieved almost 100 years later by the Lumière brothers in 1896. Their movie “The Arrival of the Train”, where the perspective of the arriving train appeared so realistic, that the audience felt, that the train would almost break out of the canvas and run out of the cinema. Mostly his shows finished with cautioning, “Look well at the fate awaits you all one day: Remember the phantasmagoria!” 52
Hallucinations for spiritual enlightenment
If we study the flicker perceptual psychology effects of Robertson’s phantasmagoria, we can correlate it to Brion Gysin’s, William Burroughs’ and Ian Sommerville’s stroboscope apparatus, called Dream machine of the 1960’s. Gysin, a painter and poet, who become fascinated about hallucinations for spiritual enlightenment after reading the book of the neurophysiologist, William Grey Walter, “The Living Brain” published in 1953. He was researching about how intermittent photic stimulation is performed as part of the routine electroencephalogram (EEG) in order to establish alpha wave reactivity (occipital driving response) and test for a possible convulsive reaction or ‘photoparoxysmal response’ in patients with photosensitive epilepsy. (B.C. ter Meulen a D. Tavy a B.C. Jacobs, ) 53 During his stroboscopic light effects he noted something interesting as some of his patients claimed to experience visual hallucinations.54 It could be separated into three main parts: geometric patterns that are consisting out of strips and radial patterns; secondary autoscopic images coming from ‘ramifications of retinal veins’ and ‘hexagonal cells of the choroid’, and the last one of more complex illusions of animals created in the human brain.
In the following I would like to disseminate and described a list of technological and perceptual psychological elements in order to establish a clear and understandable relationship of Eigengrau’s ‘mise en scène’ related to phantasmagoria in the Media Archaeology discourse [I have described above]. I will project it from several angles starting from the ancient Greek and Roman times and moving towards the 1799’s Robertson’s Phantasmagoria until the 1960’s Brion Gysin’s, William Burroughs’ and Ian Sommerville’s stroboscope apparatus, called Dreamachine.
The 13 minutes long installation takes it’s audience through an usual and non-traditional timeline through five mental states, which was developed in correspondence with the French sound-designer Sébastien Robert, who is responsible of composing the spatial sound part of the project.
At the first state the audience arrives in total darkness that creates an individual feeling. Not knowing, if you are alone in the space nor with other viewers. Tangible but as well not. Surrounded by total silence will build up an excitement and after a few minutes our brain starts to create eigengrau effects which cause us to see little grey dots in front of our eyes. In this state the visitor goes through a "mental cleans" while cleaning up his/her mind, leaving behind and disconnecting from the reality. After 10 seconds quick subtile noises arise in irregular intervals from different sites of the dark space filled with smoke that accuses spatial disorientation.
In 17th century the magic lantern magicians used the element of darkness as way of preparing the audience for excitement and to cut people off from reality. This happened often literally as the public at Robertson’s shows heard the loud sound of somebody locking the door. One of the foremost fundamental component was the right regulation of the smoke. In antique times it served as a communication tool with gods, whereas it’s function moved on during the Enlightenment times to become a projection screen. It generated more organic movements of the projected images and the audience became more frighten through the dreamy and demonic landscapes. In our times the programmable modulation of the haze transfigures the medium into a post scientific experience and immaterial interface that opens up new dimensions for storytelling purposes in relationship with my own design.
During the second state slowly the light narrative starts to unfold through irregular rhythm manifestations of the middle circle. A non physical light cylinder appears in front of the audience eyes while building up excitement that something will happen in the middle of the magic circle. Across the room the audience discovers that they are not alone. The irregular sounds becomes more and more rhythmical, which has an effect on the light visuals on the light curtain. Light patterns expand in faster and faster intervals composing stroboscopic effects, an enlargement of the ‘Dreamachine’. At the peak second the visitors starts to believe to experience as next the climax of the installation, if we would follow a traditional build up storyboard. Instead the beat drops and for a few minutes the new state appears.
The cylinder shape is the symbol of the box in the myth of the ‘Opening of Pandora’s box’. The colour blue is a reference to the only remaining element in the box namely hope. While researching the origins of the symbolic meaning of the cylinder shapes and holders we discover that during Greek times the demons in the myth of the ‘Opening of Pandora’s box’ had to come from a particle physical space, which hold and bond them: a clay vase. In the 18th century Robertson was hiding his ghosts and demons as well in a physical space namely in a abandoned Capuchin monastery outside of Paris. Through his spatial and light interventions the boundary between real and head space started to recline. In the 60’s the demons appeared only in the headspace in form of hallucinations through the rotative movements of the cylinder shaped ‘Dreamachine’, which was practiced individually. The physical shape of the cylinder conveys subconsciously that the aftereffect will be achieved with help of motion. For Eigengrau I am utilising it through physical and collective experimental ritual. This magic circle, which keeps the devil inside and constructs an physical barrier between the inside and the outside of the light cylinder – the immaterial becomes material.
Comfortable Weird State
Confused and doubtful the spectator enters this state. Therefore harmonic sounds lets them breath for a few minutes achieving moments of looseness. The light cylinder moves in gentle speed the long light arrays. An occasion of reflection about the experience so far.
An other fundamental element was right applicable light source. To be able to communicate with gods the Greeks were using fire and different type of mirrors as symbols of establishing the contact. Around the French Revolution the Argand lamp was invented the first step into artificial and mechanical lightening. This discovery allowed during of Philidor’s and Robertson’s Phantasmagoria shows more precise control over the light and better visibility for the the audience, who was sitting further away. During the 50’s and 60’s William Grey Walter undertook the research about stroboscopic light effects, where he noticed the hallucinational characteristics of digital light for the human brain. Nowadays the programmable LED could be controlled preciously and directed to achieve certain effects on the individual. For Eigengrau’s light setup each second is perfectly calculated to be to achieve certain mental states for the visitors.
Suddenly the cylinder light curtain disappears and immediately the round blue light beam shines from the ceiling. This is the climax state of Eigengrau. As it gets in contact with the rotative concave mirror the moving reflections will appear into the smoke – symbolising the opening of the “ Pandora’s Box”. It is important to note, that the human eyes perceives an environment within the blue light spectrum as less focused and therefor the blue space appears more diffuse and immaterial compared to other colours. We are aiming for a new collective experience, which everyone could interpret on his/her own manner, but would feel the basic connective power of senses. This effect will be achieved through the natural interaction of moving in space. By opening the pandora’s box the audience will get curious and move naturally towards the middle of the circle and surrounds the mirror. Collective feelings will arise in the audience. Standing around the mirror circle and being surrounded by the reflections will create an intimate spiritual experience. Afterimages starts to appear in the visitors mind – not knowing what is real and what is illusion.
The history of afterimages could be traced back to ancient communication techniques of priests and shamans with the gods and underworld. During trance moments they had hallucinations and have seen afterimages believing to get in contact with higher natural powers. During the 18th century the Enlightenment believes started to arise and the power in God started to losen up. This was the edge of believe of communicating with gods and scientific rationality started to take over. Although in contrary this allowed to spread the believe in dark magic and shamanism. Robertson achieved his afterimage and stroboscopic effects through quick movements of his slides in front of his lenses of the magic lantern. In that way he managed to fuel his audience and make them believe that they have seen an spectre. In the 1960’s it was a big popularity of hallucinational drugs and was a big desire to see afterimages, that were creations of human brain. Nowadays afterimages could be programmed to be able to engineer transcend experiences decided by reason and rationality.
Arriving to the final and closing state of the narrative – the excitements starts to be build down through the less and less use of smoke that reduces the reflections. The middle blue light beam starts to shrink more and more until it dissolves in darkness. The audience is taken back to reality with a strong collective ritual experience in back of their mind. While going through this journey individualism and collectivism played a key role. The ambient soundscape relaxes the human mind and let them go back to the reality.
Analysing the importance of sound from perceptual psychological point of view we can conclude the it played already from ancient times an important role at ritual gatherings through instruments and acousmatic sounds. This refers to sound that is heard without an originating cause being seen. Through the use of glass harmonica at Robertson shows the notes were sliding into each other and the thunderstorm effects would melt and become part of the space. While using the ‘Dreamachine’ it was mandatory putting on headphone and listening to meditative music. For Eigengrau I am aiming to use spatial 4D sound for creating strong soundscapes for immersion purposes. The ghostly glas harmonica sounds of Robertson would be also present in the composition.