Paranormal research becomes art

Open Space presents F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N by Susan MacWilliam

An image captured during the June 10, 1931 seance that produced the 'teleplasm' spelling out 'Flammarion.' Catch Susan MacWilliam's video installation on the subject at Open Space.

Paranormal investigation and art meet in F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N, a work by Ireland’s Susan MacWilliam, on until Oct. 15 at Open Space (510 Fort).

F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N is made primarily of a video installation MacWilliam created in 2009 to represent Northern Ireland at the Venice Biennale. It was developed from her residency at University of Manitoba Rare Books and Special Collections in Winnipeg, where she worked with a 40-box archive of T.G. Hamilton’s paranormal research, most notably a séance Hamilton conducted in 1931 that produced a “teleplasm,” spelling out the word “Flammarion” on the back wall of his séance cabinet.

“I didn’t know the nature of the collection when I got there,” says MacWilliam. She spent a month reviewing almost 20 years of research, transcripts and photographs, but it was this teleplasm (or ectoplasm) that stuck with her.

“I’ve been making video works about psychic research and paranormal phenomena for years and I’ve been to a number of conferences world wide and I’ve worked with mediums and researchers and when I discovered this I sent out an email saying ‘do you know of any other evidence of a textural teleplasm?’ And it seems to me that this is the only recorded teleplasm forming itself into a word.”

The teleplasm also connected with MacWilliam’s interest in language and repetition in the seance transcripts.

“The prime spirit guide I was interested in was a man called Walter. In the transcriptions, the words photograph, image, taken image, taken photograph would continuously come through, so the spirit guide was demanding that they had to take a photograph and this constant demand really resonated … and the fact that this is an image of a word inversely reflected the idea that here are all these words about image.”

In that vein, she invited Belfast poet Ciaran Carson to join her in her studio where she recreated Hamilton’s seance cabinet. MacWilliam recorded Carson’s reaction to the material and the cabinet and had him read a list of photography related words.

Although the seances were held in complete darkness, Hamilton was able to capture the action in photographs, using up to 14 cameras in different angles.

“I was particularly interested in the way he arranged the seance rooms and his use of cameras,” she says.

MacWilliam is also interested in Hamilton’s use of stereoscopic cameras, something she uses in this installation. “It provides an image that when you look at it, you believe this thing is really there,” says MacWillam.

The film also features Atlanta-based Danish-American poltergeist investigator William G. Roll and Arla Marshall, Canadian granddaughter of Hamilton’s Scottish sitter Susan Marshall.

F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N also features two stereoscopic images and a large sculptural plywood cutout of the teleplasm.

“I’m not setting out to prove the voracity of these events. What I’m really interested in is that these things happened and there was this time in history when people banned together as a community to have seances and sittings,” says MacWilliam. “I’m also very interested in the photography and how that fits into the history of photography and the fact that modern spiritualism really developed in tandem with the birth of contemporary photography.”

Catch an Artist Talk with MacWilliam, Wed., Sept. 26 in Room A162 of the Visual Arts Building at UVic.

Open Space is also hosting Persistent Personalities, a series of events that explore the phenomena of spirit communication, archives and the persistence of life after death, Sept. 25-27.

Join them Thurs., Sept. 27 at 7pm for talks by local historians Walter Meyer zu Erpen (president of the Survival Research Institute of Canada) and John Adams ( before a paranormal investigation at 10pm with clairvoyant medium Dawn Kirkham. Donations welcome.

Victoria-based archivist and historian Walter Falk has digitized the entire Hamilton archive. You can explore it at the computer stations at Open Space or at M


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