A Mechanical Medium - Performance for Model B Kodascope16mm projector, Stereo Slide projector, 78 rpm hand-cranked phonograph, Tri Signal Telegraph Unit Toy, pocket Theremin, sine wave generator and other sound making machines. One hour.
The desire to cross frontiers has long been a dream of our culture, the greatest and most mysterious being perhaps the shadowy borderline between the life and death itself. It is an exploration that reached its apotheosis a hundred years ago driven by the spiritualist movement that promised its believers messages from their loved ones beyond the grave through the person of the medium and by the rapidly advancing technology of mechanical reproduction that seemed to contemporaries equally uncanny. Virtual reality as a conjuring of up of phantoms that dates all the way back to Robertson’s “Phantasmagoria’s”.
These two currents converged around the "Electric Wizard", Thomas Edison. Few know that he devoted the last ten years of his life to the search for a machine to communicate directly with the dead, in his words "A Mechanical Medium".
The performance begins with a screening of “PLASTIC RECONSTRUCTION OF A FACE, RED CROSS WORKER, PARIS 1918”16mm, 4 minutes, silent, Director unknown, 1918. I discovered this film at the National Medical Library in Washington DC. It is, I believe, a document of the fragility of the flesh blurring of the boundaries between the animate and the inanimate. It conjures up before our very eyes the ravages of the First World War.
“Mothers, sisters, wives and sweethearts who have lost their beloved in the war find their souls hungering for them. They search for the assurance that these lost are persisting in a life hereafter. The true believers in personal immortality have multiplied into a vast host. You, it becomes known are investigating the problem, the question whether personality persists after so-called “body-death”. Mr. Edison the confidence in you throughout the world is great. People are anxiously awaiting word from you.”
A séance using an imaginative reconstruction of The Mechanical Medium follows using machines that Edison could have had at hand follows.
Kodachrome 3D slides create a series of virtual “stage-sets”. The land of the dead is represented by Asbury Park, New Jersey, once a thriving holiday resort, now fallen into ruins. Casinos, Grand hotels, amusement arcades long since boarded up, infuse this candy colored world with the aura of a vast derelict studio back-lot. Film is projected into these spaces such that moving figures appear to hover phantom-like inside them. Kodachrome Home movies from the 1930’s become “after-images” of the living while early science films recall Edison’s ideas on the reconstitution of the body after death.
The narrative is inspired by interviews with Edison on the subject of the hereafter, and accounts of Edison’s purported communications through various New York mediums subsequent to his death in 1931.
Sound conjures the spirits of the departed through foregrounding the sounds of the audio reproduction and projection machines themselves, creating a cacophony of voices that are not voices, hurtling through the ether, reawakening that “Frankensteinian” dream of the nineteenth century, the recreation of life, the symbolic triumph over death.