Laura Larson

Electric Girls and the Invisible World

(2007)

Introduction

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the author faithfully reports what is going on in his imagination.

Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Writing, for an artist, is viewed as a sideline—a support for the primary creative activity, whether it’s a journal entry or an artist statement. When beginning to develop the video Electric Girls and the Invisible World, my desire to write exceeded the task of support. Writing itself became an important aspect of the project, essential in engaging a discussion about how history is written, be it through a photograph or a text. This document—I see it as equal parts artist statement, essay, and shooting script—is meant to frame the conceptual structure of the project. Its bastardized form echoes the aesthetic and conceptual strategies of the video.

From 2003-05, I produced three, interrelated photographic projects, which take as their point of departure the issues raised by spirit photography—the practice of recording paranormal phenomena—and its relevance to contemporary photography. In Ectoplasm, a series of small black and white photographs, I re-stage historical photographs of séances from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, often performing the role of the medium. I first encountered Eusapia Palladino in my research for this work.

Palladino was born in Puglia, Italy in 1854 and lived as an adult in Naples. After discovering her paranormal abilities as a teenager, she became an internationally renowned medium who traveled extensively in Europe, to perform her phenomena. Her audiences extended beyond spiritualist circles due to the spectacular nature of her séances, including astronomer Camille Flamarrion, criminologist Cesare Lombroso, and scientists Pierre and Marie Curie. Tables would levitate; musical instruments would play of their own accord and fly through the air; mysterious knocks would be heard from invisible hands. While in trance, she described her erotic encounters with invisible lovers, brought to her by the spirits. Often times, the séance would culminate with Palladino ecstatically throwing herself upon a male participant. Her phenomena were subjected to continual testing in the cause of scientific research, an element that undoubtedly contributed to the drama of her demonstrations. Like all physical mediums of this era, she was routinely photographed in an effort to provide evidence of her gifts or, in some cases, to expose her as a fraud. Her séances were the focus of intense public scrutiny and great controversy, with her exploits regularly reported in newspapers. Palladino avowed her gifts, endlessly promoted them, but would perversely admit when she duped her audiences. An illiterate peasant who found herself among the affluent society of European spiritualists, she asserted an independence and sexuality both striking and unusual in the Victorian era.

I was drawn to Palladino’s story for several reasons. Beyond its fascinating details, it presents a reprimand to the ambitions of the lower classes—a cautionary tale of success. Its conventions are easily recognized: the humble beginnings, the ingenuity of talent, the meteoric rise, and the fall from grace. In 1895, a committee formed by the British Society of Psychical Research discredited Palladino, after a series of séances held in Cambridge. Widely believed to be the deathblow to her reputation, she stage-managed a comeback by resourcefully subverting the terms of authentification. A quintessentially postmodern subject, Palladino simultaneously proclaimed the legitimacy of her powers but when caught, acknowledged that she cheated. She staked her reputation on delivering her phenomena and if the spirits were uncooperative, resorting to trickery was simply a means to hold up her end of the bargain. In her eyes, truth and deceit were not mutually exclusive. But, the inevitable was merely postponed. During her trip to New York in 1908, her cheating was so brazen that it seemed to almost defy her investigators, audiences already determined to finally put an end to her career. She returned home extremely bitter by the contemptuous American reception. She was fifty-four years old and it was widely believed that her powers had left her. Although the narrative is familiar one, the charismatic force of her insubordination undermines its message.

Biography

The project began initially as a search for photographs of Palladino. Significantly, while there are many references to efforts to photograph her, only a handful of these original prints remain. Many are reproduced in books and journal articles. In these images, it is easy to see the signs of crude manual retouching, their marred transparency. These images exist for me in Xeroxed form and I present them in this context, through digital scanning, yet another generation removed. Walter Benjamin imagined the democratizing impact of mechanical reproduction and its potential to transform the practice and reception of art. Yet, in a slight re-working of Benjamin’s thesis, this linear chain of reproduction suggests a conceptual knot particular to the project of historical biography. As I learned more about Palladino, my grasp of her became increasingly tenuous.

Seance Image

It’s difficult to imagine that this image represents a measured attempt to conduct and photographically record a séance. The crowd is comically large, with eleven participants, staring intently in the direction of the medium. The close cropping of the image further intensifies the claustrophobic character of the setting. Palladino’s head peeks out of the séance cabinet, a receding point in this domesticated landscape. What’s striking about the photograph is her peripheral role in this theatrical tableau. Seated the furthest away from the camera, she recedes as a bit player, partially concealed by the curtains. Logistical considerations conspire to marginalize her in a situation where she is in fact the very reason for its occasion.

Floating Table Image

This image possesses all the material cues of photographic evidence. The harsh flash of the camera freezes a table, mid-levitation, obscuring Palladino from view. One of the participants, a woman, turns towards the camera with a blank look of confusion; her attention appears torn between the photographer and the table. The dearly sought levitation—the photographic prize—again eclipses Palladino. These photographs belie a curious aspect of the Palladino archive. She emerges only as a fragment in the picture, a specter of her own story.

If in photographs Palladino hangs in the wings as an elusive figure, textual accounts of her character present overwhelmingly vivid representations of her, images that verge on hyperbole. M. Arthur Levy’s account, detailing his experience of a séance organized by Camille Flammarion, invokes the image of the passionate Italian woman:

Two things arrest the attention when you look at her. First, her large eyes, filled with strange fire, sparkle in their orbits, or, again, seem filled with swift gleams of phosphorescent fire, sometimes bluish, sometimes golden. If I did not fear that the metaphor was too easy when it concerns a Neapolitan woman, I should say that her eyes appear like the glowing lava fires of Vesuvius, seen from a distance in a dark night. The other peculiarity is a mouth with strange contours. We do not know whether it expresses amusement, suffering or scorn.

In his book, After Death, What?, Cesare Lombroso devotes long passages to character study:

But she is not without morbid characteristics, which sometimes extend to streaks of insanity. She passes rapidly from joy to grief, has strange phobias (for example the fear of staining her hands), is extremely impressionable and subject to dreams, in spite of her mature age. Not rarely she has hallucinations, frequently sees her own ghost. As a child she believed two eyes glared at her behind trees and hedges.

Palladino isn’t brought to life in these texts but rather, rendered as slightly unreal, an impression consistent through lay accounts, scientific reports, and newspaper articles. When the descriptions entail her séances, she becomes an even stranger figure. Dr. Ercole Chiaia describes her during a sitting in 1888, in an open letter to Lombroso:

She is like an India rubber doll, like an automaton of a new kind; she takes strange forms. How many legs and arms has she? We do not know. While her limbs are being held by incredulous spectators, we see other limbs coming into view, without her knowing where they come from. Her shoes are too small to fit these witch-feet of hers, and this particular circumstance gives rise to the suspicion of the intervention of mysterious power.

The instability of her body, expanding and sprouting appendages, is reminiscent of an impatient sitter for a portrait. It’s as if she can’t hold still for the camera.

These accounts to a contemporary audience easily lend themselves to parody, betraying a categorical revulsion of her gender, class and ethnicity. In spite of this, they fascinated and repelled me in equal measure. Her overwhelming presence in these descriptions sounds like noise; sentient details emerge but then recede in the hysteria of the prose. The excessive prose foreground the author’s subjectivities but, like the photographs, obscure their subject. When considering these texts alongside the images, Palladino’s paranoia of being watched, described by Lombroso, seems the epitome of reason.

I was pulled between these two extremes in the documentation and bewildered by their opacity. Like the image of the startled séance participant, I didn’t know where to look. As an artist, I’m not held to the same standards of transparency applied to historians and journalists. Knowing this didn’t stem the undertow of the facts, which pulled on a strange sense of duty to Palladino. Producing a project about an historical figure seemed an organic step in the development of my work, consistent with my interest in a critique of photography’s assumed evidentiary status. These contentious artifacts, in a sense, failed as representations and I found myself at an impasse in the translation of historical facts into photographic fiction.

Autobiography

So, I looked away from the facts. I recognized that my attraction to Eusapia stemmed from a fascination with the paranormal that dated to my childhood. To say that I obsessively read ghost stories as a kid is an understatement. My bookshelf looked like the library of a budding paranoiac, or psychical researcher, depending on your view of paranormal phenomena. My reading extended to the subjects of extrasensory perception, witchcraft, supernatural creatures and extraterrestrial life. I read anything and everything that suggested there were forces beyond my experience of the world, in hopes that they could account for my perception of it. Although these stories terrified me, I also found the notion that a ghost could exert power in the world of the living incredibly seductive. My desire to magically transform myself, and my surroundings, preoccupied my fantasies and this literature proved a refuge for my imaginary life. But, the allure of the paranormal was a ferociously private matter. To commit this disclosure to paper even now feels like I’m giving up a precious secret, an embarrassing admission of the powerlessness I felt at that age.

While I have no interest in producing an explicitly biographical work, I want to acknowledge this fascination in the project and imagine its resonance in the experience of young girls. In The Externalization of Motive Power, Albert de Rochas’ book on Palladino, there is an addendum on poltergeist phenomena where he names the pre-adolescents who are the focus of poltergeist phenomena as “electric girls,” categorizing them as provisional mediums. Poltergeist activity typically ceases once a girl has reached sexual maturation and she has been appropriately socialized. The unruly nature of the poltergeist, whether as a supernatural force or a psychological symptom, presented a tremendously appealing screen to examine the historical case of Palladino. The “electric girls” leveraged the weight of the historical research so that I could position myself, however obliquely, in my re-invention of Palladino’s story.

Project Description

Electric Girls and The Invisible World encompasses two distinct projects. I am producing a series of black and white photographs based on historical records on Palladino. These archival drawings, photographs and written accounts depict her extraordinary and inexplicable acts. My photographs will recreate scenes based on my research, while others will playfully and self-consciously depart from these records. Significantly, the special effects for these images are staged using analog methods. While digital technology gives the artist tools to seamlessly create documents such as these, it doesn’t have the evidentiary weight that analog images command. With their low-tech staging, the images draw upon the performative aspects of analog technology.

Incorporated into the video, the photographs will be presented as archival documents. The series will be both a discreet body of work and a central visual element of the video. Despite her astonishing claims and those of her credulous followers, Palladino was repeatedly caught in acts of fraud and rebuked by spiritualists and non-believers alike. Historical accounts and their contemporary readings are deeply and divisively split over the authenticity of her phenomena. This uncertainty mirrors a central conceptual dilemma of contemporary photography. Notions of the real and the staged continue to inform discussions about the terms that define the medium as an art form. The assumption of objectivity—the desire to trust our eyes—continues to haunt photography. I look at Palladino as I look at photographs, with both skepticism and desire. In this same vein, Electric Girls and the Invisible World will frame Palladino as a historical subject of great ambivalence and longing.

Rather than rely on the methods of documentary, the video will critically engage its conventions to present her story’s significance to contemporary feminist critiques of history and representation, through the performances of the “electric girls.” I will organize a summer theater workshop for girls, which will function as a production lab for the film. For the cast, I will have a core group of five actors but I am open to the group being larger or perhaps in flux, with members coming and going. The video will be a hybrid of scripted actions and dialogue with improvisation. The script is based on historical accounts of her séances culled from newspaper articles, spiritualist publications and scientific reports. Divided into chapters, each section will begin with a photograph, which will serve as a point of departure for the improvisational scenes with the “electric girls.” Narration of the various historical accounts of Palladino will be structured into the script’s dialogue but the girls will essentially play themselves. Palladino will function as an unorthodox model of feminine power for the “electric girls.” Through a series of séances, levitations, and Ouija Board sessions, the girls will speak for her, embodying her perspective by pitting her/their voices against the appropriated or fictive historical records. The video will also include scenes of the girls, exploring their own nascent powers in a series of spectacular displays. Through these acts of identification, the “electric girls” will project a complex and contradictory portrait of Palladino. Electric Girls and the Invisible World will pose historical biography as a medium determined by the desires of its authors.

While her investigators cast her as an ignorant peasant, Palladino was a woman of remarkable ingenuity and sophistication, possessing an enormous amount of power for a woman in the Victorian era, whether her “powers” were real or not. The “electric girls” are at the cusp of puberty—an age of enormous emotional, physical and social change. Girls at this age possess a confidence that slightly older adolescents often struggle to maintain. Palladino herself was twelve years old when she first began to exhibit her uncanny powers. It is this combination of innocence and self-possession, which make the “electric girls” the ideal actors to portray Palladino.

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