Reviews

Excerpt from Clockwork 2000
PS1, New York, International Studio Programme Catalogue
Curatorial Statement by Roxana Marcoci, NY MOMA, pg13

Conjuring up a more intense psychic climate, the video installations of Susan MacWilliam, based on researches on trance and hysteria, point to the Surrealist idea of convulsive beauty. Hal Foster convincingly argued that Surrealist beauty is patterned on hysteria as an experience of the world convulsed. At the same time, he explained, “as before with automatism and later with paranoia,” the Surrealists revalued it “from ‘pathological phenomenon’ to ‘poetic discovery’”4. MacWilliam draws on the association of the artist with the hysteric to reinvest the feminine figure with qualities of mental distancing, hypnotic induction and clairvoyance. In a video from 1998, The Last Person, the heroine is Helen Duncan (1898-1956), a medium from Portsmouth who became the last woman to be prosecuted under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735. Staged in the artist’s studio, the video shows her posing as Duncan in a trancelike state. She emanates ectoplasm, a substance believed to [affect] telekinesis and analogous phenomena. Her body is transformed into a desublimated site of convulsive beauty. A different video piece, Faint, 1999, presents once again images of the artist, this time set in nature, posing as a fainting woman. Views of this psychic landscape are interposed with Baroque-style frames that delineate fragments of the artist’s body in manneristic poses. Located at the margins of the visible and the expressible, MacWilliam’s work suspends the rational in favour of the fantasmatic. Out of this condition she constructs a discourse that shatters the familiar paradigms of feminine identity.

4. Hal Foser, Compulsive Beauty (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1993), pg49-50
Review of Faint
Belfast News Letter
10th March, 1999, Ian Hill

Susan MacWilliam, Belfast-born, is now one of the four finalists for the Glen Dimplex Award, Ireland’s response to the prestigious and controversial Turner Prize, is an artist of international standing.

Her latest mesmeric and disturbing installation, Faint, at the Old Museum, developed during a residency at Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art, consists at one level of three sets of images, one a video projections, each of the other two composed of full carousels of 90 slides.

But Susan has done more than that. First the gallery has been painted a dusty pink and its walls enhanced with both a Victorian classical frieze and two hugely baroque plaster picture frames, each a wonderful parody of the real thing fashioned from builders’ expanding plaster. On far wall a young autumnal haired woman, Susan herself, in a petrol blue calf length dress, faints and faints again in a formal 18th century garden.

On the sound track a bird tweets, someone breathes. Left and right stills from a similar video parade, vignetted in the arcane frames – like flashes of memory – medium and close up shots of the same woman, and of her clothes, of a hand with or without a ring, a hand across breast, a hand across stomach. Occasionally shots show the detail of the interior of a stately home.

Thus in Faint, while Susan continues her exploration into Edwardian fascinations with mesmerism and trance, she now adds a deliberately voyeuristic soupcon of voyerusim, the scent of melodramatic intrigue as each viewer seeks their own narrative to flesh out the mysteries offered.
Faint at OMAC until March 31.
Review of Faint
CIRCA
Summer 1999, No 88, Page 47, Maeve Connolly

Faint, an installation by Susan MacWilliam at the Old Museum Arts Centre, incorporates video and slide projections. The decorative architectural features of the exhibition space, ornate mouldings and cornices, have been augmented and exaggerated in order to create a series of three ‘frames’ for these projections. A further level of framing is provided by the cardboard masks in front of each projector lens. The fragmented melodramatic narrative, which is played out in the video and slide images, is set in a walled garden or park. A red-haired woman swoons on a summery day, falling unconscious to the ground. The action is seen from numerous angles, including multiple close-ups of the woman’s body and several aerial shots of the park.

Most of the slide images are video stills but the sequence also includes shots of an ornately decorated interior, in which the woman faces a mirror. It is these ‘interior’ scenes which explain the faint, linking it to the memory or experience of some traumatic event. This restaging of cinematic clichés obviously calls to mind the work of Cindy Sherman. MacWilliam, however, goes beyond Sherman’s early reconstructions of film stills, exploiting the tension between the still and the moving image.

This complex work also addresses the notion of hysterical ‘excess’, theorised by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith among others. Melodramatic narratives are characterised by an excess of undischarged emotion which cannot be accommodated by the action and which is traditionally expressed through the music or mise-en-scéne. In Faint this narrative excess is displaced, not simply onto the body of the female hysteric, but literally onto the walls of the gallery.
Susan MacWilliam: Faint, Old Museum Arts Centre, March 1999
Review of Faint
Sunday Times
14th March 1999, Gavin Weston
  
The most elegant and bijou art space in Belfast gets a deft makeover in this quirky installation: unapologetically theatrical, complex, engaging and challenging, it also manages to be a complete hoot. There is nothing slapstick about her work, but MacWilliam is an artist blessed not only with conceptual and practical skills but also the ability to entertain. Crossing the portals of the Old Museum into Faint is, perhaps, a little what it might be like to tumble, headlong, through the looking glass alongside Alice; you half expect something daft and furry to jump out at you as you stand, somewhat dazed, before the sugar-pink walls and outrageously baroque mouldings made of that normally uncontrollable, gloopy expanding foam designed for filling holes and thwarting the business of small furry things, but not for sculpting volutes and filigrees. Such splendid if unlikely architectural details traverse each wall of the gallery and also surround photographic images to form grandiose picture, mirror or window frames. The images (video and slide) depict a woman (MacWilliam) in period costume and various elegant surroundings, looking troubled and distant. Against each backdrop she enacts a superbly romantic swoon. Carefully considered cinematic shots offer clues to this riddle, while a glorious cacophony of birdsong provides a fitting soundtrack. MacWilliam is simply doing what she does best – revelling in the vitally visual.
Two Irish artists on list of four for Glen Dimplex Award
The Irish Times
Thursday, January 7, 1999, Aidan Dunne
  
The four artists shortlisted for this year’s £15,000 Glen Dimplex Artist’s Award have been named. They are Irish artists Orla Barry and Susan MacWiliam, Hiroshi Sugimoto from Japan, and British artist Catherine Yass. They were selected from more than 70 nominees by a six-person jury chaired by Irish Museum of Modern Art curator Ms Brenda McParland.

Though 80 per cent of the nominated artists were Irish, only two Irish artists made it to the shortlist of four.

Wexford-born Orla Barry lives and works in Brussels. Her work takes the form of diaries, CDs and photographs.

Susan MacWilliam, from Belfast, works in a variety of media and is interested in the power of theatrical illusion. Her video, The Last Person, exhibited in Limerick last year, was inspired by the trial of a medium, Helen Duncan, who was the last person prosecuted under the British Witchcraft Act.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, born in Tokyo, is both the oldest and the most established artist on the shortlist. He is known for his beautiful black-and-white photographs.

Londoner Catherin Yass works with photography and video in explorations of the architectural environment. During last year’s Belfast Festival, she exhibited images of toilets and kitchens, prominently positioned in the foyer of the Waterfront Hall. Her idea was that these normally hidden parts of the building had spilled out into public view. In her exhibition, Invisible City, Tokyo was visible purely in terms of its electric light.

The work of all four features in an exhibition opening at the IMMA on May 28th, in advance of the presentation of the award to the overall winner. An additional, non-monetary award, for a sustained contribution to the visual arts, will also be made.

Besides Ms McParland, this year’s jury comprises Dr Margaret Downs, chairwoman of BUPA Ireland; Dr Paula Murphy, a UCD art history lecturer and IMMA board member, Mr Andrew Nairne, director of Dundee Contemporary Arts; Mr Hugh Mulholland, director of Belfast’s Ormeau Baths Gallery and Ms Catherine de Zegher, director of Kanaal Art Fundation, Belgium.

It is striking that no artist resident in the South is included on the shortlist. Another feature is the almost total dominance of photography and video, which is likely to reinforce the perception that the award is biased against painting and sculpture.
Excerpt from Review of EV+A ’98
Variant
Spring 1999, Pages 20-21, Orla Ryan


Located in a tax office, Susan MacWilliam’s ‘The Last Person’ is a strange and humorous reconstruction of the paranormal events surrounding one Helen Duncan (1898-1956). The video is based on Duncan’s trial A medium from Portsmouth, she “…was the last person to be prosecuted under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735”. The video uses the court reports as a narrative, recounted by a monotone male voice. The enigmatic qualities of MacWilliam’s video were expanded by its setting in the bureaucratic atmosphere of this ‘70s style Civil Service space.
Between Darkness and Light,
Contemporary Visual Arts
Issue 23, June 1999, Pages 36-41, Clare Doherty

The hysterical body, as signified by Charcot’s Salpêtrière nineteenth-century photographic iconography, was mimicked in early twentieth-century photographs by mediums such as Margery Crandon and Helen Duncan (the last person to be tried under the British Witchcraft Act in 1944).5 These curiosities (exhibited in Marina Warner’s exhibition The Inner Eye in 1996-7) are little more than awkward replicas of Charcot’s theatre of ecstasy.

Duncan’s contortions are replayed by artist Susan MacWilliam in her video work The Last Person, which relates directly to MacWilliam’s spirit photographs. MacWilliam’s studies of amateur productions of paranormal occurrences contrast with the slick special effects projected in Hiller’s installation, though both works indicate the cultural obsession with the representation of the ‘inner eye’ through external manifestations.

Sue MacWilliam’s The Last Person was shown in Haunted, as S1 Artspace, Sheffield, 24 January – 5 February. MacWilliam has been shortlisted for the Glen Dimplex Award; work by all of the nominees is on show in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, until 19 August.

5 See JM Charcot and G Didi-Huberman, Invention de l’hysteria: Charcot et l’iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière (Macula, Paris, 1982)
Make-their-minds-up time
Irish Times
14th July 1999, Aidan Dunne

The winner of this year's IMMA/Glen Dimplex visual arts prize will be announced tonight. These are the competitors.

Susan MacWilliam is a Belfast artist who works in a variety of media, often in a way that questions or subverts whatever medium she happens to be using at the time. Her installation Curtains at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin a couple of years ago mimicked a pair of theatrical curtains in meticulous, full-scale Plasticine relief, a feat of verisimilitude which seemed to imply that verisimilitude obscures rather than reveals the reality behind the curtain. Curtains was variously interpreted as a comment on the redundancy of virtuosity and mimesis in painting and sculpture, but one of its strengths was that it was open to a range of interpretations; it didn’t just illustrate a text.

Similarly, her video Faint is quite open to interpretation. It features MacWilliam herself seeing to faint repeatedly in a lush parkland setting. It's funny and fascinating and perplexing, and it intersects with the subject of another video work showing at IMMA, The Last Person, inspired by the trial of Portsmouth medium Helen Duncan in 1944. It seems incredible that Duncan was prosecuted under the British Witchcraft Act of 1735, but as MacWilliam documents it, that was the case. Court reports of her trial accompany images of the artist re-enacting the drama of a mediumistic trance, complete with ectoplasm. Though contemporary, in means and ends, MacWiliam’s work does cumulatively project a sense of a distinctive, Gothic sensibility, of an artist drawn down obscure, revealing avenues of the past.

Prospects: Apparently locked in an obsessive, one-sided infatuation with video, the art world is blithely forgiving of the kind of shortcomings that simply wouldn’t be countenanced in television, theatre or film. While The Last Person imaginatively broaches fascinating material, it is more like a rough draft than a finished work. Faint is better, and suggest that MacWilliam is learning fast. Her presence on the list might be a little premature, but if Yass is the favourite, she is a close second.
Review of Curtains
Art Monthly,
No 208, 1997, July/Aug, Pages 31-32, Mark Orange


Curtains develops a play on presentational devices of painting and theatre that Susan MacWilliam has been exploring over the past three years or so. In Disco, shown in 1995, a canvas was presented as emerging dramatically from between a set of electric blue stage curtains, illuminated from above by a spotlight, and making the end wall of the gallery space at Catalyst Arts resemble a proscenium. Small pairs of shoes, the same glittering red as the canvas, poked out from behind the curtain at floor level.

Here, things have been rendered more formally cool for a space that already operates as both gallery and theatre, a fact that the artist exploits. Three large works (8x12ft each) — blue, red and green and of increasing degrees of decorative elaborateness as you pan from left to right on entering the space — only read as fabric curtains briefly. Their medium is actually plasticine on canvas that has been rolled, folded and moulded to suggest fancy pleated cinema or theatrical drapery. The surface of the canvas is covered with a layer of the stuff, finger and thumb prints the evidence of the process of its application. The smoother folds and pleats emerge out of this surface, projecting as a shallow relief of around three inches. Forty square canvases, a three-quarter-inch gap between them, actually make up each of the three curtains - the folds, arcs and swoops of the 'fabric' broken by, then continued, the other side of these gaps. The reference may be to classical sculptural reliefs, modelled in sections before being applied to the architecture that they were designed to decorate and, of course, often using drapery to suggest a fullness and depth that was not actually there. Here, the depicted objects — curtains — already make reference to illusion or to the suggestion of something 'behind' whose eventual appearance is anticipated. But looking through the gaps only reveals mirror plates and the wall to which they are attached. These low reliefs are more a development of painting than of shallow relief sculpture: the canvases act as nagging reminders of at least one of Judd's 'several limits of painting', and plasticine is like paint extended anyway — paint that does not dry as much as clay that does not harden. Or as Greenberg might have put it, paint made opaque, its 'proper character' emphasised.

It was Greenberg actually who envisaged the task of the visual arts as one of excluding 'literature' which, for three centuries had dominated the other arts, forcing them to conceal their intrinsic properties. So this work could be seen as some sort of comically mistimed avant-garde manoeuvre by a visual, artist against the Dublin literary/theatrical tradition. Or as a comment on the 'pervasiveness of the spectacle' (cinema as that aspect of the leisure industry which is alienating, non-participatory, stupefying, etc) taking us literally to the threshold of spectacular space but pulling back and proceeding to make some kind of bravura demonstration of the hands-on, plastic, material joy of modelling in paint, clay, plasticine or whatever. This aspect of the use of plasticine is emphasised here, the volume of it, for instance, reaches a kind of joyous critical mass; the colours are the three primaries of plasticine — snot-green, pinky-red, aqua blue — which we all remember turn that kind of grey-brown mess when mixed. The sense of a special technique devised for working the stuff is there in the work too, suggesting hours of meditative absorption in the studio.

But that is only half the story here, surely. Theatrical curtains are there to give symbolic form to the passage from the material world to another, fictive, dimension and making such a big deal of their materiality must also celebrate pleasure taken in what goes on on both sides of the curtain. Apart from the suggestion that rendering their fabric in plasticine indicates some kind of desire for a sublime that is both formed and formless and is an essential part of the cinematic experience, the material's associative and literary meanings have to be taken account of too. Modelled forms inevitably take on a greasy and animated volition of their own — a Tony Hart morphology — that goes way beyond the stage of distended paint. Last year MacWilliam made a piece for a Halloween night exhibition at a 'haunted' house just out-side Belfast. In an empty room upstairs, again dramatically spotlit as if for the opening or closing scene of a play, a cuddly bunny lay with its stomach slit-open, its spilt guts gleefully modelled in plasticine. Any material pleasure to be had there could only have been pretty sick and offered proof, finally, of the corrupting influence of cinema and theatre on impressionable minds.

Mark Orange is an artist based in Belfast.
Three of the Best – Venice Biennale Monographs
Art World
Issue 11, June/July, Page 109, EB
  
Remote Viewing
By Susan MacWilliam, Black Dog Publishing, £19.95, 144pp, www.blackdogonline.com

It’s one feat to produce a catalogue before the Venice Biennale but another to offer a carefully designed monograph as well. Indeed, the fragmented and elusive nature of MacWiIlliam’s materials – her investigations into parapsychology – and her clever video-editing come across clearly through the publication’s ingenious layout. Remote Viewing is the artist’s first significant book and includes a list of earlier works as well as new pieces. EB
Future Greats
Art Review
March 2009, Issue 30, Page 88, Brian Dillon

Susan MacWilliam
Contemporary art is overstocked with spooks. The well-scried realm of photography and the occult (to take only the most obvious example) is conjured too readily in works that evoke the spiritualist sessions of the mid-to-late nineteenth century – with all their dispiriting paraphernalia of hand-drawn ‘apparitions’ and ‘ectoplasm’ bought by the yard at the haberdasher’s – only to have them flit away again like phantoms as the artist moves on to other antiquarian oddities: photographs of Victorian hysterics, say, or poetics of the found snapshot. It takes an artist of rare insight and stamina – not to say a more expansive understanding of what ‘the occult’ might signify – to stick with this stuff and draw more from it than a simply unsettling glimpse of the intimacy of science and superstition, art and pure quackery.

Susan MacWilliam has both the insight and the stamina: also a more rigorous sense than most of the history of the field on which she enters patiently, delicately and with a keen eye for the absurdities of her subject. For several years, the Belfast-based artist has been making videos and installations that reanimate certain key episodes in the history of séances and mediumship. In The Last Person (1998), the artist posed as a medium, summoning the shade of Helen Duncan, the last person to be tried (in 1944) under the Witchcraft Act. In Kuda Bux (2003), she restages demonstrations by a New York mystic, in the 1930s and 1940s, of ‘eyeless sight’. In her three-screen DVD installation Eileen (2008), the aged daughter of celebrated Irish medium Eileen J. Garrett recalls key episodes from her mother’s life.

Representing Northern Ireland at the Venice Biennale this year, MacWilliam will show F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N, a film examining the manifestation of an ectoplasmic text on the wall of a séance cabinet in Winnipeg in 1931. The word that appeared was ‘Flammarion': the name of onetime President of the Society for Psychical Research in London. MacWilliam comes at this unconvincing episode via encounters with parapsychologists and descendants of those present, tracking the printed and photographic evidence for the event through archives and interviews. One of the uncanny effects of her approach is that she has at this stage insinuated herself quite some way into the occult community, become a trusted collaborator of its delusional members. She has begun to speak their language, and at the time of writing was busy constructing a séance cabinet in her studio.
Susan MacWilliam, Eileen
CIRCA
Autumn 2008, Issue 125, Pages 86/87, Riann Coulter

Interfering voices and invading spirits is how Eileen Garrett (1893 – 1970) described her early experiences of her psychic powers. After spending an hour in Susan MacWilliam’s exhibition Eileen, I felt a certain empathy with the famous Irish-born medium. The dark confines of the Gimpel Fils downstairs space is the perfect setting for the five pieces that make up the show. The longest and most engaging piece, a 29-minute video also entitled Eileen, explores Garrett’s world through a collage of sound, image and text presented on three screens. Flicking between documentary-style interviews and discordant passages involving repetition and competing voices, the woven texture of the piece disrupts our desire for coherent narrative and creates a multilayered
work that evokes the mysteries of the psychic world.

Divided into chapters, the video examines particular psychic episodes, including one in 1936 in which Garrett successfully dealt with poltergeists that were haunting an English stately home. Other sections mention the numerous celebrities who befriended Garrett – from Dalí and Deitrich to Huxley and Fellini – and her ability to restore and reassure those who consulted her on psychic matters.

The star of this piece – and the show – is Garrett’s 92-year-old daughter, Eileen Coly, who, in a disarmingly forthright manner, shares her weird and wonderful stories of growing up with a medium for a mother. Having inherited Garrett’s charisma, if not her psychic powers, Coly mediates between the artist, the viewer, and her mother’s world. In effect, MacWilliam’s subject is the two Eileens, and attempts to conjure up Garrett are often upstaged by her engaging daughter.

A continuation of MacWilliam’s long-term research into the psychic world, mediums and the supernatural, this exhibition is, surprisingly, her first solo show in London. The work is the result of a year-long residency at the Parapsychology Foundation in New York, the institution that Garrett founded in 1951 to encourage research into psychic phenomena. During her residency, MacWilliam lived with Coly and became close to both her and her daughter Lisette, friendships that are reflected in the casual familiarity of the interviews and images. Coly is also the subject of the stereoscopic image Medium’s Daughter, which depicts her sitting beside a photograph of her mother. Another stereoscope, Artist as Medium, is a self-portrait of the artist crouching among the bookshelves of the Parapsychology Foundation Library. This photographic format, which requires looking through binocular-like view finders, provides a keyhole view which feels particularly appropriate to MacWilliam’s mysterious subject matter.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Garrett’s story is that she always remained sceptical about her powers. The remit of the Parapsychology Foundation includes encouraging scientific studies of the paranormal, and this spirit of investigation is reflected in MacWilliam’s work, particularly the video piece Library.

Superficially, this piece appears to be a series of stills of the Parapsychology Foundation Library, but it is actually a video of the library shot in real time at night, accompanied by a soundtrack of the air conditioner that adds both a sense of foreboding and the suggestion that the library and the mystical books within it are living, breathing organisms.

With this exhibition running directly after a solo show by Seamus Harahan, the basement of Gimpel Fils has effectively been occupied by Northern Irish artists. While this schedule was a coincidence, the gallery’s interest in artists from Ireland extends back to 1945 when, during a visit to Dublin, Charles Gimpel admired the work of the young Louis le Brocquy at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. When le Brocquy moved to London a few months later, he began a relationship with Gimpel Fils which has lasted over sixty years. Considering this history, it is heartening that the gallery has expanded its interest to include a new generation of artists from Ireland.

Looking back over MacWilliam’s career, from her Glen Dimplex nomination in 1999 to her solo show in New York earlier this year, and the recent announcement that she will represent Northern Ireland in the next Venice Biennale, it would seem that the time is ripe for a major survey of her work. These recent pieces would benefit from being considered within the context of her ongoing interest in all things paranormal, and such a show would reveal the scope and depth of her inventive oeuvre. With another North American residency in her diary, MacWilliam is making a name for herself across the Atlantic: it is time she had a major show at home.

Riann Coulter is an academic and curator specialising in Irish and British art.
Susan MacWilliam, Jack The Pelican Presents
ArtForum
Summer 2008, Page 443, Michael Wilson

Artists who employ inherently intriguing subject matter set themselves a knotty challenge: how to avoid that fascination becoming the be-all and end-all of their work, leaving any individual twist looking superficial or superfluous next to its inspiration. The difficulty is most clearly discernable in “research art” – work made in direct response to its maker’s wonderstruck immersion in some (always colourful, frequently obscure, often historical) cultural artefact, incident, character, or site. The practice emerged concurrently with Conceptual art, but gained momentum in the bookish art of the 1990s via artists such as Tacita Dean and Simon Starling. Irish artist Susan MacWilliam, born in 1969, is not strictly part of this generation but her archive-based methodology is in tune with it, and she faces the same problem.

MacWilliam’s recent New York solo debut featured two video installations, Dermo Optics, 2006, and Explaining Magic to Mercer, 2005. Both works reflect the artist’s interest in parapsychology, a field on inquiry that she has pursued for more than ten years, an which last notably materialized in a contemporary art context as the theme of Creative Time’s 2006 group exhibition “Strange Powers.” Dermo Optics is an account of the artist’s visit with Dr. Yvonne Duplessis, director of the Centre de l’Information de Couleur in Paris and a researcher into eyeless sight, the perception of color via a sensation in the skin (touch is not necessarily involved). Explaining Magic to Mercer documents MacWilliam’s conversation with her five-year-old nephew about various figures from the history of this and other phenomena. Both works exploit strategies of focused obfuscation in an attempt to circumvent the aura of novelty that might otherwise restrict their effectiveness.

To make Dermo Optics, MacWilliam edited ninety [minutes] of footage down to a little over four minutes, additionally speeding up some segments and adding a gentle jazz sound track. The result frustrates any attempt to discern exactly how Duplessis’s experiments (some of which the artist takes part in as a test subject) function, but replaces such information with a subtle meditation on the psychology and atmosphere of these obscure proceedings that is more about the experience of immersive inquiry than about the demonstration or debunking of an eccentric-seeming theory. The video’s slightly overdetermined framing – a retro-styled sign spells out the title on a wall, and plastic-topped boxes modelled after the experiments’ homemade apparatus serve as seats – is its only real disappointment.

Explaining Magic also suffers from a fussy addition, in the form of an appended photograph and drawing, but is otherwise similarly effective in subverting our expectations. The video’s young subject is shown seated at a kitchen table, responding to the artist’s comments and questions in a manner at once interested and slightly distracted (he’s drawing at the same time, and often speaks without looking up from his work). That MacWilliam’s end of the exchange has been excised from the soundtrack but appears in the form of subtitle also suggest a division – between “magic” and the commonplace, but more significantly between individual modes and degrees of perception and comprehension. MacWilliam’s role here is ambiguous; the work’s title echoes Joseph Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965, but the artist is hardly a shaman. And while her project appears to have a pedagogic bent, the “information” she imparts generates more questions than answers. As does Dermo Optics, Explaining Magic exploits the byways of perception and the history of weird science as frameworks on which to construct a study of human interaction, explicable or otherwise.
Shaky Ground
Garageland
Issue 6, 2008, Cathy Lomax, pg48

Cathy Lomax on the blurry world of belief, where spirits communicate with the living and fiction becomes fact.

Strangely, despite this firm evidence against her powers, Helen Duncan became the last woman in Britain to be tried for witchcraft when in 1944 she materialised a wartime sailor whose sunken ship had not yet been announced. The authorities feared she might use her clairvoyant powers to reveal details of the D-Day landings and she was sentenced to nine months in prison.

Among the contemporary work in the show Susan MacWilliam’s 1998 video The Last Person has the most direct connection to the vintage material. It shows her subject pulling yard upon yard of white fabric from her mouth and various other orifices in a re-enactment of Helen Duncan’s cloth-swallowing act. MacWilliam researched Duncan’s séance room from the original archievs and the video is framed at start and finish by text about the trial. ‘I wished to create an image of the bizarre and the extraordinary… to re-theatricalise the space.’ Says MacWilliam ‘There is no attempt to make the imagery any more convincing than the historical images, nor was there any intention to parody it. It may appear that many of the mediums are regurgitating cheesecloth. If this is the case and they are swallowing and regurgitating several feet of cloth then this is in itself a highly powerful performative act.’

A review of Seeing is Believing at The Photographers' Gallery, 2007/2008
Photography and the Unreal
Time Out London
December 2007, Helen Sumpter

Since its invention, photography has had the ability to manipulate as well as manifest our view of the world around us, never more so than in the realms of the unreal. Faked photos of flying saucers, Loch Ness monsters, hairy yetis and Edwardian fairies are as important to the medium’s history as the capturing of a beautiful landscape. The Photographers’ Gallery’s ‘Seeing is Believing’ explores photography’s relationship to the spooky and the supernatural, in work by seven contemporary artists and a suite of older images from the the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature.

Britain’s best-known ghost investigator Price set up the National Laboratory of Psychical Research in 1925. He wanted to sort out the supernatural charlatans from the genuine psychics and photography played a vital role. In most of the images it’s hard to believe how any of the supernatural manifestations – females with mouths full of rolled-up cheesecloth purporting to be ectoplasm and sheet-like spooks dangling from suspended coat hangers among them – could have convinced anyone. But as historical documents of the pipe-smoking doctor and his activities they’re fascinating, not least in what the titles reveal: ‘DC Russell, amateur firewalker, after having his burns dressed’, almost says it all.
 
Despite the rich subject matter and creative potential of photography today, work by some of the contemporary artists seems slight by comparison. Surrounding her subjects with a fuzzy grey mist Clare Strand’s large-scale black-and-white ‘aura’ portraits of young people emit a feeling of depressive emptiness rather than energy. Tim Maul’s panel of 12 images highlighting hallways, doorways and windows in New York where psychic activity has been detected creates more of an atmosphere but is still too obvious an idea. More interesting and affecting is Susan MacWilliam’s video Explaining Magic to Mercer. On screen, the five-year-old boy Mercer is seen drawing at a table, while asking questions to the unseen artist about the special powers of subjects featured in her own artworks, including Mollie Fancher’s multiple personalities and the fingertip vision of Rosa Kuleshova. The occult subject matter and the shadowy presence of the artist somehow gives Mercer an unsettling authority.
 
The child’s uncanny resemblance to Damien from ‘The Omen’ movie doesn’t go unnoticed. At David Risley’s gallery, in Jonathan Allen’s exhibition about the German magician Helmut Schreiber, it’s not the supposedly psychic photographic imagery of hauntings that we’re asked to believe, but the notion that photographs and other objects have their own power to haunt. Born in 1903, Schreiber (stage name Kalanag) was a German magician and president of the German Magic Circle in the lead up to World War II. From the late 1940s to the early ’60s Kalanag toured the world with a successful magic and music spectacular. During the war however, Kalanag was closely associated with the upper echelons of the Nazi party including Goebbels, Göring and Hitler himself, details of which the showman was obviously keen to conceal, just as the magic community tried to disassociate itself from him. Allen’s exploration of the subject considers not only the power of photographic imagery, but also the problematic power of association.
 
A wall of framed photos shows Kalanag in various publicity and performance shots from throughout his career; levitating a lady on stage, posing in cowboy hat and cigar or as the great white hunter with Simbo the performing cheetah (apparently a gift from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie). In grainy archive footage, Kalanag is also seen performing for a seated Führer – for once not the main focus of attention – whose gaze, along with that of the audience around him, is directed towards the magician. It’s a contentious image, not only among the magic community – still conflicted between the distaste for Kalanag’s Nazi associations and acknowledgement of his achievements as a magician – but also for the obvious parallels between a magician’s power to enchant and a charismatic political leader or dictator’s ability to command and hold an audience. Accompanying the photographs Allen displays a vitrine containing a plain earthenware jar sat on its metal carrying case. The jar – a ‘lota vase’ – is an original Kalanag prop, used by the magician to provide a seemingly inexhaustible supply of water in his illusion ‘Waters from India’. Allen has added another layer of association to the story by reprinting the photos in the show in water that has passed through Kalanag’s vase – resulting in the images themselves being tainted by something that has touched their own past.
 
As an exhibition this is a rather brusque display and it’s a shame that the planned performance (the artist is himself a magician) couldn’t be funded for this show. Then again, perhaps minimal is appropriate. Seeing may be believing, but as with all illusions it’s not so much what’s there, but about the power to suggest what might be there.

'Seeing is Believing' continues at the Photographers' Gallery until Jan 27.
A Dark Noise
Artist’s Newsletter 
December 2007, Page 9, Slavka Sverakova


Susan MacWilliam’s intoxication with nature, life, art and magic is contagious. Explaining Magic to Mercer (2005) charms the soul by the responses to sophisticated adult talk by a fve year-old absorbed in drawing. The incongruity does not lead to a joke; on the contrary, it strips the ‘how we know’ bare. Both printed (the artist’s) and spoken (Mercer’s) words are related to earlier works investigating connections between visibility and invisibility. One of them Dermo Optics (2006), is a result of recording sessions in the Centre d’Information de la Couleur in Paris. Overwhelmed by the information on eyeless sight and fingertip vision, MacWilliam resolved to transfer that feeling to the viewer. She subtracted numerous frames (maybe ninety minutes into few seconds) to increase the subliminal vision – and, perhaps, to reduce the dark noise. The reward is very much worth having.
Explaining Magic to Mercer at the Katzen Arts Museum, DC
Artificeau
18th June 2007, Max Perry

Hidden within the various pieces that make up the show Resolutions: New Art from Northern Ireland, at the Katzen Museum, is a 13" television which sits atop a small pedestal. It is accompanied by two small drawings. The piece is called Explaining Magic to Mercer.

I have found The piece Explaining Magic to Mercer, by Susan MacWilliam to be absolutely fascinating. The piece consists of a video of a child drawing at a kitchen table while responding to an unheard voice. The voice, however, is seen by the viewer in the form of subtitles which appear at the bottom of the screen. The subtitles interact with the child in the form of strange tales about people with supernatural powers. The piece retains the viewer's interest because it can be interpreted in several different ways and because it is completely dependent on the viewer's own belief system as to its meaning, making it both mysterious and engaging, as well as highly interactive.

One of the pleasant things about the piece is that it is unclear who is teaching the child because of its construction. The "voice" at the bottom of the screen simply functions as "teacher". The subtitles suggest another's presence without giving away who or what that presence is. Were it not for the occasional look to his right which suggests another in the room, the viewer could interpret the subtitles as their own thoughts while reading or as the thoughts of the child's imagination, as he draws.
Regardless of the speculation involved with the mysterious subtitles, the piece is effective in its display of teaching magic. At no point does the child reject the possibility of the phenomenal. He embraces more at every turn. Thus tapping in to his own imagination which is the real magic referred to in the title.

As Mercer interacts with the voice, so must the viewer ask the question "what do I believe?"
Belfast: Four Video Artists Exploring Consciousness
Terminal
April-May 2007, Pages 41-42, Slavka Sverakova

I take it from neurology that our consciousness is shifting, developing, shrinking and so on. All four video artists – Fiona Larkin, Susan MacWilliam, Yaron Lapid, and Dan Shipsides – are concerned with attention, recognition, and action – the three basic steps in making connections that are, in turn, part of our conscious thought.
Lapid is situated at the "feeling" end; MacWilliam deals with "perceptual" issues; Larkin - with surprise and differences, and Shipsides - with fierce concepts capturing chance in order. Aside from this common ground, all four showed in Belfast ecently, and I had their work at hand.

[…]

Susan MacWilliam (b. Belfast, 1969) explores the eyeless vision, magic and séance media. In Explaining Magic to Mercer (2005) she documents her five-year old nephew, Mercer, busy writing and asking questions about the x-ray vision of Kuda Bux, the ectoplasmic materializations of the last witch – Helen Duncan, the multiple personalities of Mollie Fancher, and the fingertip vision of Rosa Kuleshova, all included in MacWilliam’s earlier video work. While we see and hear the questioning boy, the answering artist is neither visible nor audible. Her answers appear in writing at the edge of the image, i.e. in the editing stage.

Dermo Optics (2006) documents experiments carried out by Dr. Yvonne Duplessis at the Centre D’Information de Couleur in Paris. MacWilliam speeds up the video to convey to the viewer the feeling of being overwhelmed by information. Her video art explores what is credible, visible, real, and imagined, and what is not.

MacWilliam and Dan Shipsides (b. Lancashire, 1972) participated in an exhibition at the Herzliya Musuem of Art near Tel Aviv in 2002. Their use of the camera is very different. While editing, MacWilliam trusts her instincts to establish the rhythm of the flow of images. Shipsides lets his own performing body decide that - no cuts, no edits.

[…]

All four artists explore consciousness; its qualities are beyond their control. A great deal of scientific research offers valuable external observation of brain and mind. But the dense specificity of personal experience, the intensely private and subjective consciousness of it, is a first-person business. Art has a special take on such temporary assemblies.

Dr. Slavka Sverakova With several degrees in the fields of Aesthetics, Art History, and Theory of Art, she spent her working life at Universities in Czechoslovakia and the UK. Retired academic, at present an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Ulster, Belfast, member of AICA. Research interests: 20th century art and design; contemporary art practices; 15th century European art and architecture; aesthetics.
Review of Headbox
Irish Times
September 15th, 2004, Aidan Dunne

Susan MacWilliam:Headbox, Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin until October 9th

SusanMacWilliam’s stark, austere installation at Temple Bar Gallery, called Headbox, is another product of her fascination with perception and paranormal phenomena. This time she has converted the gallery into a kind of laboratory. Sets of functional plywood paraphernalia place us in the position of experimental subjects. As an experience it’s disquieting and even perplexing. She captures the feeling of being objects of inquiry and scrutiny.

All of the objects concern the case of the Russian woman, Rosa Kuleshova, who attracted the attention of researchers in the 1960s because of her apparent ability to read with her fingertips. Scientists came up with a number of devices to prevent Kuleshova using her eyes in a series of experiments designed to establish whether she could really see with her fingers.

MacWilliam incorporates a video in which a subject takes the position of Kuleshova, putting her arms through openings in a plywood screen and deftly cutting out images of herself, following the contours and equipping her cut-outs, Blue Peter-style, with paper versions of the real-life experimental paraphernalia, including a huge collar.

Is there an implication here that experiments find what they want to find? As we step into Kuleshova’s shoes, so to speak, in situations of confinement, MacWilliam provides an audio background that subtly underscores a sense of isolation. She is more interested in the experimental process than the idea of veracity. But her installation brings to mind a landmark experiment in which scientists grafted a gene encoded with instructions for making an eye onto the leg of a fruit fly. The fruit fly duly grew an eye on its leg.
Review of Headbox
Art Monthly
No. 280, 2004, October, Page 280, Niamh Ann Kelly

When idea and form melt into each other in an art installation the overall sense of bisual and spatial unity can echo the harmony usually reserved for a single piece of work. The synchronicity immediately apparent on entering Susan MacWilliam’s new exhibition at Temple Bar Gallery, Headbox reflects this happy meeting of intention and its visible, tangible signs.

A series of neatly formed boxes of differing shapes made from plywood and white wood are scattered around the exhibition space. These house video monitors, viewing glasses and speakers as well as providing seating, steps and wall handles. To one side of the gallery, a raised wooden platform showcases a table with two chairs set at either end, and into which is built an odd-looking wooden screen, all made of light wood. In order to see the work the viewer must become part of the exhibit: straining to peer into wall-boxes, stepping up onto viewing stands, twisting to hold onto wall handles, squatting on the ground or simply sitting in front of a set of monitors.

The inspiration for this installation began with the story of the Russian Rosa Kuleshova who in the 60s demonstrated a noteworthy ability to read and see through her fingertips. This brought her to the attention of various scientists who went about inventing a series of objects to block her vision and test her capacity. These objects included paper collars for her neck, blacked out eye-goggles and screens with armholes, such as the one emulated by MacWilliam on her raised table.

In three video pieces, running concurrently and presented side-by-side on a curved display unit, an anonymous figure is seen re-enacting the activities of the Kuleshova experiments. Arms appear through a wooden screen and proceed to use scissors to cut out paper images of Kuleshova from the 60s, to feel a colour wheel and to set up a 3D mode comprising cut-outs. These cycles are interspersed with a short sequence depicting an open blue sky through which starlings suddenly swoop and demonstrate their astonishingly quick and graceful flight formations. The contrast between the artificial context of the restaged experiments and the natural manifestations of the birds’ instinctive positioning is stark and serves to give further emphasis to the constructed environment of the gallery space.

Through goggles set back in wall-boxes, the viewer can also see black and white images of maquettes of the various wooden forms in the installation or an image of a pair of scissors sitting inanimately with paper. Within these boxes, the viewer is immersed in a mini-gallery experience, as sound from speakers at either side augments a sense of separation of the head from the body. By contrast, a small monitor set on the ground in front of the large gallery window displays a uniform velvety blackness, from which a hand slowly emerges, seems to search around, before retreating again into the darkness.

The newness and aesthetic neutrality of the materials in Headbox, the self-referential qualities of the content, along with a strong spatial and aural awareness signal a departure in MacWilliam’s work. In 1999 she was a recipient of a PS1 residency in New York and was also shortlisted for the Glen Dimplex Award. At this time, she was using her art practice to expand upon her interest in the paranormal and using that interest to expand her art practice by means of exploring the interaction between so-called science and the inexplicable. Her musings in various media produced such works as Faint, 1999, Experiment M, 2001 and After Image, 2002.  Winner of Perspective 2003, for Kuda Bux, her works are often concerned with portraying a re-enactment of a moment of visual or mental slippage or exploring the various means and methods used to try to understand such phenomena. In Headbox, MacWilliam’s purpose-built objects take her oeuvre an all-important step further: here her own making has taken precedence over the story she tells. She has emulated the uniqueness of the tale to which she refers, by creating an equivalence between the apparatuses and paraphernalia devised then and those that she has designed and crafted more recently.

Having invited the viewer to become an active agent in the installation MacWilliam then denies one interaction: the raised table and chairs are not for sitting at or on. The wooden form of a colour wheel and the screen on the table are frustratingly inaccessible. Up to this point the viewer seems to be the subject of an experiment, only to be excluded from one final test. But then Kuleshova was denied the use of her eyes in order to find out what her fingers might see.

Niamh Ann Kelly is an art writer and lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology.
Streetwise
Irish Times
2003, Aidan Dunne

The Ormeau Baths Gallery’s annual open submission exhibition, Perspective, has progressively drawn in artists from farther and farther afield. It’s gratifying that this year’s selection, by Enrique Juncosa, director of IMMA, includes a substantial quotient of not entirely predictable work by Irish artists, as it is that this year’s award winner, Susan MacWilliam, is both Irish and a particularly good choice. She is a good choice not only because she has devised and delivered a characteristic and striking installation but also because she has on occasion been underrated and overlooked.

Here she infuses the aura-free interior of the Ormeau Baths with an air of strangeness in a work that draws on her fascination with the occult and perceptions of psychic phenomena. An approximation of a 1950s US living room frames an evocation of the Indian-born New York mystic Kuda Bux, the “man with X-ray eyes” who convinced audiences he could see perfectly while blindfolded.

There is a typically forensic quality to MacWilliam’s assembly and display of the evidence. She relishes the pungency of things themselves old and musty and steeped in history. Bux’s apparently uncanny ability, which speaks to our need for mystery, is subsumed into a culture of entertainment and celebrity.
Images captured under an impossibly blue Ulster sky
The Irish Times
24th April 2002, Page 12, Aidan Dunne

Susan MacWilliam’s exhibition On The Eye at the Butler Gallery is made up of four distinct pieces, but three of them overlap and interconnect in such a mutually enriching way that they comprise a virtual composite, a consistent, overall experience. These three pieces are video installations, and all are extremely atmospheric, an habitual strength of MacWilliam’s work. The last piece, a series of still stereoscopic images, exhibits another habitual quality, a hard-edged, forensic detachment.

Photographed in Belfast under piercing bright light and against an impossibly blue sky – the proverbial blue sky of Ulster? – they feature commercial signs and functional objects, respectively illustrative of the decorative and the functional. Given the way the images are presented in a series of stereoscopic viewers, there could also be anthropomorphic implications. That is to say, we could read these resolutely unpeopled scenes as symbolising human attributes, but while certainly plausible, such a symbolism is oblique and unforced.

MacWilliam, born in Belfast and still based there, is a young artist whose work has long evidenced a fascination with the optical technologies of the exploratory period of photography and the moving image. Historically, and very much in her work, this period coincides with interest in the unconscious and occult phenomena, concerns that were often, it seems, related to a distinctly male unease with what is or might be going on in women’s heads and bodies.

It would be unfair to describe the video pieces at the Butler, because their striking pervasive sense of brooding mystery derives in part from the uncertainty of what we are, at various stages, looking at. But, without being specific about sequence and progression, it is noticeable that the thick, opaque mist that covers the lush, drenched mountain landscape in one piece, and the white-hot strands of lightning in another, oddly but unmistakably recall the ectoplasmic white stuff that featured in an earlier piece about the Portsmouth medium Helen Duncan. All refer to the uncanny, to some-thing unseen that becomes momentarily and, for various reasons, strangely visible. The flickering patterns of a rotating fan in the third piece echo the zoetrope an early device for creating the illusion of moving images, that MacWilliam has used previously. You are not likely to see this show in its present form anywhere else – it depends on the physical design of the gallery – so it is well worth the effort of catching it here.
Susan Will Catch Your Eye 
Irish News
April 19th 2003, Page 40, Jenny Lee

The projected video images by Susan MacWilliam in her exhibition On The Eye can’t help but catch the eye.

The vibrant images of a tropical forest with a haze of thick steam obscuring the landscape, the flicker of a strobe reveals itself on a rotating fan and lightning flashes over a city skyline. There is no denying the fact that this exhibition, where reflected light is an integral aspect of the work, is an intensely atmospheric experience.

MacWilliam built the work from video footage shot during art residencies in New York and Trinidad. “I want my work to be interesting to the eye, brain and challenge perception,” she said.

“I’m interested in constructing arresting, engaging, visual images. I am satisfied when people are intrigued enough to want to continue watching my installation to see what happens and are slightly mesmerised by the outcome.”

MacWilliam’s interest in photography, visual perception, after image and how people read depth and movement are all explored though her three works Mountain Mist, Fan and Lightning Storm.

Images are revealed and obscured over time, audio repetition is used to echo the edited footage and the tracks overlap to build up a dense aural image of interior and exterior spaces.

Bringing out her creative energy, MacWilliam is grateful to the two residencies she has had and expressed a deep desire to do more.

“Spending time in another location you see things differently. It is also interesting to gather material at a time being unsure of how you will use and develop them at a later point,” she said.

She attended New York on a Northern Ireland Arts Council sponsored residency in 1999/2000.

“It was for a year and gave me a great opportunity to concentrate on my video work as well as see the current, contemporary and historical video art in the city and attend some massive galleries,” said MacWilliam. She also got the opportunity to have dialogue with other artists from around the world.

Her second residency in Trinidad was for six weeks in 2001. This residency was the result of her exhibition in Limerick at the annual EV+A show where her video and installation impressed the international curators.

“Trinidad was significantly different, both culturally and in terms of the landscape. I went during the rainy season, though it was still very hot. One of the video pieces shot depicts this, showing a view of the mountain with the mist rising.”

The footage for Lightning Storm was shot in New York but involved a lot of editing afterwards, which is a feature of MacWilliam’s work.

“I duplicated lightning bolts and added frames so the actual lightning storm was magnified and repeated,” she said.

What MacWilliam was looking to achieve in this piece was for the viewer to question whether the lightning storm was real or an illusion.

The same applies with the mountain mist and fan. MacWilliam added layers, slowing down and speeding up the editing of the piece and adding light creating a very atmospheric and sometimes confused effect.

Each piece also has an accompanying audio soundtrack, which was also recorded while she was on residency.

“I overlap the sounds and images and challenge viewers to think about how you look at things and how images are revealed over a period of time It is about the ideas of illusion, perception and how we see,” she explains.

Mainly due to the heat in Trinidad and the mass of overhead fans in every building, MacWilliam was inspired to look closer at this subject matter.

“I have always had an interest in how the moving image was made and I investigated how motion and the movement of blades distorts the images penetrated to us.”

In Fan, MacWilliam creates flickering/strobing effect when the blade of the fan cuts out the light.

“I work for a very long time on each piece and get very immersed in the work, but it is interesting to reach the point where you resolve a piece of work and seeing the end result,” said the artist.

MacWilliam had a traditional back ground in art, studying fine art at Manchester and working as a painter before moving to sculpture and then moving image.

Her move into this medium has opened up a whole new area of work and lead MacWilliam into a whole new course of “different and exciting research.”

“I have been intrigued by slightly odd myths, stories and spiritualism."

“Last year I constructed a piece based on the myth of the late 1800s that when a person died, if you opened their eyes you would see the last image they saw before they died,” explains MacWilliam.

At the moment she is researching a new body of work about a magician who worked in New York in the 1950s who was apparently able to see even though his head was bandaged. “I found a photo of this magician and was inspired to research it further because it was off and interesting.”
Susan MacWilliam
Sculptors’ Society of Ireland Newsletter
Jun/July/Aug 2003, Page 25, Cherie Driver

Your photography is a record of your living, for anyone who really sees. You may see and be affected by other people’s ways, you may even use them to find your own, but you will have eventually to free yourself of them, this is what Nietzche meant when he said, “I have just read Schopenhauer, now I have to get rid of him.” He knew how insidious other people’s ways could be, particularly those which have the forcefulness of profound experience, if you let them get between you and your own vision1.

VISION is an active process. Seeing is passive. ‘Gaze analysis’ confirms how vision simultaneously builds an epitome from what the brain observes from fragments of information to construct images and ultimately, reality. When you look at an object or a scene you actually only see a very small part at any one instant. Moving your centre of gaze expands what you see, thereby constructing images and realities. It is with a forceful construction of profound experience between the participant and the process of vision through disorientating the senses, which did challenge perception, time and reality in the installation On The Eye. Unlike Nietzsche’s sentiment toward Schopenhauer this is a favourable experience and an impressive black-out installation of three projected video works by Susan MacWilliam. Using video footage shot while on residencies in New York and Trinidad. Mountain Mist is the first video screen projection you see on entering the gallery. Emerging from a mesmerising hazy screen, an atmospheric lush unperturbed verdant tropical forest landscape, initially intersects the frame diagonally. Birds emerge and circle through the must unveiling further forms within the landscape, their sound can be heard among us in the space. Rising and ascending, it is the mist that indicates that this is not real time. The artist has through a passion for the instruments of optical and aural technology engaged in disrupting notions of time and reality, disorientating any initial perceptions we had.

Pulsating light and sound draws you to the second video installation, Fan. A buzzing flicker of off white light indicates rotation at high speed. The camera pans and hovers within the weathered space to corner cracks. Rotating lines become apparent, forward and backward, again indicating interference in real time. Zooming in and out, fast and slow, at one point the black line tape which activates the mechanism is the only consistency as light movements and patterns indicate obscurities. Consistently the humming throbbing sound of the fan reminds us that we are in the same location, as the camera pans across surfaces bombarded by shredded light.

Sounds within the space are an integral element of the sensations experienced in this installation. Claps of thunder, singing birds and sirens wailing and honking turn my attention to the third projections, Lighting Storm. From darkness an emerging cityscape at night, is cut by a plane descending across the sky line. Blue flashes light the city, and the thunder rolls, bellows and claps. Blue light bleeds and saturates the projection screen, and the thunder rumbles, voices are obscured and pulsating fork lightning scratches the skyline.

There is an after image that stays with you even after you have stopped looking at the projections themselves. Although I have addressed each piece individually above there is an intersection of sound and light in the installation, a space where the after image dwells and where ghostly images are seen and heard.

A prolific artist, Susan MacWilliam has exhibited extensively, both nationally and internationally. What is also explicit about MacWilliam is her processes of both extensive library-based research and her overwhelming commitment to the work and the processes of the work. Beyond the work on view there has been for over ten years recurring points of reference explored, and extensive research carried out, among which is photography, video, sound, visual perception (examining how we read image, depth and movement), after image, spiritualism, materialisation medium, trance, hysteria and psychology. This is matched with an equal explorative curiosity and an innovative and proficient ability with technical processes of optical and sound equipment. This continuing and developing approach can be seen by looking at earlier work such as 45 rpm (2000), also a video work it is the presentation of a spinning zoetrope. Inside the zoetrope are images of the artist repeatedly raising her hand to her forehead, which is a gesture the artist had done in an earlier work, Faint (1999).

The visual and the audio is not only a record for this artist. What is made explicit through the work for the participant is the presence of one’s own vision and its active process through a sensory bombardment which is disruptive, challenging and engaging.

Cherie Driver is a researcher, artist, and co-director of Catalyst Arts in Belfast / Susan MacWilliam is an artist resident in Belfast.
On the Eye was on show at the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast April – May 2003. The writer would like to thank the artist for making time to talk about the work and her practice.

1 Paul Strand quoted in Susan Sontag, On Photography, (London: Penguin 1971), p183
Appropriation
Sunday Times – Culture Ireland Section
5th May 2002, Pages 16-17, Medb Ruane

The eyeball-slicing moment in Luis Bunuel’s 1929 film debut Un Chien Andalou is just one of the grisly references in Susan MacWilliam’s work, in this case short moving images that set the viewer up to expect something along the lines of Bunuel’s surrealist shock tactics.


What the viewer ends up getting is thankfully less visceral, but the yuck factor is darker in after-effect, as the story MacWilliam tells sinks in. It’s about a long discredited theory that the last image a person sees is imprinted on the retina and thus possible to extract of reproduce.


White coats give a passing semblance of authority. Eyeballs, guillotines and the myths that passed for scientific investigation feature. MacWilliam’s unerring sense of where to walk the line between superstition and science, between the faintly credible and the faith-healing powers of belief, lets the piece grow with a mix of seduction and scariness.


Appropriation runs at Ormeau Baths Gallery Belfast until May 25th
EV+A 2002
Art Monthly, Issue 256
May 2002, Page 43, Daniel Jewesbury

Susan MacWilliam’s two sets of untitled stereoscopic images are also arresting, particularly the colour series, in which a young woman in opulent Victorian dress lies inexplicably amongst lush undergrowth. The voyeuristic feeling evoked by looking into the ‘What the Butler Saw’ – type assemblages that house MacWilliam’s images is heightened by this peculiar subject matter. Floating in lurid, colour-saturated 3D, manipulated by the viewer’s own movements, the images take on an almost pornographic quality.
Button
Tripp/Kearney/MacWilliam
Cornerhouse, Manchester
The Guardian
15th October 2001, Robert Clarke

Susan MacWilliam contrives artful half-truths to look into the predictably ambiguous realms of the occult. Video clips capture actors swooning, fainting and chomping on fake ectoplasm. Close-ups of bound and wriggling hands are shot in melodramatic black and white. It is difficult to see how such images say more about the veracity of psychic recordings than would clips from any number of countless silent ghost films. But MacWilliam’s 3D images of a woman lying in the undergrowth are something else. The voyeuristic furtiveness of viewing through 3D glasses and the super-focus of the effects add up to something both disturbing and enchanting.
Dominant Style/Variant Practices: Photography and Contemporary Art in Ireland
Source, No.20
Autumn 1999, Justin Carville

[…] But it is also partly due to art institutions, both public and private, engendering an art practice which is more familiar on a universal level to the general museum/gallery goer. As a result young Irish artists are increasingly looking to Europe for both professional merit and financial success. This has not only had an effect on the types of media Irish artists are using but also the content of much of their work.

This is illustrated in the presentation of this year’s Glen Dimplex nominees at IMMA. Susan MacWilliam’s work The Last Person and the set of three ‘stereographs’ which comprised her award exhibition, did not receive the critical commentary in press reviews that the subject matter probably warranted. Her engagement with spiritualism is indicative of a recent trend amongst a number of European and North American artists and academics who have attempted to re-articulate the role of photography in spiritualism since the turn of the century. However, MacWilliam’s ‘stereoscopic’ images of ectoplasmic excretions are explained away through recourse to their construction. Attention is focused on defining what a stereoscopic image is, and how it is put together rather than its significance in the history of visual perception. The introduction of the stereoscope in the 19th century, marked a substantial shift in the experience of the photographic image and played a major role in introducing colonial, ethnographic and pornographic imagery to the public on a mass scale. The stereoscope was the virtual display unit of the Victorian era, and for at least two decades of the century it became the predominant mode for viewing the photographic image.

The stereoscope was a particularly favoured format for precisely the type of subject matter that MacWilliam’s piece addresses; phantasmagoria and the supernatural, as well as erotica, pornography and anything to do with the uncanny and the spectacular. Any subject which has more associated with myth and mysticism rather than the physical world was mass reproduced as a stereograph.

The introduction of the stereoscope also brought certain anxieties concerning the photographic image into the public sphere, the viewer was suddenly confronted with subjects which ‘common sense’ dictated as questionable, but the technological presentation created the illusion that the subjects of the photographs were physically tangible. The viewing experience was thus impinged with the spatial paradoxes of contiguity and distance as well as the more visually apparent, illusion and reality. These paradoxes came about not through the viewers’ experience of the photographic image itself, but their experience of it through the optical apparatus of the stereoscope. It is precisely this experience which MacWilliams’s work sets out to evoke. The viewer is effectively alienated from the established experience of the photographic image in a gallery/museum setting. Yet the presentation of this individual piece at IMMA merely collapsed the critical concerns of the work into its technological parts. The anxieties of vision, subjectivity, illusion and reality which cut across MacWilliams’s work fall into ineffability within the space of the museum.

This may see a moot point, but the way museums and galleries present or promote bodies of work will affect the way the public perceives and tries to make sense of the art object. Any objects which appears within the white walls of the museum gallery is necessarily co-authored through curatorial policy, and exists somewhere between the intentions of the artist and the demands of the institution. As a result the critical and political concerns which may cut across certain art works are effectively silenced and collapsed into aestheticism.
Catalogue Essay
EV+A 2001 Expanded
2001, Page 17, Salah Hassan

Susan MacWilliam has submitted video works of technical accomplishment that explore the diverse social and scientific history of the image in modernism. Significantly, this image is not simply the physical but also the psychical. The zoetrope, an early device that produced a moving image, is presented along with a recreation of a mediumistic phenomenon. The history of the image under modernism is pluralised; it is not simply the rational project of an increasing mastery of the physics of optics, but has profound ‘parasitic’ mythical and sexual dimensions. MacWilliam’s sensitive investigation of both these projects makes us aware, if only through the echo of earlier developments of the image in modern life, of the deeply ambivalent and extraordinary valences of society in contemporary media.
The Persistence of Vision
NYarts Magazine
July-Aug 2000, Steph Pasquini

Susa MacWilliam, from Belfast, Northern Ireland, is one of the artists in the 1999/2000 International Studio Program at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center. I asked her a few questions regarding her stay in New York and her work.
 
SP- The video you showed at PS1 seems the result of a very long thinking process, can you tell me more about it?

SMW – “The Persistence of Vision” (PAL digital video, 7mins40secs, B+W, Colour and Sound)is based off the case of Mollie Fancher and references ideas about the retention of images, sensation, and space and location. The video uses footage shot in New York, Cape Cod, and Ohio. The imagery moves from one space to another, from interior to exterior shots. Mollie Fancher lived in Brooklyn, New York. In 1866, at the age of 17, following a fall from a horse and from a streetcar she sustained injuries that kept her bedridden for 50 years. Throughout this time she went into trance and spasms and multiple personalities exhibited themselves. Although Mollie was technically and medically blind her “vision” persisted and she was able to see clairvoyantly. To convey ideas of clair voyance the imagery moves through internal and external spaces and transitional dissolvences are used to suggest movement through and time and normal barriers. The video is in both black and white and colour. The soundtrack is of a thunderstorm; thunder claps induced deep trances in Mollie. Images of myself posing as the sleeping or entranced invalid reappear throughout the work. Landscapes and sea vistas, flowers and architectural spaces such as stairwells feature in the work. Images of flying birds emerge from and dissolves over these images as if transcending the normal confines of such spaces. This work continues my research into spiritualism, trance, hysteria and psychology. My work often involves a great deal of library based research, where I read texts, old newspapers, medical documents, psychical research documents and texts on psychology. It was during my research into another case at the New York Central Reference Library that I came across a book called the “Brooklyn Enigma”, the title intrigued me and also the location, this book was about the case of Mollie Fancher.

SP – How did you find your residency at PS1?

SMW – The residency at PS1 was supported and funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (based in Belfast) and the Irish American Cultural Institute (based in New Jersey). They rent the studio from PS1 and provide me with an apartment, a stipend and a J1 visa for the year. This meant that my year was made relatively straightforward, in that normal concerns about financing accommodation, studio and living expenses have been taken away. This enabled me to spend an extended period of time focusing on researching and producing work and developing new technical skills. PS1 itself is unable to provide equipment for the artists (such as monitors and VCRs etc), and leaves the artists much to their own devices. Having worked for a number of years as an artist outside of institutions this was not a problem for me. PS1 merged earlier this year with the MoMA, and Roxana Marcoci curated our show at the Clocktower Gallery; she was very helpful in terms of working with the artists and PS1 and developing the catalogue for this show.

I found PS1 one of the more interesting spaces in New York. I was very interested in how the curators integrate works with the architecture of the building and the courtyard spaces, and how they commission artists to make site-specific works, such as the James Turrell room. I concentrated during the year on teaching myself new skills; I set myself up with a computer and a digital video camera (an upgrade from the Hi8 camera I had used for precious video works). I have previously had little access to computers and so wanted to spend a large part of my time teaching myself programmes such as Premiere (video editing) and PhotoShop. Previously I had edited my video works with a colleague in Belfast, but I always wanted the independence of being able to edit on my own and I wanted the freedom to experiment with my video footage trying different editing processes. Naturally this aspect of experimentation is limited when you are paying for editing facilities or working with an editor. I concentrated more on developing my own work as opposed to trying to “breaking into the New York art scene” and so would find it hard to answer questions about differences working in New York and elsewhere.

SP – Do you think your residence in New York has been successful in the development of your work?

SMW – I think a year is too short a time to really assess it. Coming from a relatively small place as Ireland it is amazing to see the number of gallery spaces operating and the number of artists working in New York. It was interesting to come from a place where I am known as an artist to a place where I am not known, in some respects this could be both refreshing and liberating, to an extent the pressure and be taken off and you can spend more time researching and experimenting with processes. However I think you always exert your own pressure and expectations on yourself and especially when doing residencies, you want to see results for that particular period of time.

SP – How do you see the difference between the New York art scene and Belfast?

SMW- It is difficult to compare New York and its art scene to other places, but I did think that it must be very had for artists, as the emad on galleries must be very strong. Supporting onself must be extremely hard. In Belfast I can rent a studio for very little money and also housing is not yet at the premium it is in New York.

Exposure to video work was an invaluable aspect of my stay here I have been working with video for three years now but opportunities to see video work in Ireland are limited. The Whitney Museum had an excellent program of films and videos running alongside its American Century Exhibition, I was able  to see early video works by the likes of Gary Hill and Nam June Paik. Another great opportunity as seeing Pipilloti Rist talk and show many examples of her video work at the Cooper Union.

SP – What will you do when your residency is over? Would you like to stay in New York?

SMW – I will return to Belfast after the year, at one point I did think I might like to stay in New York, but there are aspects about working in Ireland that I like, it would be very hard to support myself and my work here. It will be strange to return to Belfast and I am sure will take some time adjusting, however I have projects which I want to carry out there and also a couple of shows scheduled. When doing something like a residency there is always a tendency to map it as a particular period of time, and often you look forward to getting “back to normal” for a bit afterwards It is of course a unique situation and to be funded and supported while being able to continue researching and making new work is absolutely invaluable. It has been an amazing experience and also good to make work in a different situation and context than normal. I have set myself up with a portable editing system now (as I edit from a PowerBook) and so I now have the possibility of working and moving about more freely than before. It will be interesting to see in the long term how the experience will have affected my work.
  
Ghostly Video Work
Irish Connections
New York, Autumn 200, Elizabeth Martin

Video artist Susan MacWilliam has been haunted by the bizarre world of 19th and early 20th century spiritualist movements. The interest began when she had been accepted for a show in England called Haunted. “I looked into spiritualism and got very interested in Victorian spirit photographs. That started me on to basically what I’ve been doing ever since – investigating mediums and spiritualism, especially those who yield ectoplasm, the substance that materialization mediums produce when they are performance a séance. This substance emanated from the mediums’ bodily orifices and was though to take the form of the dead relative that the séance participant was contacting.”

Researching spiritualism from its 1848 beginning in Rochester, New York to its subsequent spread throughout Europe led her to the Belfast Central Library, The National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Library, and The Journals for the Society of Psychical Research. The artist focused on the cases of Helen Duncan, Kathleen Goligher and Mollie Fancher creating several videos about these women’s anomalistic exeriences ith “spirits” and ow the press teated them at that time. Did the séances involve fraud or manipulation? MacWilliam explains, “obviously there was a lot of devate as to whether it was real. It was mainly women who were the materialization mediums and, interestingly enough, it was primarily men who were doing the research, trying to capture (literally) the ectoplasm and analyse it to see if it was real or not – whether it was muslin, linen or cloth or if trickery was involved.”
MacWilliam is not interested in ascertaining the veracity of these tabloid-esque events. On the contrary, she explores the ambiguity and illusion in the medium’s repertoire. Parallels exist between the mediums she studied and her own contemporary artistic process. “I was interested in whether these women were essentially an early version of performance artists, and was intrigued by the notion of the audience’s role. The people attending the séance wanted to see something – there were clearly ideas of theatre and audience participation occurring.”

MacWilliam’s work exists within the larger context of conceptual art and its progency,  video art. In the ‘60s, as a subset of the conceptual art movement, video emerged as a form that enabled artists to defy formalist categories in the attempt to demystify the artistic process. More accessible by its affordability and increased mobility, video enabled direct, powerful and instantaneous transmittal of images. Video emphasizes the notion of time, both as a concept and as a physical reality. Physically, video releases the image from a single screen and extends the image possibilities into both time and space.
The parameters of video art have grown from Nam June Paik’s early assault on mainstream TV conventions to these present stylists: Mathew Barney’s post-modern cinema-styled narratives; Carl Pope’s politicised issue-orientated art; Doug Aitken’s desolate urban-landscape meditations and Pipilotti Rist’s gender-and-media focused videos. Ranging from abstraction to performance recording, the form is evolving.

Current video art darling Bill Viola has urthr extended the personal nature of this electronic art by developing ghostly narrative work that is both personal and mythic, not unlike MacWilliam’s own work.
MacWilliam’s videos consistently reflect her concerns with theatre and audience participation. The artist uses her own body in her work like the video artists who documented their own “happenings” and performances as some kind of inner diary. Her work recreates scenes from history performed within staged environments, rife with accurate historical detail, yet paradoxically obscure in meaning. The arti presents an enigmatic diorama that remains unrelentingly ambiguous; her art is about ideas and questions, not simplistic answers.

This red-haired dynamo never doubted her choice of a career path; she always wanted to be an artist. MacWilliam studied painting at Manchester Polytechnic in England. BFA in hand, she returned to her hometown Belfast where she continued to paint. Gradually moving toward sculpture and installation work; video began to dominate her practice. She exhibited widely in Ireland, England and the US. Short listed for the prestigious Irish Museum of Modern Art’s Glen Dimplex Artists Award in ’99 she was then selected for Long Island City’s PS1 International Studio Program residency. This past spring, PS1 showcased studio program artist’s work at the Clocktower Gallery in lower Manhattan. In a post-exhibition talk, the earnest, engaging artist spoke about the process, influences and inspirations in her recent work.

“My approach to video today incorporates what has been a longstanding thread of interest in cinema and television; the work reflects my attraction to theatre, performance and the notion of audience participation within it. Switching from the medium of painting to other disciplines, I started to wonder if I could make moving images myself. I bought a camera, and that’s how it began.”

Experiment M examines Goligher, a Belfast woman born in 1898 and living into the ‘60s. Coincidentally, both Goligher and MacWilliam lived on Ormeau Road in Belfast. “She specialised in the levitation of tables, producing ectoplasmic rods that emerged from between her legs and levitated the table.” William Jackson Crawford, a mechanical engineer who lectured at Belfast’s Queens University was called to investigate. Intrigued by the connection between a “man of science” and a female materialization medium, MacWilliam was interested in the development of an increasingly personal relationship between them beyond the quasi-scientific documentation recorded by the scientist. During his six years attendance of her presentations, “he would analyse the ectoplasmic rods that caused the table to move, working in close proximity to the medium in order to ascertain if she was using her body in any way to produce the levitation. The relationship between medium and researcher seemed to have a very sexual aspect as well, which is really common throughout all the medium documentation. So the piece became less about his scientific findings and more about his rapport with the medium.”

During her 1998 artist-in-residency at Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art, the videotrix researched hysteria, fainting as a symptom of hysteria and the frequent sexual diagnosis of such hysterical women. In her research MacWilliam found Charcot’s photographs of women hysterics in an asylum in Saltpetriere, France – a fitting inspiration.

Her subsequent video Faint depicts the recurring image of a swooning woman (MacWilliam) in a lush garden set against the background sound of birds. Juxtaposed with the exterior footage of the fainting woman are close up shots of the artist shown with her hand on her stomach, alluding to the connection between hysteria and the womb. “The Greeks believed the definition of hysteria was that the womb was travelling freely around the body. ‘Hysterical’ comes from the word hyster. Connected to this is the notion of some sort of sexual thing going on in the body. Choking and convulsing were seen as sexual so when mediums were producing ectoplasm and gasping, the actions were interpreted as being indicative of hysteria. When mediums go into trances they might have been speaking in these different voices. It can seem like there is something trapped in their body trying to get out. There’s an emphasis on all these oral, sexual aspects.”

While in PS1 Program MacWilliam created her latest video, The Persistence of Vision (from where the images illustrating this article come). The artist came across a book, Mollie Fancher, The Brookyln Enigma (A.A. Dailey). MacWilliam recreated the mood and feel of its story through reconstruction, repetition and a technological methodology. The nightmarish travels and somnambulistic trances of this troubled 19th century soul emerge as we enter her emotionally and physically cloistered world. “I was drawn to [it] because of the words ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘enigma’. In 1866 Brooklyn resident Fancher fell off a horse and in another incident was dragged down a street when her crinoline petticoat got caught in a streetcar. She suffered massive body and nervous system injuries and was bedridden for 50 years. For the first nine, she remained in a heavy trance and reportedly survived without food. Throughout her confinement, Fancher exhibited multiple personalities and entered into many trances and spasms. Medically and technically she lost her vision, but she was able to see things clairvoyantly.”
Recreating scenes from the history performed within staged environments leads to videos rife with detail yet obscure in meaning. Employing her own body throughout her work, MacWillliam symbiotically created and becomes the subject of her work. As a result of her exacting efforts and technical abilities, the viewer shares in her intense, transforming journeys. “I became fascinated by this curious movement and was intrigued by the way the women were treated. The way in which their sexuality was regarded and controlled offers an insight into how male society perceived such women.”
Review of Experiment M
Belfast News Letter
7th Sep 1999, Ian Hill

Seance loaded with sexual overtones

Kathleen Goligher held her séances in an attic off the Ormeau Road. Dr William Jackson Crawford was a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Queen’s University.

Between the outbreak of the First World War and 1920 this respected academic attended Kathleen Goligher’s mediumistic activities on a regular basis, producing and publishing three detailed pseudo-scientific studies which revealed much more about the good doctor’s sexual obsessions with Kathleen Goligher’s body than they did about her supposed ability to produce ectoplasmic rods which levitated tables.

New video installation artist Susan MacWilliam, shortlisted this year for the prestigious Glen Dimplex Artists’ Award (Ireland’s Turner Prize), continuing to explore her own fascination with mediums and witches and how male society chose to perceive unusual women, has produced Experiment M, an astonishing reflection on both spiritualism and the relationship between Goligher and Crawford.

In a mock-up of the séance room devised from Crawford’s photographs she places two black and white video monitors. On one Susan herself acts out several of Goligher’s actions, binding her bare feet into a box reminiscent of the public stocks, moving the olds of an arcane dress.

On the other monitor snatches of Crawfor’s text are seen written in chalk on a blackboard. They are, almost without exception, loaded with sexual overtones.
Context Gallery till September 18
Extract from Cutting Edge of Multi-Culturalism
The Irish Times
March 23rd 2001, Aidan Dunne

[…] Walsh is one of a strong quartet of award winners. The others are Susan MacWilliam, Ann Marie Curran and David O’Mara. MacWilliam’s Experiment M is a creepily atmospheric recreation of a series of experiments conducted by a Belfast academic into mediumistic phenomena conjured up by Kathleen Goligher. The work captures the oddly eroticised procedures and paraphernalia of the ritualistic experiments and the relationship, part interrogative, part collaborative, between investigator and medium. It raises the enormously resonant question: what dos on want from the other?
Extract from EV+A 2001 Expanded
Art Monthly
May, Pages 41-44, Niamh Anne Kelly

[…] Of particular interest was MacWilliam’s Experiment M, an evocative study of the relationship between a medium and a researcher. In a compelling video-based installation, through investigative appropriation of the séance, the piece simulated the transgression of boundaries: oundaries between people, people and objects, people and space, physical and psychic space.
Extract from Five-artist show at Golden Thread Gallery
Belfast News Letter
9th March 2000, Ian Hill

[…] The final piece, which takes pride of place, is Susan MacWilliam’s Experiment M, reviewed enthusiastically in these columns when at the Context. In video reconstruction and text, it recalls the creepily tactile relationship between an actual Queen’s academic, the easily duped Dr William Jackson Crawford and a charismatic, self-professed female Ormeau Road spirit medium, named Goligher, a relationship which ended in Crawford’s suicide.
Review of Experiment M
Derry Journal
10th September 1999, Mary Kelly

There was a “sucking noise” and “the flesh seemed to become soft and cave in”, obviously an explanation/translation of some kind of strange experience and the words of Dr. William Crawford, a lecturer, who observed the séances of the Goligher Circle in Belfast between 1914 and 1920. He especially observed he medium, Kathleen Goligher, who apparently produced ectoplasmic rods and levitated tables. Belfast artist, Susan MacWilliam as part of her ongoing research into spiritualism and the work of mediums, has translated this happening and experience in an installation in the Context Gallery, which can be seen until 18th September.

The installation consists of the partial reconstruction of the room with a chair, table and other props, including a “foot box” which have been reproduced using the images and measurements in Crawford’s texts. The “foot box” can be seen in action in one video which runs simultaneously with a second showing hand written transcription of Dr. Crawford’s words. The whole point is that the words translate the visual actions and try to communicate the whole experience. Therefore the words, “violently pushed backwards” and “absolutely rigid and hard” coincide with the action of clamping the ankles in the “foot box” and writhing of the medium in the chair is seen with the words “involuntary and shivering” and “the flesh is converted into plasma.” The video, of course, is an attempt to re-enact the séance and the experience of the medium. The chair used in the video is in the gallery and, being the only one there, if you sit in it, perhaps you are almost expected to feel the sensation of what has occurred, but I think that might be difficult for most of us. It seems more like a documentary, although appear to verge of the erotic, bearing in mind that these are the words of Dr. Crawford, not the artist.

Installations are often a way of artists interpreting or translating some kind of life experience as in this case, and there is often a blurring between the different disciplines in the arts, such as the visual image and the written word. Artists use contemporary media such as video to interpret ideas. However, in this case, if the video screens had been lager and the words communicated by voice as well as visually, also toning down and controlling the lighting in the gallery to create atmosphere, the whole thing would have been more of an experience for the participant, more “eerie”. Perhaps thugh, it’s just as well that it isn’t – “there are more things in heaven and earth” …..
Susan MacWilliam: A 21st Century Medium by Guillerme Booth

Whether dripping blood from the walls of room 202 at the Fort Garry hotel or nightmarish apparitions hanging from the KKK tree in Little Mountain Park, Winnipeg is apparently a hub for paranormal activities. Beginning in the 1920s, Thomas Glendenning Hamilton drew a lot of spiritualist attention to the river city. A doctor, surgeon, liberal MLA and elder of King Memorial United church, Hamilton is remembered for his metaphysical investigations.

Devoting a second floor room of his office home that was otherwise locked and unused, Hamilton held séances to study psychokinesis, materialisations, visions and trance states. The medium, normally a woman, was confined to a three-sided cabinet, the focus of a dozen cameras that were set to simultaneously illuminate and capture the pitch-black sitting.
From 1928 onwards, “teleplasmic” materializations, as Hamilton liked to call them,were photographed and published in articles and magazines. Generating a sort of celebrity status, his séances were attended by notable figures like Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Following in her father’s footsteps, Margaret Hamliton continued his investigations. In 1986, she deposited a huge body of the family’s research, photos and related materials right here at the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections.
During her 2008 residency at Ace Art Inc., Belfast-based artist Susan MacWilliam feverishly researched the archive. Her discoveries have been infused into her latest work F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N which, along with her 2008 video Eileen and Dermo Optics of 2006, were presented as Remote Viewing, her solo exhibition at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009.

Materialisations of the spirit world, or “teleplasms,” in Hamilton’s photos resemble gloves, a sailboat, faces, string, and the word “Flammarion.” Bing the name of a French psychical researcher and astronomer, this apparition is unique in that it’s the only recorded instance of a textual teleplasm. In all honesty, these photos look cheesy and fake. If it is proof for the existence of ghosts you are looking for, you can take your EVP meter elsewhere because you’re not going to find it here.

Even though she has worked extensively with the Parapsychology Foundation in ew York and made many friends in the field, MacWilliam’s approach to the paranormal is fairly objective. F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N’s video installation is an avant-garde picture posing as a documentary. In it ar three main characters that respond to Hamilton’s photos: Irish Poet and writer Ciaran Carson, Atlanta-based poltergeist investigator William Roll, and Arla Marshal, granddaughter of Hamilton’s medium Susan Marshal.
Filmed in Belfast, Atlanta and Winnipeg, MacWilliam manipulates these individuals like mannequins; Roll is asked to repeat the words “Flammaion” and “textual teleplasm” twice. In the ensuing moments of silence, the word is repeated three more times in a ghostly comical way. Through repetition, these two words really get etched in your mind.

Having reconstructed the séance cabinet in Belfast, a three-sided wooden box, MacWilliam collaborates with Ciaran Carson to recreate some of the photos. Rather than disproving anything, this exercise celebrates the events. Arla Marshal is filmed at MacWilliam’s office on the third floor of the Dafoe Library looking over some of the items in the archive. Enthusiastically reminiscing about her grandmother and discovering things that she didn’t know, Arla is allowed  the most freedom of the three. In their manipulated roles, Carson, Roll and Marshal become the subject.

Acting as director, collaborator, playmate and impartial observer, MacWilliam’s variety of interaction is refreshing. Given how elderly her subjects are, there is a real sense of urgency; timing is crucial in her work. Accompanying her video are two stereoscopic 3D images. Illuminated in boxes, William Roll and Ciaran Carson jump out at the binocular lenses as if they’re in the present. Ghostly and intriguing, these images are reminiscent of something seen through a 3D view-master. Indeed, while speaking with MacWilliam, she mentioned her voyeuristic delight at observing others look at her pictures.

Playing with approaches as a chameleon does colours, MacWilliam shows a strong conceptual bent. Whether you’re into fine art, the paranormal, or both, Susan MacWlliam’s F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N is definitely worth a look. Through her research, presentation and resurrection of Thomas Gledenning Hamilton’s séances, MacWilliam acts as a medium, materializing her story from the spirit realm.
The medium is the message
Uptown Magazine
October 28th 2010, Sandee Moore

I often think of the artist as a magician – someone who surprises and delights by transforming humble raw materials into works of art. Belfast-based artist Susan MacWilliam creates an analogy between the artist and the spirit medium – one who gives form to the wondrous and immaterial.

Possessing a long-term interest in mediums, table tilters, optograms, trance, dermo optical perception and X-ray vision, MacWilliam first came to Winnipeg in 2008 to research and create work about the T.G. Hamilton Spirit Photo Archive. An active participant in séances and experiments in mental telepathy from 1919 until his death in 1935, Hamilton sought to investigate paranormal phenomena under scientific conditions, including taking photographs of the proceedings with a bank of 12 cameras.
The camera as an instrument for presenting and manipulating visual material is central to MacWilliam’s project – a single channel video accompanied by two stereoscopic photographs. The video is consciously unnatural – there are rapid-fire jump cuts, jerky movements as he camera seeks to ideally fame its subject, and on-synched and doubled audio. The effects are uncanny and hallucinogenic – at one point, stills of old cameras on brightly coloured backgrounds flash upon the screen faster and faster, temping an epileptic fit or hypnotic state.

Hamilton’s photographs, particularly those of teleplasms – spiritual entities made visible through a gauze-like substance secreted from orifices on the medium’s body – are examined in the video. MacWilliam’s video camera scans the scenes of supernatural communication and strange materialization as a descendant of one of Hamilton’s mediums, Arla Marshall, an Atlanta-based poltergeist investigator, Dr. William G. Roll and a Belfast poet, Ciaran Carson, comment on them.
Marshall and an elderly relative leaf through scrapbooks kept by Hamilton’s wife in the University of Manitoba’s archive, wondrously reading aloud a caption accompanying a photograph, “Fraud was impossible again.” This is juxtaposed against Roll’s analysis: “This light casts a shadow,” he reads, then flippantly declares, “Well, why not?” His voice caresses, its clipped intonation softened by a slippy denture as he lightly pronounces the teleplasms, “transparently fraudulent.”
The appeal of this work owes much to the delightful figure of Roll – frail and mischievous, his dress is colourful and dandified, and his eyes are magnified behind giant spectacles. On the other hand, poet Carson’s earnest performances as an ardent lover of words as he rolls them around in his mouth comes off as parody. But, it would be hard to go very wrong with an exploration of the supernatural.

The teleplasms are no less wonderous for being fraudulent. MacWilliam recreated two of the more unique teleplasms documented by Hamilton – a sailing ship that appears more as a lumpy wad of cheesecloth and string of ragged letters spelling out the surname of French astronomer Camille Flammarion – upon her return to Belfast. It’s somewhat disappointing that these objects, as well as her recreation of Hamilton’s “séance cabinet,” were not on display to support the vide.
Although you might need to use your ESP to locate the entrance to the curtained screening area, F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N is a watchably apt metaphor.
Science, spiritualism mix in mesmerizing exhibit, Review of F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-Naceart inc
Winnipeg, in Winnipeg Free Press
28th October 2010 By Alison Gillmor 

“Winnipeg stands very high among the places we have visited for its psychic possi­bilities," British writer Arthur Conan Doyle announced after stopping in our city in 1923.
 
Artist Susan MacWilliam has clearly felt that spooky pull. The Belfast-based artist, whose work often delves into the heady paranormal movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, came to Winnipeg in 2008 to work with the Thomas Glendenning Hamilton archive at the University of Manitoba. This mesmerizingly strange collection, which includes hundreds of photographic images dating from 1918 to 1945, records the Elmwood doctor's fascination with such psychic phenomena as table rapping, trance writing, levitation and clairvoyance.
 
From that experience, MacWilliam has created a carefully layered, tightly constructed, utterly absorbing 17-minute video. Taking its title from a so-called "teleplasmic text" that appeared at a séance in Winnipeg in 1931, F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N went to the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2009 and now returns to it origins on our paranormal Canadian Prairies.
 
MacWilliam explores the unexpected relationships between science and the supernatural, between technology and imagination. Camille Flammarion, for example, was a 19th-century Frenchman who was both a spiritualist and a defender of the scientific method.
 
Rather than viewing science and spiritualism as polarities, MacWilliam coaxes out odd inversions and eerie echoes. She records Irish writer Ciaran Carson as he sits in a reconstructed wooden "spirit cabinet" and recites a list of technical words associated with photography and film ("focal distance, key light, lens flare"). She tapes William Roll, a Danish-American psychical researcher, as he catalogues paranormal phenomena ("poltergeists, precognition, remote viewing"). A third viewpoint comes from Arla Marshall, the granddaughter of Susan Marshall, Dr. Hamilton's Scottish medium.
 
MacWilliam is concerned with issues of perception and representation. She gently examines "ectoplasmic" images from the Hamilton archive, which most viewers will see as obviously rigged up with bits of string and gauze and cut-out paper. (William Roll calls the pictures "transparently fraudulent.") F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N questions -- without judging or coming to pat conclusions -- how people might have once viewed these images as messages from beyond the veil of death.
 
MacWilliam's work explores the rich and revealing gaps between the material and the immaterial. Paradoxically, rapid developments in science often produce an underside of unease and anxiety that finds an outlet in spiritualism. And while the complex technologies of photography, film and sound recording can seem like shiny exemplars of the modern and the mechanical, they also have a spooky side. There is a kind of occult power in capturing someone's image or voice.
The Hamilton archive falls into the tradition of "spirit photography," the attempt to use -- or sometimes misuse -- cameras to prove paranormal activity. Examining her own media, MacWilliam suggests that photography and video are still haunted. There's an uncanny edge to her work, its frequent repetitions fusing technology and ghostly traces of meaning and memory.
 
It's interesting that Conan Doyle's best known literary creation, Sherlock Holmes, was the model of cool rationalism, even as the author himself, undone with grief after the death of his son in the First World War, became increasingly drawn to spiritualism. (That's how he ended up at a Winnipeg séance.) With its sympathetic curiosity about the ways we strive to understand and represent our world, MacWilliam's work offers an intriguing reconstruction of our city's supernatural history.
Venice Biennale 2009 – Northern Ireland: Susan MacWilliam
Cura Art Magazine, Issue 01
June/July 2009, Biennale Special, Sarah McAvera, pages 76-80

The title of this year’s 53rd Venice Biennale is Making Worlds. The title is evocative, suggesting not just the creation of the new, but also the accessibility of the other. Susan MacWilliam, the artist chosen to represent Northern Ireland, is familiar with the “other”. Having spent over ten years researching the psychic, the supernatural and cases of paranormal activity, it is fair to say that the “other” for MacWilliam is no longer the “other”, rather the focus, the subject, and in some cases the friend. Initially a painter (she received an honours degree in painting in 1991 from the Manchester Polytechnic), MacWilliam’s subsequent work has crossed over a variety of media from photography to video. While her area of interest has remained the paranormal, the individual works are stand-alone pieces, though a retrospective would show a particular fascination with some characters, one of whom, Eileen Garrett, is presented at Venice. Karen Downey, the exhibition’s curator, has chosen three of Susan MacWilliam’s works for the presentation. Two are past works, Eileen (2008) and Dermo-Optics (2006), and provide context for those uninitiated in MacWilliam’s work to her new piece F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N (2009).

Eileen is the last of five works that MacWilliam has made that focus on the Irish-born medium Eileen Garrett. The video work was made as part of a year-long residency at the Parapsychology Foundation, set up in 1951 in New York by Garrett to attempt to scientifically research psychic phenomena. When asked about her subject matter, MacWilliam is matter of fact: “These are incredibly interesting, charismatic people who have stories to tell”1. While the works can appear to have documentary elements and a documentary style, MacWilliam stresses that they are not documentaries, but rather visual works focussed on images. Watching the works, the viewer is aware that the images have been manipulated, and while it is evident that hours of “documentary” footage have been shot, the art work is the product of extreme editing.

During her time in New York, MacWilliam stayed with Eileen Garrett’s daughter, Eileen Coly, and it is apparent that she formed a very real relationship both with Coly and with Coly’s daughter Lisette. A relationship with her subjects is a feature of all of MacWilliam’s work and MacWilliam has suggested that there is a similarity between artists and mediums in that they both have the job of interpreting. However, while the act of interpreting may be similar, the motivation is different, and viewing her subjects from the artist’s remove, her final product is not intended as an accurate representation of the subject.

Dermo-Optics looks at the phenomena of eyeless sight and research into the area of perception of colour without sight, and is a combination of installation and video footage. The video was shot at the Centre d’Information de la Couleur, Paris, an institute run by Madame Yvonne Duplessis that attempts to scientifically investigate these phenomena. Experiments are routinely conducted at the centre by Madame Duplessis and her assistants, and MacWilliam herself took part in some of them and recorded the results. While previous works mainly employed the process of reconstruction, Dermo-Optics was MacWilliam’s first work that directly documented time spent with her subjects and marked a significant shift from her previous works, which were mainly studio-based.

The work is highly edited, with footage speeded up to disorientate the viewer and force them to imbibe the images at an almost subliminal level. Slavka Sverakova, writing on the work in “Circa” magazine, questions how the extreme editing affects the “truth” of the document and concludes that by “bypassing the demands for accuracy and for all the evidence, it dissolves rather than solves the problem of how people perceive truth. The wisdom of this art's kernel suspends the need for ideals of perfection and for well defined standards of truth.”2
Also to be presented is a new work, F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N: the product of a residency at the TG Hamilton Spirit Photograph Archive in Winnipeg, Canada. The title refers to the first time a word, rather than an image, was spelt out in ectoplasm (a substance said to be a physical manifestation of spirits) on a séance cabinet’s wall in 1931 in Winnipeg. Flammarion was the surname of the President of the Society for Psychical Research in London. In the book accompanying the exhibition, Remote Viewing, Karen Downey, the project’s curator, states “This idea of translation, or mediation, carries significant meaning in F-L-AM-M-A-R-I-O-N, where MacWilliam deftly employs language, both as a spoken and visual medium, to explore the space between perception and description.” The work features the well known Irish poet and writer Ciaran Carson, who in addition to appearing in the video, has written one of the essays in the book.
Karen Downey has a history of working with film and photography, having been the Exhibitions Director at Belfast Exposed Photography, Belfast’s best-known photographic gallery. She explains her choice of MacWilliam as: “Susan is at a stage in her career where a solo show in Venice, accompanied by a major publication, will make a great difference and provide real benefits (in terms of visibility and opportunities) as she transitions from a 'young' to 'mid-career' artist. I think she also has enough experience and confidence to take on the challenge and do something really significant for the NI presentation.”
The body of work built up by MacWilliam has steadily been leading up to this challenge, with exhibitions at Gimpel Fils, London and Jack The Pelican Presents, New York confirming her as a Northern Irish artist worth watching. In March 2009 “Art Review” magazine featured her in a section Future Greats, Pretenders to the Throne: 30 Artists for tomorrow – MacWilliam was the only Northern Irish artist to be included in this significant cohort. Talking about the subject mater of her work, Brian Dillon suggests “It takes an artist of rare insight and stamina – not to say a more expansive understanding of what ‘the occult’ might signify – to stick with this stuff and draw more from it than a simply unsettling glance of the intimacy of science and superstition, art and pure quackery.”3
This is only the third time that Northern Ireland is represented at the Venice Biennale as a distinct entity. The first presentation, in 2005, saw curator Hugh Mulholland present fourteen artists, of which eight were on permanent display with the other six making durational work for the Long Weekend, which was in October of that year. Ian Charlesworth, Seamus Harahan, Mike Hogg, Sandra Johnston, Katrina Moorhead, Darren Murray, Mary McIntyre and Willie McKeown were installed at the Istituto provinciale per l'Infanzia Santa Maria della Pietà, in the Castello district. The other six artists, Paddy Bloomer, Nicky Keogh, Factotum, Aisling O’Beirn and Peter Richards used everywhere from the Canal Grande to the Piazza San Marco.
Hugh Mulholland was also the curator of the second presentation, where in antithesis to the first group exhibition, Mulholland choose to present a solo show by one of Northern Ireland’s most internationally recognised artists, Willie Doherty. The choice of Karen Downey to curate this year’s presentation therefore offers both the first female curator and the first female solo exhibition for Northern Ireland in Venice, though Downey states “Obviously I was aware that fewer women have had the opportunity to show at Venice but this didn't determine my choice in any real way.”4
Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, has always had a thriving art scene with a multitude of artist-run, artist-led venues and a strong arts audience despite the fact that there is no real municipal arts space in the city. Opportunities like exhibiting at the Venice Biennale, an
international stage of great historical as well as contemporary value, are of particular importance for an island like Ireland and the future of Northern Irish art cannot fail to be influenced by being exhibited on a worldwide stage. Despite, or perhaps because of, its troubled history, Northern Ireland has always produced a plethora of art and artists, and the Venice Biennale is one of the few opportunities for them to be viewed in an international arena.
For those unfamiliar with Northern Irish art, who else should you look out for? Karen Downey suggests “Artists that I have worked with, or whose work I particularly like or have been thinking about recently, include Aisling O'Beirn, Lorraine Burrell, Benji deBurca, John Duncan, Factotum, Anthony Haughey, Daniel Jewesbury, Joanna Karolini, Sandra Johnston, Dougal McKenzie, Dan Shipsides... This is a very small selection, obviously there are many more artists making interesting work here at the moment.”5

1. From interview with the author, 15/04/2009
2. Sverakova, Slavka, On Susan MacWilliam’s Dermo-Optics (2006), Circa Magazine,
http://www.recirca.com/cgi-bin/mysql/show_item.cgi?post_id=1969
3. Dillon, Brian, Future Greats, Pretenders to the Throne: 30 Artists for tomorrow, p. 88, “Art Review”, Issue 30, March 2009
4/5. From email to the author, 19/04/2009
Spirit Level
The British Journal of Photography
Volume 156, 2009, No 7738, Diane Smyth, Pages 16 – 19

TG Hamilton recorded all kinds of weird spirit phenomena at his séances, but he’s best known for his photos of ectoplasmic materialisations. Diane Smyth asks artist Susan MacWilliam about her fascination with his archive.
Much has been written about the use of photography as evidence in the age of digital manipulation. But the question of veracity has haunted the medium since the very earliest days of its inception, particularly with the rise of spirit photography, otherwise known as the art of photographing- well what exactly?

Its inventor, William H Mumler, rose to fame in the 1860s with photographs supposedly depicting ghosts, but these images were quickly exposed as frauds – double-exposure images of living, breathing Bostonians. Spirit photography has been viewed with suspicion ever since, capturing mediums regurgitating fake ectoplasm or using wires to simulate telekinesis.
But it’s flourished nevertheless, and for Northern Ireland artist Susan MacWilliam, who uses paranormal archives to create video artworks, the fact they exist at all is more interesting than what they do – or do not – depict. ‘To some people these images may appear faked, but to me the idea of veracity isn’t so important,’ she says. ‘The point is that these photographs document something. Mediums were often accused of swallowing cheese-cloth and regurgitating it to produce the ectoplasm – even if that were the case, I would consider it an amazing feat in itself.’

MacWilliam is showing three video installations at this year’s Venice Biennale: Dermo Optics [the ability to ‘see’ colours through the power of touch alone], which was filmed at the Dermo Optical Laboratory of Dr Yvonne Duplessis in Paris; Eileen, which explores the social world of Irish medium and co-founder of the Parapsychology Foundation in New York; and F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N, which draws on the TG Hamilton Spirit Photograph Archive in Winnipeg.
‘Some people’s only response when they look at the images is “It’s faked”, but I’m more interested in looking at them on other levels,’ says MacWilliam. ‘Séances were very popular during the War, when people wanted some kind of memorial to the loved ones they had lost. It made them feel better. Séances were social events, a way of bringing people together. The darkened séance rooms were very intimate, and even now there is a genuine sense of community among the families and researchers.’

Camera Tricks

Thomas Glendenning Hamilton was a Canadian doctor of medicine who used his scientific training to investigate paranormal activity. From 1918 on he took hundreds of photographs of séances conducted at his house, recording everything from table rapping and tiltings to clairvoyance, trance states automatic writing, bell ringing and materialisations. From 1928 also he recorded ectoplasm, or ‘teleplasm’ as he preferred to call it, which was considered to be materialisations from the spirit world.
After his untimely death in 1935 his family carried on his work, building up a huge collection of images, audio recordings, newspaper clippings and talks. This collection, the Hamilton Family fonds, is now housed at the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections.

MacWilliam researched the archive for a month last summer, recording the experience of working in the library and trawling through 40 boxes of images and records. What interested her most, she says, was the interaction between the séance and the camera, and the seeming collusion between the two. For example, she says, people in the shots are often shown bending over to give the camera a better view – disrupting the séance for the image, and not the other way around.

Hamilton insisted séances were conducted in a room specially designated for the task, kept locked the rest of the time to minimise potential for interference, and used a bank f about a dozen cameras to record the action. Lighting the room with a red bulb, he positioned the cameras with their shutters open, triggering them all to go off at the same time with a flash.
‘Some mediums said the flash lighting could be dangerous for them,’ says MacWilliam. ‘Helen Duncan [the Scottish spiritualist who became the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act in 1944] said the shock of the flash could send the ectoplasm back into her body with such force that it would cause her bodily harm.’

‘Spiritualism and photography developed at around the same time, and recording the sessions became a very important part of the work,’ she says. ‘I’m fascinated by that relationship. There was an expectation that an image would arise, and disappointment if it didn’t. Some mediums might say “OK, some images are fraudulent, but it’s not because what we do is fraudulent, it’s because there’s this desire for an image”.’

Artistic Medium

Hamilton also used two stereoscopic cameras to create 3D images, and for MacWilliam their eerie there/not there illusion is an apt metaphor for the mediums’ work. One image in TG Hamilton’s collection particularly excited her, and lent its name to her whole project – a 1931 shot of teleplasm spelling out the name of French astronomer and psychical researcher Flammarion. ‘Ectoplasm, or teleplasm, is regarded as a materialisation of the dead,’ says MacWilliam. ‘This is the ony documented evidence of teleplasm that appeared as a word.’ The caption written for the archive by Hamilton’s wife, Lillian, gives a slightly more credulous reading: ‘Flammarion, the French astronomer and pioneer psychic researcher, gave much mental evidence through Elizabeth M.’
Inspired by the textual turn, MacWilliam invited a friend, poet and writer Ciaran Carson, to sit in the séance cabinet she had reconstructed, based on that used by Hamilton, and to recite a list of film making terms. In an inverse reflection of the textual teleplasm, he speaks words that describe image-making. Her video work F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N also features Atlanta-based poltergeist investigator Dr William Roll, a faculty-member of the Psychology Department of the University of West Georgia, whose work focuses on scientific explanations of the paranormal.

‘In one sense I’m acting as a medium, bringing people from around the world together,’ she says. ‘The people in this community remind me of the art scene. They’re on the periphery of mainstream society, with jobs that aren’t so permanent, and they research and investigate in pursuit of the enquiry.’

And, as with artists’ work, being on the periphery means that the community’s work and its legacy is not always completely assured. TG Hamilton’s archive is, for the moment, safely housed, but other collections have suffered – Winnipeg-based Howard reed was forced to break up his 3000-strong library of books, while Eileen J Garrett’s family has had to move its archive out of its Manhattan brownstone to a less accessible location in Long Island.

‘What happens to these archives is very interesting,’ says MacWilliam. ‘The Parapsychology Foundation’s Eileen J Garrett library is now in financial difficulties and Garrett’s granddaughter, Lisette Coly, is anxious about its survival.’
  
Women and cities: selected artworks from Belfast
Suzanna Chan, pg 227-232
From the book: The Cities of Belfast.
Ed. Nicholas Allen + Aaron Kelly, 2003 ISBN 1-85182-785-4

[…]

Susan MacWilliam’s installation Experiment M (1999) is based on published accounts of the séances held by an extended family of spiritualists, known as the Goligher Circle, in the attic of their Belfast home. Experiment M examines how the medium Kathleen Goligher, a key member of the Cirle, is represented through the texts of Dr William Jackson Crawford, who attended and studied the séances from 1914 until 1920. Crawford lectured in mechanical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast and his research yielded three books on the nature of the table-levitating ectoplasmic rods, which Kathleen Goligher specialized in manifesting. The books are: The psychic structures at the Goligher circle; the reality of psychic phenomena (raps, levitations, etc.); and Experiments in psychical science (levitation and direct voice). According to Crawford’s account in The reality of psychic phenomena, during the séances the only source of light permitted in the attic was a gas jet enclosed in a red glass lantern.39 The metaphorical associations of the opaque red room with illicit sexual encounters, the exoticism of opium dens, peep shows, Pandora’s box, and so on, require little accent. However, Crawford stresses the moral rectitude and leity of the Circle, how their séances are religious institutions that open and close with a prayer. He describes Kathleen, born in 1898, to be an outstandingly accomplished medium, the youngest and most talented of four sisters, yet the Circle’s most reluctant participant. Her religious devotion is praised alongside her refusal to accept any payment for her mediumship. However, while he describes her as quite indifferent to psychic phenomena per se, Crawford records Kathleen’s growing interest in his experiments.40 Crawford firmly believed in spiritualism and was convinced of the medium’s powers. Thus, while there is a gendered distinction between the supposedly objective methodologies of science and the psychical realm to which they were applied, here the scientific was to warrant the veracity of Goligher’s mediumship rather than to expose it as charlatanism.

Experiment M comprised a set reproducing the attic room where the Goligher Circle met, furnished with several objects such as a restraining foot-box, sound-trumpets, table and chair, all recreated according to specifications indicated in Crawford’s texts. The installation also included two video monitors, one of which played a sequence of statements written in chalk on a blackboard while the other showed footage shot in the reconstructed room. The statements were extracted from Crawford’s books and read as a highly sexualised account. Observations of ‘a sucking nise’, something ‘trembling and vibrating sinuously’ become more cloyingly sensual when coupled with references to expelled matter that is ‘softish and elastic’. The quotatins describe how ‘fussling noises’ accompanied the medium’s plasmic emissions, and how her skirts moved, while another aspect of her clothing is ‘heavily stained’. The references to Goligher’s underclothes become explicit, she is noted to have worn ‘clean white knickers’ while something spills ‘between the buttocks and has spread under them’,’ as though some kind of tentacle’. The descriptions continue to dwell on the medium’s corporeality, observing: ‘a distinct fall and rise of the flesh in the thighs’, or how ‘the fleshy parts of her buttocks contract’, while something wriggles up her legs. Finally, the quotations from Crawford’s account reveal how: ‘under her skirt’, ’with the sinuous movement of a serpent’, ‘I felt the medium’s breasts’, the sequence closing with: ‘I then placed my hand across the medium’s thighs.’

The second monitor plays video footage recorded in the artist’s reconstruction of the attic room. A woman’s feet are placed in a replica of the restraining foot box, and in the video are copies of the clay tablets which Crawford placed under the medium’s heels. These were used to monitor her movements when extruding the plasmic rods, so that hidden manoeuvres would be revealed. An arresting image is produced when footage of the artist standing in the attic reconstruction is shown. She holds open one of Crawford’s books at a page where there is a photograph of the same room, producing an inverted mirroring. The image of the room turned upside-down evokes the artwork’s deconstruction of Crawford’s texts to excavate an underpinning set of relations. Experiment M’s amplifying of the medium’s sexualisation points to Crawford’s research as an interface between asymmetrical differentials of gender and class. The artwork examines the effects produced by Crawford’s construction of Goligher indicating relations between the author and his subject, and the historical location of the medium. Yet in its focus on how Crawford’s studies sexualize Goligher, the artwork recognizes that the woman herself cannot be known. In reading accounts  of an historical figure, Joan Borsa refers to the efficacy of Spivak’s exegesis ‘The Rani of Sirmur’.41 Here Spivak dismantles historical constructions in search of the silenced archive underneath the discourses produced about the Rani, a subject who lived during India’s constitution as colony. Spivak’s deconstruction does not reveal the Rani herself: there is no real Rani to be uncovered and nor should one be invented. Instead, she must be apprehended as a site of power relations and cultural inscriptions.42 Similarly, Experiment M witnesses the space where the subject resided, indicating that the real Kathleen Goligher cannot be known, any more than we can conclude her to have been a trickster or a bona fide spiritualist. What we can know of the woman is that the version constructed through Crawford’s obscure discourse articulates his own desire and subject positioning, while her inscription requires a form of effacement.
 

39 William Jackson Crawford, The reality of psychic phenomena: raps, levitations, etc. (London, 1919), 6.
40 Ibid., 12
41 J. Borsa. ‘Frida Kahlo: marginalization and the critical female subject’, Third Text, 12 (Autumn 1990), 34.
42 Ibid.
An Outsider in her native town – The work of Susan MacWilliam
Circa Magazine
December 1, 2006, Noel Kelly
 
Susan MacWilliam: Headbox (detail), 2004, stereoscope with wall handles, Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin; courtesy the artist.
Turning off the main Dublin-Belfast road onto the construction-crowded entry points to Belfast city, the primary view is of development and an apparent renewed prosperity. This is when Belfast hits you with an intensity and aggression of modern living, manifested amongst the rejuvenated anachronisms of imperial buildings and monuments.
 
This is a new world economy of social change that masks itself as striving for something better. Hyperconsumerism provides the most visible of distractions, and television is its primary purveyor, with the ‘gospel’ of the moment being reality TV. Groups of strangers line up to march down the aisle to marry a partner randomly picked by a bunch of other strangers. Another group of near-strangers, in a fierce match for a fast buck, gorge upon animal parts even the butcher doesn't like to talk about; families exchange spouses; and celebrity wannabes reveal their innermost selves in the desire to be famous. This is the new vaudeville, a pathological reality of metaphors, cheap pranks and twisted observations; a world where nothing is new and the self-absorption of daily life becomes a safety barrier against raw reality.
 
Before movies and television, society flocked to fairgrounds and burlesque shows, where they could find every kind of marvel and amusement. Freak shows gave them escape from their own banality. The entertainments, with their emphasis on illusion and trickery, relied heavily on the imagination and naïveté of their audience. With the new age, such entertainments could not keep up with the sophisticated tastes of the audience. This new sophistication, born of the projection of the moving image, encouraged the development of a world of ‘falsified reality’; in parallel, it fostered para-scientific curiosity, whereby the apparent ‘others’ of the freak shows became the ‘subjects’ of scientific investigation.
 
The emergent anomalistic reality is one which Belfastbased artist Susan MacWilliam exploits for a ‘sideways’ viewing of the normal; in more recent work she looks at the apparently empirical claims of the extraordinary. This is a world where science is burlesque, where the naïveté of the audience member is the dominion of the charlatan, and the crossover point provides a confused picture that insists on both the verifiability and ‘falsifiability’ of claims that are correspondent with their degree of extraordinariness.
 
Born in Belfast, MacWilliam moved to Manchester to study art at Manchester Polytechnic. For her, Belfast was a place of deep-seated family memories and support that provided her with the impetus to get out of an atmosphere where the background of ‘The Troubles’ was the only identity allowed to artists studying or working in Belfast. Manchester provided a decisive ground for independence from nationalistic, religious and political categorization. This independence has continued to be a prominent part of MacWilliam’s practice. Returning to Belfast, and avoided by the hip curatorial visits that would continue to question her reasons for not addressing the political situation, MacWilliam took her apparent ‘apartness’ as a point of negotiation for a series of bodies of work that continue to this day.
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Headbox (detail), 2004, three TV Cubes, Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin; courtesy the artist
MacWilliam operates in the area of alternative observation. Prominent in early work is a personal search for the familiarity and comfort of the symbols and materiality of a bygone, infectious spirit of curiosity, fun and freedom. Taking the faded elegance of the dilapidated, she realised works in the window of a derelict shop ( Disco inferno , 1995) that used the gaudy, tinsel-curtain backdrop of working men’s clubs and offset it with a constellation of glitter-covered balls, a crossover of the last remnants of the vaudeville with the fetishism of recently demised disco. This form of symbolism continued, with a particular nod to the fading theatrical temples of entertainment and an aesthetic that referenced her past in painting, with the exhibition Curtains , (1997), a plasticine representation of a theatre curtain, in the Project Art Centre in Dublin.
 
MacWilliam democratises within her work. Precisely defined and assigned, objects are bestowed with a form of privilege. The commonplace and familiar are endowed with aesthetic and ideological complexity. This placement of symbols and staging is important as a memory point for individual history. The use within works of family objects, in the form of chairs, televisions, and other remnants of MacWilliam’s domestic history, lends them the role of totems and fetishes of moments of past life. The common items address the viewer and set the context in an assured fashion. It is in this loaded context that stability evolves and becomes the foundation for historical placement within MacWilliam’s work.
 
This is not a primitivist approach. Instead, the references to the familial objects of MacWilliam’s childhood and adolescence provide an elemental view of notional ‘enlightenment’. This is clearly seen in Kuda Bux [1], 2003. In this work MacWilliam carefully chooses to present her video-based pieces on a 1950s television set that can be viewed from a 1930s armchair, allowing the audience to experience the work from within the work. A pseudovaudevillian backdrop, an illuminated text in the style of fairground signage, creates an overall effect of extreme pathos, and yet the installation places no judgement on the core subject of New York mystic Kuda Bux, who was famous during the 1930s and ’40s for his dramatic demonstrations of eyeless sight.
 
Placement is a strong factor within MacWilliam’s practice. In preparing installations, a large amount of time is spent in the selection of the correct staging for the ‘re-enactment’ of scenes. Her deep-rooted need to understand not only the subject matter, but also the fabrication of the surrounding objects, is key to MacWilliam’s sympathetic approach. The term ‘sympathetic’ is much overused in modern society; it has an
 
almost romanticised connotation. However, MacWilliam eschews this romance in favour of understanding the original circumstances, without promoting any revisionist theory. The discomfort of analysis is given over entirely to the viewer.
 
Susan MacWilliam, Experiment M , 1999, video still, Consortium, Amsterdam, 2000, courtesy the artist.
The quackery, chicanery, and deceit come only from the viewer’s apparent 20:20 vision of what is now known to have been the reality. For example, Experiment M [2], (1999), an installation which comprises a set and a two-screen video work, recreates the spaces within which the séances and experimental research of Dr William Jackson Crawford and Belfast medium Kathleen Goligher took place. MacWilliam expands the scenography by carefully investigating the manufacturing processes required to create the props as used by the original subjects – in this case the table and ‘foot box’ reproduced using images and measurements in Crawford’s texts.
 
In writing about MacWilliam and her practice, this repeated back-referencing becomes very obvious. From this an almost fractal mix of patterns within patterns within patterns. This mix underscores MacWilliam’s huge concern with ideas of re-production and illusion, as she explores aspects of the history of photography and the presentation of the image as well as their sometimes crude use in the recording of para-scientific experimentation.
 
There is a seamless flow between media in MacWilliam’s work. She exploits the investigational-laboratory setting as much as experimental forms of subject matter editing, with many possible realisations of the ‘para’. The Last person [3], 1998, first shown in Catalyst Arts and later shortlisted for the 1999 Glen Dimplex Award, in addition to the stage settings, moved strongly into the world of the para-scientific, and specifically into the para-normal, and ‘grotesquely’ questioned the role of the victim and the perpetrator. The central placement of the ‘person’ as a symbol of ‘vulnerable’ and ‘enabler’ points to a romantic and almost sinister study of human naïveté. In Faint [4], 1999, with the sound of bird song placed over images of a fainting girl, the direct references to mesmerism and trance are taken out of the closed, controlled environment of the parlour game, and partially moved to the verdant surroundings of Powerscourt Gardens and the Irish Museum of Modern Art. This careful investigation, combined with the focus on construction, can also be seen in 45rpm [5], 2000, a short, black-and-white video work that presents images of a spinning zoetrope. Within these fabricated zoetropes are images of the artist repeatedly raising her hand to her forehead, which directly references the earlier subject matter of Faint .
 
In addition to these earlier reflections on representation, MacWilliam’s fascination with ’70s late night TV, such as the BBC’s Open University , comes together with early-twentieth-century ‘chicanery’ and combines with the very real negotiation of ‘anomalistic’ experiments for which there seems to be no acknowledged scientific explanation. The raw sets, the staged experiments, are bereft of their commentator or apologist, and are removed from the diagrammatic representation of a ‘solution’. Carefully crafted by MacWilliam, works such as Headbox [6], 2004, turn the gallery setting into that of a laboratory, where research into the areas of illusion, falsification, trickery, visual perception, notions of otherness, and normality take place with the audience as the main protagonist. This installation of objects and video works initially focuses on research with Rosa Kuleshova, a young woman whose remarkable ability to read with her fingertips made her the subject of intense scientific observation in Russia in the 1960s. In Headbox , MacWilliam continues her interest in the support props used in research. But, as with most video works, MacWilliam places herself in the role of the subject, re-enacting singular moments of their particular claims to fame. These re-creations invite the audience not only to enter the installation but also to become key characters in the judgement of the experiments.
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: The Last person , 1998, DVD stills, black-and-white silent, 10mins 30secs; courtesy the artist.
MacWilliam uses the realm of ‘psionics’ and the scientific study of paranormal phenomena as a backdrop to the exploration of human identity and the need for understanding. It is an investigation of diversion. The selfcontained installations, that place the viewer and ideas of human experience at their centre, challenge us to further investigation. The lack of definitive findings becomes a starting point for more discovery and reflection.
 
The building of physical and sensory environments demonstrates an eye for detail and quality of construction. There is a sense of totemism that is moved forward and aestheticised by MacWilliam. In addition, there is a notion of referencing the ‘garden shed inventor’, a distinct moment when ‘boffins’ took highly practical approaches to the creation of solutions and mechanisms. This was a time of practical realities, lived not in opposition but in parallel – an adjusted sideward view. MacWilliam’s work shows a strong interest in the mechanical. In a similar manner to artists such as Steven Pippin, it stems from early childhood memories of the father figure and it leads to an interesting questioning of gender roles and role-crossover, where the ‘girl artist’ makes stuff like her father, learning the trade/ skills to complete the work.
 
Marx noted the similarity in logic that explains primitive fetishism, “the primordial religion of sensual desire”, and the modern belief in political economy. MacWilliam displays ‘divinised’ material objects in a world that sees economic capital as a magical source of wealth and value. She carefully negotiates and removes the subjectivity of Modernism, and places herself firmly into the current moment. In this way, the underlying ordinariness becomes a criticism of contemporary life; the present is a place where the very definition of ‘civilised’ seeks to distinguish anything that is past as primitive and paradoxically returns us back to a fetishistic abandon.
 
For Althusser, as for Lacan, it is impossible to access the ‘real conditions of existence’ due to our reliance on language; however, through a rigorous, ‘scientific’ approach to society, economics and history, we can come close to perceiving if not those ‘real conditions’ at least the ways that we are distinguished in ideology by complex processes of recognition. MacWilliam can be seen as a key contributor to this argument. The paredback use of language and the keen eye provide for a successful marriage of ocular and emotional recognition.
 
There is a brutishness to the science as displayed within MacWilliam’s work. Ugliness of nature is provided with a façade of burlesque respectability. The works moves away from simulacra; they retain the ability to turn a theatre of shadows and universally accessible illusions into the concretism of experiential knowledge. The installations are a means to expose the artifice that binds realities together. MacWilliam unfolds the past as a new event before the eyes of the audience, creating a new whole within an artistic space.
 
1 installation with Video Work DVD, black-and-white and colour, stereo; winner of Perspective 2003, Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, curated by Enrique Juncosa, Director, IMMA.
2 installation with two videos, both black-and-white, silent, 5 mins 43 secs.
3 black-and-white, silent, 10 mins 30 secs.
4 colour with sound, 3 mins 40 secs.
5 black-and-white, silent, 4 mins 34 secs.
6 installation of objects and video works.
Susan MacWilliam’s website is www.susanmacwilliam.com
 
Noel Kelly is a curator and art critic based in Dublin.
  
On Susan MacWilliam's Dermo optics (2006) and Explaining magic to Mercer (2005)
Circa Magazine
March 16, 2007, Slavka Sverakova
 
Slavka Sverakova reflects on two recent works by Susan MacWilliam.
 
Susan MacWilliam: Mountain mist , 2002, DVD still; courtesy the artist
At the On the eye exhibition (2003) I was charmed by Susan MacWilliam's video Mountain mist (2002) - a disciplined and madly beautiful seven-and-a-half minute video of Trinidad landscape. Recently, MacWilliam offered a very different charm, in an exhibition A dark noise curated by Peter Richards. 1
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Dermo optics , 2006, installation A dark noise , Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, 2006; courtesy the artist
'Dark noise' is visual noise in digital imaging; it may distort an image and ought to be avoided. If, then, the artist and curator agreed on foregrounding a possible distortion, either deliberate or just not avoidable, as a dominant concept, the issue of departures, or of avoiding them, from some ideal state of phenomena appears legitimate. 2
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Explaining magic to Mercer , 2005, installation A dark noise , Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, 2006; courtesy the artist
The range of the subject matter situates the video installations into the departure category: eyeless sight, finger-tip vision, x-ray vision, séances, table tilting are both believed and unbelievable. On the face of it, this art co-habits the field occupied partly by Richard Rorty's proposal that " the theory of knowledge is a product of the false view that the main function of the mind is to faithfully represent a mind independent reality." 3
 
I confess that I have held and continue to hold that false view . I enjoy the correspondences 4 of various kinds ever since I read Charles Baudelaire. And yes, coincidences make deep inroads as they descend unexpectedly.
 
Dermo optics , 2006, 4mins 9secs
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Dermo optics , 2006, DVD still; courtesy the artist
MacWilliam documented experiments carried at the Centre de l'Information de Couleur in Paris. Its director, Dr Yvonne Duplessis, 5 is not a contemporary Mme Blavatsky, who impressed Kandinsky and Mondrian. She publishes in learned journals and reads papers at international conferences. Duplessis makes a distinction between 'optical' and 'visual' - the optical is not legible to the eye. 'Dermal' does not mean tactile - it can cause a reaction even if it is under a transparent or opaque screen and at a distance from the person. The intensity of the dermo-optical effect is different in daylight and in the dark; the distribution of colours is reversed, eg green produces the strongest impression and red the weakest. The most startling finding is that every subject had the same electroencephalographic results.
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Dermo optics , 2006, DVD still; courtesy the artist
Early in her career, MacWilliam relied on archival evidence. This time, she makes her own 'archive', editing it down to manageable viewing, ie 90 minutes into 4 minutes 9 seconds. The question arises, what happens to the 'truth' when subjected to reduction on this scale? A common view may suspect an undesirable loss. Intriguingly, the video keeps its power of persuasion, illustrates the significance of the experiments and, importantly, inspires the viewer to fill in the connections, effortlessly. Nothing special - this is a normal process of perception and cognition. The distortion by reduction has its root in our biological ability to make sense of the world. Bypassing the demands for accuracy and for all the evidence, it dissolves rather than solves the problem of how people perceive truth. The wisdom of this art's kernel suspends the need for ideals of perfection and for well defined standards of truth. Instead, the video creates a state of coherence among the watched experiments and among the sets of beliefs the different viewers may bring to it.
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Dermo optics , 2006, DVD still; courtesy the artist
By dropping numerous frames from the documentation, MacWilliam activates the ability of the viewer to connect the disconnected and to see more than is physically, measurably there. The dominance of what is false yet captivating over what is true but dull is justified by the artist's wish to transmit her discomfort while documenting the experiments in Paris onto a viewer:
 
"Regarding your question about the video Dermo optics - I sped the video up, which resulted in the subtraction of frames. The use of very fast video I saw as a way to present the huge amount of video that I had shot when I visited Madame Duplessis. I had an overwhelming experience the day I visited her and felt bombarded by information and imagery (in a good way, in an overexcited way) - I felt that the process of speeding up the video echoed my experience of the visit, in that I was having visual information endlessly presented to myself. The effect of speeding up a very long piece of footage, maybe 90 minutes into a few seconds, results in the computer losing frames - therefore we don't see every frame - but we do get a very fast summary of everything. So, yes, frames are dropped and removed. I like how the viewers, while they can't fix on anything, can still receive images very quickly - almost subliminally. And I like throwing all those images at the viewers so that they might feel bombarded by the stuff as I did on my visit to Madame Duplessis." 6
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Dermo optics , 2006, DVD still; courtesy the artist
The departure from the expected, the distortion by reduction, achieve another member of the creative matrix: the incomprehensible makes sense autonomously. As I watched, the question of verification did not dominate my perception. The playful speed gave the video the slightly comical accent known from silent movies.
 
Explaining magic to Mercer , 2005, 10 min 40 sec
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Explaining magic to Mercer , 2005, DVD still; courtesy the artist
MacWilliam follows the early video tradition of not separating art forms: document, drawings / writings and debate are presented together. In EMM , a five-year-old boy is absorbed in drawing and writing; he asks a question not even lifting his sight from the page. A print placed beneath the image appears as MacWilliam's answer. The voiceless answers partake in the visual power of the documenting lens, flirting with the realm of subtitles. The boy, homo faber, produces an ongoing flow of unseen marks and audible questions. 7 He is active, present, alive. The artist, in contrast, is behind the lens and behind the subtitles, her voice silenced, her answers passively static. She veils her identity with a confidence in the visual force, while discussing eyeless or x-ray vision. A paradox shadows the kindness, seriousness and subtle humour that permeates the encounter; eg the boy's question as to how the woman can see without eyes is answered, "because her skin was covered with microscopic eyes." 8
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Explaining magic to Mercer , 2005, DVD still; courtesy the artist
The artist and Mercer talk about the X-ray vision of Kuda Bux (which received the Perspective 2003 Award), the ectoplasmic materialisations of Helen Duncan in The Last person (shown at the Glen Dimplex Artist Award, 1998), Mollie Fancher's multiple personalities in The Persistence of vision , 2000 , the fingertip vision of Rosa Kuleshova in Headbox , 2004, and the table-tilting done by Kathleen Goligher in Experiment M , 1999.
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Kuda Bux , 2003, from Kuda Bux installation; courtesy the artist
 
Susan MacWilliam: Rosa and collar model , 2004, from Headbox installation; courtesy the artist
 
Susan MacWilliam: Experiment M , 1999, DVD still, installation with two videos; courtesy the artist
 
Susan MacWilliam: The persistence of vision , 2000, DVD still; courtesy the artist
 
Susan MacWilliam: The last person , 1998, DVD still; courtesy the artist
In the dialogue, the art is being reduced to stories; the dialogue between the visible and audible Mercer and the invisible and mute artist introduces an asymmetry charged with the unseating of an old hierarchy of values.
 
However, something else is going on about the comprehensible / incomprehensible duality. MacWilliam borrows what I like to call 'tactical frivolity', which is a form of public protest at times. In Dermo optics , this took the mode of the comical overtone created by dropped frames, in EMM it appears as the inversion - the child is visually given centre place in the interrogation of the narrative. The 'answers' have resulted from years of research and development of art practice. Yet they were made appear as casual reactions to the boy's inquisitive mind.
 
A passion for observation enlivens the surface of the stories MacWilliam tells; however, the deep structure builds up a suspense that signals emotion, authenticity and the autonomy of art. The formation of a mental image calls for resourcefulness, for a willingness to stay in command of imagination, which I think of as a gift of nature. It lies not miles away from J S Mill's (1806 - 1873) concern with self-development and experimentation. Perception is something we do; it is a skilful biological activity, a thoughtful activity. It is not to have a sensation, but to know something.
 
Giving prominence to a deviant mode of vision as a supreme theme of visual art practice forges incongruence. Furthermore, MacWilliam disrupts the documentary rhythm by a rhythm of feeling ("being bombarded"), a strategy favoured by, inter alia, Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy 9 and Viktor Sklovskij(1893 -1984) 10 in the so-called Russian Formalism of around 1925.
 
MacWilliam allows pleonasm, parallelism and inversion to frame a public discourse as a communicative action free from the steering mechanism of money and science. She locates critical thought not in historically specific socio-political contexts; the basis for discussion of the failings and the potential is 'turnabout' (viz G E Debord, 1931 -1994), meaning the artist reuses elements of something known to make a new work with a different message.
 
 
Susan MacWilliam: Explaining magic to Mercer , 2005, framed writing; courtesy the artist
 
Susan MacWilliam: Explaining magic to Mercer , 2005, framed writing; courtesy the artist
The subtitles in EMM appear as a jamming of MacWilliam's speech, and the elevation of the boy's writing into her own art practice - she framed and put on the wall of the gallery two of Mercer's pages - connects not only to Joseph Beuys' famous utterance ("Everyone is an artist") but also to that 'turnabout'. EMM 's title evokes Beuys' famous performance How to explain pictures to a dead hare (1965), in which he acts like a shaman in a mask of honey and gold. The viewer can watch Beuys communicating with the animal but cannot hear what he says. By electing to be mute, MacWilliam adopts a similar strategy, intensifying it by being invisible.
 
Like Beuys, MacWilliam works systematically, imposing control without squashing artistic freedom. Where the older artist saw art as freedom, she looks for an autonomous status for looking, seeing, observing, and communicating. Incongruence, incompleteness, and distortion by carefully applied omissions form the navigational map for the path to the autonomy of art. Subjectivity and semiosis are not treated as context-dependent and thus continually failing. The visual force in both videos is a closed form, a muffling inclusiveness resisting dispersal in any possible context forged from the outside. The aesthetic change becomes a means of connecting with truth. If autonomy means freedom from the external authority, then it crucially depends on the capacity of an individual to make informed, uncoerced decisions, nurturing self-determined motivation and optimal functioning. It amuses me that in computing, an 'autonomous peripheral' is one that can be used with the computer turned off. This is similar to the magma of social significations as it allows the individual to create a stable Self and ignore the constant emergence of indeterminacy. 11
 
1 Both at the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast
 
2 Noel Kelly, 'An outsider in her native town - the work of Susan MacWilliam', Circa 118, 2006, p 52, defined her work as "investigation of diversion" and the artist as "a key contributor" to the argument worked out by Althusser and Lacan on impossibility of access to the "real conditions of existence" bar by a rigorous scientific approach.
 
3 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature , 1979
 
4 Even if I agree with Wittgenstein's "sentences do not link up with the world in a correspondence relation." The two do not contradict each other: when I find a correspondence I consider it as true, but it is not all of the truth there is, only an approximation.
 
5 Yvonne Duplessis wrote her PhD thesis on Surrealism, and in 1969 she began research in Dermo Optics; results were published as 'Une science nouvelle: la dermo-optique, Edition du Rocher, 1996. In her papers she refers to the studies by Novomeysky in Sverdlovsk in 1962; he coined the term 'D-O sensitivity'.
 
The brain scans locate this sensitivity not in the vision centres but in the centres of tactile and thermal sensation (access http://www.creatic.fr/cic , scroll to 'Optical Radiation and colours: Facts and Effects').
6 Susan MacWilliam, e-mail to me, 26.10.2006
 
7 Researchers at McGill and Washington Universities provide some evidence that listening to a sound causes decreased activity in the visual sensory area of the brain.
 
8 It is allowable to assume that there are receptors in the skin for this information; viz Yvonne Duplessis, 'Dermo-optical sensitivity' at http://www.creatic.fr/cic . She also mentions the research at the Laboratory of Human Chronobiology at Cornell University: they found that light can act on the body by paths other than ocular. It can modify the circadian rhythms altered by long flights; see: Scott S Campbell, Patricia Murphy, 'Extraocular circadian phototransduction in humans', Science , vol 279, 16 January 1998. This phenomenon is not synaesthesia - although some research blurs the boundaries: see a report by Alison Motluk, 'Think of a concept, taste it on your tongue', in New Scientist.com, 22 November 2006.
 
9 The introduction is in Chapter 64 and Chapters 178 and 179 are after 185 - an example of time inversion.
 
10 'The theory of prose', 1925 and 1929 - the aim of art is create a special perception - not cognition.
 
11 Here I lean on the thinking about individual autonomy of both Cornelius Castoriadis (1922 - 1997) and Emmanuel Levinas (1906 -1995).
 
Slavka Sverakova is a writer on art.