Sunday, December 02, 2018

‘The Frankenstein Phantasmagoria’, Dundee Congregational Church & The Howff, 24th November

From Wikipedia’s entry on the Phantasmagoria:
a form of horror theatre that (among other techniques) used one or more magic lanterns to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons and ghosts onto walls, smoke or semi-transparent screens, typically using rear projection to keep the lantern out of sight. […] Some shows added all kinds of sensory stimulation, including smells and electric shocks.
Shocks and smells aside, that is a fair description of the second half of this magic lantern show by Jeremy Brooker, assisted by his wife Carolyn: they used mirrors against the lantern’s lenses to project spooks around the church walls and roof, and the previously flat screen was drawn back to reveal several more layers, including a semi-transparent gauze, a rainbow-shimmering, swaying surface which turned out to be bubble-wrap kept moving by a fan, and at the back the contours of a body topped by a skull in the centre of the screen-space. The effect of the projections on this was quite dazzling, much of it softened by the layers so that it became purely a visual pleasure (shoegaze for the eyes, cathedrals of light), but scenes came and went too, making the body and skull more or less obvious. Alongside this, Timothy Didymus played an instrument made from twelve glass turntables and wine glasses, a kind of reverse-engineered glass armonica, but softer-sounding, as (he explained afterwards) he had leather pads pressed against the sides of the glasses, producing the sound. It was a beautiful, immersive experience: memento mori ameliorated.

The whole event was immersive, actually. It began at the nearby Howff, a graveyard in the centre of Dundee with graves from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Guide Eddie Small met the audience there, in the dark and in the rain, wearing a black cloak and accompanied by two assistants dressed as friars, with lamps, who herded us this way and that, out of the way of the traffic. Small started by explaining something I didn’t quite catch about the Howff and Mary Shelley (she dug up bodies there and made a prototype monster, perhaps?), before going on to explain that James Bowman Lindsay, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, was not buried there, but in Dundee’s Western Cemetery. What the Howff did have, was an open-air mortuary (‘people were dying to get in’), and none the people buried there had a funeral, because, he said, there were none in Scotland for four hundred years prior to 1920. Is this really true? It doesn’t pass the quick Google test, but who knows? It certainly created a nice ghostly feeling, which was only intensified by walking down a dark side street to the church’s back entrance, past a large back-projection of the reanimation scene from Bride of Frankenstein in one of its windows. In the church hall before we were permitted access to ‘the other side’ (the church itself, where the performance was), organisers Keith Williams and Matthew Jarron wore white lab coats, and the darkened room boasted an impressive array of grisly medical equipment from the university’s collection, the better to consider the way of all flesh, bone and sinew prior to the main event.

The magic lantern show, as Brooker explained in a talk afterwards, was not a re-telling of Frankenstein. Rather, it explored themes relating to the novel, using a combination of genuine Victorian slides, copies, and entirely original slides. He told us that there are no Victorian magic lantern slides telling the story of Frankenstein, so he had to be inventive, adapting and recontextualising. He said he had made seventy slides for the show (one was of the entrance to the Howff), which is an extraordinary amount of work: I hope it survives in some form, either a recording or repeat performances (there were just two over the weekend). It would definitely bear repeat viewings.

Here are some of the slides which stood out: a woman in profile, full length, looking through a door at a body against a black background (more like a medical diagram than a ‘real’ body), I think a skeleton to begin with, then with layers of muscle. Similar but more horrific was a woman in medium shot, holding a black mask in front of the top half of her face, with just the eyes showing through. All set for a masquerade. She moved the mask down, so you could see her face. Then back up, and down again, and the top half of her face had become a skull, as though the flesh of her face were itself a mask. It made me think of Mark Fisher’s discussion of horror and pornography in his essay and blog post ‘Let me be your fantasy’, which I read recently in his gigantic posthumous collection k-punk:
‘Why stop with the genitalia?’ Baudrillard asks, ‘Who knows what profound pleasure is to be found in the visual dismemberment of mucous membranes and smooth muscles?’ Cronenberg’s early work – from Shivers and Rabid through to Videodrome – is an answer to that very question. Cronenberg famously posed his own question, ‘why aren’t there beauty contests for the inside of the body?’ (Mark Fisher, k-punk, p. 64, and online here.)
There was nothing explicitly sexual about the magic lantern show (though there was a slide featuring a suggestively growing nose), but perhaps the peeling back of flesh for entertainment necessarily entails a sexual element.

There was also the fascination of: how was that done? All sorts of trickery is possible, between the magic lantern’s three lenses (allowing superimposition) and the manipulation of individual slides. But at the same time, it is all done live and there is nowhere to hide: everything is visible, blown up to screen size. There was an arctic section, with a ship in silhouette moving like a ghost from slide to slide. There was a whaling scene in which the sea went red with blood. Brooker said that this was his modern sensibility: Victorian whaling scenes tend to be heroic rather than horrific. There was a section on acrobatics, which I think was there on Brooker’s previous visit to Dundee, when he put on a Christmas show at the university. That was magical, because, to an audience used to video and computer graphics (and no longer used to overhead projectors), magic lanterns represent an entirely different way of manipulating images. It has a nostalgic feeling to it, sure, and the Victoriana is part of the appeal, but it’s also alien to see movement on a screen without Frames Per Second. The whirling phantasmagoria of the finale to this show, with its textures, layers, and its sprites and brownies darting around the periphery of our vision was something else again. Near the end of this sequence, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Death is not the End’ was played, like a pilot announcing a landing, signalling that we had strayed well beyond a story about science and the reanimation of flesh, to the territory of the soul. The screen, the entire place, was haunted.

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The Frankenstein Phantasmagoria was part of the Being Human Festival, and timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication.
Jeremy Brooker is chair of the Magic Lantern Society.
Timothy Didymus’ Kosmiche Glass LP (this is also the name of his wine-glass instrument) is available on Bandcamp.

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