Rachel Stevens racheljstevens at gmail.com
Fri Nov 29 03:03:05 AEDT 2019

Woah, the crystal ball story – so glad the flames didn't go higher. Thank
you WhiteFeather for your story and words evoking queer becomings. I'm
struck by how trauma and healing are frequent through lines in people's
recollections and connections with texts.

Here are the last two sections of descriptions of artist projects from Two
Chairs in *Queer Paranormal (an exhibition concerning Shirley Jackson and
the Haunting of Hill House)* at Bennington College and their framing
namings: Mediums, ESP and Extra-Human Manifestations; Witches and
Witchcraft. Once again, the categories are mostly superficial, for the sake
of the linear text – and don't encompass the richness of the discussion on
here. The work often points to social constraints and norms. The exh is up
through December 7th in case you're near Southern Vermont.

With admiration and gratitude, for this discussion among other things,

Rachel / Two Chairs

/ /

Mediums, ESP and Extra-Human Manifestations

Susan MacWilliam’s video, The Last Person (1998), is an imagined

reenactment of a séance conducted by the renowned medium Helen Duncan

who, in 1944, was the last person tried and convicted under the British

Witchcraft Act of 1735. The artist, standing in for Duncan, disgorges

“ectoplasm” (white gauze) from her mouth and under her skirt while her

hands and feet are bound by rope to a chair. Such restraints were imposed by

the “psychical researcher, traditionally male” on “the medium, usually

in an effort to control the environment of the séance room and lessen the

potential for fraud. MacWilliam further explains that these “bodily

were often “invasive” and strictly gendered. As the scientist looks on “the

medium becomes a body observed, while the medium’s body itself acts as an

image-producing device.” In MacWilliam’s reconstruction, the artist is both

observer and subject—working both sides of the camera—and she considers

her assumption of Duncan’s position through reconstruction is an act of

empathy in accord with filmmaker Harun Farocki’s definition:

Empathy is a finer expression than ‘identification,’ and the German

word einfühlen has a transgressive overtone. A compound of

eindringen (to penetrate) and mitfühlen (to sympathize). Somewhat

forceful sympathy. (xiv)

The artificiality of the individual elements presented as “apparitions” are

mediated through photographic means and the desire of the viewer. In both

*The Last Person* and *Pull Down *(2016)—MacWilliam’s video “hidden” in

Jennings—the viewer is left to interpret the authenticity of what is on

Looking for something that remains insufficiently present requires us to

an active role in articulating what might be there.

In MacWilliam’s sculptural installation *Bookspheres *(2013-14), covers of

books concerning parapsychology are made into spheres to suggest

telepathic devices like crystal balls. The artist “imagines the book as a

telepathic device 'transmitting' information from writer (sender) to reader

(receiver).” The dates of publication are clustered around the mid-twentieth

century, the era of Jackson’s novel and its subsequent film version.

Peggy Ahwesh’s *Nocturne* (1998), shot in 16mm black-and-white film and

with a consumer-grade Pixelvision camera, has a grainy feel that renders the

story all the more terrifying, as if we are witnessing a horror film
encoded as

a home movie rife with genre and gender play. Images of the central

character trying to bury the lover she has killed, and then wrestling with

ghost back inside the house, are cut with nature scenes and sounds along

with richly textured domestic interiors. A pastiche of philosophical

quotes directs our attention to forms of love unbound from human

sentimentality—impulses more akin to the brutal logic of the “natural” world

than to traditional notions of twentieth-century desire. A third character

appears in the film, a woman whose presence suggests the sophisticated

Theo. (The Pixelvision aesthetic gained popularity in the experimental film

community in part through Sadie Benning’s diaristic coming out films, which

she made as a teenager in the early 1990s.)

Ahwesh’s video *Omedium *(2006) evokes the uncanny of disembodied

electronic communication. Email spam—something recent algorithms have

partly shielded us from—in the artist’s inbox is the medium and the

message. Who is speaking? What otherworldly logic dictates the ordering and

timing of these fragmentary communications, sometimes catastrophic,

sometimes smutty? Ahwesh’s recasting of these insignificant texts as a

of authoritative words on the screen, with a dramatic soundscape

of noises plus music by Um Kalthoum, amplifies the abject and banal.

Dramatic words such as “fire” and “murder” share our attention with crass

signifiers such as “Cialis.” The specter of out-of-time incantations of

topical words from not-too-recent, but not-too-long-ago histories, such as

“Bush” and “Saddam,” recalls news cycles tied to wars waged in the Middle

East and leverages a collective anxiety over an unwieldy archive and

underbelly that can erupt at any time.

Lana Lin’s 16mm film *Stranger Baby* (1995) expands the territory

of the paranormal through the sci-fi genre and avant-garde film aesthetics

a retro-futurist portrayal of “alien” identity and mis-communication that

feels contemporary in its engagement with outside-the-mainstream forms

of identification. Characters such as a loving extra-terrestrial of

gender are embedded in a landscape of imagery, rich sound effects, and

themes borrowed from 1950s and ’60s B movies. Voiceover texts that express

a sense of being an outsider, mis-recognized and misunderstood, mirror, in

the exhibition context, *The Haunting of Hill House* main character

sense of not belonging. This poetic and anxious narrative deftly turns the

viewer’s layered readings toward immigration and race and gender identity.

Witches and Witchcraft

Macon Reed’s video *All the World Must Suffer a Big Jolt* (2016) concludes

a quote by feminist theorist Silvia Federici: “Hundreds and thousands of

women could not have been massacred and subjected to the cruelest tortures

unless they posed a challenge to the power structure.” (xv)

Reed presents the viewer with a candy-colored set and props reminiscent of a

puppet show. Human hands emerge from openings in the set, first holding

each other and then moving in and out, setting out props and caressing

figures hanging over fire from a scaffold. The colorful imagery is

with text that concerns the murdering of witches. Power, represented by a

pyramid with a circle, is clumsily dumped onto the stage. We recognize this

symbol as the dollar bill’s eye of providence (seen as well in Tony Do’s

installation). Here, it stands in for capital accumulation, which Federici

shown led not only to witch hunts throughout centuries but continues to

create a misogynistic context leading to violence against women worldwide.

Reed’s video is a call to action and a threat through an imagined dialogue

intergalactic ancestors encapsulated in the title: *All the World Must
Suffer a*

*Big Jolt*.

In Reed’s *Brigade*,“megaphones” are positioned above cheerleader pompoms

unceremoniously dumped on the floor. The artist’s intention is to question

notions of team spirit, nationalism, and patriotism in a particularly

American context. Much of Reed’s work reflects on “what it means to belong.”

Compulsory positivity as optimism shows its toxic side when its expression

turns a group into a mob (“Lock her up!”); also toxic is when the need to

belong causes injury to self and others through bullying or self-harm.

Belonging at any cost is exactly what Jackson’s character Eleanor is seeking

and finds at Hill House: “Eleanor thought, I am the fourth person in this

I am one of them; I belong. . . . An Eleanor, she told herself
triumphantly, who

belongs . . .” (xvi) On the other hand, the megaphones, like spirit
trumpets, or

the people’s microphone of Occupy Wall Street, signal communication and,

presumably, protest and rebellion. Belonging for Reed is a call for

imagination in response to the growing apathy and isolation inspired by late


APRIORI (Efrén Cruz Cortés; Margaretha Haughwout; Suzanne Husky; Elæ

[Lynne DeSilva Johnson]; and Gabi Schaffzin) has taken witchcraft into both

more speculative and materially grounded realm. *Notes for Haunting*

*Properties* (2019) is presented as a tableau of resources, software,

findings, and strategic interventions into the College landscape. APRIORI, a

techno-botanical coven, proposes that plants, particularly those with

paranormal and healing properties, are in communication with AI (Artificial

Intelligence), bypassing the human middle man. For Queer Paranormal, the

coven has planted Broom Corn, Flax, Mugwort, Rose and Hawthorn—labeled

with stakes—in the field between Usdan and the CAPA building. In the

gallery, visitors find interviews with queer witches and plant-centric

diagrammed spells; seed packets; and offerings that serve

and anti-capitalist forces. Mugwort, a feral resident of the campus, likely

since Shirley Jackson’s time, has been harvested from the grounds.


 Antje Ehmann and Carlos Guerra, *Harun Farocki: Another Kind of Empathy*,
(Barcelona: Fundacio Antoni Tapies, 2016), 34.

Silvia Federici, *Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Capital
Appropriation*. (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004), 164.

Jackson, *The Haunting of Hill House*, 43.

On Wed, Nov 27, 2019 at 1:51 AM WhiteFeather <whitefeather.hunter at gmail.com>

> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Jess, you're so fresh, I love it - I appreciate your candor.
> I once had a year like you describe: It was 2008, a very bad economic
> year, if everyone remembers. I had finally filed a workplace harassment
> charge against my boss, who had for three years in a row, cut my teaching
> hours in half at the craft college where I'd been teaching for seven years.
> She told me it was part of her personal workplace equity policy to hire
> more men and get rid of more women, since there were "too many damn women"
> working at the college (perverse, I know). The result was that she was
> essentially 'fired' very quickly following the complaint but in government
> that means 'reassigned' to a policy desk job in another department, at
> another building, and never allowed to return - effectively banished.
> At the same time this was occurring, my crystal ball lit my apartment on
> fire and I lost almost everything I owned. Folks, it's not just a Twitter
> meme. That meme is me. It was late October, when the sun is very low in the
> sky and quite potent from that angle. My niece had been playing with my
> crystal ball the night before and left it sitting on my couch - a
> beautiful, 102-year old, 6ft couch in chocolate brown and caramel velvet
> brocade. I came home from work to find the couch smouldering from the sun
> magnified through the crystal ball, and as soon as I opened the door to my
> living room and the air flowed in, it very quickly progressed into flames.
> The apartment itself was not structurally damaged (thank all my stars), but
> because the old couch was filled with rubber foam cushioning, it produced a
> thick, toxic cyanide smoke which poisoned everything. The crystal ball
> cracked in half and the hex was done. There were more grief-causing
> episodes that occurred at the time as well, and that apartment was crazy
> haunted, but I'll stop here with that story by concluding that my generous
> community supported my quick recovery.
> Efrén, I appreciate your words so much and find some resonance with what I
> have been reading today about orgies of witches and cults of healing
> through what I would call queer becomings - so I thought I would share.
> With regards to supposed satanic orgies that witches were accused of
> during the era of the European witch-hunts, the text I've been reading
> provides an interesting assessment of these orgies as openly queer
> ('bisexual' is the word used to indicate a lusty free-for-all),
> boundary-less rites that were not necessarily purely fabrications of the
> inquisitors, but rather, reframed by clergy/ inquistors/ medical doctors as
> demonic behavior in light of their sexual freedom. The actual context of
> such underground gatherings was, the text explains, rooted in rebellion
> against the observed corruption and conservatism of the church, and in the
> persistence of older folkloric/ occult traditions.
> In terms of those traditions and perhaps less explicit, one example
> provided discusses Romanian fertility cults that featured supernatural
> 'fairies' of an ambivalent nature that could not, out of respect/fear, be
> named but were instead referred to reverentially as "they" or Holy Ones.
> There were also "cathartic dancers" called the Călușari, a cult of men
> who healed diseases (inflicted by the fairies) through acrobatic movement.
> They used their dance to give an impression of flying through the air like
> the fairies: "...their cathartic and therapeutic techniques are based
> mainly on a particular choreography, which imitates the mode of being and
> the behavior of the fairies... the scenario actualized by the *călușari *consistently
> implies *the merging of the opposite, through complementary,
> magico-religious ideas and techniques.*" (emphasis in the original) By
> opposite, the author is referring to the two oppositional types of
> supernatural beings, one becoming the other, reconciling through conjoined
> energies.
> The broader point he makes is that such magic-makers and artists were
> "radically assimilated to witches" by inquisitors and that their orgiastic
> shenanigans, "were not at all improbable... As a matter of fact, it is this
> type of ritual orgy, undoubtedly the most archaic, which discloses the
> original function of promiscuous collective intercourse. Such rituals
> reactualize the primordial moment of Creation or the beatific stage of the
> beginnings, when neither sexual taboos nor moral and social rules yet
> existed." *-- Occultism, Witchcraft and Cultural Fashions *by Mircea
> Eliade (University of Chicago Press, 1976) p84-88
> I appreciate this nuanced re-take - I hope some of you will as well.
> WhiteFeather
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au
> http://empyre.library.cornell.edu


Rachel Stevens
racheljstevens at gmail.com
rachel.stevens at hunter.cuny.edu

www.rachelstevens.net <http://rachelstevens.net/>
Editorial Board – Millennium Film Journal <http://www.mfj-online.org/>
Adjunct Assistant Professor – IMA MFA <http://ima-mfa.hunter.cuny.edu/>,
Film and Media Studies, Hunter College, NYC
Curatorial Collaborator – Two Chairs Projects
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