Museum of Modern Art, New York and Center for Curatorial Studies, Annandale-on-Hudson, USA
By Dan Fox
Black Mirror and Stranger Things were two of the most popular Netflix series this past, dreadful year. Each episode of Black Mirror tells a cautionary tale of how near-future developments in virtual reality and social media might destabilize our sense of selves. Stranger Things rolls supernatural chiller into conspiracy thriller, garnished with nostalgia for movies such as E.T. (1982) and The Goonies (1985). Both shows play to our bleakest fears about the power of technology, ascribing to it a malevolent consciousness.
You could say that Tony Oursler’s ‘Imponderable’ makes a good historical reader for these shows. A film and exhibition exploring the artist’s vast collection of images and ephemera relating to illusionism, the occult, photography and unexplained phenomena, ‘Imponderable’ is an engrossing voyage through the interzone between science and spiritualism. It also demonstrates the ways in which human imagination has reacted to periods of change and used technology as a means to re-enchant the world. Much of the material in the collection dates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, periods of rapid development in photography, transportation and telegraphy. Spirit photography, clairvoyance and seances were expressions of wonder and anxiety at the increasing speed and shape-shifting of communication and representation, and – with the arrival of industrial-scale warfare in 1914 – a therapy to handle grief.
The Center for Curatorial Studies (CCS) held the bulk of Oursler’s archive, presented across a maze of vitrines, loosely grouped according to theme (automatic writing, for instance, or Satan worship) or type (images of ectoplasm or Kirlian photography). Here you could find images of hypnotism experiments and journals of psychic research featuring articles on ‘electronic exorcism’, ESP test cards, palmistry diagrams, a set of Tarot designed by Aleister Crowley and Lady Frieda Harris, and images of UFO sightings. Categories and subjects were not limited to the paranormal: news clippings about the Jonestown massacre; publicity photos of occultist Anton LaVey; pamphlets relating to radical US political cell the Weather Underground. All, in a sense, forms of cultural marginalia – beliefs, spectacles and speculations from society’s fringes that have held a strong grip on the imagination – expressions of a desire for mystery, for the innocence of things unknown, for the pleasures of looking at the world out of the corner of one’s eye.
At MoMA, Oursler focused on the fascinating life of his grandfather, Fulton Oursler, an editor at True Detective and True Romance magazines, screenwriter and debunker of fraudulent spirit mediums. A room featuring vintage posters for stage illusionists, explanations of Pepper’s Ghost (a theatre trick using glass screens and projected lights, designed to make a ghost ‘appear’ on stage), Victorian fairy photographs and papers from the Oursler family archives functioned as a cinema foyer of sorts, leading to a specially-designed auditorium screening his film Imponderable (which also makes ingenious use of Pepper’s Ghost to overlay images on top of one another). The film is divided into episodes, each one telling an historical story connected to his grandfather’s life. Delightfully wooden acting and lo-fi effects give Imponderable a kitsch atmosphere. It’s a subtle flavour that seems, to my mind, as much influenced by watching re-runs of The Addams Family and The Invaders, listening to The Cramps (who adopted the schlock aesthetics of 1950s horror movies), or reading issues of The Fortean Times, as it does an interest in the subjects themselves. Imponderable is an expression of affection for the overlooked or marginalised aspects of US culture, or rather, its manifold and splintered subcultures of belief and spectacle.