Hallucinations and Hysteria: An Interview with Zoe Beloff

“On a personal level, I feel a great deal of empathy towards these women…I see myself in some ways as attempting to give them a voice. I think of them as visionaries.”

poster for Zoe Beloff

Zoe Beloff "The Somnambulists"

at Bellwether
in the Chelsea 14th - 19th area
This event has ended - (2008-09-02 - 2008-10-04)

In Interviews by Alex Callender 2008-09-24 print

Zoe Beloff, filmmaker and digital installation artist, explores the roots of cinematic technologies and new media through their relationship to hallucination and the projection of dreams. Beloff’s new exhibition of sculpture and 3D short films, “The Somnambulists,” is on view at Bellwether Gallery until October 4th, 2008.

In your show “The Somnambulists” there is piece titled Hysterical Mythomania (2008). What is mythomania?

Mythomania is the compulsion to make up stories and then actually believe those stories. I found out about this rather marvelous disorder in a book by Arthur van Ghuchten, the neurologist who filmed the girl you see in my little theater.

Hysterical Mythomania (2008). 18 x 16 x 21.5 in. Painted wooden theater, DVD player and beam-splitter glass. Courtesy of Bellwether Gallery.

In A Modern Case of Possession and History of a Fixed Idea, why were you initially compelled to use [19th-century psychological] case studies as an exercise for your own work?

I’m interested in thinking about ways to graphically manifest the unconscious or, one could say more simply, mental images. I’ve done a number of projects based on case histories, “Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A.,” “Charming Augustine.” I start with a document, something that purports to be scientific observation, but contains within itself material that is highly subjective, interior. For example how does one document a dream or delirium?

Where does your interest in mental pathologies begin?

My interest began when I started to explore the birth of mechanical reproduction in relation to the imagination. I wanted to find connections between cinematic projection and psychic projection. I think a lot about the relationship between form and content. Each different case history seems to demand its own specific projection apparatus to realize it.

I was lead to the work of Pierre Janet, a French psychopathologist who was active at the beginning of the 20th century. In his studies on hysteria, he described how his patients would fall into delirium where they would enact over and over unconsciously the most traumatic moments of their lives with a passion and expressiveness that surpassed even the most talented actors. In my project “Beyond,” I wanted to connect these “performances” with the earliest films where for the first time, people could see actors performing the same dramatic gestures over and over. Janet’s case histories read as melodramas in miniature; melodrama is a form that fascinates me.

Hysteria centers on performance. It only exists in the moment that it is acted out, like cinema or theater. Some of Janet’s patients embodied their fears as fantastic characters, like the devils or the blue cadaver you see in History of a Fixed Idea and A Modern Case of Possession. By hypnotizing his patients, Janet was able to transform these mental images into other ones, sometimes turning images into words and then those words into other, less threatening, ones. He was very interested in how a patient experienced an idea that he or she fixated upon, how they embodied it. I’m interested in these questions too. That’s what all artists struggle with—the embodiment of ideas, the relation between image, word, sound and the unconscious connections that surface between them. I’m addressing all this in a playful way, but there is also a certain black humor here. I’m dealing with people who were seriously disturbed.

A Modern Case of Possession (2008). 11 minutes Stereoscopic HD video in color with sound. Courtesy of Bellwether Gallery.

When did you first begin working stereoscopically? In 3D?

In 1994, I did a visual piece to accompany John Cale’s music performance, “Life Underwater.” Stereoscopic photography is, I think, an interesting medium for projecting phantoms. When we see a 3-D image, we know it is a trick but we see it anyway. It was the closest analogy I could find to seeing a ghost or experiencing a hallucination.

Where do you get your resources for your films, like the images of the hysterics?

For about ten years I would go to the large flea market on 26th and 6th Avenue, which is no longer there. Every Sunday I’d look for old home movies. In projects like “Beyond” I found myself creating a dialog with these found cinematic phantoms, people who had died and their memories ended up in estate sales. I’m a scavenger. But in many ways stories and characters find me.

In “The Somnambulists,” I worked with medical footage. I found some of it at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, where they have archival footage of patients actually having hysterical episodes. Like the image of that girl in one of the boxes, A Severe Case of Hysteria in an Eleven Year Old Girl is of a young girl in a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska 1944.

In History of a Fixed Idea, and in much of your other work, women play the role of the protagonist, and they perform a wide range of female archetypes in a really short period of time. How does gender fit into these works?

On a personal level, I feel a great deal of empathy towards these women. I wanted to give them a chance to speak, rather than be spoken about by the men who wrote up their pathologies. I see myself in some ways as attempting to give them a voice. I think of them as visionaries.

I also think of their stories as part of my own work in media archeology. Histories of media usually focus on the invention of this or that technology. But before a technology can be invented, it must be imagined, desired or even hallucinated. How do these things mesh together? For example, my installation “The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A.” was based on a case of a woman living in Vienna in 1919 who believed her mind and body where being controlled by a mysterious electrical apparatus in Berlin. I wanted to connect her delusions with actual influencing machines like radio and television that were being developed at that time.

Often these women, especially hysterics, are considered to be simply victims of the male medical establishment. This is true but it’s not the whole truth. The doctor patient relationship was complex, there were all kinds of seductions going on. But it’s important to point out that hysterics were not just women, there were crazy men too. Hence I wanted to include the case of Achille in A Modern Case of Possession.

History of a Fixed Idea (2008). 11 minutes Stereoscopic HD video in color with sound. Courtesy of Bellwether Gallery.

Both the stereoscopic films and the dioramas are images within a larger image that are part of choreographed theater. What does this layering provide for you?

I’ve been interested in layering for a long time, long before I could figure out how to formally achieve this. Back in the early 1990s I was making a film, “Trip to the Land of Knowledge,” which alternated between document and dream space, and I was very frustrated because I wished I could show both states simultaneously.

I became interested in a Bergson-ian space of thought. In “Matter and Memory,” the philosopher Henri Bergson discusses how our consciousness exists in the present and past at the same time. The past is not a stack of photographs that we flip through, but rather a virtual space that our minds inhabit. I think we are always traveling through virtual spaces in our everyday life, conscious of our surroundings in the present, our memories, our dreams. They all exist as different layers of experience. My husband says I time travel. Sometimes I’m just not there, in the present at all.

To actually create a layered visual space in “The Somnambulists,“ I used new technologies but deployed them in a uniquely 19th century fashion. The little theaters employ a trick called “Pepper’s Ghost” that was very popular in Victorian stage shows.

It is important to remember that in the 19th century, phantoms crossed over into our space—the real and the virtual coexisted. Since the birth of classical cinema we think of a movie or any kind of projection as a window into another world, but more than a hundred years ago, projections were conceptualized differently. Projected figures were thought of as virtual presences that briefly manifested themselves in our world.

Your next project is in Brooklyn and Coney Island seems like a natural New York location for you to be setting up a project. How did this come about?

I gave Aaron Beebe, the curator of the Coney Island Museum, a book called “Freud in Coney Island” Norman Klein. He writes about Freud’s visit to the Dreamland amusement park in Coney Island on his trip to America in 1909. Aaron called me up and asked me if I would like to do an exhibition at the museum to celebrate the centennial of Freud’s visit to Coney Island. How could I resist?

Again, the theme brings together science and spectacle. The show will present the work of the “The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society.” I have been spending the last year or so unearthing and researching their archive.

Alex Callender

Alex Callender. Alex Callender is a visual artist and adjunct instructor who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Alex hopes to see the day when this country's student loan system dissolves into a harmless gas and secondary education becomes a right. She also writes a bit. » See other writings

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