Susan MacWilliam, F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N (research image). Flammarion Teleplasm, Hamilton Family fonds, University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections
Susan MacWilliam is the Belfast-based artist who represented Northern Ireland at the 2009 Venice Biennale. MacWilliam's art probes the paranormal, the supersensory, and the tradition of psychic research. The artist approaches her subject through the history of occult photography, biography, and archival discovery.
Her research with the Thomas Glendenning Hamilton Spirit Photograph Collection, housed at the University of Manitoba Archives in Winnipeg, Canada, inspired F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N (2009). For this video, MacWilliam recreated the sťance cabinet in which Hamilton had performed a sťance in 1931. She uncovered records reporting that on this occasion, a spectral word materialized: "Flammarion," the surname of a French astronomer and spiritualist. This 'teleplasm' is reputedly the only such materialization to take the form of a text. MacWilliam reanimates the sťance cabinet with the presence of Irish poet/novelist Ciaran Carson, who recites words from photography and film lexicons. This footage is interspersed with scenes of the parapsychologist William Roll speaking about the manifestation of Camille Flammarion's written name during the 1931 sťance. MacWilliam creates her own forms of portraiture and storytelling to examine written emanation as a specter of the photographic medium.
Photography's role in the legibility of spiritual phenomena is also a theme of Library (2008), which MacWilliam filmed at the Eileen J Garrett Library, Parapsychology Foundation, New York. The artist's fixed camera positions provide voyeuristic views inside the library. We observe walls of bookshelves, and tables with reading lamps, undisturbed beneath the glow of overhead lights. Next, we are privy to boxes of documents stacked in storage rooms. Then we observe a long conference table, surrounded by leather high-backed chairs, as though assembled for a meeting, which no one attends. Ambient sound, barely audible, changes subtly with the acoustics of each location. The hum of air conditioning and distant traffic noises begin to sound like faint murmurings, heightening our senses and expectations. Book spines bearing the names of obscure or famous authors, and faded case history files, remind us of psychic researchers who are not present. Casting absent writers as ghosts of their habitual environment, MacWilliam reinforces the nexus between the letter and the spirit that brings inspiration to her work.