Achille is possessed by the devil; from "A Modern Case of Possession"
As a media artist, I’m fascinated by the idea of graphically recording mental states, finding ways to show the intangible workings of the mind. My installation, The Somnambulists, centers on the idea of “staging the unconscious.” Five small theaters each present a “hysterical drama.”
I was inspired by several remarkable developments at end of the nineteenth century. At the time, Sigmund Freud in Vienna and Pierre Janet in Paris began to look at emotional trauma as the underlying cause of hysteria, and in doing so began to formulate concepts of the unconscious. Hysteria encompassed a vast range of symptoms—from temporary paralysis of a limb, or uncontrollable movements, to full-scale delirium where patients conversed with people only they could see. What tied these symptoms together was that they were performed, or acted out.
In an early formulation of hysteria, Freud wrote, “hysterics mainly suffer from reminiscences.” It is the performative aspect of hysteria-embodied memory that draws it toward the medium of cinema. With the invention of the cinematograph, doctors in turn began to film their patients. At the same time hysteria was acquiring a certain frisson in the popular imagination. Acting crazy became all the rage in the Paris cabarets. The comic Dranem had a hit song, “Neurathénic,” and many other similar songs floated around, like “Nerveuse” and “Tata’s Tic.”
The centerpiece of my installation is a small theater in which two plays based on Janet’s case studies, “History of a Fixed Idea” and “A Modern Case of Possession,” are presented. I chose to stage them as musicals, not only because the cabaret was the language of popular culture at that time, but also because I wanted to find a way to convey Janet’s radical method of treatment. Realizing that his patients’ hysterical attacks provided a window into the unconscious workings of their minds, and aware that they could neither hear nor respond to him in the throws of their delirium, Janet discovered that he could communicate with them by entering into their imaginary world as a second actor. It was as though he had entered the theater of their minds and, as master of ceremonies, was able to manipulate their fears so that their nightmarish delusions had happy endings. According to Janet, “In order to provoke intelligent signs and conjure up phenomenon in rapport with what the patient still sees, one must enter into her dream.”
Doctor Pierre Janet in "A Modern Case of Possession"
I searched for a visual equivalent to patients’ hallucinations, in which they saw both real and imagined figures within the same space and decided to build a structure, modeled after a Victorian toy theater, which is real, tangible, and made of wood; only the actors are virtual. Gallery viewers see what appear to be perfectly formed, three-dimensional, colorfully attired actors about eighteen inches high, performing a musical. The effect is closer to a hallucination than a projection. The illusion is created with high-definition 3-D video, projected onto a rear screen mounted behind the stage. I shot each musical in one take, without cuts or camera movement, because I wanted to make it clear that Dr. Janet, as master of ceremonies, was in charge of manipulating his patients’ “mental scenery.”
“Historie d’une idée fix,” or “History of a Fixed Idea,” concerns the case of Justine, a woman of forty who is obsessed with the idea that she will die from cholera. She falls into a delirium where she imagines that she is being pursued by the specter of cholera, an evil blue cadaver. In my musical I wish to show how Janet used his remarkable semiotic technique of moving around his patient’s “mental furniture,” consisting of images, words, sounds, and smells, all equivalent and open to substitution. For example, through decomposing the word “cholera,” Dr. Janet is able to turn Justine’s vision of a “blue cadaver” into a Chinese General “Cho-Le-Ra” who he dissolved once again into the component letters “C H O,” which swirl around her mind in infinitely mutable figures of speech: …cuckold, coquet, cockeyed, coconut, cockleshell, cocktail, collate, copulate. It is the patient’s embodiment of her ideas in a visual and aural form, and the doctor’s transformation of them on a semiotic level, which makes this case and the others that I present so interesting to me artistically.
Justine is tormented by the specter of cholera; from "History of a Fixed Idea"
In addition to the theater, four miniature dioramas present actual cases of hysteria filmed a hundred years ago. Working with this black-and-white footage, the hysterics appear to move around in space like spirits rather than being projected onto a screen. They were originally shot by the Rumanian neurologist Gheorghe Marinesco, the Belgian neurologist Arthur van Gehuchten, and the American psychiatrist Abram Elting Bennett. In two of the dioramas the viewer peers through an entrance into a courtyard, where a young woman seems to be having a hysterical attack. In another, the viewer looks through a window into what appears to be a mental asylum where a disturbed child is throwing a fit.
This part of the project grew out of my interest in natural history displays and a scene in the novel, “Locus Solus” written in 1914 by French author Raymond Roussel. The first decades of the twentieth century saw construction of the great dioramas like those at the American Museum of Natural History. These spectacles are considered scientific documentation, though they play very much upon illusionism and fantasy. I always feel like I’m looking into the afterlife. And in a sense I am. They were constructed with the knowledge that these animals and their world were dying, and the dioramas were an attempt to freeze them in time forever. In “Locus Solus,” Roussel described a museum where dead people, preserved in suitably chilled, glass-enclosed rooms, are revitalized through electricity. Thus reanimated, they insensibly reenact the most dramatic events of their lives over and over again.
A small theater presenting "Hysterical Mythomania"
I wanted to reference these ideas in my own museum of madness. The viewer looks into another world where patients from a hundred years ago, resurrected by electricity, reenact their traumas indefinitely.
Zoe Beloff works with a variety of cinematic imagery, including stereoscopic film, projection performance, and video installation. Her work has been exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Rotterdam Film Festival, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, and the Pompidou Center. She has been awarded grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and New York Foundation for the Arts. For more information on Zoe Beloff, go to www.zoebeloff.com.