As I look through one stereoscope and then the other (both of which I learn later show portraits of the two participants of the video work F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N, Dr. William G. Roll, Poltergeist Investigator, and Ciaran Carson, Poet and Novelist) I am conscious of being watched from the busy street level of Thomas Street, Dublin. There is something perverse about bending down to look, arse backed up to the people who walk past the full clear window of NCAD Gallery. Consciously or not, MacWilliam has created a scenario that harks back to the view assumed in Faint, with the exception that the viewer is being viewed.

I look in MacWilliam’s Biennale Monograph, titled Remote Viewing, a particular page is open, p 111. It shows a view of the séance cabinet that was used for the performance by Carson in F-L-A-M-M- A-R-I-O-N. It all becomes a little clearer as I walk through the fabricated architecture that MacWilliam has designed for the display of the work. This is made up of a light corridor to house the stereoscopes and a dark intervening corridor that leads to a darker viewing space for the projected video. The space seems to turn in on itself. As I enter the dark space within, I realise that moments earlier – from without – I was looking through the stereoscopes on the backside of where the video is now projected. Images of B.F. Skinner (the American Psychologist) and his philosophy of Radical Behaviourism come to mind.[2] Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Chamber, or more commonly referred to as Skinner’s Box, was a fabricated space to analyse human behaviour; with the help of rats and operandum (levers), or the more appropriately sounding term manipulandum. Reinforcers such as food and water were used to get the participants to do the psychologist’s bidding. The chamber was sound and light proofed, stimulus control was paramount.

There is a similar tendency for environmental control inherent in MacWilliam’s display of F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N at NCAD Gallery. Such control was plainly illustrated in an earlier press image for a previous work by the artist at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios entitled Headbox. For the sake of documentation and maybe ‘correct’ procedure, the participant in the photograph looks into a less sophisticated stereoscope and holds onto a handle, or what could be equated to a Skinner lever. This leads me to aspects of MacWilliam’s work which suggest that control is paramount to her method.

Straight forward narrativity is already shot when you go to view video in the context of art. Unless you know the score you will always arrive late to an already fragmented art narrative. On arriving at NCAD Gallery I asked the gallery invigilator what the duration of MacWilliam’s video work was? In the process of explaining there was a mix-up, a misunderstanding. To cut a convoluted story short, the timescales that were juggled about was, 7 minutes, 17 minutes, 70 minutes. I took the latter dubious timescale, saying I was parked two minutes from the gallery. I persuaded myself that MacWilliam is playing with duration, maybe the true length of a séance, or twenty minutes more than a therapy session. The Freudian hysteria case of Anna O popped into my head, probably due to the change of position that MacWilliam herself has taken since Faint, from inflicted to observer, victim to dominant. This transformation is cemented by way of the relationship between the two protagonists in F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N and MacWilliam the director of proceedings.

Interviews generally take the form of a one-to-one with perspective interviewee sitting across from the interviewer. The setting is intentionally intimate and polite. The interviewer wants information that is relevant to the trajectory of their research. In F-L-A-M-M- A-R-I-O-N, MacWilliam is outside of the vanishing point, almost swinging from the chandeliers to get another view. In a first-person narrative that Ciaran Carson gives in the monograph, he discloses the directorial process that the artist uses with her “guests.”[3]

I begin to recite the wordlist Susan has given to me to recite. Not a glossary, since no meanings are given. Just the bare words, the bare boards deprived of their contents. Terms relating to film, over 180 of them. Some of these are familiar to me. Some leave me guessing. Some others are beyond my ken ... From time to time I take my eyes off the list, memorising a few words in advance of speaking them to look into the lens of Susan’s camera...[4]

The diaristic form of writing that Carson plays with in the monograph suits his position in F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N. He is a subject in an experiment. Whether these experiments are true or false is beside the point. The ‘teleplasmic text’, which is the accelerant for MacWilliam to re-fabricate these events, finds form in Carson. His accent trips over meaning to form clear pronunciation, from the gut. Looking at the documentary photographs of the séance and the sporadic positioning of the teleplasm (or more commonly termed ectoplasm) the séance sitter’s body becomes a maw, when unable to speak, the human conduit either faints or vomits out ectoplasm; spirit, ghost, meaning,  communication is made fleshy.

MacWilliam threads a fine line between document and fabricated fiction. In some revealing e-mails the artist says:

have always thought the process of manifestations and materialisations of the séance room to be similar to the realisation of ideas and objects in the studio. (email to Slavka Sverakova, 21/12/2008, 14:32.).

Susan MacWilliam, F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N, 2009, Video still, Ciaran Carson (Poet), sits in the Séance Cabinet; courtesy the artist.




to be – to see – to be seen

Susan MacWilliam, F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N

NCAD Gallery, Dublin, 2010

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