Thursday, November 2, 2017

NEW BOOK: SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm: All Souls Day Guest Post by Shannon Taggart

To celebrate All Souls Day today, I asked former Morbid Anatomy Museum artist and scholar in residence Shannon Taggart to write a guest post about her long term project documenting spiritualism, a religion in which devotees attempt to communicate with the souls of the dead.

Shannon is working on a book showcasing this body of work now; titled SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm, it will feature her own photographs along with many incredible antique spiritualist photographs. The foreword will be written by actor Dan Aykroyd (creator of the movie Ghostbusters and fourth-generation Spiritualist) and it will contain essays by artist Tony Oursler (author of the incredible Imponderable), writer Constance DeJong and cultural critic Erik Davis.

To find out more (and pre-order a copy of your own), click here. Shannon also wrote a chapter about spiritualism and photography for our new book Death: A Graveside Companion. More on that can be found here.
Spiritualism is an American-born religion that believes we can communicate with spirits of the dead. In 2001, I began photographing Lily Dale, New York, the town which is home to the world's largest Spiritualist community. The residents of Lily Dale soon introduced me to ‘spirit photography’, a practice excluded from the photography text books I studied from. I was shocked to learn of this hidden history. These absurd, outrageous and oddly tender photographs blew me away. I became particularly fascinated with the images of female mediums excreting phantom forms—phenomena known as ‘ectoplasm.’ These were the most uniquely unsettling images I had ever encountered, and I desperately wanted to de-code their meaning. I wanted to understand what ectoplasm was.

Ectoplasm–Spiritualism’s iconic symbol–visually signifies the belief that life and death remain connected. For Spiritualists, ectoplasm is a paradoxical substance that is both spiritual and material. It is described as a fluid that emanates from the medium’s body, comes to life, and then morphs into shape. The word is taken from the Greek words ektos and plasma, meaning ‘outside formed’. The French physiologist and Nobel Laureate Charles Richet, who coined the term in 1894, observed it as ‘a whitish steam, perhaps luminous, taking the shape of gauze or muslin, in which there develops a hand or an arm that gradually gains consistency. This ectoplasm makes personal movements. It creeps, rises from the ground and puts forth tentacles like an amoeba.’ Spiritualists say ectoplasm is soft, soggy, and light sensitive, much like the activated surfaces of photographic materials.

Spiritualism and photography developed at a time In the 19th century when scientific advancements were exposing a variety of forces operating beyond human perception. Disease causing bacteria could be photographed through microscopes; the vastness of the universe was glimpsed through astrophotography; electricity was made visible when placed in contact with photographic materials; X-rays revealed the body’s interior. What else, people wondered, could photography uncover? Spiritualism and photography were brought together in an attempt to create scientific proof of the spiritual dimension, an endeavour that ultimately revealed the complicated relationship that both Spiritualism and photography had with truth.

Spiritualism became the first religion to create an original iconography through the medium of photography. Since the dissemination of early spirit photographs, ectoplasm has taken a place in culture’s visual vocabulary. Like many, I first heard the term ectoplasm via the movie Ghostbusters, co-written by Dan Aykroyd—a fourth-generation Spiritualist. In the fine art world, ectoplasm appears within the work of artists Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler and Zoe Beloff. A painting by the visionary artist Paul Lafolley refers to ectoplasm’s metaphysical meaning, stating— ‘ectoplasm unites life with death.’

Today, a small number of Spiritualist mediums (mostly male, from Europe and the United Kingdom) continue to present ectoplasm. The experience of witnessing these séances is like watching the Victorian spirit photographs jump to life before your eyes. The German medium Kai Muegge even blogs the photographic documentation of his ectoplasmic manifestations alongside the vintage images that resemble his acts.
The forthcoming book, SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm, will present my 16 year-long project on contemporary Spiritualism. Part documentary, part ghost story, SÉANCE will present hundreds of original photographs taken in séance rooms around the world, as well as historical imagery related to attempts to capture spirits on film. Spiritualism's photographic past contains some of the most bizarre, absurd and uniquely unsettling images in the history of photography. SÉANCE is a next chapter.
Images, top to bottom:
  1. Barbara McKenzie, Stanley de Brath, Miss Scatcherd and the spirit extra of Gustave Geley, William Hope, 1924. Barlow collection, British Library, London.
  2. Unidentified sitter, Ada Deane, c. 1922. Barlow collection, British Library, London.
  3. Unidentified sitters (2 women), Ada Deane, c. 1922. Barlow collection, British Library, London.
  4. The spirit guides ‘Stella’ and ‘Bessie’with Mrs. Barlow, Fred Barlow, Violet and Ada Deane, (by) Ada Deane, 1920. Barlow collection, British Library, London.
  5. Kate Goligher with ectoplasm and speaking trumpet, W.J. Crawford, 1920.  Cambridge University Library, Society for Psychical Research.
  6. The medium Eva C. with materialization of a women’s face, Albert Von Schrenck-Notzing, 1911, Institute für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene, Freiburg im Breisgau. (left) Medium Kai Muegge with ectoplasm (materialization of a man’s face), Cassadaga, NY, Shannon Taggart, 2013. (right)
  7. A student medium enters a trance, Montcabirol Center for Physical Mediumship, Mirepoix, France, Shannon Taggart, 2014.
  8. Medium Kevin Lawrenson in trance, Montcabirol Center for Physical Mediumship, Mirepoix, France, Shannon Taggart, 2014.

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