The exhibition was curated by Virginia Rigney, designed by Greer Versteeg, and installed by Gary Smith.
We displayed 560 slides in a large light box. Grids of 85x85mm square holes, each and 13mm apart, were laser cut into sheets of 4.5mm black acrylic. These were laid on 3mm clear backing acrylic, loaded with slides arranged in groups and sequences, and topped with a cover sheet of clear 2mm acrylic. The sandwiches were then taped around the edges and vertically held by a wooden frame against the inside doors of four bays a large display case. The front of the doors were covered with self-adhesive black vinyl except for the blocks of slides. The slides were lit from the front by ambient LED light, which allowed visitors to see the labels, and they were backlit through UV filtering film by fluorescent light bounced off the back wall of the case.
Interpretative handouts nearby were keyed with thumbnail images to allow visitors to find information and commentary about individual slides and slide sets within the overall grid.
As well as square glass slides, wooden mechanical slides were also displayed on glass shelves. These were lit from the front with LED lights, while the transparent painted glass images were lit from behind with electroluminescent panels trimmed down to size from 100mm x 100m sheets. The colour of each EL panel was corrected with an 81a photographic filter, and UV filtered with film. Each sandwich of EL panel, filter and UV film was lightly attached to the rear of the slide with conservation tape and individually wired into a low voltage circuit.
These displays were augmented with:
- Conventional displays of magic lanterns.
- A circular digital projection on a facing wall introduced visitors to the exhibition, transitioning between text and images.
- Four video screens showed performance documentation and demonstrating the mechanical slides, chromatropes and panoramic slides.
- Enlargements of an Australian lantern slide and a Primus slide box.
Interpretive text was included in the digital projection:
WHY I COLLECT
As an artist and a writer I have always been interested in the way the pictures, especially photographs, affect the way people think and feel. Although I love looking at individual ‘great’ pictures, I have also been interested in the day to day work of unexceptional, sometimes overlooked, perhaps anonymous, now forgotten images — the kind that come to us en masse. I have always been interested in modest images assembled into large archives. I think about them as grids, arrays, deployments, matrices, configurations, layouts and databases. Often I delight in discovering small telling details in them, then I think about them as ancient middens, archaeological layers, geological substrata or loamy deposits.
Although I have spent my entire career involved one way for another with large collections, initially I was somewhat disdainful of collectors themselves. I held myself aloof from the covetous passions to which they allowed themselves to be myopically subjected. Then I got interested in magic lantern slides. The magic lantern is the great-great-grandmother of today’s data projector, and the glass slides they once projected onto screens in darkened rooms are the great-great-grandmothers of today’s jpegs or gifs. But the magic lantern show was much more than just the antecedent of the Powerpoint presentation. They were just as ubiquitous, but for their nineteenth and early twentieth-century audiences they could be uncanny experiences of phantasmagoric apparitions, or powerful moments of collective witnessing, or virtual journeys to exotic places, or intellectual revelations of new knowledge, or even prompts for communal praying and singing.
Magic lantern slides are not self evident objects like paintings, they are a media like a computer file, they need to played on a device — projected through a lantern with voice and music — in order for their ‘magic’ to be fully understood. To understand the historical importance of the magic lantern I needed to be able to recreate a magic lantern show, and for that I needed a lantern and slides. Although some lanterns and lots of slides have been preserved in our museums, those can no longer be used, so I was forced to become a collector.
I told myself it was only for my research, but soon the unruly passions of the collector took over and enslaved me. To get enough material to work with to produce creative reenactments I need quantity, so my collecting is more Costco the Cartier, but it is still deadly serious. I am racked with jealousy when I miss out on something at an auction, and subject to bitter self-recrimination as I succumb to the impulse to bid on just one more lot. I am now a member of an international fraternity of like-minded enthusiasts and, although we are friendly enough, we watch each other warily. As I hold them up to the light one by one up, or rearrange them on a light box, I feel that it is I, and I alone, who can properly give the slides I possess the love they deserve.
Working with actual magic lanterns has raised a whole new set of issues which I find fascinating. The lanterns I use were originally lit with oil lamps and, theoretically at least, I could clean the glass and reflectors, clean the rust off the reservoir and wick housings, source new wicks and fresh paraffin oil, and light them up. Alternatively, I could follow the paths of some researchers in Europe and recreate limelight itself, which was generated by superheating a block of calcium oxide with the flame from a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen gas. But, so far I have chosen to follow the more expedient route of using standard LED floodlights. This may be sensible because it reduces the effect of radiant heat on my old slides, and answers some of the inevitable health and safety issues in a modern performance environment, while also removing a level of complexity from the performance. I am aware that it takes the performance further away from an ‘original’. However, while on the one hand LED light is much cooler and more constant that what would have been the warm flickering light of an oil lamp, on the other hand it may have been close to the colour temperature of limelight, which I have not yet had the opportunity to see it myself, but which I understand from reading newspaper reports is very cold in colour temperature.
Despite these inevitable compromises, working directly with lanterns and slides has allowed me to physically ‘connect’ with an interesting series of people — some living, and some dead. I have enjoyed enlisting the expertise of contemporary crafts people from the ANU School of Art and Design. University schools of art and design are potentially very good places to do the kind of historical research I do because colleagues can come together with a diverse range of historical knowledges. In the cases of the artists and craftspeople I have worked with from the Painting, Jewellery and Furniture Workshops some of that historical knowledge is not only conceptual, it is also inscribed into their very muscle memory as they use skills and techniques which have lineages at least as old as the lanterns themselves. As they have repaired my lanterns and slides before performances, I have been afforded the opportunity to think about the semi-industrial manufacturing process which were the very lineaments of the emerging media industry. When we, literally, break the apparatuses down into their component parts, I am particularly struck by the high level of ‘approximation’, compared to today’s industrial devices. As we separate the brass mechanisms from their wooden armatures, or gently lever the delicate painted glass from its housing, we reveal manual variation continually playing off mechanical repetition. You really get the sense of an industry in an urgent, quite laissez faire competition as designs were copied, corners were cut, and different markets were targeted. The standard three and a quarter inch by three and a quarter inch lantern slide was accepted as a universally interchangeable component from about the 1860s (although it was three and quarter by four and a quarter in the US), but meanwhile the wood framed hand painted and mechanical slides continued to vary widely in size and thickness until the twentieth century. In another example, four inches seems to have become the standard diameter for condenser lenses (which sometimes cracked under the heat of the flame) by the 1890s, but some manufacturers designed in brand loyalty by making their condensers slightly bigger or smaller.
I have also benefitted enormously from collaborating with a series of performers, composers, musicians, actors and singers. Only through performing have I been able to understand the true, integrated multi-dimensionality of all contemporary and historical media forms such as the magic lantern experience. Because they have generously adapted and added their own deep disciplinary knowledges and skills to support my tentative steps into projection performance, I have been able to travel quicker and further towards both rediscovering an historical affective experience and creating a new contemporary re-enactive practice. They have introduced me directly to dimensions of media which I, trained as a photographer, haven’t had to think much about. For instance, throughout my career I have talked about ‘duration’ as an abstract concept, but having to actually deal with images unfolding in a shared collaborative time has been enormously educational.
However, I have found the necessity to encounter the actual apparatus at a very intricate level, which is necessary to stage a performance with it, to be the most challenging, the most fascinating and the most rewarding. I am very glad I have had the opportunity to partner with Elisa deCourcy as a co-lanternist, who has contributed many new ideas as we have to, often quite forcefully, shove our cranky wooden slides into our ancient magic lanterns. Looking at a magic lantern for the first time is a lot like looking at any new device for the first time. There is an impressive array of knobs, levers and slides, ranged around its body, all of which evidently have some function. At first, we admire the designers and manufacturers of the nineteenth century who appear to have thought of everything, and forged a component, or cut a joint to deal with it. Brass flaps can be swung with a fingertip so the interior of the lantern can be discreetly checked though a coloured-glass porthole, wooden flaps can be raised or lowered to regulate airflow, and so on. We feel the kind of workmanlike satisfaction that BBC documentaries on Victorian railways are meant to give you.
But it is only when the contemporary lanternist begins to actually use the apparatus to give entertainments, that they realize that so much just doesn’t work properly, and never worked properly in the first place. Victorian engineering was compromised by retail expediency, the lanterns and slides worked just enough to be saleable. Slides, even the mass-produced ones, never sit in the same focal plane within the carrier and need to be adjusted for each and every slide, but some manufactures saved a few pence by only having the knurled focussing knob on one side of the lantern. There was not much integration between different manufacturers, and retailers would often assemble kits for their customers from different factories which in fact integrated poorly. For instance, because each mechanical wooden-slide or glass-slide carrier was of different size and thickness, the ‘stages’ into which they were inserted in front of the condenser lens and behind the objective lens were designed to have a very large tolerance. Even so, some elaborate slides we have, which are masterpieces of ‘Victorian ingenuity’, are in fact too thick to fit into a lantern. If we can just squeeze them in between the springs of the stage, in practice it is impossible to keep all the different layers of glass in focus at the same time. I found that many of the old slides I was purchasing have extra pieces of wood attached them, probably by a lanternist over a century ago. Now I know why, since I now have to attach my own small pieces of wood to the edges of my slides so their images fall in approximately the same spot on the screen during a show. Even with mass produced glass slides it is impossible to keep all of the image in focus because of the extreme spherical aberration of the magic lantern’s Petzval lenses, which were optically designed originally not for magic lanterns but for early portrait cameras. The fact that they optically traded off edge-to-edge focus for a larger quantity of light wasn’t such a big problem for portrait photography, where the main object of interest was a fidgeting face towards the centre of the image, but it meant that when they were used as projection lenses the images, although brighter, lost definition at the edges. Nonetheless many lantern slide artists, working for companies far removed from the lantern manufacturers, continued for decades to produce slides with important details right at the edges, which were guaranteed to be out of focus on the screen.
Nonetheless, myself and Elisa deCourcy have found this wide ‘tolerance’ in the projected image to not only be evidence of an industrial formation at a particularly undeveloped stage of its historical transformation, but also to be enormously stimulating creatively. Many magic lantern lenses had slots for ‘tinters’ and flaps for ‘faders’, but we have invented several, as far as we know, entirely novel techniques to add even more indeterminacy into our projections, for the pleasure of our audience. The ‘Cardboard Ken Burns’ is a large piece of black cardboard with a hole cut in the middle about the same diameter as the outer lens of our magic lanterns. We move this back and forth in front of our lanterns to ‘iris in to’ and ‘iris out of’ different significant details across the image surface, in a similar way to the rostrum camera technique famously developed by Ken Burns for the seminal TV series The Civil War (1990). ‘Flicker Fingers’ is an instruction on our cue sheets to flick our fingers quickly in front of our lenses which gives the sense of ‘interference’ to a visual ‘signal’ (anachronistically associated with the electromagnetics of the twentieth century not the Newtonian optics of the nineteenth century). These techniques interact wonderfully with our performance collaborators who use loops, electronic distortion and other vocal and instrumental techniques to create an affective response in the audience.
WHY WE RE-ENACT
Magic lanterns were pervasively important in Australia for a century. Magic lanterns were machines that were used by various operators, from sophisticated professional showmen to Sunday School teachers. In a range of venues, from theatres to home parlours, they projected multiple types of slides, from ingenious hand painted mechanical slides to high quality hand tinted photographic slides. These were combined with different forms of musical and theatrical accompaniment to entertain and inform a wide variety of audiences, from opening night crowds to gaggles of local kids.
Therefore, any magic lantern slide found in an archive, no matter how humble, is tangible evidence that at some particular time, in some particular place, some Australians had collectively witnessed images, heard music and listened to texts. These had been orchestrated together by some individual or some organisation to give them an experience, persuade them of an opinion, or connect them to others.
Magic lanterns, magic lantern slides and magic lantern scripts were media — ‘apparatus’ and ‘image’, ‘hardware’ and ‘software’, ‘device’ and ‘content’ — simultaneously closely connected to, and very distant from, today’s digital media. The magic lantern apparatus is recognisable within today’s modern data projector, and the different types of magic lantern slide are recognisable within today’s cinema, television, animations, internet memes and public projection events. We have therefore found the overall approach of media archaeology very useful. Rather than seeing media history as a succession of technological improvements and innovations progressing inevitably towards the present, a deep time archaeological approach sees past media formations as heterogeneous layers containing multiple potential futures, and therefore able to connect with the present in new ways.
We undertake traditional historical research into Australian magic lantern culture, but simultaneously we also take a complementary practice-led research approach to investigating the magic lantern experience. Through re-enactment we seek to understand the particular characteristics of a historical audience’s ephemeral experience of the magic lantern, and the particular material conditions and constraints of the technologies that produced that experience. For this reason we have assembled a working collection of over five thousand slides and several different magic lanterns.
We want to give audiences in the present something of the same affective experience audiences had in the past — their emotional responses to witnessing distant events, their collective joy in experiencing music or laughter, their involuntary ‘aaahhh’ at an uncanny special effect — in short, the magic of the magic lantern. We are historians, and our intention is to understand the past. While a straight reenactment, where everything is done as closely as possible to how we think it was done in the past, can replicate the basic historical form of a magic lantern show, it cannot generate a similar frisson in a contemporary audience, one inured to a century and a half of subsequent media thrills. However we are dealing with a media archaeology, where the technologies which produced the laughter, tears and gasps of two hundred years ago still form the technical substrata of the technologies which produce laughter, tears and gasps today. They are not identical, and they cannot substitute one for the other, but because they share a structural kinship one can touch the other in surprisingly close ways. For this reason the participation of a contemporary audience is very important to our reenactments. We do not want to create ‘historical dioramas’, where the performance is seen as a self-contained curiosity separate from the audience, as though they were looking at a frozen taxidermied tableau through a sheet of glass. Likewise, we are not interested in bringing our magic lantern shows ‘into the present’, turning them into some ‘steam-punk’ event where they simply exist to give a retro flavor to an essentially contemporary mise en scene. Rather, we want our re-enactments to exist for the audience as an ‘experiential object’, an experience in the present which can be reflected upon from an historical point of view.
We could (in fact we do) digitise our slides and make enhanced videos or gifs for easy distribution, the way an old movie might be restored. But seeing a crisply digitised image on a computer display is a very different ‘experiential object’ to that experienced by a historical audience seeing an actual glass slide manually projected through a nineteenth century apparatus by an individual. We could attempt to precisely replicate a magic lantern show down to the last ‘authentic’ detail the way a medieval re-enactor might hand forge his chain mail. But a magic lantern performance is not a single object, it is a multimedia performance where a human operates a machine. We could attempt to perform complete slide sets the way an orchestra might perform a baroque concerto score on period instruments. But magic lantern performances had no authoritative texts like a music score, rather, each performance was the extemporised product of many different elements — slides, music, texts, lanterns, instruments, audiences, performers, special occasions and particular architectures — all bricolaged together into unique combinations. Therefore we have found creative re-use an essential ingredient in our re-enactments.
In order to recover the magic lantern as a more historically accurate ‘experiential object’ we have introduced contemporary elements such as music, voice and electronics. Although these elements in themselves come from the present, and would be unrecognizable from the perspective of the past, the way we have incorporated them comes just as assuredly from historic practices when all magic lantern shows were occasions for improvisation and bricolage. We hope our creative re-enactments invite the fleeting manifestation of something like an uncanny delight that our audience can feel they are perhaps sharing with an audience of a hundred and fifty years ago.
We have used creative re-enactment to explore specific historical sites in Australia or particular Australia historical experiences:
- In a performance at the Bundanon Homestead in 2016 we explored a locally significant drowning tragedy that had had occurred at the site in the 1920s by using techniques derived from ‘verbatim theatre’, young participants from the local area, and a set of roughly contemporaneous magic lantern slides.
- In a performance in a burnt-out telescope dome at the Mount Stromlo Observatory in 2018 we presented verbatim part of an authentic astronomical lecture from the mid nineteenth century, with some of the mechanical scientific slides which were actually used in popular science lectures of the period.
- In a performance at the Cell Block Theatre in Sydney we presented some of the imagery from, and recreated some of the experiences of, the pastoral property of Rouse Hill House and Farm, which had used a magic lantern and associated slides within the family from the 1860s.
We have also produced more open-ended performances, experimenting with musicians, actors and students in exploring new possibilities in the form of the projection, music, electronics, voice and interaction:
- A magic lantern ‘Horror Show’ at the National Portrait Gallery, in association with the exhibition Sideshow Alley, 2016.
- A magic lantern show ‘Five Scenes for a Modern Prometheus’ at the Australian National University in association with a conference on Frankenstein, 2018.
- A magic lantern show ‘Raeburn’ at the Australian National University in association with students from the Schools of Art and Design and Music, 2017.
As well, we have directly connected the magic lantern to contemporary technologies and practices.
- The computer artist Kieran Browne algorithmically coded animations that replicated the formal logic of the clockwork colour kaleidoscopic slides known as a chromatropes. These were then laser cut and reversed engineered directly back in the nineteenth century apparatus.
- The contemporary painter Waratah Lahy is using the powerful idea of the ‘dissolving view’, where one projected scene is dissolved into another, in her practice. She has painted two images of dusk falling on her childhood home. The transition from day to night is particularly magical when viewers have the opportunity to operate the ‘dissolver’ between the two lanterns themselves.
These experiments — in performance, projection, voice, music, electronics, painting, computer coding and digital fabrication — open up many new avenues through which real, tangible and meaningful links can be forged between the present and the past. Through physically manipulating the same fundamental materials — light, pigment and mechanics — as the media makers of the nineteenth century, a significant new dimension is immediately added to our understanding of the ways the past has constructed the present. The obdurate materiality of all media is revealed. For instance, through actually encountering the fact that it is impossible to keep all part of a mechanical slide in focus at the same time, we have revealed the technological disconnections between different manufacturers who made up the ‘magic lantern industry’, a discovery that could only have been made through practice. Most importantly, this dimension of material and experiential research is only fully activated when a vital third element is added to the experiment — an audience, an audience whose reaction can feed back into the experimental iteration.
However, our creative re-use and creative re-enactment are not ends in themselves. We believe that these performances are as an effective a way of understanding the past, through experience, as an academic paper, through description. We also believe that, if documented by video, our performances can be looped back into the archive from which they were derived to act as a ‘generous interface’ to that archive, through which new users can discover their component archival parts such as images, music, or texts.
Martyn Jolly, Canberra 2020
For more information search Heritage in the Limelight