Five Scenes for a Modern Prometheus

A video of the magic lantern performance I devised in collaboration with Elisa deCourcy, Alexander Hunter and Karen Vickery is now available for viewing online. We performed it at the ANU twice during September 2018, once in the Sir Roland Wilson Building at the Magic Lantern in Australia and the World conference, and once a week later in the NFSA ARC Theatre at the Frankenstein: Two Hundred Years off Monsters conference. It goes for about half an hour, and uses about sixty slides. I decided to hang it off Mary Shelly’s book because I knew we would be performing it for the Frankenstein conference. It was wonderful reading the book again after so long, and I picked out some choice quotes for Karen to intone at intervals through the five ‘scenes’, which begin in a scientific laboratory, and end lost in snow and ice, but otherwise have little to do with the story! I was initially going to commence with a moiré pattern chromatrope to set the dark mood, but I eventually decided to use the new chromatrope that Miheng Dong had cut from acrylic in the ANU Makerspace, working from a pattern coded by Kieran Browne. After that it wasn’t much of a leap to some microscopic slides of bacteria and bacillus from the Atlas of Bacteriology by Slater & Spitta, then after a ‘Flash of Lightning’ slide (Copyright T T Wing), with some great music effects from Alex, Elisa flickered up an anonymous slide of a monstrous skeleton using her fingers. We then dissolved to microscopic cross-sections of rectal cancer growths (!) originally used at the Westminster Medical School, which were also meant to look like aerial views of icy wastes. After Alex’s great music, Karen came into her own as we showed panoramic caricature slides dissolving into comic mechanical slides in the next scene. Her wetly mouthed responses to the slides as they came on the screen were fantastic. it was Elisa’s idea to project both of the Steward lantern simultaneously for a ‘tongue in ear’ sequence, and for a dancing skeleton sequence (with some skeletal EDM from Alex) during the next section of ‘monstrous’ mechanical slides. We used some temperance motto slides, a J W Beattie Port Arthur Slide, two slides from Jane Conquest, some hand painted slides, and an amateur double-exposed ghost slide for the next sequence, which required a lot of changing between carriers. For the final sequence we began ‘finger flickering’ between a group of slides which I originally thought were slides illustrating the Franklin North West Passage expedition of the Erebus, but which I now realise are simply illustrating ‘Arctic Phenomena’. We ended with my favourite slide from my collection, a hand painted slide of some Byronic figure roiling around in the snow, overlooked by a distant church perched high on an icy cliff. Elisa once again had the inspired idea of holding what I call our ‘Cardboard Ken Burns’, a piece of cardboard with a hole in it, in front of the lens, to ‘spotlight’ key elements of the scene. I couldn’t have done it with out Elisa, Alex and Karen, all of whom contributed inspired original ideas. The video was made by Amr Tawfik, who was able to handle the low light OK, and was able to give a good impression of the labours of Elisa, Karen, Alec and myself. The audience reaction to the first performance was good, we filled the room up with fog from a  fog machine before they entered, and they filled the basement room to capacity, and were well primed for the show. The audience reaction to the second show was more muted, for several reasons, the necessary intimacy of the performance was somewhat swallowed up by the larger space of ARC, and the audience was less primed as to what to expect.

Photos of my magic lantern show at Canberra Obscura

The estimable Andrew Sikorski has posted some shots of my magic lantern performance (along with Andromeda is Coming) amongst his documentation of the Canberra Obscura Art Party on his site Life in Canberra.

You can see me using my own latest technological innovation in projection which I call ‘a bit of cardboard with a hole in it’. Derived from the ‘burning in tool’ of the traditional darkroom printer, the ‘bit of cardboard with a hole in it’ held over the lantern lens spotlights details and narrativises the slides like Ken Burns did with his (now infamous) ‘Ken Burns effect’ in such landmark ‘archivally based’ documentary series  as  his The Civil War of 1990. I was also inspired to use the ‘bit of cardboard with a hole in it’ by the author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He came to Australia in 1920 on a magic lantern tour to show people photographic evidence that the dead returned from beyond the veil. In Adelaide, according to Doyle’s account on page 76 of his book Wanderings of a Spiritualist, ghosts literally inhabited the machine and took over the magic lantern to demonstrate the proof of their survival:

I had shown a slide the effect of which depended upon a single spirit face appearing amid a crowd of others. This slide was damp, and as photos under these circumstances always clear from the edges when placed in the lantern, the whole centre was so thickly fogged that I was compelled to admit that I could not myself see the spirit face. Suddenly, as I turned away, rather abashed by my failure, I heard cries of “There it is”, and looking up again I saw this single face shining out from the general darkness with so bright and vivid an effect that I never doubted for a moment that the operator was throwing  a spotlight upon it. … [N]ext morning Mr Thomas, the operator, who is not a Spiritualist, came in in great excitement to say that a palpable miracle had been wrought, and that in his great experience of thirty years he had never known a photo dry from the centre, nor, as I understood him, become illuminated in such a fashion.


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with 'Andromeda is Coming'

Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’




Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

Will the Angels Let Me Play — complete magic lantern perfomance video

On July 24, 2014, I was able to project a show of five magic lantern song-slide sets and one recitation set from my ‘Iron Duke’ lantern of 1905, with some additional effects added from a smaller 1890s lantern. Professor Peter Tregear and Dr Kate Bowan from the ANU School of Music sang and played the original words and music, and they were fabulous. Trevor Anderson from the National Film and Sound Archive also operated the ‘effects’ lantern for the angel effect in Jane Conquest. The event was part of the History, Cinema Digital Archives organised by Jill Matthews from the Humanities Research Centre and held in the theatrette of the NFSA. Here is our original abstract:

Martyn Jolly, Kate Bowan and Peter Tregear: ‘Will the Angels Let Me Play’, and other songs and recitations: a performance of magic lantern slides with song and piano

Collections such as the National Film and Sound Archive or Museum Victoria hold hundreds of magic lantern ‘song slides’. These sets of hand-coloured glass transparencies were produced in the early twentieth century to promote the sale of the sheet music for popular songs. They were projected by a magic lantern and accompanied by musicians and singers. Their popularity peaked with the First World War. The slides that remain, with their sentimental and melodramatic storylines, surreal photographic montages, and lurid hand-colouring, are still fascinating when we see them on the museum light box, or see the digitized copy in a museum database. But they were made to be performed, and were part of a technical ensemble which included the magic lantern, a musician’s performance and, most importantly, a singer’s voice. For this presentation this complete ensemble will be brought together once more, the slides will be projected by vintage magic lanterns and accompanied by live music and singing from the original sheet music. Will this be a reenactment, like we might see at an historical theme park? Or will it be authentic interpretation, such as an early music ensemble might perform on their antique instruments in a concert hall? Why bother with an original magic lantern when the optics and resolution of a contemporary scanner and data projector can reveal more detail more conveniently? And, no matter how brilliant the performers are, is it even possible to re-enter the affective power of a long ago performance when so much has changed in the meantime? Through this practice-led research experiment, and through subsequent discussion with the audience, these questions and other will be explored.

Bronwyn Coupe has now edited a video of the complete performance, cunningly disguising my mistakes with edited-in digital copies of a few of the slides, but retaining the flavour of my projections, and the brilliance of Kate and Peter. Here it is:

Will the Angels Let Me Play and other songs and recitations, a performance re-enactment for magic lantern, voice and piano

I learnt a lot from the experience. Fortunately I had Ian Christie turning the pages of my cue sheets for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the changes for any of the songs! As it was I muddled two. Despite my rehearsals I need to have a better system for quickly accessing the slides in the dark, I was scrabbling around. I also think I should have realised that there was a certain amount of redundancy built into the slide sets by the manufacturers, and I could have left some out which would have given me more time to load the slide changer. The authority and smoothness (or lack of it) with which I changed and focussed the slides also became very important for the audience’s experience. The light levels in the auditorium— to satisfy both projection from the lanterns with their relatively low-lumen output from the LED floodlights I had in them, as well as the necessity for Kate and Peter to be able to read the music — was also crucial. I have been reading nineteenth and early twentieth century newspaper review of lantern shows in Australia and exactly these same issues are frequently reported on — both negatively and positively — by the writers. The audience discussion afterwards didn’t decisively answer any of the questions raised in the abstract. However it covered the historical accuracy, or inaccuracy, of our ‘re-enactment’ — a big issue with some of the experts in the audience — and the general visual culture of the period — in both America and the UK where the slides were made, and in Australia where they were shown. Also discussed were small but crucial details such as the lack of gain in the painted wall on which I was projecting, compared to the modern cinema screen on which the digital versions were projected. But there was enough there to go on with.