Notes on Durham Third Friday, Part 1: The paranormal and the apocalyptic

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  • Susan MacWilliam

In Durham Friday night at the Stedman Center, Irish artist Susan MacWilliam presented some of her latest work in a lecture entitled “My Adventures in the Supernormal.” She developed her most recent work while in residency the Rhine Research Center in Durham this summer. MacWilliam has been working for more than 10 years on subjects surrounding the “paranormal” and “parapsychology.” Her interest, she says, is not so much the paranormal per se but the people who study it and the many types of apparatus they've created in order to run tests or communicate with the dead. Thus, skepticism or “proving” that ghosts exist is hardly the point of MacWilliam's work.

MacWilliam began the lecture by explaining and showing some of her past work, which intentionally sets out to distort and garble sensory perception: films which are sped up to simulate the overflow of information in a Parisian paranormal laboratory; devices which require the viewer to stand in strange, awkward poses to look inside them; interviews with overlapping, almost incomprehensible dialogue suddenly made silent by the unintentional appearance of the subject's cat. MacWilliam's work is subtly witty, as much an anthropological study of paranormal investigators and their unique technology than anything else.

The Rhine Center, founded by famed parapsychology researcher J.B. Rhine, was noted for applying the techniques and methods of early 20th-century behavioral psychology to paranormal research. Its immense archive includes the results of laboratory experiments, newspaper clippings, personal correspondence between Rhine and other noted researchers and much more. MacWilliam's films, which have come out of her residency, reflect the more scientific and academic surroundings of the Rhine.

One film which she premiered was a simulated a lab experiment, featuring no video but only a number of stills: The cutting was rapid but repetitive, as a researcher went over the tests and the data again and again; the soundtrack was quiet, featuring only the crackle of a tape deck and some distant, faint horns; the overall effect was of a more sterile, controlled environment than some of the chaos she exhibited with the amateur researchers.

MacWilliam has built a body of work around a topic which disinterests respectable scientists but fascinates a lot of ordinary people. The tension between parapsychology's supposed mysteries and the artificiality of so much of it underlines her work and ultimately allows for a humanist exploration of an interesting but not well understood subculture.

Also in Durham Friday night was Meg Stein's art installation, “The World's Only Piano,” at The Space, located at 715 Washington St. In a room lined with white sheets, a piano, crafted out of paper, sits atop a hill of sand. Behind it is projected a running horse, but the image is partially blocked by a chandelier of broken mirrors, which reflect slivers of the horse around the room. There is a low, unsettling musical accompaniment, and visitors were allowed to fill a small vial with some of the sand beneath the piano. The post-apocalyptic vibe of the installation, and the encouragement to literally take some of it with you (and presumably, bring the piano crashing down) was an eerie follow-up to MacWilliam's investigations, as it felt like walking into a paranormal nightmare space which was itself was falling apart.

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