Some weeks back, we got a call from artist Laura Larson about one of her recent projects:
She sent us a copy of the film, Electric Girls and the Invisible World, which weaves a story of five young girls and their tale of Eusapia Palladino who was an Italian spiritualist medium from the 19th century.
The central video Electric Girls and the Invisible World blends documentary and fiction as it follows the five smart and lively teenage girlfriends—Annie, Emma, Joshelyn, Maria and Ryan—and their mysterious identification with Eusapia Palladino, the nineteenth-century spiritualist medium. Interspersed with their reading of historical passages about Palladino, the video presents the girls’ efforts to summon her, either directly with a Ouija Board or as an inspirational figure of power as they explore their own paranormal abilities. The viewer also watches as they express self-confidence and delight during other rituals of female adolescence like manicures and makeovers. The closing sequence of play and spontaneous magic in a swimming pool unites Larson’s narrative of wonder and her own playful challenge to the assumption of objectivity in photography. – One Art World
An Excerpt from Laura Larson’s Writing Describing the Project
(To read the filmmaker’s complete essay about the project click here.)
Electric Girls and The Invisible World encompasses two distinct projects. I am producing a series of black and white photographs based on historical records on Palladino. These archival drawings, photographs and written accounts depict her extraordinary and inexplicable acts. My photographs will recreate scenes based on my research, while others will playfully and self-consciously depart from these records. Significantly, the special effects for these images are staged using analog methods. While digital technology gives the artist tools to seamlessly create documents such as these, it doesn’t have the evidentiary weight that analog images command. With their low-tech staging, the images draw upon the performative aspects of analog technology.Incorporated into the video, the photographs will be presented as archival documents. The series will be both a discreet body of work and a central visual element of the video. Despite her astonishing claims and those of her credulous followers, Palladino was repeatedly caught in acts of fraud and rebuked by spiritualists and non-believers alike. Historical accounts and their contemporary readings are deeply and divisively split over the authenticity of her phenomena. This uncertainty mirrors a central conceptual dilemma of contemporary photography. Notions of the real and the staged continue to inform discussions about the terms that define the medium as an art form. The assumption of objectivity—the desire to trust our eyes—continues to haunt photography. I look at Palladino as I look at photographs, with both skepticism and desire. In this same vein, Electric Girls and the Invisible World will frame Palladino as a historical subject of great ambivalence and longing.
Rather than rely on the methods of documentary, the video will critically engage its conventions to present her story’s significance to contemporary feminist critiques of history and representation, through the performances of the “electric girls.” I will organize a summer theater workshop for girls, which will function as a production lab for the film. For the cast, I will have a core group of five actors but I am open to the group being larger or perhaps in flux, with members coming and going. The video will be a hybrid of scripted actions and dialogue with improvisation. The script is based on historical accounts of her séances culled from newspaper articles, spiritualist publications and scientific reports. Divided into chapters, each section will begin with a photograph, which will serve as a point of departure for the improvisational scenes with the “electric girls.” Narration of the various historical accounts of Palladino will be structured into the script’s dialogue but the girls will essentially play themselves. Palladino will function as an unorthodox model of feminine power for the “electric girls.” Through a series of séances, levitations, and Ouija Board sessions, the girls will speak for her, embodying her perspective by pitting her/their voices against the appropriated or fictive historical records. The video will also include scenes of the girls, exploring their own nascent powers in a series of spectacular displays. Through these acts of identification, the “electric girls” will project a complex and contradictory portrait of Palladino. Electric Girls and the Invisible World will pose historical biography as a medium determined by the desires of its authors.
While her investigators cast her as an ignorant peasant, Palladino was a woman of remarkable ingenuity and sophistication, possessing an enormous amount of power for a woman in the Victorian era, whether her “powers” were real or not. The “electric girls” are at the cusp of puberty—an age of enormous emotional, physical and social change. Girls at this age possess a confidence that slightly older adolescents often struggle to maintain. Palladino herself was twelve years old when she first began to exhibit her uncanny powers. It is this combination of innocence and self-possession, which make the “electric girls” the ideal actors to portray Palladino.
(The feature image called “Seance with Eusapia Palladino at the home of Camille Flammarion, Rue Cassini” was shot on November 25, 1898 by H. Mairet and produced on gelatin silver print. Photographs from the film via Wexner Center for the Arts.)