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Art Seen: Out Of This World

The video artist Susan MacWilliam is bringing her work back to town.

After receiving more than 50,000 visitors in the Venice Biennale in 2009, the three works created for the prestigious art show will be shown in the National College of Art and Design Gallery and the Farmleigh Gallery. MacWilliam's work, while focusing on people and personalities, is not documentary by any means; rather, it is the artful application of moving-image technology to express narrative. Her defining interest in the paranormal is fascinating, and she takes us through the three pieces -- Derma Optics, Eileen, and F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N -- and fills us in on what it takes to get into the big show in Italy.

Can you give us some background?

I'm based in Belfast and am a lecturer in NCAD. I studied at Manchester Polytechnic in England, and I was making paintings and sculptural installation works for about six or seven years after leaving college. My work started to hint at something about movement or some kind of theatrical space. I wondered what it would be like to use video and to make moving images. I got some Arts Council funding, and I got a Hi8 camera, and, at this point, I saw a television programme about séance-room photography. I was instantly intrigued by these very strange photographs of events occurring at séances.

What grabbed your attention?

Particularly the images of mediums, materialisation mediums who would produce this substance called ectoplasm, which would supposedly form itself into an image of the dead.

I was interested in the theatrical space of the séance room, and the séance cabinet, which is the space that the medium would sit in, and the idea of an audience coming with the anticipation of seeing an image or an event happen. There were interesting connections, for me, between the séance room and theatrical spaces, and also the relationship of the séance room to the studio as a place where a narrative or an image is created.

Can you tell us about the pieces that will be shown?

In 2005, I met Dr Yvonne du Plessis who was researching the phenomenon of dermo-optical perception, which is the supposed ability to be able to read or perceive text or colour by the use of the skin but without the use of the eye. One of the works in the Venice that is being brought to NCAD and also the Farmleigh Gallery, is Derma Optics, which I shot in Du Plessis' laboratory in Paris. What I tried to do in terms of the edit was to echo my experience of that visit, so there's very fast editing, there's a lot of information given very quickly to the viewer, without them perhaps totally understanding it; that was my sense of that day, when people were bombarding me with this incredible imagery.

With Eileen, in 2006, I went to New York for a month and worked with the American Society for Psychical Research, and I also made contact with the Parapsychology Foundation, which was organised in 1951 by the Irish medium Eileen J Garrett. I struck up a real friendship with Eileen's daughter, Eileen Coly, and granddaughter, Lisette Coly -- the daughter is now heading towards her 94th birthday. Eileen Coly narrates stories about growing up with a psychic mother, about growing up in London in the 30s, of transatlantic travel between London and New York. Psychics at that time were major celebrities. She was a trance medium, so she would get these other personalities or voices.

Structurally, this piece is a synchronised three-screen video piece -- a series of vignettes, and they overlap in terms of audio, at times, so that you get this garble of voices, a kind of echo of the personality that Garrett had when she would hear other voices.

And what about the third piece?

F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N is generated from a residency I did in 2008, in Winnipeg, working with the spirit-photograph archives of a man called TG Hamilton. He was holding séances in his house between 1919 and 1935. He had about 12 cameras that would face the medium and he would release the shutters simultaneously on the command of the spirit guide who was called Walter.

In spirit photography, ectoplasm might form itself into an image or it would have a face or body form. There was one image in which a teleplasm -- as Hamilton preferred to call it -- appeared in the form of the word 'flammarion'. Camille Flammarion was a French astronomer and psychical researcher.

What is your work about in a general sense?

In a very general sense what I do is bring something from the past into the present, something quite obscure, something from the field of psychical research into the art world. And it is about me reconstructing or reinterpreting them.

Since I've started working with people and entering into their lives, the way they've let me spend a lot of time with them has just been incredible. And many of the people are in their 80s and 90s -- they connect me, through their conversations, with periods of time that aren't familiar to me. These people are incredibly active in their minds, and they ask questions of the world, and they're charismatic.

Tell us all about getting into and being in Biennale.

The nuts and bolts of it are that [curator] Karen Downey approached me and said she wanted to propose to develop a solo show for the Biennale. We met and talked and put together a proposal and were then interviewed for it. We heard we got it in June of 2008 and that the exhibition opened in the June of the following year. It is such an intense and specific experience -- it's a huge show; you're really putting yourself on the world stage.

We also made a book about my work, Remote Viewing, which was more like a book than a catalogue. Making the book was a huge part of the process, and Ciaran Carson, who was in F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N, wrote about being in the work, so it all became very layered.

In terms of logistics, there is a huge amount of things that you need to tie down well in advance, because you'll be working with a space that you may have to construct another space within, which we had to do. It was a very intense year, but the adrenaline drove it!

The exhibition of Susan MacWilliam's work runs in the NCAD Gallery from March 12th to April 10th and in the Farmleigh Gallery from April 16th to May 15th