Stereoscopic Dreams: Zoe Beloff uses archaic media to explore the boundary between illusion and reality

Still from "Charming Augustine" by Zoe Beloff; courtesy of the artist
Though it’s been a goal of artists for centuries to simulate the experience of dreaming while awake–from lush romantic canvases of pastoral excess to surrealistic disjunction–the medium in which such a state is achieved shifts with time and technology. Artist Zoe Beloff, who works primarily in film and live performance, takes the dream almost all the way to waking. By using live performance combined with 3-D (stereoscopic) projection, Beloff reminds her audience both of illusion and reality. She writes of herself, “She would like to think of herself as an heir to the 19th-century mediums whose materialization séances conjured up unconscious desires, in the most theatrical fashion.” The theatrics of the phantom image drive her work–experiencing an image that takes on the dimensional, active qualities of a real object speaks almost as much to its falsity as to verity. Beloff continues, “Though lacking psychic abilities she confesses to relying on cinematic illusionism.”

Beloff presents one of her stereoscopic films, “Charming Augustine,” this Thursday in the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago. She resuscitates techniques that have been stagnant since the early days of cinema: dioramic sets, the stereoscopic slide. In combining these archaic media with new digital technology, Beloff attempts to create an uncanny space of visual and physical experience. The stories she draws from are often the texts of classical psychiatry–primarily the stories of hysterical women whose symptoms had to do with their experience of media in their increasingly modern world.

In “Charming Augustine”, Beloff examines 1870s France, when a young woman named Augustine became the belle of the Parisian medical world. Doctors and fashionable intellectuals from across Europe (including, five years after Augustine, a young Sigmund Freud) attended weekly lectures and demonstrations by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot at the psychiatric clinic Pitié-Salpêtrière. Charcot, who is considered one of the founders of modern neurology, initially worked with hypnosis and hysteria. He would convince patients to eat pieces of chalk that they thought were chocolate, and to smell bottles of ammonia that they thought contained rose water.

Aside from these live demonstrations, Charcot took still photographs of his patients–particularly Augustine, who was known as the “Sarah Bernhardt of the asylum”–in various histrionic poses. In photographs titled “Extase” and “Erotisme,” Augustine demonstrated her expressive capability. In 1880, however, this capability got the better of her captors: Augustine, dressed as a man, escaped the hospital, never to be heard from again.

“Charming Augustine” was first presented in 2005. Beloff writes that, by using the stereoscopic form, she wanted to examine “a moment in time when the moving image was on the brink of existence in a form not yet standardized.” She also draws on the connections between the emotional photographs of patients like Augustine, and the experimental movement photographs of Charcot’s contemporaries like Eadward Muybridge, noting that both wanted to unlock the secrets of physiology using the camera–but while motion studies focuses on the body, Charcot wanted to plumb the human mind. In an interview with the web guide NY Art Beat, Beloff specified her aims: “I start with a document, something that purports to be scientific observation, but contains within itself material that is highly subjective, interior. For example, how does one document a dream or delirium?”

“Charming Augustine,” 3D 16 mm, 40 min. February 26. Thursday, 7pm. Film Studies Center, 3rd floor, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Presented by the Open Practice Committee and the Film Studies Center. Free.