J.3 Paranormal Exhibitions, Part 2

Sat Oct 29 / 11:00 – 12:30 / East Common Room, rm 1034, Hart House

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  • Jennifer Fisher, York University

The current “paranormal turn” in art and exhibitions coincides with the record-breaking attendance for the Hilma Af Klint retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 2018. Af Klint (1862-1944) was at once a Spiritualist medium and artist who channeled her prescient nonobjective abstraction from spirit guides. At this time when institutions are called upon to decolonize, preternatural knowledges—including ghostly encounters with structures of power and violent histories—are being newly considered. This panel seeks to bring together scholarly papers and curatorial projects that engage with paranormal displays, performances and exhibition modalities. We seek to explore how spaces defined by extra-rational, nebulous, divinatory, mystical and occult displays are formally and affectively configured in diverse exhibition contexts and AI platforms. We invite exhibition case studies and curatorial reflections that pertain to such topics as the performative conventions of séances, museum ghosts, haunted architectures, technologies of disembodiment, digital specters and other paranormal displays.

keywords: exhibitions, curating, paranormal, affect, hauntology

J.3.1 Men in 20th century séance rooms

  • Nick Richbell, University of Waterloo

The important and changing role of women in Modern Spiritualism is well represented in scholarship about the movement that began in Hydesville, New York, in 1948. Scholars have largely included men in their roles as seances sitters, psychic investigators, or as benefactors of public performing women mediums. My paper draws on séance collections held in Special Collections & Archives at the University of Waterloo Library and will compare and contrast the differing performative natures of the mediums William Cartheuser and Thomas Lacey. Both men channeled the disembodied spirits of Native Americans, young girls, and family members of seance sitters held in private homes in 1930s Ontario, the former for popularity and money, the latter for the benefit of the sitters. This paper is the beginning of my doctoral research on 20th century Spiritualism.

keywords: séances, masculinity, performance, mediumship

Nick Richbell is the Head, Special Collections & Archives at the University of Waterloo Library, Ontario. Nick is also a PhD candidate in Waterloo’s Department of History and his area of research is the history of Spiritualism with a focus on the life and career of Maurice Barbanell, a leading Spiritualist, newspaper editor, and channel for the Spirit Entity named "Silver Birch". Barbanell delivered teachings from Silver Birch for over 50-years and published the leading Spiritualist newspaper, Psychic News. Nick is writing a biography of these two characters and their impact on British society from 1920 to 1981, a lesser studied period of the Spiritualist movement.

J.3.2 “Snake in My Mouth”: Cartomancy as Curatorial Strategy

Ruth Skinner

Let’s consider the exhibition in terms of a card spread. Albert S. Lyons distinguishes cartomancy, a “system of prediction that can be taught and learned,” from other prophetic methods requiring “spiritual, intuitive talents.” Tarot expert Rachel Pollack complicates this, emphasizing the value of card reading as an introspective practice rather than divinatory power. Addressing the tarot deck of Austin Osman Spare, curator Jonathan Allen asserts that tarot cards and playing cards are “narrative-generating devices capable of both reifying fiction and fictionalising fact.” With every shuffle, modes of interpretation are reconfigured, new relationships and contingencies emerge.

The playing card spread informed the curatorial approach for “Snake in My Mouth,” an exhibition that engaged with the card decks, correspondence and personal ephemera of the Southern Ontario clairvoyant, Vera McNichol. This exhibition presented a series of representational challenges. Missing context, sensitive materials, and obscure diagrams are made more indeterminate by McNichol herself—her conservative beliefs, personal agenda, and ties to law enforcement refract throughout and inform her archive.

In addition to her playing card cartomancy, McNichol was also a prolific publisher of autobiography, poetry and verse. Her distribution strategies were innately tethered to her clairvoyance yet circumnavigated national regulations against witchcraft, sorcery and fortune telling. Having little insight into McNichol’s cartomancy technique, the exhibition looked to another work of spiritualism and fiction to formulate a series of curatorial actions: publisher George Redway and E. Irenaenus Stevenson’s The Square of Sevens: An Authoritative System of Cartomancy. Exhibition methods referenced automatic writing, empathic and sympathetic contact (making contact with A. H. Bell’s prospect of Diving at Second-Hand), witness statements and forensic research.

keywords: clairvoyance, cartomancy, exhibition, curatorial strategies

Ruth Skinner is an arts organizer, curator, educator and publisher in London, Ontario. She is completing a doctoral degree in Art and Visual Culture at Western University, where her research encompasses experimental publishing practices, artists' books, forensics and clairvoyance.

J.3.3 Artists’ tarot decks: Exhibitions in a box

  • Jim Drobnick, OCAD University

As exhibitions proliferate about psychic and supernatural phenomena, it is useful to explore the curatorial potential of an occult antecedent, the tarot deck, which harkens back to the fifteenth century. Tarot decks inherently embody traditional exhibitionary possibilities through the presentation of cards as individual artworks, thematic groupings, and organized spreads. Yet, tarot decks also offer intriguing differences that challenge and extend the notion of an exhibition that can be found in galleries and museums. In particular, the genre of artists’ tarot decks—which are often experimental, subversive, conceptual and produced in limited editions—demonstrate how exhibitions can defy the conventional limitations of time and location. This paper argues that decks by artists not only creatively reimagine the established features of the tarot for insight or guidance, they also suggest a mobile, interactive strategy for what can be described as an exhibition in a box.

keywords: tarot, exhibition strategies, artists’ multiples, experimental curating

Jim Drobnick is a curator and professor at OCAD University, Toronto. He has published on the visual arts, performance, the senses and post-media practices in recent anthologies such as Olfactory Art and the Political in the Age of Resistance (2021), Food and Museums (2017), L’Art Olfactif Contemporain (2015), The Multisensory Museum (2014), Senses and the City (2011), and Art, History and the Senses (2010). His books include the anthologies Aural Cultures (2004) and The Smell Culture Reader (2006). He is co-editor of the Journal of Curatorial Studies and co-founder of the curatorial collaborative DisplayCult.

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