UMBC exhibit offers glimpse into world of the otherworldly

Artists use technology to engage the paranormal


Towson resident Emily Lynch stood hesitantly with her toes just barely touching the black line drawn across the floor. Keeping her eyes on the 2-foot-tall tropical plant covered with sensors and wires in front of her, she slowly stepped across the line.

A loud growl suddenly rumbled out of two speakers nearby. This plant, with electrodes on each leaf connecting to a laptop computer, is part of a creation by Miya Masaoka, one of the artists featured in Blur of the Otherworldly, a paranormal art show that runs through Dec. 17 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"This piece of art translates a plant's awareness of its surroundings into sound," said Mark Durant, co-curator of the show. "It's the sonic equivalent of a plant's consciousness."

The plant is one of 29 creations featured in the show, which houses a variety of contemporary works dealing with aspects of the paranormal or otherworldly, Durant said. The show portrays a wide array of subjects, including ghosts, psychics and outer space, and a wide array of attitudes toward the paranormal as well, he said. Some works are funny, some are serious.

Symmes Gardner, director of the gallery at UMBC, said the show represents artists' fascination with the paranormal. "They're taking a part in building what we know, what we don't know and what we may never know about the world around us," Gardner said.

All of the artists in the show used technology in some form to imagine, contact or somehow engage the otherworldly through their art, Durant said. From television, to photography, computers or sound, the medium used in each piece affects what the viewer can understand about the paranormal.

Durant said he and co-curator Jane Marching wanted to explore the way technology can be used to try to show evidence of things that are strange or alien, such as Bigfoot or UFOs.

"The paranormal is a very rich culture to explore," he said. "Science and technology can improve and increase what we can see and understand, but superstition, paranoia and questions about what is out there will always remain, no matter what new technology comes out."

Blur of the Otherworldly is also about belief, Durant said.

"It's about what each of these artists believes, and it's about the human will to believe in something beyond ourselves," he said.

One artist featured in the exhibit is Ted Serios. In the 1960s, Serios created what he called "thoughtographs," which were images on film that he allegedly created using his mind -- he never snapped the camera, but Serios claimed he could project images onto unexposed film by staring into the camera's lens.

Rows of his black and white Polaroid photos hang on one wall as part of the exhibit, showing a variety of images from blurry buildings to close-ups of Serios himself, who is smoking a cigarette in one photo.

The show also features other sets of photographs that deal with presence in different ways, Durant said.

Fred Ressler is an artist whose photographs depict faces using light and shadow. Ressler believes that spirits show themselves in nature, so he takes photos of "faces" in shadows that he sees as images of ghosts.

Another collection of photos by Chrysanne Stathacos includes rows of colorful images of individuals that were taken with a standard camera. By attaching a biofeedback device, Stathacos was able to photograph the subject's thermal/electrical charge, which she called their "aura."

"These photos suggest that we are something besides flesh and blood," Durant said. One artist in the exhibition, John Roach, created a piece with an open book set upon a pedestal and four fans -- one at each corner of the book -- to blow the pages back and forth.

Roach's piece includes a video camera, which is connected to a television across the room. As the fans turn on and off, the book's pages turn, and on the TV screen it seems as if the pages are turning on their own.

"Roach is making an illusion," Durant said. "It's like a bad magician or the scene in The Wizard of Oz where you can see the man behind the curtain."

Art is always a personal experience, Durant said, but the intent of this exhibit is for viewers to walk away with a sense of what artists are doing around the theme of the otherworldly.

"These pieces are fun, immersive, funny, magical and mysterious," he said.

Gardner said the show has been successful and has attracted many viewers. "Part of it is the word `paranormal,'" he said. "It makes art more fun, and less dry. It has a mass-market appeal."

Chris Banbacus, a junior at UMBC, said the exhibit was interesting and different from any other he had seen.

"I've always had an interest in the paranormal and things that are otherworldly," he said. "This exhibit is unique because it uses a lot of technology like computers and video projectors."

Catonsville resident Anne Serle said she also enjoyed the show.

"I think some of it is very frightening," she said. "I have a habit of avoiding going to frightening films, but I am delighted to see this. I like it. I'd give it an A."

Elizabeth Coe writes for the Capital News Service.

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