The term ectoplasm (derived from the Greek words ektos and plasma: exteriorised substance) began to be used in late-nineteenth-century occult circles to describe the supernatural substance allegedly emerging from the bodies of psychic mediums. One of the first instances of this usage is thought to have been in 1894 by the French physiologist Charles Richet (1850-1935). Although originally from a medical background, Richet was one of several renowned scientists during this period who discounted the naturalist boundaries between science and psychical research. From the perspective of today it is difficult to believe that the substance was treated seriously by scientists and psychical researchers. However. The obsession with this phantasmagoric fluid flourished against the background of a world in which electricity, radio, and X-radiation were changing how the human body was perceived and inhabited. These new technologies accelerated the dissolution of boundaries between technology and the human body but also opened people’s minds to certain possibilities, such as the existence of this mysterious substance.
Descriptions of ectoplasm vary widely to include a vapour, a plastic paste, a bundle of fine threads, a membrane with swellings or fringes, and a fine fabric-like tissue (1). Some claimed that ectoplasm possessed electrical properties and emanated a luminous glow, or was capable of forming hands, faces and other body parts. Many spiritualists, scientists and also artists viewed ectoplasm as a phantasmagoric fluid that could bridge material and immaterial worlds, a possible means of communicating with other dimensions. Some parapsychologists believed ectoplasm might even hold the key to revealing the deeper underlying structures of the universe, beneath and beyond matter.
A key document in ectoplasm’s history is Phenomena of Materialisation by German physician and psychic researcher Baron von Schrenck-Notzing (1862-1929) first published in English in 1923. The book, which features extensive photo-documentation of ectoplasm emerging from the orifices of mediums in a state of trance, underscores the fundamental duality to the concept of ectoplasm; being on one hand ethereal, even divine, and on the other, an all too tangible matter; an abject bodily emission. A glance at this material reveals the extent to testament to the eroticised dynamics of séance rooms in the early 20th century. This sexual aspects of Spiritualism has been a focus of Marina Warner and L. Anne Delgado. The latter notes that Ectoplasm emerged at a time when women’s bodies were under special scrutiny. She writes that during the golden age of ectoplasm new forms of surgical gynaecology allowed physicians to examine pathological conditions hidden within the female body and medical practitioners had devised and made use of gynecological instruments like the speculum that could reveal female interiors. It was also during this period that surgery designed to treat phantom ailments linked to female sexuality, like nymphomania and hysteria which would later become the realm of psychiatrists (2).
One could say that the cultural capital of ectoplasm In the early 20th century was tied very strongly to the novelty and the perceived verity of the photographic image. For it should not be forgotten that from it’s inception photography was viewed as a medium capable of capturing the that which the human eye could not. In addition to providing images of subtle energies and etheric rays surrounding the human body it was believed that photography could even produce pictures of the dead. Countless photographers specialised in posthumous portraiture; taking advantage of technical tricks such as double exposure in order to take photographs of sitters alongside their departed loved ones. William H. Mumler was a particularly prominent spirit photographer who produced hundreds of images before his prosecution for fraud in in 1869. A mounting mistrust in the reliability of photography as evidence was followed by a general rise in scepticism towards physical mediumship was growing in the popular imagination, reflecting the ongoing advancement of a rational scientific viewpoint at the expense of the spiritual. In the 1920s several high profile investigations led by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) revealed evidence in which materialisations of ectoplasm had been fraudulently staged. Numerous mediums were exposed with fake ectoplasm secreted about their person or concealed inside their bodies. These fakeries were revealed to be produced from a vast range of materials invluding soap, muslin, gelatine, eggs and masticated tissue paper. While the scientists of the late 19th century and early 20th century studied ectoplasm via direct observation and through photographing it (whatever ‘it’ was) it would seem that it was almost impossible to procure genuine samples that could be analysed in a lab. However, there does seem to have been a number of exceptions. A sample of a substance alleged to be ectoplasm can be found in the collection of the Cambridge University Library where the the archives of the Society for Psychical Research are now housed: https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-SPR-ECTOPLASM/1. However, reports from those who have viewed this specimen suggest that it resembles muslin or some similar textile.
For most people of a certain age, the concept of ectoplasm was introduced to them via Ivan Reitman’s 1984 Ghostbusters in which the substance is depicted as a viscous goo, and used for comic effect to denote the residue of a haunting. The original notion of ‘psychic matter’ as a material of infinite possibility, capable of connecting dimensions, has now come to be viewed as an aberration, the result of a temporary loss of reason in a less enlightened age. However, if ectoplasm was eliminated from the world of science as a possibility it has remained a potent source of ideas in the world of visual culture. There are also several instances in which artists have been directly influenced by the aesthetic properties. Artistic experimentation in the early 20th century was deeply indebted to the concept of mediumistic creation. In his pamphlet dating from 1910 entitled Man Multiplied and the Machine World the Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti muses that one day and will soon externalise his will and make it into a huge invisible arm (3) . This image underscores how the avant-gardes of the period were attracted to the aesthetic possibilities of this spectral matter. As the century progressed artists borrowed directly from the vocabulary of images this genre provided. For example, The aforementioned Phenomena of Materialisation by Schrenk Notzing is known to have been a key text in the work of Francis Bacon and several paintings feature images taken directly from the book. The book was found in Bacon’s Reece Mews studio shortly after his death and several pages formed the basis for several paintings. A particularly notable example is how the face of Eva Carrière featured in a photograph within the Phenomena of Materialisation features in Bacon’s seminal 1944 painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Countless other artists are also drawn to the phantasmagoric fluid or produce work that echoes it. Carolee Schneemann’s 1975 performance Interior Scroll, (and the physical residues which resulted) in which she pulled a paper scroll from her vagina while reading it aloud almost seems like a re-enactment of the situations that arose in the séance rooms of the late 19th and early 20th century. The explicitly sexual connotations or elements of the phenomenon which were mentioned in were also of interest to Mike Kelley who discusses it in his 2004 book Minor Histories, Statements, Conversations, Proposals. Kelley argues that the motif of the ‘money shot’ in pornography refers back to the impact of images that depict a the exuding of ectoplasm by a medium. According to Kelley The sexual implications of the latter is so obvious that it could not be produced now without it looking like it was designed specifically to the money shot, a trope that was not yet present in pornographic photography of the 1920s (4). Kelley’s interest in the photographs of ectoplasm led directly to a series of works from 1978/9, titled The Poltergeist in which the artists recreates many of those familiar images of mediums from the early 20th century. In the year 2000 Tony Oursler first produced his immersive outdoor installation The Influence Machine which referred to the history of mediumship in both psychic and scientific terms.
My own research into ectoplasm is concerns the elusive knowledge that the medium’s body promised and the ways in which mediums created and manipulated this knowledge. The act of producing these ectoplasmic manifestations can on some level be viewed as having parallels with the creative act; the manipulation of material in a theatrical performative event. The discourse of ectoplasm remains loaded with ideas that are of much value to visual art. In terms of visual culture ectoplasm could be considered as amongst the earliest images of abstract or formless objects. In many ways ectoplasm can be connected to the concept of formlessness as it was introduced by Georges Bataille in 1929. He wrote about ‘l’informe’ (formless) in the surrealist journal Documents 1929–30 discussing how that was abject should be embraced and celebrated (5). The formless could destroy destroying categories and be used to topple art and culture from a metaphorical pedestal. He believed that there was a tendency to elevate and idealise more ordered forms. Bataille argues that formlessness should be celebrated because it encouraged a movement away from the oppressive and excessively rational elements that lie within modernism’s formal tendencies. Bataille argued that art should be debased from an elevated status and that this debased state should be celebrated as a tool for creativity. He states formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit (6). While already connected of formlessness to Surrealism the concept was taken by Yve Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss and became the point of departure for a major exhibition entitled Formless: A User’s Guide at the Pompidou Center in Paris during the summer of 1996 and accompanied by a publication. In this case informe is utilised by Krauss as the unifying aspect of an art historical canon that connects the work of surrealist photographers, to Jackson Pollock and ultimately the various artistic practices that emerged in the 1970s.
In addition to this potent idea of formlessness ectoplasm was inherently connected to the idea of fluidity. In spiritualist circles the idea of fluidity held almost utopian qualities. The concept suggests that outside and above the world of materialistic, physicalistic science there was another world of vibrationary power. The concept of fluidity as key to Spiritualist theory and of course the concept of ectoplasm itself and provided an explanation or description for the soul’s existence in this world and its movement between worlds. Fluidity offered access between worlds and the body of the medium became a conduit through which this fluid oozed. For those decades when ectoplasm caught the imagination of some many people the seeming reality of these otherworldly fluids and formless accretions challenged realism as a movement and positivism as a science. But orthodox science, in the form of the new psychiatry, reacted to subsume and tame these phenomena. The phenomenon of ectoplasm made possible for a brief period the idea that each person’s thoughts, dreams and subconscious symbols, could affect the material world in ways particular to that person and be be seen reflected via a fluid world. The individual who channelled this material could perhaps connect with and manipulate subtle energies or unknown entities and perhaps even become one with whatever these forces were. He or (usually) she could become an active agent in the channelling of forces of knowledge that appeared to re-enchantment of the modern world. The mysterious substance seemed to temporarily make the otherworldly phenomenon real. These phenomena posed a challenge to the Scientific Positivism but also introduced a more mystical and aspect to modernist thought.
The case of ectoplasm exemplifies how the occult offered a vital catalyst for change in late 19th and early 20th century art. It is worth exploring the resonances of this legacy and consider its potential relationship to contemporary visual art. Manifestations of ectoplasm were associated with the paranormal realm and were often fraudulently contrived for the purposes of deception. Nevertheless, they can also be viewed as prefiguring a certain form of authorship that would become widespread in the context of 20th century of visual art. With ectoplasm, the human body became a conduit through which other invisible realms and arcane impulses could be communicated. Moreover, an aspect of ectoplasm that could be considered almost utopian was how it seemed to demonstrate the possibilities of fluidity between the boundaries that divided different worlds. Perhaps it is not the factual realities of ectoplasm that are most compelling but the conceptual implications. The notion of a materialisation of ideas or otherworldly energies, a tangible reflection of that which is usually unseen.
(1) Gustave Geley quoted in Guy Christian Barnard’s The Supernormal; A Critical Introduction to Psychic Science, 1933.
(2) L. Anne Delgado in The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and around the World. Edited by Christopher M. Moreman. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC- Clio, 2006
(3) F.T. Marinetti Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine, 1911. Original title ‘L’uomo moltiplicato e il Regno della macchina,’
(4) Minor Histories. Statements, conversations, proposals By Mike Kelley. Edited by John C. Welchman.MIT Press, 2004.
(5) Mediumship, clairvoyance and other forms of supernatural communication were central to much early Surrealist practice. In the interwar period the Surrealists -who were persistent in their efforts to explore the more arcane aspects of human consciousness- attempted to utilise the seance as a source or trigger for creative potential. M. E. Warlic has outlined how from 1922 to 1923 several Surrealists conducted seances not necessarily to commune with spirits but to enable them to access what they referred to in their manifesto as ‘pure psychic automatism’
(6) Formless by Georges Bataille, Documents 1, Paris, 1929, p. 382