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Shadow of the Air Loom

Mike Jay pays a visit to a new exhibition at Heidelberg’s Prinzhorn Collection exploring the history of the ‘influencing machine’ and its elaboration in the creations of outsider artists and schizophrenic visionaries.

 
The notion of a machine that controls human minds was then unprecedented

As the 21st century settles in around us, the influencing machine is quietly making itself at home in the mainstream of our techno-hungry culture. Only a decade ago, the idea of a covert device that uses futuristic technology to send messages and control minds was the hallmark of cults and subcultures: aficionados of the paranoid science fiction of Philip K Dick, or of a samizdat conspiracy literature where mind-control was occasionally proposed as the hidden hand that unifies the disparate narratives of alien abductions and controlling elites.

Now, for every 12-year-old who has seen The X-Files, The Matrix or many other film, TV and comic spin-offs, the influencing machine needs no explanation, and the Internet hums with stories of subliminal messaging, mysterious implants and military mind-control programmes. The influencing machine is even moving beyond familiarity into parody: the character who wears a tinfoil hat to deflect its malign controlling rays has become a comedy cliché, a crude shorthand for paranoia and by extension for madness in general (see FT216:22–23).

This is a stereotype that recalls that the influencing machine, for all its recent excursions into popular culture, has its roots in clinical psychiatry and psychoanalysis, where the term was originally coined nearly a century ago to describe a delusion observed in those suffering from the bizarre mental condition that was shortly to be christened ‘schizophrenia’.

So it’s both timely and appropriate that the Prinzhorn Collection in Heidelberg, whose unparalleled archives of art by psychiatric patients dates back to the same era, has chosen this moment to assemble – with the help of other celebrated collections such as the Musée de l’Art Brut in Lausanne and the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archive (see FT137:48; 147:40–44; 189:54–55) – an unprecedented display of these insane or visionary machines.

The exhibition is, appropriately, dominated by the Air Loom, the first known example of an influencing machine, which was detailed in eerily precise technical drawings between 1800 and 1810 by a Welsh tea-merchant named James Tilly Matthews, at that time confined in Bedlam (Bethlem) as an incurable lunatic (see FT170:40–42). Matthews’s plans showed a machine fuelled by barrels of magnetised gas and ‘putrid effluvia’, and powered by Leyden jars and windmill sails, that wove invisible mesmeric currents which, beamed at a human target by its sinister operators, filled the mind with alien voices and nightmarish visions and could be programmed to convulse, torture and even kill.

In an inspired and classically fortean move, the installation artist and crop circle pioneer Rod Dickinson has turned Matthews’s hallucinatory blueprints into reality. The result is an inscrutable piece that fills the main exhibition floor, towering ominously over the spectator. On one level, it’s a sober and ‘authentic’ assemblage of 18th-century technology, with oak panelling, brass fittings, hooped barrels and tanned leather tubes: a period piece, yet also brand new, as if fresh off the assembly line and poised to hiss and rumble into life.

On another level, though, its vast scale and malign intent communicates to the viewer a frisson of the claustrophobia and panic that Matthews himself felt when this uncanny device intruded into his own reality. These dissonances between the authentic and the fantastic are heightened by an audio commentary, delivered intimately to each visitor via a sleek hand-held digital pod, which describes the Air Loom’s parts and functions with clinical precision, in phrases mostly lifted verbatim from Matthews’s own description of the terrors and torments that it had inflicted on him.

The realism of the installation is buttressed by the supporting documentation on display around it, mostly on loan from the Bethlem archives. Here are original prints of Matthews’s Air Loom drawings, alongside his pointedly sane architectural plans for a new Bethlem Hospital, for which he won a prize from the hospital governors. The Bedlam doctor John Haslam’s affidavits on his patient’s mental state sit beside Matthews’s own cartoonishly mad documents where he proclaims himself ‘Omni Imperious Arch Emperor Supreme’ over the entire world, his proclamations covering page after page in his tiny and immaculate copperplate hand. The paradox of Dickinson’s piece – a painstaking reconstruction of an impossible device – is powerfully amplified by these conflicting testimonies from the moment of its creation. 1

When Matthews conceived of the Air Loom, the notion of a machine that controlled human minds was, as far as we know, unprecedented; as the 19th century progressed, doctors and psychiatrists began to see patterns in the way that some mental patients co-opted new technologies into their paranoid imaginings.

“The insane are quick to catch at new scientific notions to explain their delusions”, noted physician William Ireland in 1886. “Complaints of being electrified and being magnetised against their will have long been common; and since the invention of the telephone, they have said that there are telephones in their rooms, or that people use these instruments to torment them”. 2

The early 20th century saw patients like Jacob Mohr, who was confined in Heidelberg’s psychiatric clinic in the years around 1910, producing extraordinary diagrams filled with black boxes radiating electric currents and hypnotic rays. In the scrambled but oddly techno-savvy text that accompanies them, Mohr – like Matthews – presents himself as ‘Ruler of the World’, but also as the victim of a ‘wireless-organic-positive-polar’ device that torments and paralyses him.

In 1919, the gifted, maverick and ultimately tragic Victor Tausk, an early disciple of Sigmund Freud, 3 developed an ambitious and complex framework to describe and account for this type of delusion. His paper ‘On the Origin of the Influencing Machine in Schizophrenia’ 4 coined the enduring term for such devices (originally, in its German form, Beeinflussingsapparat) and related them to the schizophrenic patient’s sense of disconnection from the body, and their merging of internal sensations and external stimuli.

The patient who prompted Tausk to these insights was a 30-year-old philosophy student identified as Natalija A, who confided to him that her thoughts and dreams were being manipulated by an electrical device operated by a cabal of doctors in Berlin. Her case is the inspiration for an installation by contemporary New York artist Zoe Beloff, also on display here, which uses a 3D optical system to project Natalija’s phantom body into virtual space and a sensor device to trigger a disturbing melange of sequences and loops from 1920s medical training films within its organs. 5

The gallery above the main exhibition space offers some relief from the oppressive shadow of the Air Loom, but its display of influencing machine art by psychiatric patients, mostly from the years around 1900, elaborates and even intensifies the Air Loom’s psychic landscape. Like Matthews’s blueprints, many of the pieces are realised with unnerving precision, often by patients who were professional artists before their confinement.

Joseph Schneller, for example, was a technical draughtsman before his admission to the Eglfing-Haar mental hospital in 1907, at which point he started drawing elegant and chilling images of humanoid machines emitting spectral rays while performing sinister and perverted acts – typically squeezing women into tight rubber clothes that distort their bodies, or administering enemas and flagellations to nurses in elegant art nouveau tiled bathrooms.

Other artists found their images concealed in the world around them. The former sign-painter and decorator Friedrich Leonardt Fent, for example, who was transferred to mental hospital in 1910 while serving a prison term for sexual abuse of his stepdaughter, created his œuvre by taking the artwork from advertisements and book jackets and twisting it to reveal the influencing machines that were hidden within the image. Thus, a prancing devil from a newspaper ad for storage batteries is given a mysterious black box which transmits the disembodied voices that Fent is hearing in his head; and the cover of a popular book on hypnosis is customised to include a figure trapped in a hypnotic beam almost identical to the one so carefully inked by James Tilly Matthews 100 years earlier.

Fent was also tormented by doctors whom he refers to as ‘Dr. Know-All’ and ‘Dr. Rönthgen’ (Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays was a recent scientific breakthrough) who ‘treated’ him with sinister techniques such as ‘hypnosis-auto-suggestion’ and ‘electro-technology’.

When the first X-ray image – of the living skeleton inside Roentgen’s wife’s hand – was splashed across the front pages of the world’s press in 1896, it was claimed by many, not just the insane, as evidence for an invisible body that had until now remained concealed from the world of outward appearances. Similarly, when radio began to emerge as a household technology in the 1920s, it too was claimed by spiritualists as evidence that ‘brain waves’ or ‘mind rays’ could be sent and received across large distances.

In 1924, just as radio was beginning to penetrate the high street market, Johanna Wintsch, a patient at the Burghölzli asylum in Zurich, produced a work of embroidery which she called ‘Je Suis Radio’. Stitched in scintillating colours onto cream-coloured cloth, it shows a lattice of waves and vibrations similar to many others here, and described repeatedly as representing a heightened state of cosmic communication where rays and energies flow from the subject out into the Universe, where they are woven into a vast nervous system that binds the artist with the infinite.

The exhibition opens and closes with an installation in the lobby that brings the influencing machine up to the present (or future), while also returning full circle to the obsessions of James Tilly Matthews, a passionate peace activist whose eccentric private diplomacy during the French Revolution began the tangle of events that ended with his confinement in Bedlam. 6

Half a million sheets of A4 paper form a giant sculpture representing the work of Vanda Viera-Schmidt, who was discharged from a psychiatric hospital in 1995 after a psychotic period during which she believed that demonic operators with portable uranium devices were torturing and even murdering passengers on the underground with electricity and ‘uranium hits’. Released into sheltered accommodation in Berlin, she has since been drawing diagrammatic representations of conflicts all over the world, at a rate of up to 1,000 per day. Now, whenever any conflict breaks out, she uses her drawings to mediate it. This work has helped to restore her peace of mind, and she hopes it will be able in time to achieve a wider ‘peace on Earth’, where the use of weapons and violence can be replaced with her diagrams.

‘The Air Loom And Other Dangerous Influencing Machines’ is at the Prinzhorn Collection, Psychiatrische Universitätsklinik, Heidelberg until 15 April 2007.

Details at prinzhorn.uni-hd.de



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 ‘Je suis radio’, by Natalie Winsch (1924).

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A drawing by Joseph Schneller (date unknown); the title translates as ‘Lucca’s Jailhouse Chicanery’.
Air Loom
Rod Dickinson’s recreation of the Air Loom, constructed from Tilly Matthews’s blueprints.
Shadow of the Air Loom
Friedrich Leonardt Fent’s ‘The Power of Hypnosis’ (1911), a customised book cover, with a figure standing trapped in a hypnotic beam.
Author Biography
Mike Jay is a long-time FT contributor. His books include The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness and Emperor of Dreams: Drugs in The Nineteenth Century.
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