A Skeleton Key?
There exists of course no substitute for the richly rewarding experience of plunging headlong into a tour of Musée Patamécanique – especially when accompanied by an uninitiated friend. It is a strange place; a fusion of funhouse, fable, museum and nightmare. While I offer the following personal elucidation as an aid to those embarking on their journey into this museum of illusions and allusions the reader must bear in mind that there is no such thing as an objective approach to describing something that becomes so wholly internalized as a tour of Musée Patamécanique.
There is no more evocative word than "Phantasmagoria."
The term itself conjures specters and incongruities, such as: the material or immaterial bases of human experience, the role of authenticity versus that of illusion, the effects of stimulation in contrast that of manipulation of the senses. Any contemporary analysis of the Phantasmagoria of yore cannot help but evoke an examination of the shifty and pliable relationships between perception, logic, fiction and the realm of - possibility.
The word Phantasmagoria was coined in 1801 by French dramatist Louis-Sébastien Mercier as an alteration of the French term phantasmagorie, loosely translated it means "crowd of phantoms". This pre-cinematic form of entertainment aimed to completely absorb an audiences’ attention, both mentally and bodily.
The earliest Phantasmagoria started under the guise of actual séances in Germany in the late 18th century and gained popularity through most of Europe throughout the 19th century. Their proprietors specialized in thrilling audiences with macabre illusions created primarily through a form of technology used for image projection called the magic lantern. Within a dimly lit chamber images such as skeletons, demons and ghosts were projected onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, typically using rear projection to keep the lantern out of sight. Some Phantasmagoria included additional sensory stimulation such as smells, wind and electric shocks.
Seated in a darkened hall with their spatial orientation undermined the effect on spectators was one of total sensorial immersion.
I would venture that Musée Patamécanique is, perhaps covertly, inspired by these ancient phantom chambers as well as the techniques that were used to create them.
For instance, Étienne-Gaspard Roberts's original "Fantasmagorie" was staged on the outskirts of Paris some time in the late 1790’s. His choice of an abandoned abbey as the location for his shows enhanced the immersive mystical atmosphere of the show. Roberts – who went by the stage name Robertson, invented an improved version of the magic lantern called the “Fantoscope” along with many other optical inventions which he used for telling his phantasmagorical stories to small crowds. Sound effects would accompany these performances including voices of spirits produced by Robertson and his assistants. Through his use of what was then cutting edge projection technology, creative storytelling and an immersive darkened atmosphere - phantoms were conjured out of the afterlife to a horrified, yet mesmerized crowd.
Conversely, Musée Patamécanique is set in a small gothic chapel hidden on the grounds of a historic estate in the seaside town of Bristol Rhode Island. Within a dimly lit gallery dubbed "Patamechanics Hall" artfully hidden projection systems along with oversized phenakistoscopes, technologically enhanced thaumatropes, talking automata and other eccentric forms of machinery are brought to life by a mischievous masked guide to produce a 50 minute show of illusions, musical performances and twists of perception. Much like Étienne-Gaspard Roberts's early phantom chambers Musée Patamécanique is a highly curated sensorial experience available to a limited number of guests and only after dark.
Where Le Musée differs from the phantasmagoria of yore is that instead of creating an eerie atmosphere aimed to frighten visitors - these specially designed environs are filled with a collection of eccentric contraptions called Patamachines specially designed to spark Pataphysical thinking89.
What's that you say? What, pray tell, is a Patamachine? And what exactly, is Pataphysical thinking?
Le Musée Patamécanique translates from the French to "The Museum of Patamechanics". The term Patamechanics is chiefly derived from Pataphysics, a difficult-to-define field of creative practice created by French writer, poet and playwright - Alfred Jarry (1873-1907).
One definition of Pataphysics is that;"it is a branch of philosophy or science that examines imaginary phenomena that exist in a world beyond metaphysics.” Another attempt at a definition interprets Pataphysics as "the virtual or imaginary nature of things as glimpsed by the heightened vision of poetry or science or love that can be seized and lived as real". Yet another definition likens Pataphysics to “a systematic toying with the arrangement of things and their significance until the improbable hypothesis can be seen as real.“ Alfred Jarry defined 'Pataphysics in a number of statements and examples, including that it is "the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments".
Many would say that by its very nature Pataphysics is undefinable. However one could also say that at it’s core Pataphysics is (or better still, could be imagined to be) a deeply serious form of intellectual play in which the very substance of human thought and "sense making" is poked at, tickled, pickled, parodied and otherwise relentlessly interrogated.
Patamechanics is essentially the manifestation of apparatus and environments that are designed to ignite Pataphysical thinking, and Musée Patamécanique is a forum for exploring the possibilities of Patamechanics.
A small sampling of the museums collection includes: a clock that tells time by way of shifting aromas, a mechanism that conveniently reconstitutes digested foods, a mechanism that manifests a new and never before seen dimension of space, a giant holographic ear that plays the violin, an apparatus for capturing the dreams of bumble bees and a fully operational time machine – to site just a handful. This collection is presented to guests through a series of performances and demonstrations under the guise of a "tour". Taken as a whole this tour forms a complex and often bewildering narrative whose power resides NOT in the ability to teach and inform, but rather to playfully disorder the senses, spawn wonder and elicit paradox.
Like Alice’s dissent into a dream-world that defies conventional understanding le Musée enchants visitors with delirious yet engaging amalgamations: serious allegories are paired with Dadaist anecdotes, familiar philosophical tropes are meshed with bewildering absurdist perspectives and conventional science is mixed-up with Pataphysical science*.
The tour's momentum builds with each Patamechanical demonstration culminating with a spectacular finale:
Led by an animatronic chipmunk playing Liberace's version of The Beer Barrel Polka on a baby grand piano the mischievous masked guide suddenly leaps into action twirling about the gallery as he reintroduces every exhibit in an encore performance. One by one each contraption reactivates and joins-in with the growing chorus as the entire chamber erupts in one giant swirling, bubbling, blinking, honking, yodeling, time traveling symphony of delirious, syncopated Patamechanics!
At this point the masked guide gingerly whisks one guest off to join him in a spiraling waltz through the central isle of Patamechanics Hall.
Then the house lights come up, the music stops and visitors are left thoroughly metagrobolized and in a happy-state of utter bewilderment.
Indeed, the power of Musée Patamécanique (or one of them) may reside precisely in the primordial confusion that it sows. Through an inspired reimagining of the phantasmagoria coupled with a deliberate and thorough invocation of pataphysics* this unlikely little museum maintains the uncanny ability to confound habitual attitudes towards sense-making and open the way for perceiving the very Pataphysical (that is to say the very real but also the very imaginary) underpinnings our so-called reality.
Meanwhile, back at Patamechanics Hall...
Just when guests think their tour has ended the lights dim low once again. Music reminiscent of a 70's era television quiz show blares as a neon sign flashing the word "Enlargements" pulses on and off from above! Then a curtain lifts revealing a hidden doorway which opens to a cobbled pathway leading back to the supposedly "real" world from which they once came. However, the place on the other side of the museum's threshold now appears (through some form of phantasmagorical trickery?) transformed into a more mysterious and curious place.
Translators note: Many (but not all) of the museum's exhibits are inspired by artists and thinkers who are in some way (consciously or unconsciously) connected to Pataphysics* including: Alfred Jarry, Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Queneau, Erwin Schrödinger, The Marx Brothers, Jorge Luis Borges, Henri Bergson, Raymond Roussel, Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, Italo Calvino, Flann O'Brien, Rene Daumal and many others.
A Pataphysical Phantasmagoria
By Ann-Allyse Birdeel
Vice Curator of Permanent Collections
Centre d’ Patamécanique, Paris
Translation by Daren Elsa NiBelly