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. 


I would offer that 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 times past 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 word and field of creative practice invented 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 and that any attempt to explain it contradicts its very essence. However one could also say that at it’s core Pataphysical thinking, or "Conscious Pataphysics" is simply a fundamental awareness that the world we live in (and any possible world for that matter) is an entirely imaginary solution.


Patamechanics is the manifestation of apparatus and environments that are designed to open a window for perceiving the very Pataphysical nature of our rich, imaginary universe AND Musée Patamécanique is a forum for exploring the meaning and possibilities of Patamechanics.

A small sampling of the museums collection of Patamachines includes: a clock that tells time by way of shifting aromas, a mechanism that conveniently reconstitutes digested foods, a machine 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, elicit paradox and spark Pataphysical thinking!!!

Like Alice’s dissent into a dream-world that defies conventional understanding a whirlwind tour of le Musée enchants visitors with 50 minutes of 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 imaginative Pataphysical science*

The tour's momentum builds with each Patamechanical demonstration culminating in a spectacular finale:


Upon conclusion of Deloris Glymph's perilous high wire unicycle extravaganza a curtain opens on a miniature stage where, seated before a baby grand piano is an animatronic chipmunk. With his eyes transfixed with a wild stare the maestro’s tiny gloved hands begin to rise and fall as he launches into a rowdy rendition of Liberace's Beer Barrel Polka.


At this moment the masked guide leaps into action; Twirling about the gallery he begins reintroducing every exhibit and as each contraption reactivates it joins the growing chorus of Patamachines. Soon the entire chamber erupts in one giant swirling, bubbling, blinking, honking, yodeling, time traveling symphony of delirious, syncopated Patamechanics!


At the hight of this performance the 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, charm of Musée Patamécanique (or one of them?) resides 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 offer a very Pataphysical critique of culture, museums, and human  (non?) existence that is both playful and profound.

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 another curtain lifts revealing a doorway which opens to a cobbled pathway leading back to the supposedly "real" world from which visitors 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.


Visitors are invited to continue their adventure as they are ushered into this reborn realm brimming with Pataphysical delights - a place Alfred Jarry called "ETHERNITY".



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.


Musée Patamécanique 

A Pataphysical Phantasmagoria 

By Ann-Allyse Birdeel

Vice Curator of Permanent Collections

Centre d’ Patamécanique, Paris

Translation by Daren Elsa NiBelly