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A Pataphysical Phantasmagoria ?




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. - AAB


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 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 séances or meetings in which a spiritualist attempted to communicate with the spirits of the dead.  The first recorded examples of Phantasmagoria were 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 other-worldly atmosphere of the experience. 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 tales 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 an 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 other 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 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 say that at it’s core Pataphysical thinking is simply a fundamental awareness that the systems of order we live by, however naturalized or true they indeed are, are actually magnificent human creations, and this universe, and all others with it*, is legitimized through an infinite series of often eventful, sometimes beautiful, occasionally hideous, but always meaning-full imaginary solutions. 

Or, as Hans Spinnermen - one of the museum's principal contributors puts it:

"Pataphysics is simply an awareness that everything, including our very selves - is ultimately what we pretend it to be."


Patamechanics is the manifestation of apparatus and environments that are designed to open a window for perceiving the very Pataphysical nature of our rich and complex universe.


Now then, if attempting to describe Pataphysics wasn't enough of a contradiction - please allow me to (pathetically and insufficiently!!) continue reducing my museum experience - to words.


Upon arriving at the lush gardens and historic estate that comprise the Musée Patamécanique’s secret location guests are led to a small gothic chapel. Once inside they are greeted by a masked guide who delivers an orientation on the history and foundations of Patamechanics.

Upon conclusion the orientation visitors are escorted into the main hall and the Patamechanical demonstrations begins. Some are philosophical, others utterly benign, all offer complex narratives and bewildering sensorial effects whose power resides NOT in the ability to teach and inform, but to playfully disorder the senses, spawn wonder and intentionally derail conventional logic. 


Like Alice’s dissent into a dream-world that defies conventional understanding guests encounter clocks that tell time by way of shifting aromas, floating cylinders that manifest new and never before seen dimensions of space, there are mechanisms that conveniently reconstitute digested foods, holographic ears that play the violin and a fully operational time machine which hypnotizes visitors into the future.


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


In the corner of the gallery little a curtain opens to reveal a miniature stage where a doll size animatronic forest creature sits behind a baby grand piano. Then, the maestro’s tiny gloved hands begin to rise and fall as he launches into a rowdy rendition of Liberace's "Beer Barrel Polka".


The masked guide suddenly leaps into action! Twirling about the gallery he gestures toward each Patamechanical contraption, reactivating them one by one as they join a clamoring chorus. 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 links index fingers with a single guest and whisks them off 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 charm 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 we carry towards sense-making and offer in it's place a very Pataphysical critique of art, culture, museums and the nature of our so-called reality. 


It's not that Musée Patamécanique is a museum against logic, but one that endorses a freedom of vision, feeling and thought that only PLAY can produce.

Meanwhile, 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 hidden doorway opens revealing a cobbled pathway leading back to the supposedly "real" world from which visitors once came. However, the once familiar place on the other side of the threshold now appears (through some form of phantasmagorical trickery?) transformed into a more mysterious and curious place.


Visitors are invited to continue their tour as they are ushered into this realm of Pataphysical delights - It is 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


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