An Arts-Based Exploration of Spiritualist Techniques in Film, Text, and Performance

Lindsay Greer

University of Southern Indiana

To Cite this Article

Greer, L. (2022). An Arts-Based Exploration of Spiritualist Techniques in Film, Text, and Performance. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 6.


In this essay, I offer a brief review of spiritualism’s haunting presence within avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, and guide readers through my hands-on experiments with techniques of automatism, trance, and spirit photography. .  


Spiritualism, Dada, Surrealism, Spirit Photography, Trance Film, Automatism.

Spiritualism of the late-nineteenth century infused spiritual beliefs of the afterlife with a sense of performance and play. In the following arts-based essay, I experiment with spiritualist techniques such as automatic writing, trance, and spirit photography, to gain an understanding of spiritualism’s creative impulse as well as highlight spiritualist techniques influence on avant-garde practices of the twentieth century and beyond. In the experiments, I seek to recreate a sense of playfulness often overlooked in spiritualism.  


Surrealism, and to a lesser-extent, Dadaism, were two avant-garde movements of the 20th century that incorporated spiritualist techniques into their artistic practice. Dadaists “had long been using automatic techniques to guarantee chance outcomes” by appropriating the automatic techniques for “collaborative writing as well as in images” (Laxton 31). Hans Arp applied automatism’s guiding principle of chance to produce his Dadaist collages and automatic drawings which typically show a variety of amorphous shapes in random configurations. Katherine Conley writes, “spiritualist practice haunts surrealism, its visible ghosts replaced by invisible but no less ghostly psychic phenomena” (298). Andre Breton adopted automatism as one of surrealism’s primary techniques, though adamantly rejecting spiritualism’s beliefs. Breton understood automatism as “the direct expression of ideas uninhibited by conscious control” as suggested by psychoanalysis (Laxton 32). Mel Gooding offers the following directions for automatic writing:  

Sit down at table with pen and paper, put yourself in a ‘receptive’ frame of mind, and start writing. Continue writing without thinking about what is appearing beneath your pen. Write as fast as you can. If, for some reason, the flow stops, leave a space and immediately begin again by writing down the first letter of the next sentence. Choose this letter at random before you begin, for instance a ‘t,’ and always begin this new sentence with a ‘t.’ (17) 

In the spirit of Hans Arp’s collaborations, I offer the following experiment I wrote using automatism in creative response to my friend’s work with collage. Together, she and I devised a surrealist game wherein she handed me random bits of collage to which I responded in automatic writing. The following passage offers just one sample from the fruits of our collaborative experiment. 

Automatic Writing Experiment:  

Sparkle shutters open elfin faces. If wings they could be bats. I have never been a fan of the trend. This woman looks Trump but her eyes too bright and her smile too warm. Her face angular almost cubic. Chin meets neck in lightning bolts. The kimono ghost of a jellyfish or a clear garbage bag caught in spiderwebs. Dark and light kiss gray like that Seal song “Kiss from a Rose.” I remember that song playing wisdom teeth pulled. Blue. Are they dancers or contortionists? The lonely foot at the top of the page misses dancing. Limbs hold an alphabet of gestures. Balloon animals in the bun resting against the floor like a pillow. Legs so straight I trace them to create perfect angles. That lonely foot and beehive hairdo. Long gloves like fish scales. Arms turn into mermaid tails.  

As evident in the passage above, automatic writing produces vivid images through nonlinear phrasing rather than appealing to rational thought. Among the general nonsense of the passage, several images stood out to me as potentially generative prompts for evocative writing and devised performance. Evocative writing instills a sense of a place or experience through visceral, sensate language (White 144). Aesthetically speaking, evocative writing uses poetic language to externalize the internal, rather than merely narrating a writer’s sense making process. From the previous passage I selected the line, “the lonely foot at the top of the page misses dancing” to unfurl further through poetic reflection: 

The lonely foot at the top of the page misses dancing. She remembers the pointe shoes from ballet, someone pulling the blood-soaked lamb’s wool from between her toes after a long night of nails piercing skin during grand jetes. There is no memory of the pain. Her memories of pain yield to the beauty of tired muscles and perfectly pointed pirouettes. She remembers the satisfying sluggishness of the day after performance. She remembers the hours spent out of those shoes, bare skin kissing the grass and sunlight until the paper starts curling, brown and tendril-like, the glue beneath her image crusting circles from fingers holding her in place at the top of the page. 

In my initial automatic writing experiment, my unconscious revealed that the foot was lonely and homesick for dancing. Starting from this notion of a lonely foot, I drew further inspiration from my own embodied memories of dancing, particularly the memories of pointe shoes and ballet. In ballet, dancers wrap their toes in lamb’s wool to protect them from bruising and bleeding with the impact of pointe shoes striking the hard floor again and again. Even after such precautions, dancers often experience injury at some point. From the perspective of the imagined foot, the memories of dancing overshadow any residual memory of pain. Though the foot now exists as an image within a collage, it still remembers dancing in the absence of a body. Circular traces of glue from around the image, imprint the memory of a finger, providing yet another memory of the body in the body’s absence. As evidenced by the examples in this section, the unrestrained flow of automatic writing offers possibilities to explore further in writing and performance. 

Trance Film  

Another spiritualist technique adopted by artists, trance refers to the practice of seeking states of “nonordinary consciousness,” through techniques including meditation and hypnosis (Starhawk 168). Spiritualist mediums performed in trance states in order to access the liminality between worlds, or at least make it appear that way. During a séance, a medium often went into trance to invite a spirit to speak through her. Other mediums went into trance to deliver channeled oratories for packed lecture halls. Adapting trance for a medium of a different kind, Maya Deren, infused her films with trancelike reverie, largely inspired by her experience with Haitian dance and Balinese trance-dancing. Watching Balinese dance for the first time, Deren observed that the bodies of the dancers seemed to be overtaken by “someone, or something else” (qtd in Steinman 35). Years later she produced the film, At Land, often credited as the original “of the pure American trance films” (Sitney 18). Many filmic elements now considered standard of trance films first originated in Deren’s At Land.  These filmic elements include “the protagonist who passes invisibly among people”, the visual use of “dramatic landscapes”, and the “climactic confrontation with one’s self and one’s past” (Sitney 19). As one way to relate these images to physical trance, I interpret the protagonist’s ability to move unseen among crowds illustrating the external world’s limited reach of her interiority. The “dramatic landscapes” of At Land make the female protagonist seem eerily out of place within the alternating settings of domestic and natural landscapes. The natural landscape invites viewers into the experience of crashing waves and the dancing light of hypnogogic reverie. The climactic confrontation between the protagonist and her past suggests a confrontation with a shadow self within her unconscious.  

In preparation for the show “4 Films,” Jason Hedrick asked us to stage experimental adaptations of four avant-garde films, and suggested we start by dividing our chosen film into beats or movements as one would a poem. For my performance, I wanted to pay homage to Maya Deren as an auteur. The film guided the movement and texture of my performance through its reoccurring themes of water and light. Guided by these elements, I decided to forgo traditional stage lighting in favor of self-contained light sources that allow me to control my body’s visibility onstage at any given moment. Deren exercised similar control over her own image as it appears onscreen. The performance,“Ritual for Maya Deren,” unfolded in the following beats, or movements, described alongside my performance protocol: 

Movement: Water ritual  

Onscreen waves crash, Maya Deren sprawls on the shore like a mermaid brought in by the tide. Slowly, I step onstage holding a large blue vase filled with assorted headlamps and flickering LED tea light candles, the top covered in a layer of tin foil. Entering slowly, I make sweeping gestures with the luminous blue vase, casting blue light onto the stage like waves. As I move, the lights inside the vase make little rattling noises. Reaching my corner of the stage, I set the vase onstage before taking a seat behind it. 

 Fig.1: Performing the sky ritual in. Photo credit: Jonny Gray 


Movement: Sky ritual 

Onscreen, Maya watches seagulls fly overhead as she reaches for a tree branch to pull herself from the sand and begin climbing upwards. After removing a nail from where it had been hidden in my mouth during the previous ritual, I begin piercing the foil covering the vase in a series of pointed, careful, punctures to let small beams of light start to shine through. I then move my face over the vase, letting patches of stars graze my face and clothing as light streams through the holes in the foil. I lift the vase up and begin projecting the galaxy onto the entrance to the theatre, up the aisle, and onto the floor in front of the first row of seats. Standing over the vase, the stars shine onto the black dress I am wearing, making it appear I am wearing the night sky. Suddenly, I take off running, pounding the stage in my bare feet and disappearing into the wings. 

Movement: Levitation ritual 

Onscreen, Maya crawls along the length of a long dinner table, unnoticed by the party attendees. I emerge from the wing with a table across my back, hidden under a white tablecloth as my headlamp illuminates the table from below. Still underneath, I slowly swing the table from side to side in an improvised dance that resembles the appearance of a levitating table. 

Movement: An altar for Maya Deren 

Onscreen, Deren chases a chess piece down a river as it is carried away by the current. 

Taking a seat onstage, I arrange the tea lights around the luminous blue vase as if arranging an altar. 

Movement: Arranging stones  


Arranging tea lights/stones.  Photo credit: JJ Ceniceros 

Pretending the tea lights are stones, I begin picking them up one by one and placing them into my skirt, mirroring the action of Deren onscreen. As I continue collecting the stones (tealights), my skirt suddenly gives way and the lights tumble onto the floor. As Maya, I experience a sense of defeatedness followed by her sense of fierce determination, as the stones collect and fall from my skirt several more times. Eventually, I arrange the stones into a constellation moving across the threshold between stage and floor. 

Movement: Final image  

At the end of the film, Maya holds her arms above either side of her head clasping the chess piece and running along the shoreline until she disappears out of frame. Standing in front of the screen, I imitate Deren’s final pose from the film before darting quickly into the wing offstage. 


Though I never entered a deep trance state or experienced bodily possession in the performance, the spirit of Deren found other ways to announce her presence. During the final dress rehearsal, a loud clap of thunder occurred at the exact moment I pierced the foil in the opening movement. After the performance, several audience members asked if Deren and I had somehow brought the rain on purpose. Though not my intention, it does seem a very Maya Deren thing to do. Throughout the process of creating and staging this performance, I found myself oscillating between a desire to be looked at and the desire to disappear from view. Channeling these feelings through my onstage persona, I wanted to show a woman making things happen onstage as she controlled the access to her body and image.  

Spirit Photography 

Spirit photography appealed to audiences through the obvious deployment of visual tricks and flirtations with the uncanny. Rather than appealing to a sense of realism, spirit photography offered a visual return to the fantastic. According to the lore, the first example of spirit photography developed as an accident when the amateur photographer, William H. Mumler, failed to properly clean his glass negative before exposing another image. Mumler’s happy accident produced an example of chance-based imagery and glitch art’s capacity for re-framing error as an aesthetic choice (Gingrich-Philbrook and Simmons 332). Other subsequent examples of spirit photography relied more heavily on props, staging, and photographic techniques including superimposition and double exposure. For example, the ectoplasmic effects observed in photographs of the spiritual medium Eva C. were created using imaginative combinations of chewed newspaper, gauze, cut-out images, and other creative props. The broad appeal of spirit photography owes to other spectacular entertainments of the late-nineteenth century that relied upon trompe l’oeil (trick of the eye) such as phantasmagoric projections and the popular sleight of hand tricks found in popular stage magic performances. Spirit photography’s use of superimposition and double exposure illustrates a cultural moment when belief “wavered between realism and fantasy, stasis and movement, fiction and belief” (Natale 136). Spirit photography appealed to a variety of spectators. Skeptics looked for proof of their skepticism by locating the visual tricks behind the photographs, while spiritualists looked to the photographs for evidence of life after death.  

The playful techniques from which spirit photography originated, model an experimental ethos reminiscent of other chance-based techniques popular within experimental art and performance. Perhaps the allure of chance-based techniques explains the enduring popularity of spirit photography after being “repeatedly exposed as a mere photographic trick” (Natale 129). Perhaps the “trick” of spirit photography is actually part of the appeal. By combining analog and digital techniques, the spirit photographs of this essay tell a familiar story of the old haunting the new, this time through the mutually influences of old and new technology.  In addition to my images, I have selected spirit photographs from the public domain to serve as reference and mode of comparison for the remediated experiments.  

Credit: William Hope / Source: Public Domain Review

Savannah spirit photograph

Photograph of Eva C. / Source: Internet Archive

Savannah spirit photograph n.2

Camera obscura portrait with iPhonographic ghost

Credit: William H. MumlerSource: Open Culture

Jason and various spirits


Approaching art as a site of inquiry invites further reflection and revisions rather than envisioning art-making as a linear process with a fixed end. These experiments provided me an opportunity to learn by doing, demanding that I adapt the techniques for my arts practice in the present. I found automatic writing difficult because “writing without thinking” felt impossible to embody in practice. The results of my own automatic writing experiment offered several passages for me to extend into other arts practices. Mel Gooding underscores that the surrealist enthusiasm for automatism wavered as the artists “came to realize the limits of ‘pure automatism” (Gooding 15). Artists encountered these limits once they realized the incoherence produced in automatism’s unrestrained flow of ideas held little appeal for audiences. For this reason, automatism is better used as an exercise to begin the process rather than serving as a stand-alone method for producing creative work. 

In the second experiment, I played with different interpretations of trance to create a performative response to Maya Deren’s trance film, At Land. During the process of devising and performing, I felt myself entering a “parallel trance state” through the hypnogogic world she presented on film (Bickel 220). The resulting performance incorporated elements of light and water to honor Deren’s creative spirit. After dividing the film into beats or movements like a poem, the director, Jason Hedrick, helped me choreograph to the rhythm of Deren’s editing. As a dancer, Deren made films with an accute sense of time, space, and movement. If devising the performance today, I would fold elements of trance and Deren’s dancerly approach more explicitly into the devising process. 

If automatic writing and trance put processes of the human unconscious on display, then spirit photography visualizes the spontaneous or unconscious processes of the technological medium or artistic materials themselves. From my experiments, I see evidence of these unconscious processes most explicitly in the accidental light leaks and dust. Victorian era spirit photographers labored to achieve visual effects through double-exposure, superimposition, and other techniques we similarly take for granted in today’s digital landscape. Even so, fauxtography still tricks people to this day, so the reproduction of these techniques provides a useful rhetorical exercise for understanding the ease of visual manipulation. Furthermore, spirit photography offers a historical area of interest for scholars working at the intersection of media, adaptation, and performance. Recent work by performance studies scholars has looked at sweding (see Michalik-Gratch) and internet memes (see Nicholson and Sloan) as contemporary forms of re-performing of/in new media, so reproducing spirit photography provides an additional site of interest for those interested in exploring re-performance of media from a historical vantage. 


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Biography of Lindsay Greer

Lindsay Greer is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Southern Indiana. She holds a Ph.D in Performance Studies from Southern Illinois University. Her interests include performance art, media archaeology, the uncanny in art and performance, and women of the avant-garde.