rhizomes.06 spring 2003

The Influencing Machine of Miss Natalija A.
An Interactive Video Installation
Zoe Beloff

[1] I work with a variety of forms of moving image; film, live stereoscopic projection performance, interactive cinema on CD-ROM and installation. The cinemas I create are marginal, fragile, sometimes existing only momentarily in the act of projection. I think not only about the telling stories but how the projection apparatus itself creates meaning and shapes our understanding. I am concerned with exploring the concept of "projection" not simply as a technical device but in relation to the idea of "mental projection," the transmission of thought. To this end I am particularly fascinated by case histories of mental patients and mediums, whom I think of as technological visionaries.

[2] A few years ago I discovered "The Influencing Machine" an essay by Victor Tausk, a Viennese psychoanalyst and early follower of Freud written in 1919. He wrote about a patient, Miss Natalija A. a former student of philosophy who complained to him that a bizarre electrical apparatus, which she believed was operated secretly by physicians in Berlin, was manipulating her thoughts.

[3] In his text, Tausk gave a new interpretation of this common schizophrenic delusion of being persecuted by a machine. He believed that it represented the patient's own body that had become alien and strange to her. Therapy did not last long. After three sessions Natalija quit claiming that now Tausk too had fallen victim to the "diabolical apparatus," she could no longer trust him. Soon afterwards in 1920 he committed suicide.

[4] My project was originally inspired by two quotes. The first by Tausk, "Machines produced by man's ingenuity and created in the image of man are unconscious projections of man's bodily structure." [1] And the second by the Nazi in charge of the nascent television industry in Germany, Eugen Hadamovsky who declared in 1935: "Now in this hour, broadcasting is called upon to fulfill its biggest and most sacred mission, to plant the image of the Fuehrer indelibly in all German hearts." [2] I like to think of Natalija taking this quote completely literally.

[5] In my installation I wanted to make connections between the experience of hallucination, thought transference in psychoanalysis and the development of broadcasting technologies. Most importantly I wished to find a form to embody Natalija's subjective experience. I was particularly struck, reading the original case history, by how clearly she was able to describe her imaginary machine. The trunk had the shape of a lid, resembling the lid of a coffin. In the first interview she described the limbs as entirely natural parts of the body. A few weeks later, these limbs were not placed on the coffin lid in their natural form, but were merely drawn in two dimensions. The inner parts of the body consisted of electric batteries. Those who handled the machine produced a slimy substance in her nose, disgusting smells, dreams, thoughts and feelings.

[6] At the same time at the same time I wanted to allude to the development of real influencing machines, in the form of radio and television in 1930's Germany, extending the definition of psychosis from the individual to society.

[7] The installation consists of a large stereoscopic print placed on the floor. Its design was inspired by diagrams of televisions I found in 1930's technical manuals. The participant, wearing red/green stereo glasses, looks down at the diagram. Now they see an actual three dimensional structure. Inside this is a small screen. They insert a pointer into various spaces within this virtual machine, all at once moving images appear on the screen, sound blares from the apparatus. They take the pointer away and the projection vanishes. Different areas in the diagram trigger different movies.

[8] I chose to work with a particular kind of anaglyph 3D image called a Phantogram. It is an illusion that, unlike computer VR, co-exists with the real world, yet only one person at a time can see it, just like a hallucination which could be described as a virtual experience for one. A Phantogram tricks the brain because it incorporates two incompatible types of perspective, orthogonal and vanishing point projection. As an impossible object, it seemed a fitting analogy to Natalija's "diabolical apparatus". I like the idea that the participant, wearing glasses and poking and prodding "virtual organs" with a stick, finds themselves performing an operation that is oddly medical. At the same time as it seems completely reasonable to them, it appears quite nonsensical to any other onlooker.

[9] Interactivity was a key conceptual aspect of the project. Tausk described how the patient believed that this suggestion apparatus produced or removed thoughts by means of waves, rays or mysterious forces. Indeed it was a torture machine. When someone struck the machine she felt a corresponding blow to her body. Through interacting, the participant finds themselves viscerally implicated, placed in the position of the sinister physicians/technicians (always male) whom she believed were probing her mind.

[10] The participant glimpses Natalija and her world through home movies of Germany in the 1920's and 30's from my own collection. There is no one character that represents her. In my mind she could be found in any number of the women in these films. Thus her condition becomes generalized, spreading through the population at large.

[11] Layered over these images are early medical films from the National Medical Library with titles like EXTIRPATION OF A MEDIASTINAL TERATOMA, a training film shot on the Surgical Division of the "Wilhelminen Spital, Vienna 1927. Technical films such as TRANSMITTING PICTURES BY WIRE 1928 and HIGH SPEED PHOTOGRAPHY OF THE LARYNX 1928 are also incorporated. I imagined how Natalija's schizophrenic perspective required only a very subtle editing shift to "read" them differently. She was too sensitive an antenna. I heard her on the receiving end of a paranoid sound collage that I simulate through sampling short-wave "Numbers Stations" believed to be coded Intelligence messages [3], recordings of Atmospheric and Geomagnetic radio interference and popular German songs from the period.

[12] Caught in a lonely loop of hallucination, Natalija imagined her machine's influence spiralling outwards to control friends, family, suitors and doctor. The projection apparatus becomes a metaphor for her mental state.




[1] Tausk, Victor (1919) "The Influencing Machine" in Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter: Zone (1992) p. 569

[2] Eugen Hadamovsky quoted in William Uricchio Rituals of Reception, Patterns of Neglect: Nazi Televison and its Postwar Representation (Wide Angle vol. 10 no. 4) p 51

[3] For further information on Number Stations see «http://www.ibmpcug.co.uk/~irdial/conet.htm»