There's a great scene in the PBS British costume drama Downton Abbey -- set in the early 1900s -- when the quick-witted and superior Dowager Countess Violet, played by Maggie Smith, enters one of the lavish rooms in her family's estate and immediately reaches for her fan to shield her face from the onslaught of light emitting from the newly-installed electric bulbs. "I feel as though I were on stage!" she exclaims snippily.
The scene works so well not only because of Smith's great delivery but also because she delivers such a quaint reaction to a now-ubiquitous aspect of daily life. Unless a bulb goes out, the presence of electricity doesn't come to mind much these days.
Christina Corfield's Follies of the Digital Arcade, on display this month at Johansson Projects, brings us to the moment in U.S. history when electricity was just being introduced -- and vilified for its mysterious nature. Corfield's creative process in developing the work was steeped in extensive research into the late 19th century, and her drawing and writing styles in this show mirror the styles of the era she's exploring. Corfield explains that she works within the "clichéd stylisation of time periods and well-worn narrative tropes to reveal the gaps within popular cultural fictions." The pervasive popular cultural fictions in this show are the imaginative visual and written descriptions of electricity's harmful effects.
In bold, urgent fonts, lengthy period-style playbills in the gallery invite us to "witness the hypnotic and dangerous effects of a misunderstood force" that lead to "automative enslavement" and "vaporous subjugation." They entice us to "gaze in abject reverie" at "grotesque medical follies" that may be the "infernal revenge of the demon ether." These playbills are our guides to Corfield's illustrations -- also drawn, dramatically, in period style -- of the ill effects of electricity. You'll be guided through all the work here, actually; Corfield's low-tech video installation comes with a literary accompaniment and an on-screen guide in the form of a gregarious showman.
Bathed in a piercing spotlight, the showman introduces us to "Miss California," a vaudeville starlet with the words "Golden" and "Gate" printed on her thighs in silver ink. She's here to seduce us, to draw us into the fiction of her character; but ultimately, she's the one seduced -- by the irresistible electric nature of the lights in Times Square, according to a doctor's diagnosis.
These lights cause her to go blind. She explains that she'd dreamed not only of enjoying the mysterious and intoxicating qualities of electrical lights, but also of becoming a beam of light; electricity had not just bathed her in its glow but consumed her. Corfield's show never directly addresses the parallels between our time and Miss California's, but the analogy present in her statement becomes apparent in moments like this. Many of us consider our electronic devices to be extensions of ourselves, and in a sense, they’ve consumed us.
The analogy is extended when Miss California adopts a new career as a telegraph operator, where her obsession with light becomes an obsession with her telegraph machine. She leans into her machine expectantly, the way everyone in this coffee shop is leaning into their MacBooks.
The show's language feels a bit distant, like we're entering a historical archive that's been tweaked to blur history with fiction. The work manages to remind us that we're looking at unreal events but also that we're seeing ourselves here. In the video's second act, Miss California gazes at her reflection through a mirror with no glass -- suggesting that the viewer is her true reflection.
I suppose if the mirror were flipped to reflect our own stylizations, we'd see a great deal of happy people absorbed in sleek handheld devices, surrounded by outrageous special effects. Our ether exists in our phones and computers, and we're still concerned about their ills (cross-over effects highlighted in Corfield's work include obsession, distraction, and slovenliness).
What we'd be missing, Corfield says, is a sense of wonder. Indeed, we get excited about the release of new apps or a new phone model, possibly considering them wonderful, but only temporarily, until the next versions are introduced.
Corfield's not moralizing, but her period narrator is: "our poor heroine has learned all too late that man must be master of his knowledge as well as his impulses if he is not to succumb to the chaos and vacuum of nonexistence."
I know I should try to shed my impulse to watch another episode of Downton Abbey, but the light from the screen -- and the compelling historical fiction -- is just so tempting, I'll probably succumb. Like Corfield's show, it's popular entertainment done right, somehow both timeless and of its time. I'll just hang out in the vacuum of nonexistence for a little while.
Follies of the Digital Arcade is on display through March 17, 2012 at Johansson Projects in Oakland. For more information visit johanssonprojects.net.