Laura Larson

Laura Larson’s video Electric Girls and the Invisible World, 2008, skims the edge of the impossible. Its deadpan tone exaggerates that of neo-avant-garde documentary, from Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, to Allan Sekula’s Fish Story, 1999. But what Larson’s film documents cannot be represented: “the Invisible World,” or the paranormal; and that ineffable species, adolescent girls. The latter have been understood as perceptually unknowable since Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, and Larson does not pretend otherwise. The half-hour video, which ran this past spring in the Wexner’s screening room, professes to track five teen girls as they explore their own mystical powers, which were inspired in part by studying and channeling the nineteenth-century clairvoyant Eusapia Palladino.

The piece opens with a shot of one of the girls lying asleep on her bed before an open book, The Unexplained Powers of Eusapia Palladino. A voice-over explains that “the author connects Eusapia with the phenomena of provisional mediums: pre-adolescent girls that he refers to as electric girls.” In subsequent scenes, the adolescents engage in the most pedestrian of activities associated with their age—hanging out, polishing their nails, playing with makeup, taking pictures of one another—during which their telepathic powers begin to emerge. They play games that involve guessing hidden numbers, or comparing their talents, a contest that escalates as each tries to outdo the other. Beginning with “I can write” or “I can cook,” the girls conclude by boasting, “I can make my parents disappear,” and, “I can listen to what others think about me.” The latter statements are as much symptoms of adolescent need for some puissance in the absence of adult agency as they are declarations of supernatural ability. “When I’m around boys, I try so hard to control my powers,” one says. Other seemingly extraordinary activities the girls take part in, playing “stiff as a board, light as a feather” or pulling out the Ouija board, are in fact cornerstones of the normal teen-sleepover social ritual.

Such moments intertwining the mystical and the mundane lead directly to questions of photographic veracity. Walter Benjamin, in “A Short History of Photography,” stated: “The conquest of darkness by increased illumination had eliminated the aura from the picture as thoroughly as the increasing alienation of the imperialist bourgeoisie had eliminated it from reality.” Meanwhile, any vestige of the evidentiary was refused by practitioners of film and photography ever since those media first fed a bourgeois faith in forensic objectivity. That critique is nuanced differently in Electric Girls. Recalling Surrealism, in which artists such as Man Ray yoked new mechanical apparatuses of vision to quixotic forms of spirituality, the video poses questions such as: What is a medium, in all the word’s multiple inflections? How are film and photography a form of clairvoyance, or an obstacle to it? How is banality linked to psychic connection and the supernatural? Onto what darkness does the conquest of the everyday open?

In an era of photography after Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, and Rineke Dijkstra, in whose photographs the lives of adolescents are exposed and eroticized, if not outright exploited, and in the time of voyeuristic tween reality television, from Disney’s Bug Juice to MTV’s My Super Sweet 16, the expressionless tenor of Electric Girls acknowledges the limits against which it gently and respectfully brushes. The everyday, documented flatly, is charged with the mystical. Analogously, the girls’ friendship shifts from empathic and comradely to sadistic, as fluidly as the “spiritual fluid” apparently flowing from the maternal source that joined them together: Eusapia Palladino.

Jaleh Mansoor