An image to uphold

Antique magic lanterns come to light in Gowanus.

TRICK IN A BOX lanterns often illuminated society’s baser interests.

TRICK IN A BOX lanterns often illuminated society’s baser interests. Photograph: Joanna Ebenstein

Man’s desire to see moving images has spurred him to create countless contraptions, including Carmontelle’s rolling landscape transparencies from the 18th century and the spinning zoetropes and phenakistoscopes of the 19th. Dating back more than 300 years, the magic lantern is among the oldest: Using sliding glass plates and a gas flame, a lantern could animate a brief holiday scene, a cautionary tale or a humorous escapade.

Today, most of us prefer our images 24 frames per second on screens 50 feet tall. But at An Afternoon of Arcane Media on Sunday 18, magic-lantern enthusiasts will gather at Brooklyn’s Proteus Gowanus gallery to see a variety of pre-Edison wonders demonstrated. “This is where technology meets handicraft,” says event producer Joanna Ebenstein. “The lanterns themselves are beautiful objects, all carved wood and brass. But they were cutting-edge at the time. Children would run screaming when they first saw the images—it was a real mind- fuck.” And the subject matter, she reveals, was surprisingly similar to what you’d find at the local Cineplex—“a lot of ghosts, death, exotic locales and sex.” (Some would earn at least a PG-13 rating today, like Ebenstein’s slide of a costumed monkey drowning a cat.)


Photograph: Joanna Ebenstein

Other primitive contrivances will be demonstrated at the gallery as well: Artist Zoe Beloff, who combines vintage cinematic effects with Web technology in her interactive installations, is bringing a Nic Projector—a children’s toy from the 1920s that used a hand crank to turn a scroll of paper. Few Nic scrolls remain, Beloff explains, because most were eventually burned by the lightbulb used to illuminate them. “They were hot, they were dangerous, they smoked—but they were [considered] toys.”

Despite their flaws, such antiquated devices still evoke something magical. “When we go to the movies, we take it for granted that everything works perfectly,” says Beloff. “But with these early apparatuses—which are so funky and so fragile—the idea that the image moves at all is kind of amazing.”

An Afternoon of Arcane Media takes place Sun, May 18 at Proteus Gowanus.