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Ghosts in the machines at RoCo’s ‘Messages & Mediums’


Shannon Taggart's "Skype Session with Medium Isabelle Duchene in Trance (transfiguration of Franz Liszt)" is part of Rochester Contemporary's "Messages & Mediums" exhibit. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Shannon Taggart's "Skype Session with Medium Isabelle Duchene in Trance (transfiguration of Franz Liszt)" is part of Rochester Contemporary's "Messages & Mediums" exhibit.
“Messages & Mediums,” the show currently at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, couldn’t be more timely. While the world is still grappling with the effects of COVID, the show presents the work of two artists who deal with crossing great divides: death and physical distance.

The show is deeply clever in its exploration of perhaps the most profound question of all: “Is there anything after death?”

On view through Saturday, Nov. 13, “Messages & Mediums” features work by photographer Shannon Taggart and composer-sculptor Matthew Ostrowski, who each explore the intersection of modern spiritualism and technology. Both installations nod to people who have made a living connecting the living with the dead. But more than that, these works suspend disbelief in the same way that technological advances in communication have expanded our understanding of what’s possible.

Taggart’s photographs of psychic mediums capture her subjects in the midst of spirit-channeling trances.

“She’s not really a journalist, dropping in to document a group,” says Rochester Contemporary Executive Director Bleu Cease. “She has their trust.”

Taggart, who is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, began photographing Spiritualist mediums in 2001, when she meant to spend only a few weeks at Lily Dale, the hamlet southwest of Buffalo that is home to the world’s largest Spiritualist community.

“But by the end of that first summer, I couldn’t leave Lily Dale,” Taggart wrote in her artist statement. “I had become fascinated by the history and aesthetics of the religion itself.”

Taggart often uses longer exposure to capture the motion of the medium during a seance, which sometimes results in multiple, blurred faces, as though another being is present near the medium.

In one of Taggart’s images, vapor billows from the mouth of medium Jack Munton, alluding to ectoplasm — a term for spiritual energy exuded by mediums first coined in 1894.

Digital pixelation in the vapor in the image, and the captioned text “jack...” is captured in the frame, belying the platform (Skype) over which Taggart documented the session.

While “Messages & Mediums” is wrapped around timeless questions, it’s also of-the-moment. Both artists employ modern technology in their work. Taggart’s use of virtual platforms to continue her photo documentation of seances in the time of COVID mirrors the massive shift our modes of communication have had to take in the last two years.

“Again I took inspiration from the Spiritualists,” Taggart wrote. “They believe that otherworldly communication cannot be bound by time or space. They have a tradition of experimenting with media, technology, and automatic art to bridge the gap between this world and the next.”

Installation view of Matthew Ostrowski's "Summerland" at Rochester Contemporary. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Installation view of Matthew Ostrowski's "Summerland" at Rochester Contemporary.
The livelier aspect of the exhibit comes from New York City-based artists Matthew Ostrowski’s installation, “Summerland.” The title draws from 19th century American Spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis’s concept of an inhabitable sphere of spiritualized matter in space. The work “conjures” the dead voices of Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of Morse Code and the earliest text-messaging machine, the telegraph, and of Kate Fox, the youngest of the historic Rochester Spiritualist mediums, the Fox sisters.

The installation features a couple of long, narrow tables, each with evenly-spaced telegraph receivers periodically tapping out messages. Quotes from the writings of Morse and Fox are fixed to the wall above each machine, translating the taps for visitors.

Of course, the common denominator between Morse and Fox is tapping. The Fox sisters’ notorious method of channeling the dead was through tapping on the underside of a table; Morse’s invention transmitted messages over great distances through tapping that travelled along a wire from an electronic transmitter to a receiver.

It’s loud, unpredictable, and more than one member of RoCo’s staff joked about the maddening aspect of working under the tyranny of the temperamental installation.

Aggressive, staccato taps invade the quiet peace of the space the same way the shrill ring of a phone can upset silence — voices from elsewhere interrupting us going about our business.

And though Ostrowski’s installation uses 19th century telegraph technology, he wrote computer algorithms that pilot the tapped-out messages.

It’s worth noting that Morse was a portrait painter, until the fateful year when he was out of town working on a commission and his wife became gravely ill. The message of her illness, carried by horseback courier, took so long to reach him that he not only arrived home after she died, but she was already buried. In his grief, he brought his secondary career, inventor, to the fore, and helped develop technology that would speed up long distance communication by leaps and bounds.

In his artist statement, Ostrowski wrote: “While Morse saw his invention as unifying the world through rationalized technology, the invisible nature of electric forces stirred great interest in the potential existence of other forces which might offer means of communicating with departed spirits.”

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. She can be reached at