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Reflections on Soon/ Now/ Gone

Jenna Horton’s wide eyes and multi-directional cowlicked hair gives the impression that she has just been lightly electrocuted. She excitedly gestures toward a film screen fringed with silver, sequined curtains as she presents a preindustrial projector, the magic lantern, operated by Carolyn Gennari. The audience of about thirty people are packed into a small, white tent, and Horton shows us still images projected onto the screen with the voice of a circus master introducing spectacular acrobats. In an era in which projecting a still image onto a screen sounds unimpressive, she manages to get my heart fluttering as I imagine seeing photographs illuminated for the first time, perhaps with light flickering from a kerosene lamp.

Horton lectures on two near simultaneous inventions of the late 19th century: the zoopraxiscope, (a descendant of the magic lantern), and the transcontinental railroad. Both technologies collapsed people’s sense of time and space. She points to an image of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Utah, where the last railroad spike was hammered into the tracks. Engineers on both sides of the tracks celebrate with champagne. She also shares images of the three classes of train car, the cost for each ($136, $110 and $65), and the separate station in Philadelphia for third class cars, to which the immigrants were relegated. Horton explains, in an extraordinary example of double oppression, that women were not allowed to travel alone, so the immigrant station had an altar for last minute weddings to enable single women to travel through customs.

The lands of many indigenous nations that the transcontinental railroad pierced through and their people are not named here. The last image Gennari places in the lantern is of ink slowly dissolving in water with a fractal chaos that dances as it subdivides. Mary McCool ushers us toward an installation in a tunnel beneath the viaduct section of the railpark.

I feel a small thrill from the sense of trespassing. This tunnel, nestled behind a parking lot, is not a space I would wander into accidentally. Witnessing the crowds of audience members playing with sound and light at this interactive installation in an underpass is surreal and carnivalesque. I walk to the back of the tunnel and see beyond the fence lies an encampment created by people without homes. No one is there at the moment, but their beds and belongings await them.

The tunnel pops with the music of water drips, dings, knocks, bells. Rosie Langabeer holds her musical device like a baby as she demonstrates the buttons and dials. Each button is associated with a specific sound and the dials control the pitch and reverb. Three zoopraxiscopes with images created by Eric Ruin stand in a row, proud and ready to be spun by audience members. Each is accompanied by a musical device like the one Langabeer holds. Audience members compose a soundtrack as they manipulate buttons and dials. They also control the speed of the animations as they spin the cranks of the zoopraxiscopes. The tunnel shimmers with projected moving images that seem almost as if they are a landscape dancing through train windows.

This precursor-to-film technology accelerated time for people when it was invented, but it slows time for those of us who are accustomed to seeing images change every few seconds on our devices. As audience members spin the glass zoopraxiscope wheels we see single images repeat: a hand opens and closes over and over and over. A building dissolves and reassembles as if animating the ways this city makes, undoes, and remakes itself. This neighborhood has many names, depending on whether you’re speaking with long-time residents, recent gentrifiers, or developers: Chinatown North, Callowhill, Spring Arts, Trestletown, the Loft District.

In spite of my misgivings around the missing pieces, people, and stories in this installation, I can feel Ruin and Langabeer’s project working on me after I leave the show. I awaken to how fast my scooter seems as I ride home, as if my perception of time has been stretched like a rubber band. I’m grateful for the speed with which I can glide around, the way I can collapse the city with motorized travel, but I suddenly feel hungry for the details of the city that are smudged and blurred by my ride, as if I’m viewing images of the world through a zoopraxiscope that’s spinning at 10X speed.

Soon/ Now/ Gone, Erik Ruin and Rosie Langabeer with guest artists Mary McCool, Carolyn Gennari, and Jenna Horton, 990 Spring Garden Street, October 5, 2019. (Two more versions will be shown on October 12 and October 19 in other locations with guest artists, Asimina Chremos, Hua Hua Zhang, and members of Erik Ruin’s Ominous Cloud Ensemble.)

Zoopraxiscope soundtrack features musical contributions from: Kate Porter, Neil Feather, Joshua Machiz, Russell Kotcher, Keir Neuringer, Shelly Purdy, Tom Goldstein, and Will Redman. Engineer of Sound Playback and Controllers: Jeff Carey. Zoopraxiscope Fabrication: Tim Belknap.

Reflections on Soon/ Now/ Gone