For 10 years following Houdini's death, his wife and friends held an annual séance, at midnight on Halloween. Holly Streekstra — assistant professor of sculpture at Herron and Houdini expert — explains: “He had a deal with his wife that, if in fact there is an afterlife, whoever died first would come back on this date of the séance and reach through with this code that only they knew.”
When the 10th year rolled around, it was unsurprisingly evident that Houdini wasn't going to reach back, reverse Orpheus-style, through the ether. But they still made a show of it, recording the séance in a scripted, theatrical style. The tape found its way to an LP in the '60s. And the disc — now in the public domain — recently found its way into Streekstra's hands.
The recording has now become, in part, the soundtrack to Streekstra's pavilion installation, “Step On This Side of the Curtain.” The installation recreates a Victorian séance, replete with flickering chandelier, musty, florid odors and subtle, unsettling infrasonic tone.
“I took out any mention of Houdini, because this is not about Harry Houdini,” Streekstra said. “I've been studying magic for my recent work, and Houdini has influenced a lot of what I've looked at, but he isn't the sole thing, and I didn't want this to be about him. So I just used him as a point of departure for thinking about this idea of what we believe and how we choose to suspend our beliefs to be entertained, because that's really what magic is: Somebody performing deceit for people who want to be deceived for entertainment purposes.”
Visitors will need to literally step on the other side of the curtain to access Streekstra's space: It's a line of demarcation that marks one's willingness to suspend belief. Once inside, visual cues will, as Streekstra put it, “bring you into another place and time”; i.e. a dusty, musty Victorian parlor, a la Miss Havisham's creaky home in Great Expectations. The space includes a fireplace with hearth and mantle; a table with chalkboard and spirit trumpet (a long, horn-like implement intended to amplify the voices of the dead); a chandelier flickering in an illogical manner; old chairs and ferns.
A flickering chandelier will make it difficult to take things in at once; a scent cannon will produce a mix of incense, perfume and must (“kind of nasty, but distinctive,” Streekstra says); and an infrasonic tone, i.e. a tone below the the limit of normal hearing which can be unsettling for those who can perceive it, will underlay the Houdini soundtrack.
It's all toward the end of creating a disorienting experience, Streekstra says: “Installation art is a great opportunity to make immersive art, to make an experience that is you are fully inside of. If I can make people get to that place of what do I believe at this moment and where am I — if they forget for a moment that they are in an art installation, if they go somewhere else for a second — that's what I'm hoping to achieve.”
And there's an underlying thesis at work: “This is trying to find a space outside of a capitalist mode, and even if it's for a second, it's in some way trying to create a new world, a new kind of commodity, a new kind of thinking about how we engage with the world.”
Streekstra has long been interested in creating opportunities for spectators to lose themselves. Born in Wisconsin, she worked in theaters — as a stagehand, set designer, lighting technician — while studying visual arts: first in Minneapolis (“a great theater town”) where she earned her undergrad; then at Louisiana State University, where she picked up an MFA in sculpture. After living in Boise, Idaho, for a year, she moved to Indy to take her current job in 2010.
Her interest in theater led to her current interest in magic, she says, while time spent with her grandmother, an antique dealer, helped pique her interest in history and material culture. She's studied Houdini's papers in both Berkeley, Calif., and Washington, D.C., photographing diagrams and drawings which she's now incorporating into collages.