October 26, 2018
Frankenstein Friday: Selling Electric Art to the Curious

Matthew Weedman, Professor of Art at Wabash College, reflects on his time traveling Indiana, sharing his knowledge of electricity, cinema and Frankenstein.

I love the idea of the medicine show or the snake-oil salesman, journeying around the countryside selling his ointments and tonics to skeptical but curious crowds.  Using tantalizing tales of miracles and far off places, the medicine man would demonstrate the powers of his elixirs through stunts and experiments fueled by cons and cheats.  This experience of traveling throughout the state of Indiana for Indiana Humanities has been a close facsimile to this forgotten mischief of the charlatan.  While I’m not hustling anyone’s money; I do try to tap into subconscious desires and, above all, I am here to perform a show.

Originally, I looked at this opportunity of becoming an Indiana Humanities Speakers Bureau member as a way to engage two of my personal interests – film history and electricity.  Many years ago, I received a degree from the University of Colorado in film history and I am always looking for places to put that to use. The history of Frankenstein in film is long and fascinating, from its masterpieces such as Whale’s 1931 landmark film for Universal Studios and its excellent sequels, to its offspring such as 1993’s Jurassic Park or 2014’s Ex MachinaFrankenstein is also the world’s first scary movie with Thomas Edison’s 1910 version, which was long thought lost only to turn up in Wisconsin in 1975.  It could be argued that the best comedy film of all time is Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein, while the Rocky Horror Picture Show turned midnight movies into an adventure.  With well over 200 Frankenstein films developed throughout the world I would have my hands full just trying to navigate the important moments.

On the other hand, much of my work as a visual artist is inspired by electricity, specifically the relationship between its magical properties as a natural force and its taming into a consumable product to assist in daily duties.  I could not resist the connection between electricity’s connection to Frankenstein’s monster and Edison’s use of electricity to animate the dead, fixed image and illuminate it for the world to see.  I had already done research on the history of electricity as an invention to better understand and grow a performance piece of mine, which uses a bare guitar cable and fluorescent tube to allow me to describe the electrical properties of the human body through sound.  The stories of Tesla as a mad scientific genius generating bolts of lightning like a wizard gave the picture of a real-life Victor Frankenstein whose ambition ruled over reason.  I knew I could weave these stories together, but the research and writing process is always a maze in which you only have so much control.

What I had not been planning on talking about was the Shelley’s book itself as I am not a literary scholar.  However, I became obsessed with trying to fathom how an 18-year-old woman was able to conjure a phantasm so powerful that it would only grow in importance 200 years later.  How would someone find that inspiration and harness their creativity to produce such a skillful work that seems impossibly prophetic?  There has been much research on the small amount of information Mary Shelley left us but it adds up quickly:  a child without a mother who turned into a mother without a child and dreamed of a way to bring her baby back; a little girl who hid underneath her father, William Godwin’s, couch listening to Samuel Taylor Coleridge recite his story of a man doomed for not being responsible with nature; and the deep fascination with the sciences which were flowering out of the Enlightenment.  Dozens of anecdotes and coincidences gave an 18-year-old Mary Shelley an opportunity to focus a life of fear and fascination into a story that the world needed to hear.

So I assembled my stories, facts, and photographs and headed off to share my new obsession of how inspiration is created.  Like any good medicine show, I knew that my talks had to provide visceral experiences, after all if I learned anything from Shelley it was that experiences are at the heart of inspiration.  I bookended my shows with two demonstrations of electricity as magic.  Using a 9 volt battery applied to the hand muscles of an audience member, I begin each show by usurping their muscle control by overriding the .07  volts we use to move our body, taking control of the movements of the thumb.  This moment is echoed later as we watch a clip of Whale’s Frankenstein, in which the first sign of life is a twitch of the thumb.  The end of the show with a brief performance of my aforementioned fluorescent tube instrument that elicits the sounds of Frankenstein and Tesla.

With each and every small-town visit, my fantasies of the traveling medicine show or traveling salesman grew.  Unpacking my equipment into the libraries of Indiana, meeting families and community members, and engaging in thoughtful conversations with strangers about the nature of creativity, electricity and wonder seems like magic in our own time as we increasingly interact online – a simulacra of interaction and engagement.  I met a young boy east of Indianapolis who was eager to see what electric sounds he could create with his guitar amp and his home appliances if his parents would let him.  I had a wonderful conversation with a woman in LaPorte about racism and science history.  I ate an amazing cheeseburger in Greenfield after a long conversation about how children utilize fear differently than adults.  A man in Martinsville brought us a signed original movie poster from Frankenstein to look at.  A thought-provoking discussion about Shelley’s novel broke out at the Irvington Historical Society, while a wonderful woman in Monticello told me that her experience of the show was like magic. 

In short, I was the main benefactor of this opportunity to visit these wonderful communities across Indiana and share my obsessions and curiosities with attentive crowds of fascinating people.  I wish for everyone reading this to find opportunities to share their unique perspectives of the world and culture with their neighbors.  Simple small-town conversations are the wave of the future as we begin to once again seek out new in-person, analog experiences.

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