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Messages & Mediums Intro by Bleu Cease

Messages & Mediums brings together two artists who explore Spiritualism and technology through their artwork. Shannon Taggart and Matthew Ostrowski bring very different artistic backgrounds and practices to this exhibition. Taggart’s involvement with Spiritualism and its practitioners is personal and long-term. Ostrowski’s musical and multi-media projects take many forms, with this particular installation overlaying the luminaries of Spiritualism and Telegraphy. Bringing their work together at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, a year and a half into the global pandemic, is bittersweet. Our world is uncertain, we’re politically and socially divided, and our relationship with technology is rapidly changing. As illustrated in Gerry Szymanski’s essay accompanying this exhibition, Home of the Spiritual Telegraph: Rochester at the Intersection of Science and Belief, Telegraphy and Spiritualism can be seen as peer movements that grew together out of a similarly tumultuous moment in our history.

Shannon Taggart has been working with and photographing Spiritualist mediums since 2001. Her new series of images, taken over Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime during the pandemic, builds on the long history of spirit photography and technological exploration of the otherworldly. Mediums believe that spirit communication cannot be bound by time and space and Taggart’s new work advances this concept, using a computer screen and a camera to memorialize recent digital séances. Her documentary and scholarly work is based in a great respect for this community, their beliefs, and their quick embrace of new technologies. By now we’ve all experienced the simultaneous intimacy and disconnectedness of a family Zoom call. Is it a bit like a séance? “Can you hear me?” “Are you there?”

Matthew Ostrowski’s installation Summerland looks back at the archaeology of communication, mixing 19th-century hardware and 21st-century software to initiate a conversation between the medium Kate Fox, the youngest of the Fox Sisters, and inventor of the telegraph Samuel F. B. Morse. Channeling the voices of these two contemporaries through long-extinct media, the artist evokes the magical lurking in our omnipresent technologies, the ghost in the machine. It is easy to consider the telegraph as simply antiquated and basic compared to other communications technologies that have since come and gone. But underpinning Ostrowski’s artwork is the significant impact the telegraph had on society, commerce, and thought. We’ve since accepted the science behind electricity, but for many at the time it was supernatural.

Times of unprecedented change have often inspired us to look for different ways of understanding our reality. Currently our lives seem to be full of complexity, fear, and misinformation. Like in the mid 1800’s, today’s debates aren’t only framed as fact versus fiction, especially when the ‘facts’ can be ‘alternative’. Belief may be more important than ever in deciding which new ideas we embrace and which ones we fear. Could the challenges of our current time lead more of us to turn toward the spiritual for answers? When we look back, how will we consider the role technology has played in shaping the way we think about the unknown? In our own local history, and in the sensitive, poetic output of Shannon Taggart and Matthew Ostrowski, some insight may be found. The artworks in this exhibition ask us to pause and wonder at the long-lasting power of belief, and the far-reaching effects of human ingenuity.

– Bleu Cease, Curator