Book Review: A Book of Spells by Ted Serios by Matthias Groebel

A Book of Spells by Ted Serios, cover.

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, June 2021

The phantasmagorical Book of Spells by Ted Serios is actually an intriguing artist book by Matthias Groebel, a Cologne artist known for his homemade painting machine and computer-robotic paintings that scrutinize televised images. This excellently produced book of cyanotypes seems perfectly relevant for this post-President Trump period ~ and the fraudulent post-truth politics associated with him. It builds upon the oeuvre of scammer Ted Serio’s, a heavy-drinking Chicago bellhop known for his duplicitous production of “thoughtographs” that he produced on Polaroid film. Serios claimed they were produced through his powers of psychokinesis ~ using his psychic powers alone. 

These extraordinary claims were bolstered in 1967 by the endorsement of Jule Eisenbud, a Denver-based psychiatrist who wrote a book called The World of Ted Serios: “Thoughtographic” Studies of an Extraordinary Mind ~ arguing that Serios’ purported psychic abilities were genuine. But subsequent analysis suggests that Serios used slight-of-hand and negative film images to create the resulting Polaroids that he produced within an atmosphere of chaotic frenzy. 

Groebel’s obsession with Serios has to do with the artist’s interest in the power of cultural documents. Groebel discovered Serios’ hazy thoughtoraphy in 2005 at a show at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art called The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult and he became fascinated with the conundrum of validity they presented him. Not only had Serios been a successful con artist, he also was a convincing performance artist, as can be seen here.

Around the time he became aware of Serios, Groebel began fooling around with pinhole cameras and found a certain similarity between the milky-ghostly images they produce and Serios’ cloudy thoughtographs. With that growing realization, Groebel opened a Facebook account in 2012 for Ted Serios (who had died in 2006) and the con’s second act was launched online ~ going so far as having Serios submit to an interview with Mi Stress Henry at The End of Being website. With that, and the Facebook project, Groebel made the idea of creating photographic images by thought alone equal to the absurdity of a dead man talking and posting on Facebook.

But the idea of photography that creates images that have no match in reality fascinated Groebel on a theoretical level to the point where he went down the pinhole and began working under the posthumous nom de plume of Ted Serios ~ so as to plunge underneath the threshold of normal media perception. 

After the Facebook account became part of the work, the project concretely manifested in early in 2016 as an installation in the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, where Groebel showed, under the name Ted Serios, original cyanotype pinhole prints side by side with a laptop as part of the show Screen. Between TV and Internet. Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein presented the first copy of A Book of Spells and provided Groebel an ISBN number and listed it as “out of print” on their website. As part of the faux project, the book can only be purchased as a “used copy” on the German Amazon site.  Only a handful of copies are currently in existence as they are being produced on a flexible on-demand basis. 

A Book of Spells, page spread.

I think that Groebel’s intentionally bonkers artist-book probes what unconventional and immaterial sense can be had from a decadent reading of our electronic media environment. The resulting large format book is beautiful and haunting and strikes me as a very topical exploration of the high-frequency fake news environment. The nether darkness of the fuzzy blue images seems more like an osmotic membrane (or blue print) than a photographic document. And this gloomy confusion works well with the difficulty of finding truth in today’s media society. So the merit of owning and perusing this bogus beautiful book is in enjoying, like in music, the blues. Its subtle sweet sadness delivers a disintegration of what once was considered photo normality into a bewildering airy immateriality, made only more abstract by oblique text phrases, such as: and now I live in your head. 

Prevailing unambiguous photo-representations, made up of conventional social signs, are here challenged by an unconventional filmy blue haze ~ and so subvert the socially controlled system of meaning we expect from photography. I think here of the de-focused art photography of Seton Smith, as well. Like her hazy work, A Book of Spells shows the underlying phantasmagorical basis of film. Indeed, A Book of Spells promote an indispensable diaphanous magical alienation from common constructed capture technology. In it, visual thought detaches itself from the order and authority of the old sign and topples down into the realm of imagination, of fantasy, and into non-knowledge ~ towards imagining questions ~ rather than assigned assumptions. Yet its aesthetic non-knowledge is certainly the most erudite, the most aware, and the most conscious area of our media saturated situation. 

A Book of Spells, page spread.

In that sense, A Book of Spells presents us with the chimerical, blue, concave, inner-side of visibility. In it we peek inside of the pinhole and find a sort of behind-the-scenes phantasmal fuzz land, deep and dense enough to find the point where forms are joined together in a unifying (blue) tonality. Here Groebel directs us towards that necessary but always inaccessible point which dives down ~ below our eyes~ towards the flowing flux of things. When immersed in this book, we are taken on a phantasmal flow away from the play of materialistic-based photo representation ~ riding low under the political/social ramifications of our post-factual media-saturated age ~ where politics is only ever theatre. 

With A Book of Spells, Groebel takes Serios’ deceit to exquisite new depths, suggesting that beneath the identifiable names and forms that documentary photography usually renders, another deeper discourse exists that can evoke the slippery consistency inherent in the chemistry of film itself. WM  

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.

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