Experimental Filmmaker Stephen Broomer Haunts TIFF in "Pepper's Ghost"

Experimental Filmmaker Stephen Broomer Haunts TIFF in "Pepper's Ghost"
("Pepper's Ghost" by Stephen Broomer)

More precisely, Broomer and his collaborators Eva Kolcze and Cameron Moneo invite audiences to examine the light in his office, and “the alien nature the space assumes” when the artists apply filters, fabrics, mirrors, screens, and gels to alter the optical atmosphere — both fluorescent and natural — in a hundred subtle and unsubtle ways. Broomer, whose short film “Pepper’s Ghost” screens in the Wavelengths program at TIFF, spoke with BLOUIN ARTINFO Canada this week about “the sudden strangeness" he experienced in attempting to manipulate the elusive medium of light. 

Pepper’s Ghost” takes its name from a 19th-century illusion designed by John Henry Pepper to replicate a ghostly presence on a stage. The trick has many permutations, but in its basic form the illusionist places a clear sheet of plastic or Plexiglas at an angle to the audience’s line of sight, and a figure stands in a darkened room adjacent to the stage; by shining a light on the figure out of view of the audience, the reflection appears on the sheet, creating the impression of an apparition. Broomer’s film accomplishes a similar effect, but applies the concept to make a more general statement: “Bodies and objects become spectral, all through tricks of light,” he says.

Broomer’s office initially looks as familiar and banal as any other, but it carries a historic aura, formerly employed as a psychology wing at Ryerson University, where it was used for observation studies. To that end, the office was divided into two rooms with a two-way mirror between. “That the mirror was used for psychological observation seemed like the perfect tool to enter the psychic history of the space,” Broomer says. He and his collaborators employ both sides of the mirror and modifiy the light in both rooms to multiply the effect of their many interferences and filtrations.

Broomer’s previous films superimpose digital images to create layers — his show with Dan Browne at Toronto's I.M.A. Gallery last January was titled “Superimposition” — but in his most recent film Broomer takes a more concrete approach. “Every layer is created optically without any manipulation of the image,” he says. “In other works, the layering of the image had a different intention: it dealt with creating coexistent meanings,” he explains. “Whereas in this, what I loved about the space and what drew me to creating this illusion was the ability to create a real-world analogue for the manipulation of objects and images I’d previously been creating through manual and digital superimposition.”

“Pepper’s Ghost” creates a layered experience of spectatorship. On one level, the film shows the process of experimentation as the creators move around on screen, opening blinds and hanging sheets, inviting the inclusion of the viewer. But the creators also perform as the film's subjects, their bodies made translucent and spectral through various lighting effects; their inclusion pushes the viewer back into the traditional spectator role. The viewer also sees the creators checking the screen on the back of their DSLR camera, essentially watching themselves watching themselves, affecting both a private and exclusive experience. Broomer describes this latter aspect as creating a “closed circuit." But he sees the loop as an access point. “I like to think that we’re inviting the viewers into experiencing the same kind of joy that we’re feeling when we’re transforming the space through light,” he says.

Broomer acknowledges potential criticisms of his self-reflexive approach: “When one is working with mirrors, the invitation to talk about voyeurism and narcissism is strong,” he admits. He views the film as a “collective self-portrait” between himself and his collaborators Kolcze and Moneo, but Broomer cites his fascination with the “direct documentation of light.” Beneath the illusionist’s tricks and the artist’s presence, however, lies the simple ambition to make something beautiful. “That was the aspiration,” he says, “to find a way to use color and light to create something plainly of beauty, and to place ourselves in it.”