In the Shadow of the Big Projector

Review of David Blair’s The Telepathic Place: from the Making of "The Telepathic Motion Picture of THE LOST TRIBES” at the MUHKA in 2013. The review of this magical show somehow got lost after the renovation of my website, so it is reposted.


The top floors of the MUHKA in Antwerp have been transformed into a walk-in dream sequence. Five rooms filled with traces of a history that never could have been but which still comes alive together form a sort of 4D feature film. In it film itself is both a theme and a surreal, malleable prop. David Blair’s The Telepathic Place: from the Making of "The Telepathic Motion Picture of THE LOST TRIBES” is a surprising and captivating installation work. Poetic text scraps painted in oil on small canvasses or written on walls with pencil, traces of (im)possible histories in the shape of manipulated film devices, miniature train tracks as tangible traces of … of what? Though the main story describes the fictional history of a rather esoteric movie industry in Manchuria, the most important underlying themes of The Telepathic Place seem the driving sentiments and imperfections of storytelling through media, in particular film and video. The Telepathic Place exposes the malleability of memory and history, even if it is captured on film, recorded in any other way, or, as historical practice, materialized in old tools and objects. At the MUHKA Blair makes the experience of film and that of train travel get entangled to the extreme, which evokes an uncanny feeling of mock nostalgia. Both film and train travel take the visitor, whilst sitting in her seat, to far away places, while life and time pass by. By crossing such similar experiences David Blair taps into that part of our memory where things easily blur, creating confusion, surprise and wonder.


The project took a long time to unfold. Blair started working on it in 1995, two years after I talked to him at a presentation of his pioneering Web film Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees at V2, which back then was still in Den Bosch. Blair called Wax synergistic and a grotesque form of fiction, inspired by the work of Pynchon, Rushdie, Servantes and Borges. The same can be said about The Telepathic Place. It is transmedia to the extreme, the absurd even. Snippets of fictional historic events and media archaeological finds (antique cameras and projectors) are placed in glass showcases, on the floor, and hung on walls. Each room is filled with obscure texts, drawings, and videos. Then almost every room has its own mesmerizing and delirious soundtrack. The visitor is plunged into a near hallucinatory experience.


Blair has worked and is still working on this project for over 20 years. Even if most of the objects and paintings were created in the last six months, the extensive research and collecting behind the story shows in every corner of the exhibition. The detailing is overwhelming. The movie The Telepathic Motion Picture of the Lost Tribes came out in 2010. Since then this is the third elaborated version of the film, or: the third exhibition to expand on the movie. For this episode the MUHKA offered David Blair the unique opportunity to use a historical collection of cameras, projectors, and pictures from their archives, and gave him the freedom to use it freely. It has resulted in a ‘documentary’, The Telepathic Place, about the making of’ The Telepathic Motion Picture of the Lost Tribes firmly rooted in the history of photography and film, which greatly intensifies its immersive qualities. The many old ‘devices’, as Blair likes to call them, scattered and woven throughout the exhibition seamlessly fit in with the many objects, pictures, sounds and videos produced by Blair.


A few things stand out in the exhibition. First is the large white on black drawing in the first room. It resembles a blackboard, filled with the visions of a psychotic or hallucinating person. Drawings of skeletons, houses and what looks like energy waves are accompanied by nonsense code or hieroglyphs. It covers most of the back wall and brings together everything else in the room. The soundtrack of this first room is eerie. Any reading of the many texts, objects and images in the rest of the room is profoundly influenced and gripped by the large wall drawing and the sound.

Second and, for me, critical, is the corridor or third room. While all the rooms exhibit a near delirious mix of historical, new and recombined objects and devices, Blair here manages to move far beyond the space itself through a clever juxtaposing of elements. The corridor is dark. Upon entrance the first you see is a scale model of what could be a nineteenth century train station placed on the floor. Moving forward there is a cinema ticket booth and a row of cinema seats on a sort of high platform along the side of the corridor. Two white planks are left to lean against the seats. Above them hangs a black body suit. A movie is projected high above the miniature train station. It shows, among other things, cameras on rails, like they were used in the production of movies. On the wall just outside this corridor it says, roughly scribbled with pencil, “Here is the central station planetarium cinema, the original silent sound stage and theatre of the Manchu Edison Film Corporation and the Entrance as well as exit to Manchuria!!” Close by another scribble reads: “Trains roll into the station. The audience looks out the windows, and as the movie plays, dolls appear on the ceiling, as the audience forgets. And the movietalkers tell the story of the film!”

This third room serves as a corridor to another world. It is a world in which telepathic movies can and do exist. It is a reality in which actual, imagined and desired events merge in retrospect. The station that is smaller than the ticket booth and the film of the camera train projected alongside or inside makes time and history sort of collapse inward, disappearing and re-appearing in the same instant. This transit room represents the questionable reality of travelling through time and space via media technologies, and more specifically via screens.

All of Blair’s work seems to involve a criticism of filmic and televised versions of history. For him cameras and film screens are not tools to remember, but to make forget. History gets erased through the limitations of the video editor. In an interview David Blair says about his recent work: “After 20 or 30 years it’s good to get away from the screen. Because the screen is also a kind of forgetting device by itself. When you have terrabytes of data the image of forgetting is the screen.”[i] One could say Blair tries to escape the limited production options within screen-based media by gathering and offering as much details from a story as possible, and to present these in an open, interactive way.



The Telepathic Motion Picture of THE LOST TRIBES is the sequel to Wax or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees. Wax was the first film to be shown online, as a sort of test of a special multimedia network in 1991. “They were going to build this parallel Internet called the ‘M-Bone’ or the Multimedia Backbone,” explains Blair in an interview, “So it was something built into all these routers at certain kinds of universities and certain kinds of companies, and it was a multi-peer video protocol. You could do an M-cast and you could see who was on and people could talk back and sort of annotate as they were watching. It was sort of a video conferencing but also a broadcasting application.” [i] The Mbone[ii] is one of many network technologies that have disappeared or become dormant. Like many of the antique devices in The Telepathic Place it has become a relic of a bygone time and its hopes, dreams, and practices. ‘Broadcasting’ a movie through this network was a strange, but also apt experience for Blair. He recalls: “For me it was really wonderful because it was this really bizarre situation of reinvention and rearcheologising instantly, because here was this technical artefact that immediately disappeared, that was all part of the movie that was all in the context of what they call media archaeology now. And here it was instant lost media archaeology.”[iii]


The movie Wax developed into an intricate online project, Waxweb. For The Telepathic Motion picture of THE LOST TRIBES Blair decided to turn his former work process around and he started developing his new project online at, envisioning another media technical cross reference in the process: “Blogs are kind of like filmstrips, take the above as a sort of reversed movie.” He began creating objects and paintings as “an attempt to take the Lost Tribes movie out of the computer, where it was difficult to grasp, being made of terabytes and all.”[i] Blair’s work seems an endless juggling with positions and form: inside and outside the media, revealing histories and at the same time changing them. His works are labyrinthine, and the stories he tells are delirious. In Wax bees enter the main character’s head (played by Blair), and leave a ‘Bee TV’ implant to reveal secrets to him. In The Telepathic Place: The Telepathic Motion picture of THE LOST TRIBES Blair uses derelict media practices, such as the movie talker of silent film, in a story about mind control of movie audiences. One of the things Blair seems to want to achieve with his work is a repositioning of the audience. In the end it is not the editor who controls the story, but you. In an accompanying folder to the exhibition Blair says: “When people see a story, they usually internalise it. In the context of this exhibition, the visitors themselves are the 'movie talkers' of the fictional story, even if they do not talk or think.”[ii]


In The Telepathic Place: The Making of the Telepathic Motion Picture of THE LOST TRIBES David Blair creates a perfect blend of a surreal story and the materials and spaces it is told through. The story is open, and the audience is a sort of co-conspirator: as co-editor, dissector or slasher of the narrative. One viewing is nearly not enough to take it all in.


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Let me end by telling you about the last thing that stood out for me, and which gave me the title for this review. In the last room many things happen. So many things happen that you at first do not really notice the big antique film projector near the entrance. When you leave however it stands there, in the bright light, casting a large shadow on the wall next to it. Afterwards I wondered why that caught my eye, and I realized it is very unusual for a film projector to stand in the limelight. Still, most of the histories we see today developed in its shadow. David Blair moves in that shadow, and brings us stories from there.

More background information about the storyline in The Telepathic Motion Picture of THE LOST TRIBES and the many historical facts behind it can be found at[i] The exhibition at the MUHKA runs until September 8th 2013.







[i] ibid.


[iii] O’Shannessy, Matthew. Forgetting Devices: Interview with David Blair. November 2011.


[i] O’Shannessy, Matthew. Forgetting Devices: Interview with David Blair. November 2011.