Something is drawing in Thomas Eakins’ studio.
For two months, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has been trying to summon the ghost of one of its most celebrated sons — literally.
"His Study of Life," an exhibit of Eakins' belongings at the Philadelphia artist's old studio on PAFA's first floor, invites viewers to contemplate legacy and history and the staying power of art. But those belongings also happen to be wired to machines designed to sense spirits and allow them to communicate.
The exhibit's most elaborate work, a robot that holds one of Eakins' own paintbrushes, is programmed to sketch an Eakins original should the machine sense the paranormal. Since August, its electromagnetic sensors and infrared detectors and temperature gauges have blinked in silence.
Until Friday night.
That’s when the contraption — against all expectations, including its creator’s — started to draw. And draw. And draw. It was still at work Wednesday afternoon, when an Inquirer reporter stopped by and found a fresh sketch on the easel.
Eakins himself was nowhere to be seen, at least not by human eyes.
Of course, whatever is making the ghost machine draw is likely not actually a ghost, much to its creator's disappointment.
Fernando Orellana, the Troy, N.Y., artist who designed the machine and the exhibit "His Study of Life," has made several similar devices over the last few years, with varying degrees of complexity. Mostly, they don’t work, and when they do, Orellana has always found a worldly explanation: a mechanical malfunction, or a clumsy patron bumping into the machine.
“I do want to go on record and say that most likely this is electronic failure,” he said on Wednesday, laughing. “The mechanical engineer in me is saying there’s definitely some sort of sensor issue.
“The human in me is saying, ‘Oh, my god, there’s a ghost.’”
The machine is designed to start drawing one of five pre-programmed Eakins photographs if two of its three sensors are triggered. One sensor detects spikes in the room’s electromagnetic field, one registers the presence of infrared light, and one responds to a temperature drop below 32 degrees.
For now, whatever is happening with the machine will remain a mystery. Orellana is in Troy, and won’t be able to get to Philadelphia to examine his machine until next week. In the meantime, he is trying not to feel too spooked.
He began making the machines after an encounter on a street in Manhattan four years ago, when, he says, a stranger approached him and whispered a phrase in his ear:
“Can you hear them? The ghosts are jealous.”
Instead of screaming himself into an early grave, Orellana was intrigued. What would a ghost be jealous of? he wondered. He decided that he or she may be frustrated with the inability to communicate anymore. And though Orellana is an avowed skeptic, he decided to approach the program from a design perspective: “How do you go about designing for someone without a body?”
The first ghost machine was a simple robot, programmed to ring a bell when its electromagnetic, infrared, and temperature sensors were triggered. The bell came from an estate sale for a recently deceased woman who had amassed an enormous collection of bells. Orellana hoped she would recognize her beloved bell and ring it from the beyond. The piece was displayed in a New York gallery.
A few days later, the gallery owners called him over Skype. They were deeply unsettled, their faces pale on the video connection. The bell wouldn’t stop ringing. Even when they turned the machine off.
As it turned out, Orellana had short-circuited the robot during its installation without realizing it.
“The computer inside the robot's brain was all broken -- it was my fault. But [the gallery owners] actually didn’t believe me. They wanted to believe that it was a ghost,” he said, laughing. “So I created a whole weird little belief structure there.”
Orellana’s ghost machines are part of a long tradition of using art to communicate with the spirit world, said Justin McDaniel, a University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor who runs the Penn Ghost Project, an examination of the paranormal through the humanities.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he said, would-be ghost hunters took “spirit photographs,” which purported to capture ghosts on film — usually achieved through creative lighting or a double exposure.
Then there was automatic writing, which gets a little closer to Eakins’ ghost machine at PAFA.
“Individuals and groups would sit in complete darkness or with their eyes closed with their hand gentle holding a pencil or pen,” McDaniel said. “They would invoke spirits to guide their hand to write poetry, stories, drawings of ghosts, or messages from the afterlife.”
Jodi Throckmorton, PAFA’s curator of contemporary art, said that for her, the exhibit is less about channeling ghosts and more about addressing and embracing PAFA’s history in a creative way.
“How do I deal with PAFA’s 200 years of history, that legacy, as someone who’s making contemporary work?” she said.
The exhibit is designed to invoke Eakins’ work, even if it doesn’t invoke his spirit. Eakins was famous for his controversial use of nudes in his work and the classes he taught at PAFA, so the exhibit also includes live, nude models, posing the way Eakins would have posed them. And upstairs, the museum has just opened a gallery of his photographs, taken in and around Philadelphia in the late 19th century.
Throckmorton isn’t sure what to make of the machine’s drawings.
"It’s really about whether you believe or not. You look at the piece, and people could easily think it's something we're trying to trick people with,” she said. “And we're not.”
Orellana is convinced the machine’s issue is mechanical, not metaphysical. But even he was spooked by the drawing it produced, even if it was randomly selecting from pre-programmed photos.
At first, it drew a woman reclining on a couch. Then, superimposed over it, it drew Eakins himself.