Augmented reality pop-up is a new take on yesterday’s medicine

‘After the Witch of Malleghem’ provides insight into medical history

Pop-up provides a modern twist on old art.
Credit: 
Supplied by Emily Pelstring
Artists Jenn Norton, Emily Pelstring, and 10-year-old Edie Soleil have released an augmented-reality pop-up called After the Witch of Malleghem. 
 
The Journal spoke with Norton and Pelstring, both faculty at Queen’s Film and Media Department, about their augmented reality piece. 
 
The pop-up is accessible through the mobile app “Malleghem.” It allows viewers to point their phone’s camera at the pop-up’s printed poster. Images rise from the surface and move as if the figures are live in front of the viewer.
 
Norton, Pelstring, and Soleil’s piece was released as a publication of The Witch Institute—a summer program where Pelstring was a co-organizer and Norton was a collaborator. 
 
The week-long symposium event hosted by Queen’s Film and Media Department featured arts programming, screenings, workshops, and performances discussing the contemporary imagining of witches in popular and visual culture. 
 
“Essentially, we were curators and organizers, but were also putting our own research and work out there as part of this institute,” Pelstring explained.
 
“For our piece, it was us researching the figure of the witch and making an artwork around it in our own way to participate in these dialogues.”
 
Her and Norton’s pop-up is based off of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Witch of Malleghem from 1559. The piece illustrates a witch and her assistants as they remove “stones of madness” from the heads of villagers. 
 
The Witch of Malleghem highlights a time in Europe when medical practices excluded women and were controlled by the Christian church. 
 
Norton and Pelstring explained how the healing methods of the church state were harmful and absurd, practices included drilling holes in patients’ heads and curing tooth aches by touching the tooth with a pin and transferring the pain to a caterpillar. 
 
In contrast, the lay healers of the time—herbalists, often women, who were persecuted as witches—practiced medicinal techniques more akin to modern science. 
 
They collected herbs and observed their efficacy through tests while drawing on experience and knowledge passed down through generations. 
 
“People would seek out these healers because they were afraid to go to the official healers who would drill a hole in their head,” Pelstring said. “So, we’re kind of making fun of this system that started to cast the witch as a fraud.”
 
Norton and Pelstring add humour to Brueghel’s The Witch of Malleghem by using camp and surrealism to embrace the grotesque and bizarre. 
 
“I think Brueghel lends itself well to both of our aesthetics,” Norton said. “It’s so wacky and strange, but there’s also a narrative that can lead your eye along the composition.”
 
Norton and Pelstring hope that in viewing their augmented reality re-creation, people will want to know more about the original Brueghel piece that inspired it. 
 
“Brueghel can just be a wash of details. While you might spend time looking through it, I feel like there’s always another element that you’ll see on a second or third viewing,” Norton said. “So, in this looping, I’m hoping the viewer will see these new things”
 
The poster is available now in Kingston at the Tett’s Modern Fuel artist-run centre and the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts’ Film and Media Library. 
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