Diorama Panorama: Zoe Beloff Gets Inside Your Brain with 3D Movies and Models in 'The Somnambulists'

The Somnambulists
The Somnambulists
Zoe Beloff

Using early media like 19th century stereopticon slides, found footage and her own original 3D films, Zoe Beloff is a scavenger who makes quirky, multidimensional pieces of multimedia. She describes herself as a "medium" who speaks through artifacts of the past to create visual commentaries on the psychological implications of technology and civilization.

Devoted to reviving archaic and near-obsolete pre-cinematic spectacles, the Velaslavasay Panorama in an appropriate stage for "The Somnambulists," Beloff's staging of the unconscious via five small wooden dioramas in which scaled-down archival and original 3D film footage of mental patients provides continues loops of hysterical dramas. We spoke with the artist herself in order to gain insight into "The Somnambulists" and her own "theater of the mind."

When you first started out, how was your work received?

I have a checkered history and I'm a late starter. In 1995, I started making a project called Beyond that was initially a web serial. Each week, I would go back into the past and explore the relationships between imagination and technology, from around 1850 to 1940. I felt there was much to be learned by going back to the 19th century and looking at the birth of mechanical reproduction. So that's what that project was about: thinking about technology in a much more philosophical way, the way it was used as a metaphor, and how it caused people to think very differently about the world.

Describe the development of "The Somnambulists."

The two people who were the most influential in my thinking of "The Somnambulists" were the writer Raymond Roussel and his doctor, Pierre Janet. In 1914, Raymond Roussel wrote Locus Solus, in which he described a tour of the estate of an amazing inventor who's kind of loosely inspired by Edison.

He describes these fantastic inventions, which go way beyond anything that Edison actually invented. One is a kind of museum with a series of dioramas in which people act out these extravagant themes -- each one is described in detail. Then you discover the people in each diorama are actually dead, and have been revived by electricity. Once revived, they reenact the most traumatic moments of their lives.

The little theaters in "The Somnambulists" reference that idea. It's actually footage of people apparently suffering from hysteria that were filmed by doctors, and I have revived them through electricity. As media artifacts, they insensibly reenact their traumatic moments, over and over again. Dioramas were happening at the same time doctors started to document their patients suffering from disorders with this new invention of cinema, so these things came together.

Diorama Panorama: Zoe Beloff Gets Inside Your Brain with 3D Movies and Models in 'The Somnambulists'
Zoe Beloff

How long have you been working in 3D?

My first work in 3D was in the mid-'90s. I was invited to do visuals for a concert by John Cale...I wanted to do a piece that referenced the time where images started to move. So again, I was thinking about 3D in relation to the 19th century and stereo views, and the time when people moved from watching stereo views to early films. [Stereo views are 19th century cards with two images printed side-by-side. Used with glasses at the end of a long, wooden handle, they give the illusion of seeing in 3D.] People often think that 3D began in the 1950s with The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but in fact, the 19th century was a very stereoscopic century. 3D photographs started in the 1840s, and it was a very popular way of looking at imagery.

What are the challenges that come with working in 3D?

In "The Somnambulists," I was interested in the idea of conveying not a real theater, but a mental theater: a theater of the mind. In my theater, you see delusions and hallucinations, so I wanted to find a virtual way of portraying that.

A lot of people think 3D is very realistic. I actually think it's not realistic. It's like an artificial recreation of space. But it's hard. You have to go everywhere with a silver screen, glasses and special projection lenses. It means that most of the time, I have to travel with my work. You can't just send it off on a DVD.

One day it will be easier, perhaps, as 3D becomes a much more commercial technology. Everyone will have their 3D TVs at home and it will be a lot more straightforward, and I'll probably be doing something else by that time.

Diorama Panorama: Zoe Beloff Gets Inside Your Brain with 3D Movies and Models in 'The Somnambulists'
Zoe Beloff

Do you consider home movies, found footage and other kind of ephemera a type of raw material?

I consider my work a dialog with the past. I use found things all the time, of which film may be just one, and I try to talk to them and maybe reveal what is most important. I consider home movies a little bit the way Freud thought about jokes or slips of the tongue: psychoanalytic objects that reveal more about people than they even knew, and it's in that spirit that I'm very interested in working with them. I want to bring out things that might otherwise be hidden. It's all about speculating across time.

Do you expect your audience to question the authenticity of the historical components in your work? Is the doubt part of your artistic vision?

I hope they question them! I love it when they question them. I think in any historical show, we should wonder what we're seeing and what we're not seeing. It allows for a closer examination, and to think about what truth is. In "The Somnambulists," there are layers of interpretation. I'm very interested in exploring this relationship between science and spectacle, because I think it's always there.

What are you working on now?

I'm trying to get out of the 19th century, so I reached the 1950s. I'm doing a project which, again, will be an exhibition of a variety of media, from film to drawing to objects, both fabricated and historical. The title is The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff. But it's really much more about cinema and psychosocial control, using 1950s industrial films...Similar themes, but going beyond the 19th century. But I like to counter things with slapstick. Slapstick is when everything goes wrong, and it's when things go really wrong that things get interesting.

"The Somnambulists" runs through May 29, Friday through Sunday, from 12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., at the Velaslavasay Panorama at 1122 West 24th St., Los Angeles. Contact: (213) 746-2166 or

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