At the raucous Insanitarium with Blowhole Theater, part of early 20th-century Coney Island’s Pavilion of Fun, clowns and dwarfs poked patrons with cattle prods, pushing women over jets of hot air so their skirts blew upward as onlookers gawked. Sigmund Freud checked out the Blowhole Theater during his only trip to the US in 1909. It left quite an impression on him: he wrote about Coney Island, the city’s raging id, in a journal entry — at least according to Scottish multimedia artist Zoe Beloff.
The Blowhole Theater was also where Albert Grass, the fictive Brooklyn-born son of immigrants from Danzig, worked in 1926, according to an elaborate “archive” created by Beloff. Consisting of drawings, photographs, artifacts, and short films, the work is all cast as the creation of the “Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society,” which Grass founded.
One mysterious piece of this archive, Albert Grass: The Adventures of a Dreamer, is a colorful hand-drawn prototype of a comic book. Purportedly discovered by Beloff at a Chelsea flea market, it “appears to have been created by Albert Grass over a period of time from perhaps 1936 to the outbreak of World War II in 1939,” reads the introductory blurb. “Previously unpublished, this facsimile edition makes available for the first time an early attempt to use the language of the comic book to graphically manifest the unconscious.” Recently published by Christine Burgin, the book consists of 25 hallucinatory pen and watercolor drawings on yellowed notebook paper. They beautifully illustrate the narrator’s dreams and adventures through Coney Island: encounters with fortunetellers and Steeplechase Park’s famous Funny Face, traumatic memories of trench warfare, and repressed desires (“I was 13 years old when the Blowhole invaded my fantasies,” says a masturbating Albert Grass).
Plenty of Coney Island’s history seems too insane to be true — take the Blowhole Theater, for example — and so when I first read the cryptic blurbs on Christine Burgin’s website about Albert Grass, his story seemed wild but believable. When I finally read the book and realized that Albert Grass had never existed, I remembered what it felt like to learn that Santa Claus isn’t real. I felt gullible, duped, and amazed by the level of detail with which the artist had rendered this mythical world. It was a rare reminder of what it was like to be a child unable to differentiate between fact and fiction.
Nowhere in Adventures of a Dreamer is there any explicit explanation of how Beloff herself wrote and illustrated the book. Beloff’s name only appears in small type on the back cover. If you discovered the book at a yard sale, without context, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking it really originated in Coney Island in the 1930s.
Apparently, this is a common response to Beloff’s richly imagined archive of the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society. The project began seven years ago, when the director of the Coney Island Museum invited Beloff to stage an exhibition celebrating the centennial of Freud’s visit to the Dreamland Amusement Park in 1909. “Rather than simply illustrate Freud’s visit, I wanted to explore the unconscious of the people who lived, worked, and played in Coney Island [at the time],” Beloff told Hyperallergic. “The Society was a framework for this. The fact that I invented it was completely in tune with the setting. Everything in the Amusement Park is a crazy fiction — that is its charm.”
When the exhibition opened, many visitors were convinced the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society had really existed. Called Dreamland: The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and Its Circle, 1926–1972, the show consisted of an archive of films, drawings, and photos supposedly made by members of this mysterious, previously unknown Freudian sect. “Sometimes people took my exhibition very literally and even remembered pictures I had created that they claimed they had seen in their childhood,” Beloff said. “Others realized it was a fiction. Sometimes arguments broke out.”
Whatever you think of Freudian psychoanalysis, it’s hard to argue that an art piece that can create false memories in its viewers isn’t powerful. The confusion over whether the archive is “real” or not suggests Beloff is succeeding in her mission as both an artist and self-proclaimed “medium.” The daughter of parapsychologist John Beloff, she considers herself an “interface between the living and dead.”
What was this mythic society, in Beloff’s mind? “It appears that the members of the Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society were self-taught Freudians poring over dog-eared copies of The Interpretation of Dreams and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life,” Beloff writes in her first book, The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and Its Circle. “Most of them were working-class men and women who couldn’t afford to become professional psychoanalysts yet wanted to take part in the great intellectual adventures of the city. Like Freud, many were Jews. Some had studied psychology in college.” They met once a month for talks, screenings, and lectures in a little office above the Shore Theater at 1301 Surf Avenue in Coney Island. “Like many early converts, they believed that psychoanalysis could change the world, and they were braving moral outrage from a society who equated it with free love,” Beloff writes. “One can think of them as working-class utopians, a link between the Workers Film and Photo League of the 1930s and today’s YouTube activists and dreamers.”
Like any work of well-researched historical fiction, Grass’s narrative could have been true. His character and story are amalgams of real people and stories from Coney Island in the 1930s. “Along the way, I started to think a lot about the parallels between 2009 and the 1930s — this was the time of the great recession and a lot of people were losing their homes and their jobs just like in the Great Depression,” Beloff said. “I was also thinking about veterans returning from war overseas and suffering the traumatic after effects — Albert Grass, like my grandfather, fought in the First World War and that shapes some of his dreams for sure.” Adventures of a Dreamer also channels the visual storytelling of the era: “You have to remember that comic books were invented by Jewish guys working in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, they invented all the great superheroes and also a little later a few psychoanalytic comic books as well,” Beloff said.
While she concedes that Grass did not exist, Beloff speaks about him as if he were real, the way kids talk about their imaginary friends. “I think of Albert Grass as my alter-ego,” she said. “We dream the same dreams.” During the year she spent making the comic book, Beloff wrote down all of her own dreams, then “transposed them into the world of Albert Grass.” The artist’s near-deluded, total immersion in her own fantasy world is what makes the work so convincing and transporting for suggestible viewers. “When looking at the drawings in The Adventures of a Dreamer,” Beloff said, “I found myself almost experiencing the uncanny feeling of déjà vu, as though I myself had dreamed these adventures, too.”