Rouge's Foam - Hauntology: The Past Inside the Present. Here you can listen to this blogpost as spoken word and together with the musical examples (this doesn't include the areas about visual art). Download this as a high-quality mp3 and listen elsewhere by clicking the arrow on the right of the player.
I’m all too aware that it’s no longer 2006, the year to blog about hauntology, but I’ve been planning to write a piece like this since the summer of that year, initially for a student magazine that found the idea a bit niche and long-winded (me? ridiculous), and in the end that plan fell through. Actually it was when a friend pointed out that the aesthetic connection between Boards of Canada and Ariel Pink I’d been pondering was being discussed online and there was a whole record label devoted to something similar (Ghost Box) that I first started following Dissensus and the network of blogs surrounding it. I was going to do this divided up into standalone instalments, but since it made sense to include it in a four-part series with other pipeline essays, I’m posting this all in one go (needless to say, it’s ‘make a cup of tea long’, but it’s still in bitesize chunks). What follows isn’t intended, even by implication, as a response or challenge to any of the theory and debate on hauntology that’s developed since January 06, but rather as a contribution in parallel to it. Though I’ve needed to start from a personal interpretation of the subject of ‘hauntology’ (as the aesthetic consequences of Derrida’s term and not just a specific musical style) it shouldn’t be taken as a (re)definition, and though I’ve been relatively thorough, what I present is clearly far from comprehensive or encyclopaedic and doesn’t constitute (god forbid) a ‘hauntological canon’. My main aim here is to discuss the famously hauntological in more detail and expand the hauntology aesthetic to cover more music and particularly art, and secondly to provide an introduction for anyone interested in one. I hope that’s constructive, but in the end it’s just that I’m very interested in the parameters and problems of hauntology as a way of looking at art, I’m keen to pass on some observations and I’m really into writing about it.
What is hauntology?The word was first coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International, which began life as his contribution to a conference that asked the pertinent question ‘whither Marxism?’ following the dissolution of communism in Eastern Europe. Derrida challenged the opinion held by some commentators that Marx’s theories had been effectively defeated and liberal democracy had triumphed (which was Francis Fukuyama’s argument in The End of History and The Last Man), and proposed that Marx would continue to haunt history, just as ‘the spectre of communism’ was described as haunting Europe at the opening of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The word ‘hauntology’ is a pun on the word ‘ontology’ (both words sound almost identical in Derrida’s native French) and describes the problematic, intangible and paradoxical ontology that such spectres, in their incessant haunting, pose for discourse on history. Hauntology describes the haunting of a historicised present by spectres that cannot be ‘ontologised’ away.
As is often the case in Derrida’s writing however, ‘hauntology’ is a concept that’s arguably better suited to interpretation than strict definition. It can easily be linked to the general methodology of deconstruction Derrida pioneered – as metaphors, spectres, being neither one thing or the other, challenge basic binary oppositions like ‘alive / dead’, ‘present / absent’ and ‘past / present’ and so are ‘deconstructive’ in nature. Or they can be linked to the psychoanalytic theory of Lacan and Žižek – the spectres Derrida discusses conceivably residing in an area beyond the abilities of the Imaginary and the Symbolic to reflect and describe the Real. Here the haunting metaphor can be extended: traditionally, a spectre invades the present to redress a balance there, to warn the present concerning the future. Hauntological spectres come to bother us and our images from any zone of deficit lying between things as they were / are / will be and things as they are thought or hoped to have been / be / be in the future, thus history haunts (Marxist) ideology, and (Marxist) ideology haunts history; theory haunts practice and practice haunts theory, Utopia haunts reality and reality haunts Utopia, and so on. Art that permits a hauntological reading would facilitate this process of haunting.
A hauntological effect in artTake a look at this picture:
Aww – a young lad lounges on vividly green grass in total sunlight in apparently blissful, Arcadian communion with a cute woodland animal. The hedgehog’s spikes suggest it could be dangerous, and yet the hedgehog and the child seem like friends, and no threat is posed to the child – indeed, with his withdrawn hands and relative distance, the boy seems suitably respectful of the hedgehog. It’s a utopian scene, given extra evocative, sentimental charm by the child’s circa-nineteen-seventies hair and clothing. You could call it kitsch, sure, but there’s no denying its basic appeal.
This picture is one of my favourite postcards, and it’s lovely image in itself, but it’s not the image alone that really interests me. This postcard has a history – it’s from the (East) German Democratic Republic, postmarked 25th of March 1989. Associations with the GDR are probably going to affect, perhaps quite significantly, the way the postcard is perceived. I’m not making the facile suggestion that the image suddenly becomes monstrous and false simply by association with the GDR, and in fact postcards like that could probably be found all over the world in 1989, maybe not always as saccharine as this, but even so. What we know about the internal problems of the GDR in 1989 – mass protests, mass exodus, the harshest, most efficient secret police force in the world (the Stasi), censorship, police brutality, pollution – fiercely contradicts the overtly utopian image on the postcard. We know the GDR planned and claimed to be a relatively utopian state, we know that state ‘propaganda’ aimed to uphold a utopian image of the GDR despite the reality, we suspect that images on postcards were probably controlled to portray the GDR in a favourable light, and we begin feel a very complicated ambivalence towards the image that transcends simple notions of ‘good vs evil’, ‘right vs wrong’, ‘sympathy vs antipathy’, ‘real vs imaginary’.
This postcard haunts and is haunted. In 1989, its utopian promise haunted a reality that was unable to make good on it, and in turn the postcard was haunted by the increasingly dystopian qualities of reality. In 2009 this haunting-problem now haunts the present as an example of the Marxist hauntology Derrida wrote about. The problems of our imagined Utopias and Dystopias haven’t gone away – the postcard is a ghost of the GDR, exploding like a spectre the neat symbolic binaries we put our faith in by being both nice and nasty, wrong and right, innocent and guilty, present and absent. It’s also the ghost of childhood, of innocence personal or ideological, imploring us to know its killer, manifesting to us so as to haunt and correct injustice in the same way that ghosts traditionally do. It’s a poignant lie about reality and reality is a poignant inadequacy compared to it.
I like that it’s haunted and that it haunts me. Like a ghost it creates problems which are interesting and provocative. It gets me thinking about the problems of art and cultural history in an open-ended way. It seems to express a melancholy frustration with The Way Things Are. As an overall aesthetic experience it deconstructs the historically utopian, romanticises the post-utopian, and yet the Utopia it presents is stubbornly ‘undead’. In all this it has what we might call a ‘hauntological effect’.
The hauntological effect of this postcard arises from the ‘real’ context that surrounds its status as a kitschy art object, but works of art can within themselves reproduce the hauntological effect that this postcard has. Hauntology is not a genre of art or music, but an aesthetic effect, a way of reading and appreciating art. Like wonky / wonkification, hauntology is a theme that can be read into many subjects, and which can be brought out in many different ways.
Hauntology as an allegory of knowledge
The small space between the picture’s explanation and the picture itself provides the only possible perspective on painting. Every picture is incomplete, just as every memory is also incomplete – Luc Tuymans.Hauntological art (i.e. art that permits a hauntological reading, art that has hauntological aesthetic effects) can be thought of as having two stages, or layers. The first layer seems to present something that’s in some way idealised – this is often but not always an image involving the past (as I hope to show, this image is frequently depicts Nature). In the example of the German postcard this layer is the perfectly charming, kitschy image as separate from its historical context.
The second, ‘hauntological’ layer problematises, compromises and obfuscates the first layer, undermining or damaging it in some way and introducing irony into the work, and represents the opinionated viewpoint of the present. While the first layer might express hope and confidence, the hauntological layer contradicts and undoes this by expressing a satirical doubt and disillusionment. In the example of the GDR postcard the hauntological layer corresponds to the darker historical context we’re aware of that transforms our perception of the first layer. As was the case with the postcard, the hauntological layer can result from a relatively unintended consequence of context, but in the purposefully hauntological art I’ll look at below, both layers are to a relative extent suggested in the text itself (inasmuch as there is such a thing as ‘the text itself’). This can be achieved using ‘lo-fi’ effects (such as fading, dirt, or low quality materials in plastic art; noise, reverb, filters and audibly decaying or broken technology in music) and various forms of ‘unprofessionality’, surrealism, fragmentation and collage, all of which is analogous to a traditional ghost’s ectoplasm, pale colour and binding chains, signifying undeath. It’s the key role played by this hauntological layer that distinguishes hauntological art from art that’s simply retro or idealistic.
The hauntological layer ‘deconstructs’ the first layer – in this way hauntological texts deconstruct themselves. Just as it’s impossible to pin down a ghost conceptually, it’s not always easy to separate the two opposing layers of a hauntological text because they occur simultaneously. The first layer is ‘inside’ the second layer (‘the past inside the present’). The first layer (‘the past’) can only be seen through the medium of the second layer (‘the present’) so that we can’t be entirely sure of the image portrayed by the first layer. This process of obfuscation is a metaphor for memory (or more specifically an allegory of memory), and more broadly an allegory of any sort of representation of the world or any inadequately (‘untruthfully’) symbolic or imaginary conceptualisation. The hauntological layer shows the first layer to be ‘untrue’ (as k-punk puts it, ‘the origin was always spectral’ to begin with) and hints at some unresolved lack in this truth. The perceived inability of something to adequately express the ‘truths’ expected of it is sometimes referred to as its ‘Death’, as in ‘the Death of Painting’, ‘the Death of Rock’, ‘the Death of God’ etc. Appropriately enough, hauntological art negotiates these sorts of ‘Deaths’.
‘Show that you are showing’: hauntological effects and alienation effects.In many cases a hauntological layer in art pointedly reminds us that what we’re witnessing is an imperfect, failure-prone and/or all-too-human construction by drawing our attention to the form or medium of the art: we hear the sonic by-products of obsolete or broken technology, we see the unrealism of painting, and art’s status as a magical window onto the world is denied. Such aesthetic experiences can haunt, mock, accuse and open our minds to the delicately contingent and circumstantial nature of art and history.
In doing this it’s rather like the Verfremdungseffekt or ‘V-effect’ developed by twentieth-century dramatist and theorist Bertolt Brecht. Most often translated loosely as the ‘alienation effect’ (‘Verfremdung’ could also be translated as ‘estranging’ or ‘de-familiarisation’), it aimed to disrupt the seductive, seamless and ‘trance’-like flow of sympathy from a play’s audience to the characters portrayed on stage in various ways but most famously by ‘breaking the fourth wall’, a theatrical metaphor that can be applied to other arts to describe any situation where the illusion of transparent artistic surface is broken. Brecht’s plan was that the V-effect would work satirically, denaturalising bourgeois notions of the ‘alleged “eternally human”’ that supposedly remained permanent throughout history and the world and served to maintain the political status quo by implying that ‘it’s always been this way…’:
‘The field has to be defined in historically relative terms… we must drop our habit of taking the different social structures of past periods, then stripping them of everything that makes them different; so that our own period can be seen to be impermanent too’ – Brecht, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, 1948.The V-effect can also demonstrate hauntology-like allegories of symbolic representation (if ‘actor’ is taken to be analogous to ‘artist’ or ‘music-maker’):
‘The audience identifies itself with the actor as being an observer, and accordingly develops his attitude of observing or looking on… It is quite clearly somebody else’s repetition of the incident: a representation, even though an artistic one’ – Brecht, ‘Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting’, 1936.These ideas can help give some particular insights into hauntological aesthetics, but they’re only relevant up to a certain point. Hauntological effects certainly alienate and estrange the familiar and the idealistic so that it can be reassessed, but the question that could remain to be asked of any work of hauntological art is whether it makes a culturally satirical temporal disjunction of a Brechtian sort, or demonstrates and mourns the (eternal) tragedies of the human condition, or is simply a matter of personal nostalgia.
‘Beware the Friendly Stranger’: Boards of Canada document their beautiful place out in the country
Our music is born from a strange union of the air of childhood and more troubled feelings, representing a more terrible reality that blends paradoxically with our childhood dreams – Boards of CanadaWhen the word ‘hauntology’ was first applied to music in January 2006, it was used to describe the Ghost Box and Mordant Music record labels (technically it was Simon Reynolds who proposed it as a name for a musical style, but credit should go to k-punk for using the term in connection with Ghost Box’s music long before this in September 05). Ariel Pink was also mentioned and soon Boards of Canada, who’d been a celebrated act in experimental electronic music since the late nineties, were added to the ‘hauntological canon’. Unlike Ghost Box, in 2006 Boards of Canada were no longer the latest thing (a review of their Campfire Headphase in The Wire had given them an aftertaste of ‘mouldy old trip hop’), but their huge influence on Ghost Box and its artists can’t be denied. The Boards of Canada albums Music Has the Right to Children (1998) and Geogaddi (2002) are reminders that a simultaneously Arcadian and sinister musical hauntology based on cut-up samples, vintage synthesiser technology and a faded modernism arising from mid-twentieth-century television, science, public education, childhood and spirituality was being practiced both on disc and in self-designed label art years before Ghost Box’s equally compelling and more specific project developed the theme.
Boards of Canada are brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, born in Scotland and 1970 and 1971 respectively. Having spent part of their childhood in Canada, the name ‘Boards of Canada’ references the National Film Board of Canada, whose science and nature documentaries from the seventies provide them with fodder for hauntological estrangement. Musically, these documentaries often used a quasi-modal, minimalist synthesiser idiom influenced by the likes of Tangerine Dream that was relatively common in functional music during the seventies and eighties, and which, twenty to thirty years later, becomes evocative because it’s practically extinct. The style’s modernist flavour, relative to much of today’s music, evokes a forward thinking, futurist and potentially utopian atmosphere that seems quaint today. In Boards of Canada’s music this style haunts the nineties and the noughties, confusing the clear-cut, conventional senses of ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ and leading us to wonder what happened to it. The various sorts of weathering they apply to this material (usually involving poor quality, nth generation tape copies or headroom-excess noise) heightens the effect of this temporal-clash, as does the combination of contemporary experimental breaks with the comparatively old-fashioned synthesiser style.
The opening of Geogaddi, where ‘Ready lets go’ leads into ‘Music is math’, is one of the most memorable moments in Boards of Canada’s discography. The tape weathering on ‘Ready lets go’ isn’t particularly heavy, but higher frequencies are attenuated and mild compression can be heard when the broken chords of the upper part enter, both sonic hallmarks of a twentieth-century domestic cassette player. A low-pass filter on the synthesiser is opened and closed randomly, apparently by hand, and the synthesiser’s pitch is oscillating slowly and gently, reproducing the effect of a warped tape or record spinning in the machine thus ‘breaking the fourth wall’ – we’re listening to a listening experience, listening about listening. More complex, psychedelic sounds of indeterminate origin can be heard in the distance towards the track’s end.
The warm drones of ‘Ready lets go’ then give way to the still warping but higher-pitched, colder crystalline facets of ‘Music is math’, connoting (partly with the help of the title) a rational, scientific tone. A metronomic pulse enters and a lo-fi, slowed-down vocal sample intones ‘the past inside the present’. When the breaks arrive they’re complex and heavily processed, sounding like the mastication of some large, strange creature. A pitch-altered human voice picks out a slow and simple melody characterised by falling perfect fourths, adding to the atmosphere of dignified, scientific sobriety. As the track continues the original synth riff fades away and is replaced by an assortment of ethereal noises that swoop and reverberate around whatever space the music has opened up. Perhaps ‘Music is math’s’ slow evolution from a geometrically rigid idiom into a darker, more chaotic animal suggests that the title is an idealistic lie, that music actually isn’t math, that there is a zone in music beyond mathematical understanding, and that musical style can never truly reach the perfection of maths (which is true of tuning systems at least). On top of a musical style that’s already ghostly, the music and the math haunt one another. The complication of symbolic oppositions like ‘rationality vs irrationality’, ‘technology vs nature’ and ‘order vs chaos’ is a characteristic of Boards of Canada’s music, and Geogaddi explores this with a captivating sophistication and balance.
The temporal and ontological dislocation implied by an act of sampling can be seen as inherently hauntological, and as experimental hip hop Boards of Canada’s music is certainly no exception. One of my favourite uses of sampling on Geogaddi is in the vignette track ‘Dandelion’, which samples the narrator (as it happens it’s famous Canadian Leslie Nielsen) of a documentary about scientific sea exploration. Sections of this sample alternate with synthesiser passages and outline a relatively logical discussion of seabed geology until suddenly a bizarre but intriguingly poetic sentence throws us off: ‘a new contraption to capture a dandelion in one piece has been put together by the crew’, probably referring to a certain sort of sea anemone called a dandelion. After a further phrase (‘the preparation for a dive is always a tense time’), the first sentence is repeated, and the subsequent fadeout implies that this loop goes on indefinitely. The otherworldly sound of the synthesiser passages between Nielsen’s comments is caused by the reversal of the tape on which they were recorded – this effect is common throughout Geogaddi and while it’s generally psychedelic and frustrates the usual expectations of seventies documentary music, the association with representations of time and nostalgia is obvious.
Another vignette on Geogaddi, ‘Beware the Friendly Stranger’, has a high-pitched, unquantised melody in a minor-like mode accompanied by an indeterminate crackling sound that could be rainwater, fire, tape crackle or something else. This sound continues for several seconds after the synthesiser stops, and we begin to hear very faint background noises of children in a large outdoor space. Together with the track’s title, we get the sense that something ominous but unknowable is being hinted at.
Subtle intimations of paedophilic predation also lie just below the surface in ‘Sixtyten’ from the appropriately titled Music Has the Right to Children, in which a child’s or young woman’s voice seems to say ‘get off me’, and periodically, in more of a panic, ‘get offa me!’.
Children’s voices, often sampled from the American kid’s educational TV show Sesame Street, can be heard throughout Boards of Canada’s music. One of the weirdest instance is in Geogaddi’s ‘Gyroscope’, where a severely sonically mangled kid or young woman slowly counts out numbers with what sounds like heavy concentration. It’s been pointed out that this sound is reminiscent of number stations – shortwave radio stations of unknown origin that seem to transmit coded messages using music and recited letters and numbers, associated with spies.
Besides ‘the past inside the present’ and the allusions to childhood, some samples connote the past and nostalgia in themselves. A prominent percussion part in ‘Kid for Today’ on the EP ‘In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ samples a slide projector machine (the EP itself is decorated with slide-like images), suggesting a nostalgic revisitation of childhood memories – the early years of many people born in the seventies are documented on slides.
Boards of Canada occasionally sample or mimic Native American music. The aboriginal ghost is a recurring theme in horror stories (Indian burial grounds are hinted at as the cause of contemporary calamity in The Shining), but in the context of seventies Canadian documentary-making, these inclusions also have an air of the anthropological or the socially progressive. North America is haunted (metaphorically at least) by its colonial past, namely the near-extinction of Native Americans and their culture, and the sound of their music is a reminder of this. ‘Alpha and Omega’ and ‘A is to B as B is to C’ on Geogaddi feature flutes (the latter also drums), reminiscent of Native American music, while Music has the Right to Children’s ‘Kaini Industries’ contrasts a slick synthesiser riff with a coda consisting of a lo-fi sample of Native American music, as if Native Americans were always behind the scenes and get a final say.
It’s not just the decaying technology and sampling effects that undermine the utopianism of Boards of Canada’s world. Both In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country and Geogaddi allude to the horribly derailed religious utopianism / millenarianism of the Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventist sect, some of whom came to follow the self-proclaimed Messiah David Koresh in the events leading up to the 1993 siege by the FBI of the ‘Koreshians’’ compound near Waco, Texas, which ended in the deaths of eighty-two people. Though I’ve been unable to confirm it, the phrase ‘In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ is thought to be a description of Waco attributed to Amo Bishop Roden, a prominent figure in the non-Koreshian Branch Davidian community (the EP’s second track is named after her), and the full quote is read out by a female voice in the EP’s title track: ‘come out and live with a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country’. The artwork of In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country features a blurred photograph of David Koresh. As with the GDR postcard, the bucolic utopianism promised by the ‘beautiful place out in the country’ is tainted by knowledge of what really happened.
Geogaddi’s ‘1969’ contains a tuned sample from a documentary on the Branch Davidians referring to Amo Bishop Roden: ‘although not a follower of David Koresh, she’s a devoted Branch Davidian’. But here, the words ‘David Koresh’ have been backmasked, as if as an act of superstition or the encoding of secret knowledge. Another sample repeatedly intones ‘1969 in the sunshine’, its ambiguously utopian associations (the year was arguably the height of the countercultural movement and resistance to the increasingly brutal Vietnam war) raising questions about meaning.
Backmasking is notorious for its supposedly Satanist intentions, and this is something Boards of Canada tease listeners with, backmasking the word ‘satanist’ in Geogaddi’s ‘Alpha and Omega’ and the words ‘a god with horns’ in ‘You Could Feel the Sky’ alongside the sounds of a bonfire. Slow the latter down further until things become decidedly spooky and screams and church bells can be heard among the words, which are now deep and demonic. The album’s final track ‘Magic Window’ is completely silent, but it does serve the purpose of bringing the album’s full length up to sixty-six minutes and six seconds – 666, the number of the beast.
Boards of Canada wrestle with the fraught utopianism of counterculture, psychedelia and the natural world, but do so – with an elegantly seamless paradoxicality – in the context of a childhood characterised by a synthesised, scientific and technological modernism and the taming and classification of the natural world through photography, field trips and television programmes. Their project is a bizarre sort of nature documentary in itself, one that confuses and mystifies rather than explains and educates, its cameras and microphones pointed inwards at the mind, watching it as it receives and evaluates information about the world outside. The ghost in Boards of Canada’s decaying machinery is humanity, born of and separated from the natural world, and who in turn has many ghosts of its own.
Figure in Mountain Landscape: Peter Doig and the Corpse of Painting
Interviewer: How about your treatment of source photographs?
Peter Doig: Sometimes paint gets spilled or sprayed on them, and it adds an unexpected layer that you can then refer to. The reality of the original feels less constricting, and this provides an opening. It takes the reality away from the photograph and turns it into a more abstract image.
The Impressionist Painter. ‘But those are the colours of a corpse!’ ‘Yes; unfortunately I can’t get the smell right.’ – Caption to a caricature from the satirical magazine Charivari, 1877.The similarities between the lives and works of Boards of Canada and the painter Peter Doig are quite surprising. Like the Sandison brothers, Doig was born in Edinburgh, but just over a decade earlier in 1959, like them he moved to Canada at a young age and spent many of his early years there. Like them his work explores a tension between the designs of humanity and the wild, natural world it has to reckon with, and like them this tension is expressed at a close formal level, with the figurative representation of external reality always on the cusp of decaying into a subjective flow of sublime abstraction.
Like a number of ‘problem painter’ artists today, Doig’s work negotiates the ‘Death of Painting’ – he seems to paint about painting, each canvas becomes an allegory of the strangely beautiful problems, inadequacies and imperfections of creative vision. In his ‘Figure in Mountain Landscape’ series, each painting is a different realisation of the motif of a hooded landscape painter, demonstrating the precariousness of figurative painting, both in its content and its execution. Its lurid colouration gives the appearance of a chemical decay in the pigment as on celluloid film (working at different rates for different paints, causing the holes and unevenness), the contours of the landscape the painter sees are far from clear, and any sense of distance and perspective is conjecture at best. It’s not entirely clear where the painter is positioned, and no easel can be seen (could the figure’s ‘painting’ be imaginary?). The oddly dark and threatening grass in the foreground, which seems to be taking the image over from the bottom up, has the logic of a child’s drawing, and the tall point in painter’s hood gives her/his task mystical air.
Doig’s damaged and messy painting technique argues that art is no transparent window onto the world, and cannot depict the objective ‘truth’. If, consequently, painting is ‘dead’, then these paintings are decomposing. Other paintings are riddled with blotches and flecks, as if the canvases had become giant Petri dishes full of bacteria, mould and mildew brought on by rising damp.
In some cases this visual interference seems to be woodland detritus floating on an amazingly reflective and sometimes rippling body of water. One series of paintings takes as a starting point a number of stills from the last moments of the original 1980 version of seminal slasher flick Friday the 13th, making them into ectoplasmic glimpses frozen in time.
In the closing minutes of Friday the 13th, after all but one of a party of new councillors for the newly reopened Camp Crystal Lake had been murdered (a portentous old man had warned them that they were ‘all doomed’, but did they listen?), the sole survivor Alice escapes onto Crystal Lake in a canoe. Camp Crystal Lake is haunted, metaphorically if not literally: in the late fifties young camper Jason Voorhees had drowned in the lake, and a subsequent spate of murders saw the place closed. The killer had turned out to be Jason’s mother, but with her now safely decapitated and the terrifying ordeal over we hear sugary, hopeful music playing as Alice sleeps in the drifting canoe, the sun rising over the blissful scene just as the cops arrive to call her from the water’s edge. Then, famously, this peace is utterly shattered – the drowned boy Jason is not as dead as we thought and rises out the water quickly and without warning, his skin partly decomposed or suffused with pond murk, grabbing Alice and overturning the canoe. Alice then wakes up screaming in hospital, and asks the attendant cop whether they found ‘the boy Jason’: ‘mam, we didn’t find any boy’, to which she replies, wide-eyed, ‘then he’s still there’. Leaving it ambiguous as to whether Jason was real or the illusion of a traumatised mind, the final shot of the film is a close-up of the waters of Crystal Lake.
Looking at Doig’s interpretation of the moments before Jason rose up out of the lake, there’s an overwhelming sense of ‘what happened next’ – Jason haunts the dream-like, utopian scenes, seeming to infect the paintings with the dirt and decomposition associated with his own watery grave. Hauntings traditionally result from moments of psychic trauma or injustice that relive themselves over and over again (The Shining is a prime example, see k-punks article on the hauntological aspects of that film), and Doig’s images enable this process by freeze-framing immediately before the moment of trauma. The series also compares the strengths and weaknesses of film and painting as artistic media – as with the reopening of Camp Crystal Lake and its fresh-faced new councillors (poor Kevin Bacon), painting is doomed to failure, death and the attentions of ghosts.
Another series of Doig paintings can be seen as a close analogue of Boards of Canada’s music. After visiting a Unité d’Habitation in Briey-en-Forêt designed by Le Corbusier in 1957 (note the date: the year Jason Voorhees drowned and two years before Doig’s birth), Doig made a series of paintings of the grid-like, geometrical facades of the buildings partially obscured by dark and foreboding forests, making the sense of two contradicting layers seem quite apparent. Notable by their absence, no people can be seen occupying the utopian, modernist living-space or the surrounding forest – there’s no sense of date, but it could even be a distant future with the human race long gone. Again, humanity, its history and the sublime of the natural world all haunt each other.
‘Something to cry about’: D-L Alvarez and the Death of the Future
The Jason Voorhees of the original Friday the 13th is an example of another type of ghost: the ontologically paradoxical child, which also featured in films such as Don’t Look Now and Bunny Lake is Missing. The dead child can represent innocence and the future betrayed or denied. Artist D-L Alvarez, born in California in 1965, has done a series of sculptures consisting of colourful children’s clothes sewn together into vaguely anthropomorphic shapes and draped over ominously suggestive wooden planks. Their title Something to Cry About, which is also the name of a song by country singer Clint Black (‘you say your heart’s got scars that you can’t even see… all I’ve got is a hole where my heart used to be’) and a book arguing against corporal punishment, implies the mourning of a real or metaphorical childhood death, and their appearance evokes the tradition of the ghostly white sheet.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn. – Ernest Hemingway's six-word story.
Alvarez is most well known however for his unique style of drawing archival photographs showing scenes from the past. In an elegiac nod to the modernist imaging process of earlier artists like Mondrian, Alvarez divides his image into a grid of squares and rectangles, each of which is then filled in with the average shade of the all pictorial information inside the square. This exasperating task actually draws attention to its own lack of success (it has a low level of ‘resolution’) in clarifying the image – indeed this method is a de-clarification of the photographs, and the use of pencil flies in the face of the smooth, bold colours of Mondrian’s modernism. Just as human or technological imaging methods and modes of representation are insufficient to express the forms of the world, so the ghosts of history can’t easily be overcome. Alvarez’s exhausting, persistently haunted pixelated scenes are ambiguous attempts at exorcism, at replaying and pinning down the moment where the portentous ghosts of the Real got the upper hand - he’s written that his work ‘often spotlights that moment just before the storm breaks’.
Many of Alvarez’s drawings are based on images that bring to mind the utopian ideals of mid-twentieth century counterculture. Beneath the pixelated glass, as if seen through a lo-fi, time-travelling television, Rise and Determined seem to show scenes of mass protest or demonstration. Appropriately enough, the word ‘revolution’ is left incomplete.
\ \ \ and 0 0 have tellingly mute, post-symbolic titles. Alvarez explains that they’re based on scenes in the story of Charles Manson and his quasi-commune ‘Family’ of followers, who murdered many during the summer of 1969 as preparation for an apocalyptic race war, or ‘Helter Skelter’, which many see as the moment the West coast countercultural / ‘hippie’ movement lost its innocence and turned sour (remember Boards of Canada’s ‘1969 in the sunshine’, and the Manson murders share a number of similarities with the story of David Koresh and Waco). \ \ \ depicts a hopeful-looking Ruth Ann Morehouse, a member of Manson’s Family nicknamed ‘Ouisch’. Again, we know the ‘what happened next’ that makes the apparent bliss of the image so poignant. 0 0 shows the dying embers of a campfire – the artist notes that the Manson Family used to ‘dance barefoot on the glowing cinders of a dying fire to prove a state of mind over matter’. Alvarez’s technique asserts to the contrary that mind remains tragically under matter.
‘The only possible perspective on painting’: Luc Tuymans’s violent indifference
There is a sort of indifference in my paintings which makes them more violent, because any objects in them are as if erased, cancelled – Luc TuymansTuymans’s pale, surly paintings show the trace that remains when stains can’t be bleached away and images can’t be erased, how objects can be apparently cancelled and yet still remain. Like Doig, Alvarez and other problem painters associated with questions of painting’s death, Tuymans (Belgian, born 1958) bases much of his work on found photographs which he reinstates hauntologically, making them do the bidding of cultural ghosts. In some cases they just speak to a drab existence of still life, flowers and urban living reduced to a resigned banality.
But cultural ghosts have been multiplying at an alarming rate in Europe since Marx first suggested that one of them was the possibility of communism – the criminal events of fascism, war, genocide and colonialism will never truly fade away. Adorno argued that ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and what makes Tuymans’s attention to darker historical subject matter so chilling is that his unsurprised, unromantic and unmoved imaging style remains largely the same when he addresses his country’s involvement in the Congo or the gas chambers and their architects. (Saint Passionate writes more on Tuymans here: ‘In Tuymans, there is a paranoiac knot binding the opposed threads of utter triviality and looming significance, all appeals to reason interrupted by the dizzyingly banal, like jokes told at a crime scene.’) Like Doig and Alvarez, Tuymans doesn’t depict the moment of psychic trauma itself but sidesteps it, leaving only ominous metonymic snapshots.
Patterns in the Noise: The Artifacts of Dan Hays
The grid… is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. – Rosalind Krauss
I do wonder if I’d paint landscapes if I lived in the landscape. It’s a kind of perverse idealism. I get an ironic pleasure working with the landscape while being removed from it… I revel in that ambivalence, finding it fascinating how the more removed from nature we are, the more our desire and yearning for it seems to increase. Depictions of landscape are a good substitute for the real thing – the real thing being unattainable – Dan Hays
Everything that we see disperses, fades away. Nature is always the same, even though its visible manifestations eventually cease to exist. Our art must shock nature into permanence, together with the components and manifestations of change. Art must make nature eternal in our imagination. What lies behind nature? Nothing perhaps. Perhaps everything. – Paul Cézanne
If a work is successful, I have feelings of doubt towards it. There’s something left that I’m not sure about – Dan HaysI probably don’t need to emphasise the relationship between ghosts and aging technology, but it’s no surprise that since the late twentieth century, as DVD, digital radio, digital recording, digital cameras, digital television and mobile phones were coming onto the scene, noisy ghosts started coming out of videotapes (the Ring), analogue radio (Frequency), analogue noise on television and audio tape (White Noise and Fissures), cameras (Shutter), telephones (One Missed Call), television transmissions (Dead Waves) and even the internet (Pulse). Nor is it surprising that films like these often originate from Japan, a culture traditionally devoted to both frontline technology and all kinds of spirits and vengeful ghosts. One day soon we’ll probably be haunted by ghosts made of jpeg compression artifacts once they too become a thing of memory and nostalgia, but in one case they’re already here. Dan Hays’s pixelated paintings of Colorado speak a figurative language not unlike those of Doig, Alvarez and Tuymans and like them these paintings are based on photographs.
See, Dan Hays has never been to Colorado – but his doppelganger lives there. In the late nineties Hays, from the UK, found a website run by a Coloradoan who was not only also called Dan Hays but was something of an artist too. The website of the US Dan Hays documented the natural beauty of his home state with digital photographs, but it was the low resolution and relatively poor compression of these images that caught the attention of the UK Dan Hays, who transmuted them, pixel by pixel, into paintings much larger than the originals. The results are a breath-taking and baffling technical achievement (in many cases it took months to complete these poor-quality, ostensibly futile images) giving rise to all sorts of cultural and metaphorical resonance. The rather dysfunctional dialogue between the two Dan Hayses, both very different artists in certain ways and yet similar in others, reflects the two-step process of hauntological art – the US Dan Hays provides the first, ‘original’, idealistic layer, the UK Dan Hays, using only a process of appropriation and relative augmentation, demonstrates a second, deconstructive layer. The UK Dan Hays presents the images produced by the US Dan Hays as problematic, garbled communications from the wilderness of the Real.
Hays’s Colorado style is an ironic parody of the modernist idioms of impressionism (note the title ‘Colorado impression’), post-impressionism, pointillism, cubism and De Stijl. These dead painterly ancestors are dimly viewed through the glitchy representational technology of jpeg. In particular, the ‘Colorado Impression’ paintings 6 and 11 recall Cézanne’s late paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire in Provence made over the turn of the twentieth century. Cézanne aimed to represent an essence of nature in its idealistic permanence, and did so, perhaps paradoxically, with a visual language that was unwilling to represent nature in precise detail – while Cézanne turned away from reality so as to paint nature in the Imaginary, Hays reproduces nature as seen through the lens of today’s technological Symbolic.
As with Boards of Canada’s warped, eroded tape, Peter Doig’s rotting celluloid and D-L Alvarez’s graphite pixelation, Dan Hays demonstrates the failure and decay of technological media during the task of re-presentation, and, once again, allegorises the ultimately tragic endeavour of human art(ifice) in doing so – Nature becomes a ghost.
‘The Harmony Programme’: The Supernatural Utopia of Ghost Box
‘Ghost Box releases conjure a sense of artificial déja vu, where you are duped into thinking that what you are hearing has its origin somewhere in the late 60s or early 70s. Not false, but simulated, memory. The spectres in Ghost Box’s hauntology are the lost contexts which, we imagine, must have prompted the sounds we are hearing; lost programmes, uncommissioned series, pilots that were never followed up… this is sound which offers itself as a series of part-objects, supplements, a collector’s kit for a collection that can never be complete. – k-punk
‘Rather than pastiche, where everything is on the surface, there’s a way of triggering one’s memory of things that confuses rather than makes apparent.’ – Julian House, a.k.a. The Focus GroupA ‘ghost box’ is an electronic signal-receiving device alleged to be able to pick up transmissions from the dead, which was how the haunting happened in White Noise. It’s also the name of a record label, founded by Julian House and Jim Jupp in 2004, entirely devoted to a very specific hauntological venture. Its artists take as their starting point the pioneering electronic music that accompanied British public service radio and television in the nineteen-sixties and –seventies (a main reference-point being the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, whose theme-tune for Doctor Who became the first wholly electronic piece to reach a mass audience), and convincingly work into it a sense of dark mystery that you’d have thought was at odds with its characteristically confident, brightly-lit modernity. This creepier aspect often comes from a wider context of British story-telling, particularly the Gothic horror of turn-of-the-century writers like Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood and the creepy occult/pagan spiritualism often found therein. Both were favourite topics in the sixties and seventies, with the horror element of many films of the era deriving from un- or anti-Christian spiritualism (The Wicker Man, Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, The Exorcist etc), and family television programming often being darker and more frightening than perhaps it should have been (Children of the Stones and Doctor Who serials such as Image of the Fendahl, The Daemons, Planet of the Spiders, The Pyramids of Mars and the Victorian-London-set The Talons of Weng-Chiang). Adding to this weirdness are the implications that Ghost Box, with its Penguin-esque CD covers resembling a series of school textbooks, is itself a public service institution with an educational agenda. While the Ghost Box project is borne out of a nostalgic love of benevolently didactic public broadcasting, there is a concomitant fear that its seductively confident, ‘rational’ controllers could be slipping something ‘wrong’ (as in both ‘incorrect’ and ‘immoral’), something a little bit sinister into your supply.
The electronic character pieces Jupp writes under the name Belbury Poly often express this Jekyll-and-Hyde (a key work of nineteenth-century Gothic horror) duality with subtle and compelling balance in the areas of melody, harmony, use of sampling and, most interestingly, inventively irregular forms that imply wordless but oddly specific narratives. The name ‘Belbury Poly’ comes from C.S. Lewis’s 1945 novel That Hideous Strength, it being the name of the town where the menacing National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E., ironically) is based, a scientific and social planning agency secretly controlled by alien super-beings and aiming to wipe out humanity, and ‘Poly’ is short for ‘polytechnic’, a term defunct since 1992 that referred to certain tertiary education institutions. The cover of Belbury Poly’s first album The Willows (named after a short story by Algernon Blackwood) sets the tone with a plastic molecular model of the sort often found in colleges and secondary schools printed in Ben-Day dots – it could have been the cover of a sixties/seventies chemistry textbook but for the album’s mysterious and mildly ominous title and the face of a nineteenth-century Gothic style demon peering out from one of the atoms (there’s a track on Geogaddi called ‘the devil is in the details).
The title track of The Willows is an excellent example of this album’s finely-calibrated ambiguity. It begins with a caustic electronic sound like a piano string plucked with the sustaining pedal on. This repeats every two bars while a randomly panning woodblock sample sets up a purposeful pulse at around 113 bpm. Ominously dissonant synthesiser ostinatos loosely reminiscent of someone like Bernard Herrmann or Jerry Goldsmith scoring ‘danger’ for a sixties film build up before being replaced with the wistful and strangely bucolic eight bar phrase of carefully ambiguous harmonic character that forms the foundation of the main part of the track, being later arpeggiated and melodically developed. The first three two-bar sub-phrases alternate between an unresolved-sounding chord of F minor in the first inversion (i.e. A flat in the bass) and a harmonically richer triad suggesting G flat with a major seventh (though sounding crucially incomplete without the third, the modal heart of the chord), with the F natural of the uppermost voice cohering things by tying over and serving as an inverted pedal or drone. The fourth sub-phrase begins with a medieval-sounding open fifth on B flat (a D flat in the bass surreptitiously fills in the minor third, getting that minor feel under our skin without us really noticing) followed by an open-fifth on E flat, forming a strange sort of cadence. We don’t feel a comfortable return to a main or ‘home’ key (as in a perfect cadence) – if anything that odd B flat minor chord expresses a weak home key and we move away from it, but as an imperfect cadence (i.e. one that moves away from the home key) the fourth scale degree has an at best muted sense of harmonic purpose. The word ‘nostalgia’ originally meant ‘homesickness’, and the eight bar phrase on which ‘The Willows’ is built drifts weirdly through a series of modally ambiguous chords unable to resolve, unable to find and actually undermining any sense of a harmonic home key.
Furthermore, at certain points throughout the track, the final chord of the main phrase is held for an unusually long time and the E flat is reinforced in the bass, all giving a sense of something being temporally ‘wrong’, or ‘stuck’ like a record. The first time this happens, the uppermost voice slowly creeps up to G flat, which momentarily provides us with the third we’d previously been so deprived of, bringing the chord to a full and rather melancholy E flat minor. Only a bar later though, before we’ve really got our bearings, we’re returned to the usual cycle of meandering. The second time this happens the E flat minor chord is held and eventually a snatch of manipulated folky vocal is heard lingering on a melodically tense ninth. Even though E flat minor is hinted as being the true face of the main eight bar phrase’s conclusion, after this point a short melodic run occurring prior to the repeat suggests a quaintly modal version of E flat major (it has a flattened seventh), much sunnier. We really don’t know where we are, and there are strong but unresolved emotions.
‘Farmer’s Angle’, another track on The Willows and also the name of an earlier Belbury Poly EP, has a very different character but shows the same overall tension between the joyful and the threatening. The track’s refrain is like a traditional English dance with its swung rhythms suggesting compound time, accompaniment figuration and melodeon, but the production, with its phasers, synthesisers and touch of reverb hint at the supernatural, not only descriptively but also in a very technical sense – again, challenging the distinction between aboriginal paganism versus modern learning. The dance is insistently repetitious and unusually, ‘unnaturally’ long, this being enabled by solo sections (one of which cheesily improvises around blue notes is an exquisitely evocative stylistic twist) and an almost sarcastic raising of the tonic. A quarter of the way in there’s a subtle manifestation of the demonic: before a repeat of the main refrain, a break retaining the bassline is accompanied by the strange, echoey and backmasking-like sound of a deep, growling breath building up and suddenly cutting out when the refrain re-enters. The title of the track might indicate that the music is the opening theme for a radio show for farmers (and it’s not unlike the theme tune for the rural radio soap opera The Archers), but it also reminds me of the morris dance in the Doctor Who 1971 serial The Daemons, in which agents of Roger Delgado’s Master dressed as morris dancers nearly burn Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, tied to a maypole, alive. There was ecstatic dancing around a maypole accompanied by a catchy tune in The Wicker Man too. In a Ghost Box world, as the dance continues into unnatural territory, it’s like we begin to glimpse little horns buried underneath these weirdly cheerful dancer’s seventies bouffants, and pointed tales emerging from the bottoms of their flares.
The other music-maker at the heart of Ghost Box is Julian House, previously known as a visual artist and designer of album covers. As well as providing the visual language for the label, House has released three discs as The Focus Group, who, according to the Ghost Box website ‘offer us a varied program of musical activities for educational and ritual use’. The music of The Focus Group is almost entirely composed of samples of library music (stock music intended for off-the-shelf public use as the accompaniment to TV, radio and theatre) from the fifties, sixties and seventies, which are chopped up, treated with effects and reassembled, usually ametrically and atonally, into surreal musical collages that can be both amusing and chilling, but are always mystifying.
Unlike lo-fi hauntologists like Boards of Canada and Ariel Pink, whose work is hidden behind a layer of surface decay, the second, deconstructive, hauntological layer in House’s work is constituted in the act of fragmenting the ‘original’ and its logic, and rearranging the pieces in subversive combinations that would seem to point to original meanings and yet do not make sense on the original’s terms. Instead of seeing the past through a dusty pane of glass as before, with this hauntological method we see it through a twisted, shattered lens.
‘Fragment, consider revising’: hauntological deconstruction by way of surrealistic collageSuch a method has a very clear analogue in the visual arts – surrealistic cut-and-paste collage has been around since Dada, and can be applied to the visual idioms of the past in order to subvert and reassess. In art or sound it has the effect of making the source material amusingly or worryingly absurd, reducing what once made respected sense to nonsense. With its source material often derived from the ideology of some quasi-paternal socio-cultural authority, we get the sense as its signifiers are shuffled that ‘daddy’s hat’s fallen off’ (an odd and comical but effective saying recently used in Peep Show meaning that the trusted authority, referring in that case to the business mogul Johnson, has gone mad – his authority, which had been predicated upon his sanity and rationality, is compromised. It’s not just the usual sort of euphemism, like ‘round the bend’ and ‘lost his marbles’, but also has an evocative childishness). This collage style seems to mimic senile dementia – things have gone ‘wrong’, they’re not as they should be, they’re in the incorrect places, like the poignant shoes-in-the-fridge (or some variation thereon) mix-ups associated with Alzheimer’s. Another Ghost Box act, The Advisory Circle, achieves this effect in a couple of tracks by chopping up samples and shuffling the fragments into the ‘wrong’ positions, as Boards of Canada often do too, in a manner akin to Chris Morris’s satirical technique ‘bushwhacking’.
Satisfyingly, Julian House uses the collage technique both in his music and his visual art. Along with his work for Ghost Box, the album cover he designed for Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR seems to be a particularly close equivalent of his M.O. as The Focus Group. In the greyscale background a small jet-plane from the fifties or sixties can be seen, the mouth painted on the front suggesting it’s a military plane. The row of what could be aircraft servicemen in the foreground has been cut out from the original pictorial context according to an abstracted visual logic – the outline of their figures is basically retained, but faces are cut off, and their bodies are angled towards the outside of the picture rather than a central space. Above them, the image of the foremost serviceman’s helmet is repeated, enlarged and altered to greyscale as if to imply that this unassuming motif is somehow important, and underneath it is an area of low-res pixelation. In the corner, printed in redscale, what looks like a civilian in bright, angled sunlight seems to duck under the aircraft as he walks briskly across a concrete surface, while echoes of the plane’s ‘mouth’ close in on him. One might weakly conclude that the image depicts an air force runway prior to activity, but the structurally unconventional manipulation of the elements in the picture points to more mysterious, unknowable meanings and even a sort of asemic commentary on the original material.
Mark Weaver’s collage style is more minimal, more ordered and more formally coherent, but this only serves to articulate the questions of elusive meaning posed by his images more clearly and insistently. In contrast to House’s heterogeneity, Weaver repeatedly uses specific formal templates in combining his source materials, which are carefully taken from consumer catalogues, encyclopaedias, advertising, magazines, postcards and architectural design predominantly from the nineteen-fifties and sixties but sometimes much earlier, and often show a (retro-)futuristic or (retro-)modern aesthetic. While Weaver’s project is similar to that of Ghost Box, his work has a much more North American flavour and in its judicious combinations and parallel-drawing evokes (nostalgically but not unquestioningly) the ‘pioneer spirit’ so often held to characterise American history and ideology.
In one series of images, perfectly circular roundels are superimposed onto square backgrounds that usually depict a breathtaking landscape reproduced in a vintage printing style and are often turned disorientatingly upside down. At the centre of the roundel there’s frequently a single word, number or date, the significance of which seems important, yet it rarely has a clear relationship to the surrounding images – what is ultimately being denoted (if anything) is far from clear. Sometimes the roundel contains a photograph of an unspecified historical figure, giving the overall image the feeling of a memorial, as on banknotes.
At a time of NASA budgetary trouble (and the agency hasn’t sent astronauts beyond low earth orbit since the early seventies), the enterprising spirit of American history returns to haunt the present in ‘Logic Memory Center’, where early twentieth-century US President Theodore Roosevelt (probably the embodiment of many traditional notions of an American ‘pioneering’ / go-getting character) is shown inside a spacesuit from NASA’s first programme of human space flight, Project Mercury, which ran from 1959 to 1963 (long after Roosevelt died), against an inverted backdrop of what could be the Rocky Mountains. Roosevelt is the past of Project Mercury, the past of the past, so what happened, the picture seems to ask, to the trajectory of the future?
Another series appears to show ‘the cities of tomorrow’ – unreal mountains of urban and industrial development made up of bold straight lines and grids with Bauhaus- and Le Corbusier-inspired buildings in the foreground. These cities are strikingly artificial in presentation (they’re literally ‘just on the horizon’) and wholly isolated from their not-so-natural surroundings, which are nothing more than uniform, cloudless electric blue skies and featureless flatland. Adding to the sense of the unreal is a dinosaur wandering around a car park (some sort of educational public sculpture or the real thing?), and a moose seen on a giant television screen. What exactly does the ominous-sounding slogan ‘Nature Programmed’ refer to? And how genuine is the comic book emotion of the man on the television set that crowns ‘The City of Tomorrow’?
In a related series, enormous sixties television sets stand like awe-inspiring monuments in excessively beautiful rural landscapes rendered in artificial colour. Some seem to show Hollywood films, others documentaries, and in some, never-manufactured retro-futuristic commuter vehicles burst out from the screen into the surrounding environment. These images seem to be weird advertisements for television and all its joys, evoking the TV boom of the fifties and sixties that ushered in a whole new age for symbolic economies and representational modes. We’re being told that TV takes you places, takes you to Nature – yet as adverts these pictures heighten an awareness of the distinction between a TV world of simulacra and reproduction and a Real, natural world that no amount of television can truly recreate. Ironically, with the magic of television you go ‘back to nature’ by turning your ‘back to nature’: instead of observing Nature ourselves, we are urged to see it reproduced, framed, ‘programmed’ through the medium of television. As with the Dan Hays’ lo-fi camera, Peter Doig’s wilderness impressionism and Boards of Canada’s documentaries overtaken by Natural decay, Nature, just like the past (the two seem unanimous), is made into a ghost in the machine.
‘A small child’s view of the world’: Neo Rauch’s Historical Toy Box
I have turned to a mood, or a level of perception that I had back when I was three, four or five years old. At first it was subconscious, but increasingly it became intentional. It’s a small child’s view of the world. To a small child the world still seems very magical – Neo RauchThe paintings of Neo Rauch are strikingly equivalent, both formally and topically, to the music of The Focus Group. Both appropriate vocabularies used by progressive, socially-orientated institutions and authorities to communicate with the masses in post-war Europe and re-combine elements from them into wildly incongruous structures that seem to beg for answers and meaning. Both artists can be read as attempting to understand and come to terms with the past – their languages mimic the workings of a schizophrenic mind, shattered into dysfunctional fragments by some unknown trauma and trying to piece together ‘what it all meant’ but only failing. It’s like watching someone working away on a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what was on the front of the box or whether all the pieces are there, or even which pieces may have come from different puzzle sets altogether.
But while Julian House is British, Rauch (born 1960 in Leipzig) grew up in the German Democratic Republic and was thirty when Germany was reunified. Prior to around 2003, Rauch’s references are the comic strips, billboards, instruction manuals and design of nineteen-fifties East Germany, a brightly coloured reflection of the quickly disappearing country’s sometimes kitschy ‘socialist realist’ style, now fondly remembered as part of ‘Ostalgie’. The result is a sort of East German pop art, Rauch being to Eastern-bloc socialism what James Rosenquist was to an emerging atmosphere of late capitalism. But where Rosenquist’s collages are visually slick, impersonal and fetishistic, Rauch’s are often more of a drippy, painterly mess, resembling slapdash and unfinished poster-painting or public murals. They integrate a human element not only through imperfect execution but also in their strange attempts to depict (as Rosenquist almost never did) the relatively coherent forms of citizens going about their business in a mixed-up modern world. Often these figures are seen in profile or with their backs turned, working away as labourers in some unfamiliar industry, often they seem to be struggling in the midst of a bizarre sport or conflict, though the differences between the former and the latter are usually glaringly unclear. Each image could be a socialist mural deconstructed and de-rationalised, indecisive about whether it’s depicting The Beauty of Labour or The Workers’ Struggle and allowing all previously proactive meaning and purpose to decay tragically into seemingly flat, artificial absurdity – socialism gone ‘wrong’.
Like many of Weaver’s collages, the titles of The Focus Group’s tracks and pop-artist Ed Ruscha’s paintings, Rauch’s concoctions are often mysteriously presided over by a single word or phrase, dramatically heightening the effect of their paucity of meaning. These words seem like the slogans or product names that advertisements and public information posters are built around, and yet they fail to deliver the denotive clarification we expect of them. Instead they bring in new connotations and new questions – that Rauch renders them in highly stylised fonts just thickens the alienating flow of semiotic flotsam and jetsam.
Rauch’s work is about as hauntological as it’s possible to get – his spectres of socialism and modernity haunt the viewer with their unclear ontologies, anti-logic and messages beyond meaning. Even my heuristic two-layer separation of ‘original’ material content and a ‘hauntological’ formal manipulation becomes palpably problematic. His more recent paintings shift focus to pre-war and nineteenth-century subjects and adopt a more naturalistic painting and compositional style, bringing him away from a deconstruction of the medium of painting. He continues to summon ghosts of German history however, taking their likeness now from his country’s most nation(alistic)ally notable periods, the Germany of Schiller, Beethoven, Goethe, Hegel, Heine, the Schlegels, Hoffmann, Schubert, Nietzsche and Wagner, weaving its players into complex murals that don’t provide clear messages.
Rauch describes his artistic perspective as that of a child, and the evocative objects he uses end up resembling the emptied out contents of a box of miscellaneous toys. A child’s toys are usually a ragtag bunch made to play surreal games, never quite what the manufacturers had in mind (our Thundercats figurines were twice the size of G.I. Joes and Action Men towered over everyone but they could all spend an afternoon as a team scaling a bookcase or making war on a giant rabbit), and Rauch’s paintings show the remnants of these adventures, their participants left strewn across the floor like clues. Yet we know that the figures and objects they show point to real and often sensitive social and historical purposes. Why does Rauch, like so many hauntologists, revert (as he himself admits) to something akin to childhood when handling material laden with challenging historical connotation? It’s probably more than a simple case of childhood being in one’s past and the past being in one’s childhood: for many of those that feel its effects, the collapse of the Enlightenment project means an awareness of Western culture’s social, aesthetic and political naivety. With the Western world, particularly Germany given its turbulent role, realising that it doesn’t have all the answers and still learning how to achieve (or give up on) the genuinely utopian, it’s the world-view of the child that seems like a truer picture of one’s cultural experience than that of the confidently ‘learned’ grown-up.
‘Good kids make bad grown-ups’: Ariel Pink, the Son of the Future
Tape: Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. The voice! Jesus! And the aspirations! – from Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape
Interviewer: Do you think your ten-year-old self would like the music you’re doing now?The hauntological effect of Ariel Pink’s music is immediately obvious – his energetic, upbeat, and melodious songs, most written in the last decade, have a flavour reminiscent of seventies-eighties pop and rock, and yet they have a strikingly lo-fi sound. Most of this is technological and down to Pink’s use of an aging 8-track tape recorder, which seems to furnish his songs with attenuated high and low frequencies, headroom-exceeding, audible tape-editing and an overall wash of hiss and crackle, but the use of closely-miked oral sound effects in place of a drum set, the often wildly heterogeneous song structures, the peculiar vocal stylings and the less-than-metronomic playing also add to the overall sense of an all-too-human imperfection. For many fans this quality is the primary aesthetic characteristic and appeal of Pink’s music: listeners could be forgiven for romantically reading a level of irony, even tragic irony into Pink’s sound, as if his releases were now-dusty, labour-of-love demo tapes made in 1983 and then forgotten, found in some basement and now poignantly summoning the ghost of a young man who had a minimum of means and a big dream to become a lycra-clad pop star, but never ‘made it’. Like a lot of hauntological art, Pink’s songs can seem to speak to a past that disappeared and a future that never came – we no longer live in a world (or at least not here in the UK) in which Ariel Pink’s gleefully glammy music feels ‘true’, and that the lo-fi qualities seem to undermine and contradict the idealistic gusto of the songs reinforces this impression.
Ariel Pink: Absolutely. I’m still him.
Get a little deeper into Pink’s music, however, and as a statement on his entire stylistic output this reading may begin to seem a little simplistic, even presumptuous. Pink is hardly an ironic, tragic or haunting figure, his music has genuine joy and exuberance and a truth of its own – far from being a defining aesthetic punch-line, the lo-fi aspect of the music is a means to Pink’s end of producing warmly human pop, and reviewers and interviewers seem far more interested in it than he himself is. (Pink’s friend John Maus could be said to write hauntological pop, but again, it can get more complicated than that – I’ve written about his album Love is Real here).
Having said that, there are moments in Pink’s music when a hauntological dimension is clearly manifested. The most fascinating example of this is ‘Artifact’, which appears on the album Worn Copy. Its lyrics imply that the recording itself is a sort of time capsule, an ‘artifact’ of a previous, happier era or ‘golden age’, now consigned to history by some cataclysm, and yet it’s simultaneously a time-travelling warning from the future to its past, the present. Derrida quoted Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Spectres of Marx: ‘the time is out of joint’, a quote picked up by k-punk and closely associated with hauntology. In ‘Artifact’, the time is very much out of joint:
I am the son of the futureIn Samuel Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape ‘a wearish old man’ named Krapp is celebrating his sixty-ninth birthday. Krapp records his own voice on reel-to-reel tape as a personal diary, and to mark the occasion he’s listening back to the tape he’d made on his thirty-ninth birthday. As in ‘Artifact’, his thirty-nine-year-old self discusses his health, his mother (who had recently died) and future aspirations. Afterwards Krapp records a new tape, noting his hostile reaction to his youthful arrogance. In ‘Artifact’, Ariel Pink could be communicating with his previous, younger self: the ‘we’ in the song’s opening seems to refer to the younger and older Pinks, and ‘these words’, which originate from ‘the golden age’, refers to the song itself. The song is aware of and affected by (indeed, part of) its own future, a temporal paradox which situates it in the past, present and future simultaneously. It’s both dead and alive – its ontology as an utterance is highly problematic, as is that of the speaker and the listener. If there was ever a ‘hauntological song’, this is it.
25 years from now
Now think: try recalling the golden age
Where we heard these words for the first time
Please come back to the exact spot we’re at
We’re speaking right now
Never forget the golden age
Doncha hear that this song is Forever
Never forget the golden age
Notice it didn’t remain as remembered
Never forget the golden age
A quarter century from now
Never forget the golden age
It never used to make you sad
But now you lost what you never knew you had
This is an artifact of that
This is an artifact of that
If this is you, twenty-five years accrued
Disregard, the following’s for the old you
Who hasn’t heard this before
Son, I gotta tell ya bout the future see its
a living Hell, it’s not at all like the golden age
they’re gonna kill ya comforts with worries
pertaining to your health, pertaining to ya future
pertaining to ya mama
Never forget the golden age
A man of wealth you saw yourself someday
Never forget the golden age
Where is the soldier
He used to be so brave
He left a martyr and came back a slave
Neither teachers nor dads could see the world
That they brought ya to was bad
This is an artifact of that
This is an artifact, artifact of that
When the terrorists
Spread the plague through
Computer screens and we die
And they erase what was left of the West
Just a shopping mall
In twenty-five minutes I want
You to come back
And recall the first time
In twenty-five minutes
The world’s gonna crack
It’s all gonna crack
Remember this tune made you laugh
But these days a laugh’s
Just an artifact
Artifact of that
It never used to make you sad
But now you lost what you never knew you had
This is an artifact of that
This is an artifact of that
The lyrics suggest that there are two potential listening-contexts for the song, firstly in the ‘golden age’, before the Apocalypse (‘the terrorists spread the plague through computer screens and we die’) and secondly in the post-apocalyptic age (‘if this is you, twenty-five years accrued, disregard the following…’), where the golden age is sorely missed but the song itself remains, fondly remembered. The future Pink warns the past Pink about the apocalypse, both in the sense of a literal event and the disillusionment brought by the passing of time, his mournful refrain imploring all listeners to ‘never forget the golden age’, a line uttered in a hushed tone as if from a distance. In many places in the song, however, it’s far from clear who’s talking to who and what time period they’re from – in the verse, ‘it never used to make you sad / but now you lost what you never knew you had / this is an artifact of that’, the post-apocalyptic, bereaved Pink seems to be talking to himself rather than his younger self, reminding himself and us that the song is an artifact, a relic of the golden age. When Pink says ‘try recalling the golden age’ and ‘recall the first time’, he could be preparing himself for recording the song and/or urging his past self to ensure the song itself will be recorded. Effectively the song wills itself into existence from within a time-loop: Pink receives a message from himself telling him to record a remembrance song so that he can send the song back in time as a message telling himself to record a remembrance song so that he can send etc., setting up a continuous time-loop that has no beginning or end. Time, it seems, can be rewound like tape – present and past can speak to each other, but tragically any message that can be sent is powerless against Fate, and can only (like Doig’s Friday 13th paintings) endlessly re-observe the death of the golden age and urge us to cherish its memory.
The two eras described by the song are separated by twenty-five years, (‘Artifact’ was written sometime between September 2002 and February 2003, as Pink was approaching his twenty-fifth birthday), and the future Pink warns that the apocalypse will happen in twenty-five minutes (‘the world’s gonna crack’), giving it a sense of impending doom akin to Ultravox’s ‘Dancing With Tears in My Eyes’ or John Maus’s ‘Pure Rockets’ – again, the song is haunted by knowledge of ‘what happened next’. This apocalypse is only described as a simplistic convergence of mildly incompatible doomsday scenarios (terrorists, plague, computers), giving it a sense of generality or half-remembered popular science. Tellingly and ironically, the only thing left of the West after or prior to this attack is ‘a shopping mall’, something often seen as a temple of capitalism, a symbolic focal point for perceptions of the West’s depthlessly materialistic culture and something that’s useless after the extinction of humanity. This line also harks back to the original version of the archetypal zombie apocalypse film Dawn of the Dead, in which a small band of survivors set up camp in a shopping mall which is then besieged by the living dead. ‘Artifact’ itself is a kind of zombie, a paradoxical union of the states of being alive and being dead, being of the present and of the past.
‘Artifact’s’ connection with zombies goes deeper. The song opens with a sample taken from ‘Paul Simon Nontooth’, a track by the musician and Bahamian émigré to New York Exuma from his 1970 album Exuma II. Exuma’s records, which were largely produced in New York musical circles, have a strong sense of Bahamian national identity and heritage and are full of reference to Afro-Caribbean magic, ritual and spiritual culture, in particular Obeah – Exuma (born Tony McKay) styled himself as an ‘Obeah man’, a shaman-like figure and a supernatural being. In ‘Paul Simon Nontooth’ he performs a zombie revival ritual, calling from the dead the spirit of Paul Simon Nontooth (any connection with the folk singer is unclear, it’s possibly a red herring), which proceeds to make demands and threats and then runs amok, pulling those who summoned him into his grave (his ‘fiery bed’) thus ironically re-opening it. Appropriately enough, ‘Artifact’ uses the point in the revival ritual where the grave and the coffin are being opened (this I’m pretty sure of, but the exact words and their meanings are in an Afro-Caribbean patois and beyond me – any help on this would be greatly appreciated), as if the song is being summoned from the grave into a state of undeath. Those attending the ritual ask of the zombie, ‘tell us why people live and people die, give us riches, give us gold, and we will gladly give our souls’, which seems to parallel Pink’s ‘a wealthy man you saw yourself someday’, ‘golden age’ and the materialistic ‘shopping mall’, while the deaths and return to the grave parallel ‘Artifact’s’ apocalyptic time loop. The track also uses a notable sonic effect: just before the zombie rises, the harmonica player mouths words through the instrument, saying ‘do you hear me calling you?’ – literally speaking through the music across the metaphysical divide, an allegory of ‘Artifact’ and of hauntology itself.
The figure of Exuma and the music he produced are in themselves rather hauntological. His moniker is the name of a district of the Bahamas, but it’s also a homophone of ‘exhumer’. Like the Obeah tradition itself, Exuma is an obstinate spectre of the apocalypse that was the Atlantic slave trade, an unconquerable spirit of African and Afro-Caribbean cultural identity representing that which resisted the Christianity and ‘civilization’ imposed on slaves by their owners, now haunting the North American present (k-punk has written about hauntology and the black Atlantic here – post-colonialism in art, music, literature and film can be particularly hauntological, but that’s outside the scope of this already heavily distended piece). As Exuma puts it in his introductory song ‘Exuma, the Obeah Man’, he has ‘the voices of many in his throat’.
‘Paul Simon Nontooth’ isn’t the only instance of Exuma raising the dead. ‘Séance in the Sixth Fret’ from his first album is exactly that – a communication with the deceased who bring messages to the living by speaking through the Obeah man.
Communion with the dead is an essential part of many African and Afro-Caribbean religions. The now-ubiquitous zombies of Hollywood are partly related to the jumbies of the Obeah tradition in Trinidad & Tobago, which are (and I’m afraid I currently only have wikipedia to back me up on this one) often the lost, evil spirits of children who died before they were baptised – they are recognisable by their backwards-facing feet. Well, it’s hard to think of a better metaphor for hauntology’s backward-looking mourning of the loss of more innocent times than that.
Whither hauntology? Hauntology as aesthetic strategyHauntological art is a characteristic expression of postmodernity, that is (in this case), the cultural scenario in which the utopian aesthetic and political ideals of the Enlightenment and the various twentieth-century modernisms no longer seem entirely valid or trustworthy. The hauntology aesthetic can be seen as a self-aware variation on the usual relatively retrograde and conservative idioms that dominate the postmodern landscape in that it makes a point of deconstructing the old, defunct and ‘untrue’ rather than merely reviving it. Amongst the assorted collapses of idealism that have undermined the drive towards modernist and utopian alternatives, the perceived dissolution of communism as a viable alternative to capitalistic democracy was one of the most powerfully resonant, and led Derrida to use the term ‘hauntology’ to describe the current status of Marxist ideals. Hauntological art leaves us wanting to ask a highly important question of idealism: is Utopia dead or alive?
It cannot be denied that much hauntological art seems to regard twentieth-century progressive ideals with irony and even suspicion. In this way it’s a kind of satire, yet it’s rarely explicitly or decisively clear one way or the other whether the ghosts are satirising us by accusing us of betraying and derailing the future, or whether we’re satirising the ghosts by accusing them of being tragically idealistic or ‘wrong’. But a major part of hauntology’s nature (indeed, its aesthetic power) is this ambiguity over who’s haunting who and why, or more specifically, the finality that that which haunts is irresolvable, unreachable, always ambiguous, suspended in time. In the end, hauntology certainly won’t directly show the way to Utopia, nor will it ever be able to truly ‘show’ anything except a lack. This lack is represented by the ghost, and can never be removed – genuine hauntology is the awareness that the ghosts will always win.
But surely this ghostly lack will show its witnesses that our current existence is left wanting something, namely an aesthetic/political Utopia, and inspire us to do at least something about it (even if, in the end, we won’t truly escape the ghosts). So what about the ability of hauntological art to bring that irresolvable lack to our attention? Is it carrying out this task well, or is it too easily resolving into sentimental nostalgia, romanticism, defeatist tragedy, an illustration of the permanent failure of Enlightenment and modernity – in short, a post-Utopian (Brecht might have called it ‘bourgeois’) ideology describing a ‘tragically permanent human condition’? Are the ghosts winning in this hauntological art, remaining stubbornly dead-yet-alive so as to accuse us? Or are they actually losing out to the post-idealistic ‘wisdom’ of the present day, resolving back into the safely, morally-judged dead? Is it hauntology, or is it merely post-Utopian romanticism? Does it dare us to believe that things could be different, or does it show us that life always has been and always will be tragically sub-Utopian?
Questions like these would evaluate any progressive aspect to hauntological art on a case-by-case basis – a fiddly interpretive task. But I wonder if in many cases it’s too easy for the post-Utopian voices to come across louder than the Utopian ones. If hauntological art were truly alienating us from the temporal status quo, as it should, wouldn’t it be more difficult to swallow, angrier, more confrontational? A great deal of art and music shows hauntological characteristics, but unlike the spectre that Marx claimed was haunting Europe, hauntology’s revolutionary potential has generally remained weak.
What might Brecht have said about how well hauntological art is doings its job of alienating audiences from the temporal status quo? This is from ‘A Dialogue about Acting’, February 1929:
The actors always score great successes in your plays. Are you yourself satisfied with them?True hauntology doesn’t merely show or recall an image of the past, it shows the present – or more specifically, it shows the past as it exists and is perceived from inside the present. Hauntological art is a present-day construction that illustrates the present’s problems as it approaches the future. In its current form, hauntological art’s moment seems to be passing; it’ll always be a fascinating and pertinent movement, but in aesthetic culture as a whole it’s starting to feel like the focus has been on the past for rather a long time now, even if it was wrapped in our problematic present and (as it seems to stand at the moment) weakly, only implicitly anxious about the future. It feels like the past is practically exhausted and the future is getting impatient.
Because they act badly?
No. Because they act wrong.
…How do they [act] at present?
By means of hypnosis. They go into a trance and take the audience with them.
Give an example.
Suppose they have to act a leave-taking. They put themselves in a leave-taking mood. They want to induce a leave-taking mood in the audience. If the séance is successful it ends up with nobody seeing anything further, nobody learning any lessons, at best everyone recollecting. In short, everybody feels.
That sounds almost like some erotic process. What ought it to be like, then?
Witty. Ceremonious. Ritual. Spectator and actor ought not to approach one another but to move apart. Each ought to move away from himself. Otherwise the element of terror necessary to all recognition is lacking.
Are there better, more direct ways of addressing the future through art and music – more striking and effective ways of creating something new?
You may have noticed that Mordant Music, Little Axe, The Caretaker, William Basinski and more are missing from the above essay, that’s because they’ve been covered elsewhere (I’ll be posting a hauntological bibliography up here soon) and I’ve got nothing new nothing to add about them. Burial is also missing, but that’s because his music is the subject of the following essay.
This is the first part in a four-part series of essays on musical pasts, presents and futures. The other parts are:
2. ‘The Premature Burial: Burial the Pallbearer vs Burial the Innovator’.
3. ‘What is a [Classical] Composer?’.
4. ‘The Twenty-First-Centry Modern Composer’.