“A question of repetition: a spectre is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back” (Derrida, Spectres of Marx).
What follows is a longer correspondence that began as a casual conversation at the Hyde Park Art Center. After talking for a bit, I emailed Anthony Elms, “Can I interview you about ghosts?” That was several months ago and ever since, we’ve been emailing back and forth at various interim. Why might I want to ask about ghosts? How does that pertain to a website about contemporary art? Partly, my interest stems from a Q&A I witnessed not too long ago. The conversation centered on the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Consensus assumed the ghost a literary device on Shakespeare’s part. “What if the ghost is real?” someone asked. Blank stares darted around the room. There was an almost impalpable twinge of embarrassment mixed with misunderstanding, “Of course the ghost is only a metaphor,” silence seemed to imply, “ghosts aren’t real.” And the conversation went on to other things.
I got stuck on this notion; what did it mean to say the ghost isn’t real? There is no reason to think the ghost any less real than Hamlet; both characters share the same frame of reference for the audience. And then I began to wonder what it might mean for any ghost to be real. I started reading Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, which is when I encountered Anthony Elms. “I love that book,” he said. “I’ve only just started it,” I said. “Do you think ghosts are real?”
Anthony Elms is an artist, a curator, a writer and an editor of the wondrous press, White Walls, where he has curated a number of projects. His writings have appeared in Afterall, Art Asia Pacific, Art Papers, Artforum, Artforum.com, Cakewalk, May Revue, Modern Painters, New Art Examiner, and Time Out Chicago, but his accomplishments resist a concise sentence. For this and so many reasons, he seemed an especially good person to talk to. I have included the extent of our virtual conversation below. We talk about ghosts for their own sake, try to devise their locations and energetic habits while linking them (perhaps to Elms’ chagrin) to artistic experience.
Caroline Picard: When did your awareness of ghosts begin?
Anthony Elms: I cannot actually remember a time when I was not aware of ghosts. Some of the earliest encounters I can think of are in Looney Tunes and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, not surprisingly, and elaborate costumes my mother would make for Halloween.
CP: How did that process take place?
AE: I really don’t know. I did not grow up in a superstitious family. So it isn’t that there was an environment of believers. That said, when I was growing up we lived in a series of large houses that were empty a lot of the time, and I would often be left to myself, and I never felt alone. A friend in high school really believed in ghosts, and he lived in a house said to be haunted by many. I never saw anything there. Others did. In undergraduate I lived in a place where I was always seeing things. I was never sure. I have had moments over the years where I feel watched by the dead.
CP: How would you describe them?
AE: How would I describe ghosts, you mean?
As a presence that troubles, follows, affects, desires, drives and disturbs.
CP: Do you feel like particular cities have more ghosts than others?
AE: Without doubt. Some cities belong to ghosts more than to the people who live there.
AE: As you know Caroline, it has taken me almost a month to respond to you questions. Most unhelpful to getting this conversation on track for a proper back-and-forth. You were calling out to no response. No pun intended. In part because the questions and thoughts are difficult ones. And, I’ll be honest, in part because of the turn of the
conversation, of trying to think about ghosts in the context of art. I wasn’t particularly excited about trying to frame my thoughts relative to art–for me ghosts are so much larger and more interesting than their relation to aesthetics–but in time I found my way and made peace. It happened rereading filmmaker Raul Ruiz’s Poetics of Cinema. In the chapter “Mystery and Ministry” Ruiz sums up Western Civilization as basically a war between the two. He writes:
“Ministry’s police repression favors (if not actually creates) the subversive function of Mystery; and in the very heat of battle, its hierarchical orders command the publication of Mystery’s secrets, and therefore its conversion to Ministry. All this has happened many times. Ministry gains in secrets–which, for it, is a way of losing; while Mystery, whose substance consists only of shadows, cannot help but vanish as it comes forth into the light–therefore it loses as well. These circles could have gone on spinning indefinitely, if in this century the very nature of Mystery had not begun to change. Instead of discretion it now prefers public exhibition, and indeed it never risks even that without clarifying everything beforehand; there is no longer a shadow zone where the mysterious players can marshall their forces and practice their moves. We call this phenomenon a ministerialization of Mystery: its immediate consequence is to affect the nature of Ministers, who themselves become increasingly mysterious.” (p.102)
So first, I will get ahead of myself and answer that, yes, a seance can and should be art. Now, I did not see the piece you mention and neither want to give it validation or critique. We are stuck with the good, the bad and the ugly. However, it is important to always stand in potential, and with respect. One of my favorite moments ever witnessed was a lecture by artist/composer Carl Michael von Hausswolff. He talked about a work made in collaboration with Andrew McKenzie of The Hafler Trio, Dale Travous and Annie Sprinkle. They combined, in different locations but synchronized in time, attempting to marshall technological, magical and sexual energies to rid Iceland of NATO. At the end of the gathering of forces the airbase was still there. However, during the time of their exorcism, a volcano erupted in the Philippines, smothering a U.S. airbase with ash, closing the base. Hausswolff explained that their focus was right, but obviously their aim imprecise. A student incredulously challenged, “Are you serious?” Hausswolff responded: “Sure. What is to be gained if I’m not serious?” Case closed.
Back to the Ruiz. His assessment is correct: “there is no longer a shadow zone where the mysterious players can marshall their forces and practice their moves.” And still mystery does exist. Lurking in the daylight. Art is one such realm. The space of art, much like the screen of a moving image or the stage of a musical performance is a zone where we don’t just allow ourselves to encounter the unknown, we ready ourselves for a connection with the unknown. And this sometimes happens in the classroom too. You can sit there with all your administrative powers: attendance requirements, assigned readings,schedule, lecture notes, project assignments, and still you can never predict what will be summoned when all the individuals come to the table. And in fact it is those very structures and borders that set
the place for the unknown–good and bad–that does happen. It is the platform from which risk jumps. And to follow Ruiz’s playful implication, anyone who has tried to get anything done that involved a large bureaucracy (the post office, a university administration, a city government all come to immediate mind) has witnessed under fluorescent light just how mysterious things can seem when everything is presented before you in plain 12 point type.
By the way: I love to swim, run. I enjoy yoga and have an unhealthy attachment to a rowing machine. What all these share in common is rote activity: repetition and pattern. The actions don’t surprise me, I know what I am doing, for how long and where my actions are leading me. But in these moments I usually find my mind explodes, struck by
something I had either overlooked, or had not even recognized as a possibility. Or the unpredictable flow/feel of a limb, it has moved that way a thousand times and yet now it has discovered something in that movement it was never attentive to before. Or this does not happen. And of course this doesn’t happen when I watch someone else swim, run, yoga, row. But maybe if someone shared with me the unknowing experience of their swim, run, yoga, row I could get there. Let me witness for a moment the behaviors by which matter changes for this other person. It is too easy to confuse facts for spaces of engagement in art: large amplifiers = heavy metal, or in your example, building an alter and lighting candles = spiritual evocation. Still, be generous. We would never say of a book that the cover ruins our surprise of the contents because it’s sturdiness is a parody of a story’s beginning and end, we are likely to talk about bad cover
design and poorly told stories. A crucial element of your listed troubles, and where the art seance chooses a path: unpredictable or parody, is related by art critic Jan Verwoert in “Under the Sign and In the Spirit of a Stoa: On the Work of Cerith Wyn Evans,” republished in his collection Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want.
A passage, funny enough, that segues quite nicely from Ruiz’s administered mysteries.
“Besides, you never know with spirits. There is no guarantee that they’ll come when called. They appear when they want to. So seances are a tricky technique for dealing with creatures from the past. Citations, conversely, are more controlling; the one who cites takes possession of what is cited. Things work differently in a seance. With spirits you must negotiate. And if you lose the upper hand in this process you might end up being the one possessed. Power relations are not predetermined; they are subject to negotiation. In contrast to the act of citation, the ceremony of convocation remains perilously performative and open ended. It cannot coerce a community (among and with spirits) to come into being.” (p.213)
Perhaps the student lost sight of convocation and ended up in citation. Ghost hunter Michael Esposito once remarked, “we like recordings more than we like to listen.” Or maybe the spirits were having a laugh at the student’s expense that day. For spirits to survive, it is imperative to support Hausswolff and his request, “What is to be gained if I’m not serious.” Which does not promise success at every attempt. If Hausswolff didn’t help the wrong volcano to erupt,
what kind of a world do we live in? No world I’ll come home to.
AE: I referenced a chapter from Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, by Avery F. Gordon about the disappeared in Argentina. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured and killed by the dictatorship. Obviously people are dead. The government for a majority of cases never admitted to imprisoning the individuals, and never
issued death certificates. So yes, people basically vanished, preserved in an unresolved gap. A question with no sounded answer. The absence is palpable because a clean label cannot be applied: living, dead, employed, institutionalized, etc., and the desire we feel for a name, a descriptive, is left wanting. French philosopher Jean-Luc
Nancy, in Being Singular Plural, shares “willing (or desire) is not a thinking; it is a disturbance, an echo, a reverberating shock.” It is not trivializing the disappeared to say they were incompatible to the existing dominant structures. That is why they were disappeared. And now the reverberating shock has no perimeters to catch and stop the waves.”
I should resist, but I will now risk gross trivialization to somehow thread the loose threads of our exchange together by drawing an artistic analogy to the felt missing out there. Again, Verwoert, but this time from his essay “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real: On the Risk of Bearing Witness and the Art of Affective Labour” from the same collection mentioned above.
“Except perhaps whistle a tune, like people do when they walk alone at night. It’s a strange habit. You whistle to chase away the thought that someone or something else might be out there with you. But for whom would you be intoning the tune if not for them, whoever or whatever they may be? Whistling in the dark is a way of relating to something out there like it was both there and not there. It is therefore a most suitable way of relating to ghosts; as the embodiment of the unavowed, ghosts are what they are because they are there and not there. Good art and thinking is always a bit like a tune whistled in a manner that echoes the possible presence of something or someone out there.” (p.292)
This, ultimately, I am not sure why, reminds me: I think timing and a tune is the key to ghosts.
AE: Underneath the plaster and lathe of the walls were denim jeans. Obviously used as a cheap readily available insulation. So many jeans. My friend Matt and I jumped when the jeans came for us, clinging to our crowbars. Please do not feel embarrassed by my calling you out for wrong details, we need to keep this going… misremembering is key to
the sense of missed time that unleashes ghosts.
Anyway, to answer if it is empathic imagination or something intrinsic to the objects, the answer is both and neither, pending. Let’s be distinct. Some objects hold my empathetic imagination: a somewhat useless antique chair that pressed uncomfortably into my stomach in the back seat of an economy car on a ride back from Washington D.C. in
the 70s, a vase I bought my mother for a Christmas gift once and now sadly own, a painted portrait my father made of me when I was about four. These objects contain my attention, my care, my devotion and my love. They do not hold any ghosts. There are objects that seem haunted, my CD player that randomly turns off on its own accord, the VCR player that at times has a display light and at times does not. These objects raise my ire. They do not hold ghosts. And the others: a photograph I cannot imagine discarding, because I know some bad will befall me if so, the novel that for some reason radiates love from the shelf whenever my eye catches the spine, that album that exorcises the bad demons from any untoward moment, the Christmas ornament–owned less than 24 hours–that fell and broke and elicited instant tears, the ottoman I never wanted to see again. These objects hold ghosts.
Can I prove any of the above? Absolutely not. This does not make the above nonsense. This is precisely why we need to give these types of objects and responses more attention. And resist received wisdom. And I also wonder why we should require that our empathic imagination cannot be something intrinsic to the object? Verwoert appears here
again, and once again from his text on Cerith Wyn Evans, an artist who often references past texts and histories in his art, or arranges situations that call back to and bring forth past histories–Lettrists, Georges Bataille, W. S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin–often without a clear reason for the recall. But they are not puzzles for decoding.
“The mode in which Wyn Evans relates to Lettrist principle is thus not so much a form of reference but of reverence. Instead of displaying knowledge, he invests passion in the invocation of a spirit. He communicates the fascination inherent to a certain manner of freely engaging with cinema and literature…. What counts is spiritual affinity. It is through a gesture of reverence, therefore, that Wyn Evans creates proximity between characters and evokes the spirit of their collective subjectivity.” (p.208)
Perhaps, when our empathic imagination rests on an object with which it shares a spiritual affinity, we see the ghosts?
AE: An artistic experience that does not bristle your arms, or at least shut off your self-assured all-knowing voice is not worth having. Simply put. In fact, maybe an artistic experience that does not put you in touch with some form of spirit is not an artistic experience. And all this is possible in a photocopied booklet, paint and canvas, a snapshot, 16 mm film, tape and cardboard, store-bought product, graphite, a rock. You name it. I must appeal for the eternal return of
Verwoert, to quote him again from his essay “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real: On the Risk of Bearing Witness and the Art of Affective Labour”:
“Spiritual as they are, if all spirits were exorcised, then art, writing, love and friendship would equally cease to exist. As artists, writers, lovers and friends, we are therefore not afraid of ghosts. On the contrary. Our biggest fear may be no ghosts. Without ghosts to converse with, we would have nothing to do and no right to be. But since we cannot scientifically prove their existence, our vocation to write, make art or love and be loyal friends will always remain questionable. …
Still, there is evidence that sometimes magic tricks work, spells are broken, curses lifted, and the load of unresolved emotions prevented from being passed on, when the load is cast out from the body, not onto another person, but openly transferred onto objects, pictures, gestures or words, to be arrested by and in them, not so that the load can be cast away and forgotten, no, on the contrary, so that the pain and joy it contains can be avowed and owned, together, by artist and viewer, writer and reader, temporarily sharing an experience, and freely avowing it, like lovers might.” (p.270)
AE: Impregnated does indeed seem a very funny choice. Imbued? Go back to that comment “We like recordings more than we like to listen.” I think we are–most of us–pretty bad at paying attention to the notions that we feel but don’t know why. Rarely do we stop to think and interrogate these moments. Not interrogate to kill them, or rationalize them into an easy understanding, but to try to sharpen our ability to recognize things like love, avoidance, unease, or even that we are not by ourselves in the room. Perhaps having many objects around a room is kind of like billboards on the highway for our lazy intuition to catch wind of the changes in the breeze.
AE: I don’t think it possible to prescribe a process for the interrogation, because obviously there will be any number of methods for any number of types of moments. Being active and being attentive are both crucial to the process. Obviously a level of rationalizing and discernment is crucial to taking an experience apart in reflection. Or in being critical in the moment.
As far as the rational… I think it is important to look closely at the cracks in any structure. To also look at the sweeping large-scale shapes and drives and to be prepared to be surprised, to not know, to have an experience and be accepting of something that exceeds your current understanding. So in looking to learn from an experience, particularly of ghosts or haunting, do not work to explain away the unjustified remainders, the parts that do not quite add up, the details that seem unreal. Possibly treat these details as suspect, not as meaningless or impossible or silly. Use attentiveness to accept something beyond what you expect can or should happen and that may be even absurd. Nod. “Yes, this is a place I haven’t been before and I do not know how I got here.” Accept that your own limits are far below those the world routinely offers. Be open. The desire to understand can be a disturbance that creates the experience that is needed, particularly if the desire goes unfulfilled completely.
AE: Oof, I need to say I am always suspicious when objects are described as having “democratic disposition”, particularly when being held in opposition to items that somehow lack “democratic disposition.” The frames need to be drawn very tight for that distinction to matter in a meaningful manner that is not glib or carefree. To the topic at hand:
Yes, I too had interactions with Ouija boards…I suppose many American kids did, particularly when they became mass produced by a gaming company and available at almost any toy store. To this day I’m not sure what happened in those times spent with the Ouija board: did one of the people at the table manipulate the direction? Did we conveniently together somehow agree what answers should come our way? Or did the spirits appear. I don’t really care what caused the experience, I’m more interested in the fact that an experience happened. And I think it important to recognize something happened in a place with the intention to contact something beyond the assembled
group, even if some hood-winkery enters the frame. I do not doubt that some objects do indeed carry curious energy. But I think the importance of thinking with ghosts or spirits is not just to treat them as real, but to treat the spaces where the unexpected happens seriously and to not try and explain away the particular, beyond clean explanation experience.
In this light, I myself am not interested in seeking an answering, or even asking questions such as, “Do you think that common or shared mythologies create these instances?” I’d rather ask, “What common space did you share at that moment?” “What conflicting desires were in the people around that table, and how did these mix?” “What did you
reach for–mentally, emotionally, physically–to help ground you when the experience moved beyond expectations?” “How does the preparation for an experience focus the senses?” “What cannot be focused in such a situation?” Any question that looks at the space created in the action, rather than asking a sort of causal sociology.
AE: Of course, but we need not be able to recognize that history. Or even recognize it as a history.
AE: There could be an absence or there could also be too much presence. Something extra. Either way, there are many writers who would answer this question much better, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy all come to mind, and all at times attended themselves to notions of otherness and how to be with another and the other.
Let’s somewhat glibly gloss thoughts from these three, it is important to let the other be other, to not try to append our definitions and rules to the other. To recognize the sovereignty of the other’s position and begin to negotiate rather than to assimilate or absorb. This doesn’t mean to give up the ability to react, respond, disagree, judge or confront that other, but to recognize it as a distinct presence (or absence) that may not play to our ways of being.
The importance of the issue of ghosts, haunting, and many of the points touched on is also that there is no way out of a subjective experience of activity. I cannot prove feeling of love or sadness or fear or boredom in any way that would make the histories for those feelings concrete or embedded in objects in a way that you would necessarily have to experience the feelings in the same manner. Still you might be able to sense, in a moment, that my relationship to an
object is based in some relationship that you do not share or understand. You might even sense that an object sits in a way that doesn’t quite seem in line with the way the other objects around are sitting. There’s just something off…
To wildly misuse a quote, British artist Victor Burgin in his essay ”Perverse Space” writes, “There is no objectification without identification.” Closeness and detachment require each other. And when feeling one we should not pretend the other is not lurking. To not recognize is to identify a difference and understand something is not of your kind. And this lack of recognition does not prevent, to use Verwoert’s wonderful phrase again, “temporarily sharing an experience, and freely avowing it, like lovers might.”
CP: Does anything else come to mind for you? Something we haven’t covered? In much of this I have been steering (a little wildly) towards answers, but I also can’t help feeling like I might not be asking the right questions. Not that I’m dissatisfied with your answers (on the contrary) but I still feel like I’m grasping at sand, something elusive and vanishing. Is there something I am missing in all this? Have you ever tried to hunt a ghost?
AE: Oh come now… I don’t think you’ve asked the wrong questions. I think we have covered a lot it seems, and without reading back through anything I can’t think off the top of my head.
I have tried to hunt a ghost. 3 or so times. Never success. I find them best when I’m not looking.