A Ghost Story
…the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum … which I should like to call the Spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to “spectacle” and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead. (Barthes, 1993: 9)
…the structure of the archive is spectral. It is spectral a priori: neither present nor absent “in the flesh,” neither visible nor invisible, a trace always referring to another whose eyes can never be met… (Derrida, 1994: 84)
Remember Me is dedicated to the memory of my father who died last year from Alzheimer’s Disease, a condition which over time, fragments self, identity, and memory. The link to photographs as signifiers of memory is pertinent: we used photographs to help Dad remember, before the forgetting got too deep… They became, after a while, meaningless pieces of paper. The fragmentation of my father’s mind seems to me now as a microcosm of how culturally, as time passes, things get forgotten. As individuals, and as a species, we build knowledge. But we also forget it.
The piece is also dedicated to the memory of his uncle, James Caldwell, after whom my father was named. He was a Private in the Army Cyclist Corps, 9th Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment, and was killed on the Somme on 7th July 1916. His body was never found. There is no known image of him. The cycle included in the trench diorama is for him. His name is on the Thiepval Memorial, a monument to the missing at the Somme, and which holds the names of over 72,000 officers and men whose bodies were never found here. There are of course thousands of soldiers whose bodies were found but never identified, and “known only to God”.
Identity is a strange and fragile thing.
Remember Me is a portable installation for an audience-of-one, installable within minutes in any darkened gallery or front room. Everything required is in the suitcase. Its themes are identity, photography and memory, and it consists of: the suitcase, as a book-flat and supporting a cross bar on which hangs a gauze scrim doubled for 3D projection; a Victorian photograph album, a page of which constitutes another projection screen; a 1/35 scale diorama of a First World War trench; two short films with soundtrack; two pico-projectors; a pair of headphones.
In making it, I considered notions of cultural remembering, forgetting, and the commemoration of World War 1. I have a collection of soldiers’ portraits, all of them original, and perhaps unique, and most unnamed. It is sometimes possible to identify regimental affiliation and rough time frames via uniforms, but most likely, these names of these people are lost. It intrigues me, however, that somewhere, their names exist in national records, birth certificates, death certificates, on tombstones, maybe in newspapers; their physical remains must also be somewhere – their atoms lie in the earth, perhaps in unnamed graves in Flanders, or perhaps their bodies were never found. Now that these photographs are separated from the living knowledge of their subjects’ names, they have become, over time, companion ghosts to the unknown soldiers commemorated on memorials like Thiepval.
The work is aimed at those interested in watching rather than looking at historically ‘loaded’ portrait photography (in the 21st Century, hindsight affords us the knowledge of what came after these portraits were taken). Space precludes a longer discussion, but I believe that ‘watching’ and ‘looking at’ constitute different modes of attention., and Sontag has noted that film might be a better method of presenting photographs, because film, ‘suggests a subtler and more rigorous way of packaging (and enlarging) still photographs. Both the order and the exact time for looking at each photograph are imposed’ (1977: 5). But she notes: ‘photographs transcribed in a film cease to be collectable objects’ (ibid). Certainly there is pleasure in the materiality of the photographs I have collected: they are connected to their subjects and original owners by having once been in their presence: ironically, and mechanically reproduced as they are, they have what Walter Benjamin would call an aura (2007: 221).
The audience-of-one individualises the spectator: they are removed from the more usual community of group audience, something which according to Susan Bennett, citing Artaud and Brook, is integral to breaking through ‘the complacency of the audience as group’ (1997: 60). Bennett also discusses theatrical and cinematic gaze. In its framing of the ghost via a visible host, the films here attempt to subvert cinematic gazing which more usually ‘forgets’ the host.
CONTEXT & ANALYSIS
I deem the work site specific, albeit in miniature. Nick Kaye defines this as being ‘articulate exchanges between the work of art and the places in which its meanings are defined … to move the site-specific work is to re-place it, to make it something else’ (2000: 1-2). While the films are separate in their existence (or archiving in digital format), there is, a fluorescence of significance which can only be experienced when they are played confluently in this particular configuration of suitcase and album, activating a phenomenology of experience and objects, in time and space. Each film operates as a commentary upon the other, text and image narrating and augmenting each other’s significances, and there is dialogic communion between the digital films and the physical presence of the vintage album and suitcase. The work is thus the sum of all its parts, physical and digital, and exists in the intermedial site between its constituent pieces.
Site specificity is often constructed in terms of ‘host’ and ‘ghost’. The host is the site, the landscape or architecture – sometimes familiar to its audience – containing or hosting performance or experience most likely atypical to the site. The ghost is the material or aesthetic experience introduced into this host (Pearson, 2000). In Remember Me, the films are the ghost, fragmented into text and images, and installed into the host: a vintage suitcase, redolent of travel, and the chaotic, forgotten archives of attics and junk rooms. Constructed thus as a haunted space, the suitcase is what Rosemary Jackson terms a ‘gothic enclosure’, and thus, according to Jackson, invokes the postmodern experience of defamiliarisation (or остранение), where the familiar is made strange via what Freud termed das Unheimlich, or the uncanny (Jackson, 1995: 65; Freud, 2003). And neither host nor ghost takes precedence. They operate together: as the material host for the digital ghost work, the suitcase is, to paraphrase McLucas, Morgan and Pearson, an ‘architecture’ that is more than a ‘backdrop’ (cited in Kaye, 2000: 55). The suitcase, a signifier of travel and a container of carried ‘stuff’ (which in being carried is usually concealed), is open, spilling out images, words, memories, histories, ghosts. The unconscious is made conscious: what is hidden – the dead – has been revealed. The photograph album, the projection screen for the animated 2.5D images, is more usually the site of still images. Invoking the uncanny, the figures in these still images move, disturbing our sense of what is usual or homely (or das Heimlich), making the familiar strange, bringing the dead back to life.
Site specificity operates like metaphor and as metaphor: the ground is the host suitcase as container, and its figure is the human brain: the organic archive, which remembers people, histories, and connections. As Sontag notes: ‘the grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads – as an anthology of images’ (1977: 3). But this is a fallible archive, and our forgetting is routine as time passes, or pathological in Alzheimer’s. Such a metaphor might also allude to society itself as a host, even a gothic enclosure, for a collective consciousness (and, recalling Jung, a collective unconscious), where this consciousness is an archive of cultural consensus, through which we materially commemorate or lose connection with the ghosts of things past, and long gone people. But we cannot remember everything, and so we fall back, eventually, on the frail compromise of myths, museums, and paper and digital archives, with all the problems inherent in these containers (and discourses) of documentation and memory, as noted by Matthew Reason (2006: 31ff). And as we forget or misremember who their subjects are, old unlabelled photographs become dead metaphors… Memory, like a jpeg, is a lossy format. And as Robin Nelson notes, ‘knowledge is itself often unstable, ambiguous and multidimensional’ (2013: 3).
Although inspired by installations at the IWM, this piece isn’t didactic. It might be considered what Barthes called a ‘writerly’ text: according to reader response theory, it is open to its audience for variable interpretation (1974). Its identity, like the identities of those depicted, is not fixed, but in flux and therefore ambiguous and ephemeral. In the process of its creation it became for its author a rumination on the experience of looking at photography, but as Barthes proclaimed, the author is dead (1977), and so its meaning as an end-product exists within subsequent processes of engagement with its audience. I hope, however, they wonder about identity, as I did.
In images depicting scenes, the identities of figures therein had hitherto not been a concern; I saw people in such photographs (as the one above) as chorus players in grand global events. Like the extras in the bad-guy-lair sequences in Bond movies, their function is to populate the past with people doing things: it is not to be somebody. A portrait, however, foregrounds its subject as an individual because the function of a portrait is to document its sitter. Looking at them in extreme close up it fascinated and troubled me that I would never know who these people were.
Restoration brings intimate familiarity with the features of strangers, and with it, awareness of the identity’s transience. There are, however, sometimes names given, and tantalising snippets of individuality in notes to recipients of photographs sent as postcards, and addresses whose locations can sometimes be pinpointed in online maps… but most often, there is blank silence. In an era when we take more photos than ever and publish them online with impunity, we probably feel immune from such future anonymity: we are warned, after all, that things posted are online forever. But we might be entering what commentators such as Terry Kuny, and more recently Vint Cerf, have dubbed the Digital Dark Ages (Kuny, 1997; Ghosh, 2015); in another hundred years time, if our images are still accessible, we might be just as anonymous. Today, we are printing fewer photographs, and if we do print, we rarely write captions. We are forgetting…
There are implied identities that accompany these photographs and they include the relatives who owned these photographs, and of course, the photographers, male and female[i] who framed, exposed, processed and printed them, although, they are sometimes alluded to in cryptic corner initials. In some photographs, however, I found fingerprints, invisible to the naked eye, but exposed by the close up work. And what are fingerprints, if not fragments of identity, and the indices of presence in absence, adding up to an implied narrative of craft and physical interaction with processes, chemicals and papers…
Remember Me has a specially commissioned soundtrack, composed by sound artist Karen Lauke, delivered via headphones, which, by excluding exterior ambient noise, focus attention for an immersive engagement with the work, and lift the spectator/listener out of what Ross Brown terms, ‘the threshold of distraction’ (2010: 35). As recent research notes, sound augments visual experience[ii]: watching these films separately from the site for which they were designed, and in silence, is vastly different from experiencing them in situ with headphone sound at optimum levels.
Not all this discourse will be explicit to the work’s audience – according to reception theory, it is encoded into the work for me as writer/audience of the work, but not necessarily for them. But Barthes has proclaimed the death of the author (1977), and this death adds a further ghost to rattle through its environment (unless made explicit via complementary writing): nevertheless, in auto-ethnographic terms, there has been a phenomenological ‘knowing’ arising out of my engaging with memory and photography via the embodied knowledge of ‘doing’, and thus this discourse represents Practice-as-Research insight arising from this doing and making. I can also now make informed comparisons between contemporaneous British and German studio portraits. Having zoomed in closely, subtle information encoded within the mise-en-scene of the photographers’ settings, the subjects’ poses, the quality of processing, is much more visible. A major constraint to this has, however, been the time it takes to process images through the digitisation, restoration, and animation stages, before they even reach the editing and installation stage. So whilst this knowing (from observation and practical experience), has in Robin Nelson’s terminology, validity as ‘liquid-knowledge’ (2013: 52), it is nevertheless built on a small sample constituting the volume of pictures it was feasible to process within the project’s time frame. I am aware therefore that this liquid-knowing is about these pictures and this process, and about me within this process, rather than what Clifford Geertz terms a ‘thick description’ leading to the broader understanding and universal principles achieved via examination of detail in dialogue with context (Geertz, 1973: 3-30, cited in Nelson, 2013: 49). Nevertheless, the work is what Geertz might term ‘a grand contraption’ of connections, thinking, found objects, constructed digital artefacts, texts and images (cited in Clandinin & Connelly, 2000: 4). But these fragments do create narratives, and this project feels like the start of further aesthetic and academic endeavour rather than the end.
Reason has noted the archive’s ‘dependence on fragments and scraps’, and that there are issues arising from ‘the constructive role that narrativisation, language and the historical document perform in creating our understanding of the past’ (2006: 32). But as Practice-as-Research, this work is entitled to narrativise in fictive terms: one of fiction’s main premises is, after all, ‘what if?’. Embodied in this work is the static spatial narrative of assembled found objects placed to receive animated temporal digital narratives of images and sound. Space does not allow a second by second account of each decision taken, and in animation, the microscopic scale of aesthetic engagement is frame by frame. I offer here general principles.
Initially I wanted to specially build the host, but no designs felt right. Having sourced the suitcase and album on eBay for other projects, the patina of age, hidden histories and resonances in these found objects seemed more potent than something newly constructed. By now, I was also noticing objects in the photographs and wondering if they might still exist, in museums, homes, or in the earth of landfill somewhere… So the suitcase and album with their irretrievable narratives of being possessed by unknown people, and travelling through time acquiring the marks of having been handled, were the counterpoint to this. Other decisions regarding, for example, the layered faces deployed at the beginning and end of the animations, refer to the composites Francis Galton, and later Arthur Batut, made to explore common aspects in facial features (Burbridge, 2013; Hamilton & Hargreaves, 2001). While Batut’s interest was aesthetic, Galton’s Social Darwinist premise was that principals of racial physiognomy and degeneracy would thereby be revealed. Mine was that, regardless of nationality, these men shared experience. This occurred to them too, when in the muddy squalor of the lice infested trenches, they realised they had more in common with their enemies than with their families back home (Brown & Seaton, 1994: 21-22).
The animations begin with the photographic image emerging from white, paralleling the chemical processes in developing a photograph. I foregrounded eyes, to signify looking and seeing, but also because in extreme Photoshop close up, and with several images open at once, I sometimes had the uncanny experience of forgetting which uniform these soldiers were wearing. Images were sequenced to narrate movement from the painted backcloths of elegant drawing rooms or gardens to the ravaged landscapes of the theatre of war, and then back. The subsequent fade of figures from scenes signifies for me not only death, but also memory’s fade. The idea came as I removed figures from the plates to facilitate the 2.5D parallax effect.
In animating, I took inspiration from the work of Rino Stefano Tagliafierro, Joe Fellow’s commercial work for WWF, and the more abstract parallax art installations of Yorgo Alexopoulos, who worked on The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002), the film that caused him to see the artistic possibilities of digital 2.5D techniques. I also noted the composites of Frank Hurley, an official photographer in World War I, and Jane Long whose beautiful Photoshopped composites of figures from the Costică Ascinte Archive, albeit stills, are echoed in the landscape sections of my own work.[iii]
I must also refer to the BFI release of the Will Onda’s Preston Roll of Honour. These were assemblages of soldiers’ portraits proejcted in cinemas and depicting those serving, or whose deaths had been announced. It is a sobering watch imagining cinemas full of people watching portraits of the dead flicker over the screen. And here is an example of people in 1914, 1915, not seeing portraits, but watching them, in the darkness of a cinema auditorium.
I am hugely satisfied that I’ve vastly increased my technical competence in complex dynamically linked software. I was already highly proficient in Photoshop, but this project facilitated a real-world engagement with Adobe After Effects, Trapcode Particular, and Premiere Pro. I am mindful of Flusser’s notion of the apparatus programming us (2000: 43). But, via this project, I find I am now programming my aesthetic choices, rather than being limited to what I can make the software do.
The project has also crystallised beliefs I have about theatrical and cinematic projection, and restoration and image manipulation. In theatrical projection I avoid the introduction of further implied but fake dimensions in a flat projection screen. I take inspiration from the work of Svoboda, whose projection is scenographic rather than cinema framed within theatre (Dixon, 2007), and from Kneehigh’s integrated deployment of projection in Brief Encounter, in which theatre plays with 1940’s cinema, and the old smoke-hazed cinema auditoria.
I find the mise-en-abyme addition of further illusory cinematic dimensions, and moving viewpoints placed on flat screens, disruptive to theatre’s experience, unless in postmodern, post-dramatic theatre, where form is inextricably linked to content as with the work of The Builder’s Association (see Salter, 2010; Kaye, 2007) and others such as The Wooster Group (although Dixon is sceptical of the postmodernist label: 2007: 7). The frame of theatre is live presence in three-dimensions. Its audience, as the viewpoint for the experience, is usually static, and its viewpoint cannot pan and zoom like the camera. But, I find myself now wanting to introduce these factors into a set to invoke the uncanny by making the flat page and gauze take on depth and further dimensions outside their own dimensionality.
My manifesto concerning restoration also crystallised. In restoring and animating the images, I was their first audience: restoration is a long process, but it made me examine the images deeply, and know them differently. I decided to restore and repair faces and uniforms, but to leave some of the imperfections, because these are part of their ambiance. I have also not imposed on them contemporary processing standards by sharpening, or increasing dynamic range, deepening blacks and brightening whites. The sepia hues, the limited tonal range and the soft focus are a crucial aspect of their heritage: this is how their subjects would have seen them. I also found that I could not damage them: I had originally planned to experiment with Maurizio Anzeri’s stitching and Amy Friend’s piercing, but I found myself locating the photographs as historical documents, and perhaps the last visual records of their subjects, and myself as a custodian of their further existence. I could not cut them…
Finally, the installation offers opportunities for its audience to consider the fragility of documentation, and to commemorate those depicted or implied, and whose identities are now forgotten. The epigrammatic texts at the beginning of the films are thus intended to guide audiences to consider the people they will watch as individuals with life experiences of the Great War, and as ghosts, whose names, identities, and perhaps bodies, are now forever missing… Someone once knew them. But time passes, and in time they have become the additional missing of the Great War.
[i] At the end of WWI, Olive Edis was the first woman to be appointed as an official war photographer (Gani, 2015: online).
[ii] Levitin, 2008: Logeswaran & Bhattacharya, 2009; Jolij & Meurs, 2011.
[iii] Please see the Artists PDF in the R&D section of this portfolio for a more detailed presentation concerning artists whose work influenced the thinking for Remember Me.