Damask wallpaper is a motif in Laura Phillips' solo show I Felt Like the Sound of a Harp. Most noticeably is the balloon-with-wallpaper-print type object that appears in the video work, but there are also traces of a similar pattern in some of the fabric hangings. Phillips has cited Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper as an influence, as well as Tina Keane's Faded Wallpaper (1988), both of which I refer to in a previous post. In Phillips' work, the wallpaper reference could be read as a visual anchor, a counter to the dissociative states she references, and a reminder that they occur in a mind that is attached to a physical body, and that that physical body is still capable of visual perception of its surroundings, though they may be rendered frightening or absurd or unreal. The Pneumatic Institute, on which this show is based, was the location of Humphrey Davy's laughing gas experiments, and I assume that is the reason for the balloon motif. For me, however, given my own investigations into wallpaper, it reads as a reminder that 'reality' is precarious, and the way we decorate our environments cannot change that. Gilding, one might call it. Not in the sense of gilding the lily; more like using plastic surgery to try to fix a lack of self-esteem.
Tonight, watching her perform with her improv-ensemble Viridian in accompaniment to the show, the wallpaper was very present again, this time in the live digital and 16mm projections. The vocal aspect of the performance, seemingly inspired by laughing gas, was almost unbearable; pained, hysterical and gasping. In this setting, the wallpaper seemed like a point of hope. As if, could one only hold onto it, dissociation might be avoided.
Review of the show
The above images are of postcards from The Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, which was operational between 1850 and 1939. One of its pupils was a young girl called Eirene Botting (born 1899), who later became known as Antonia White, writer of four autobiographical novels known collectively as Frost in May (also the title of the first of the four novels), among other works. The fourth novel in this collection, Beyond the Glass, contains a description of the author's own experience of what would probably now be called psychosis, following (or perhaps resulting from) a period of mania which could be interpreted as indicative of bipolar disorder. The preceding novel, The Sugar House, documents a very unhappy period immediately before that, which could be described as a depression.
Sherah Kristen Wells has stated that White represents psychosis in her writing "as a dissolution of subjectivity"* (which Wells analyses using Luce Irigaray's theories). However, she also says that "female subjectivity is positively constructed" by White, "specifically through the presentation of Catholicism"*. I am planning to make the trip up to Warwick to read the complete thesis, as only the abstract is available online.
I wonder if Wells finds a connection between the effects of a strict Catholic upbringing and mental illness. White herself writes critically of the convent and of the demands of Catholicism, and the effects of the "breaking of one's will and re-setting it in God's own way"**. In The Sugar House, for example, she relates that one of her greatest fears as a child was "dying unprepared and going to hell forever"**, an idea that was instilled in her as a very real consequence of any number of sins by both her parents and her guardians at the convent. She also describes an episode when she had broken school rules (talking too much), for which her punishment was to take her First Communion alone, months after her friends had all taken theirs together. These experiences haunted her, and she was clearly preoccupied throughout her adult life with feelings of fear, guilt and inadequacy: fear of sin, fear of and guilt about wanting to sin, fear of judgement from her elders or superiors, fear of her own pubic hair which "she thought meant she was being turned into an animal as a result of having inadvertently committed some terrible sin"**.
As far as I can find, it is not generally accepted that The Sugar House describes the signs of the onset of psychosis. However, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) describes these as including: a worrisome drop in performance, trouble thinking clearly, a decline in self-care or personal hygiene, spending a lot more time alone than usual, and strong, inappropriate emotions or having no feelings at all. White's experience in her first marital home (The Sugar House is the fictional name given to this real house in Chelsea, due to its "pink distempered walls", "gay colours", "primrose walls and arty rush mats") contains many of these signs: ("the paralysed lethargy", "no purpose in her mind", "impotence had spread", "her mind refused to bite on anything at all", "as if she weren't a real person"). According to the NAMI, another early sign of psychosis is hearing, seeing, tasting or believing things that others don’t, which begins in The Sugar House and continues in Beyond the Glass, often relating to interiors ("everything seemed to have a significance beyond itself"). White's fictionalised portrayal of herself, who she names Clara Batchelor, feels at times that the walls are almost imperceptibly moving inwards and that mirrors will lead to unspecified terrors. "As if it were dangerous to think too much, she jumped up from the chair. Immediately she was conscious of the number of mirrors in the tiny space. Three different angles of her head and shoulders and one full-length figure sprang towards her... For a moment it was an effort to remember that this was not... a room in a horrible story." Here the church's lasting effect on her is evident too: "on the corner of the opposite pavement was... a Catholic church... like the intrusion of a firm Nannie into the nursery. The intrusion allays panic but it reduces the magic palace once again to toy bricks" (see a coincidentally similar idea here). This "not-quite-real" environment, combined with the realisation that her new husband is childish in both his behaviour and his interests (he buys her an extremely expensive train set for her birthday, with their rent money), result in Clara beginning to perceive her home as something like a doll house (though this description is not actually used by White), and herself as trapped inside it. She begins to act accordingly, like an abandoned doll, unable to motivate herself to perform even simple tasks, and growing to hate the home she fell in love with and begged her husband to rent, though incapable of doing anything that might involve going outside it.
Wallpaper does not feature in the description of the Sugar House. I have sometimes felt that if she had had something unchanging to hold onto, an anchoring visual point, it might have helped. A trellis of damask, stretching and contracting in zigzag repeats, might have given the sweetly plastered, shifting, mirrored walls a trustworthy plane, measurable by motif and scale. Patterns can soothe in their repetition, if one focuses on counting, like I used to in my bedroom at Church Road. This focus is a type of mindfulness, anchoring the mind in the present experience of viewing, and therefore confirming subjectivity - ("I am looking"). But in writing this I remember again The Yellow Wallpaper, and how it became a stage for imagination and delusion. Patterns can also be an entryway, like in my grandparents' bathroom, where the wallpaper's pattern became three-dimensional when I relaxed my eyes, as did those Magic Eye pictures in the 90s (below). This non-focus might be more akin to dissociation, when perception alters to allow illusion, or delusion, or revelation. This could indeed be a "dissolution of subjectivity" as Wells has described*, and as Perkins Gilman has demonstrated. Patterns could lead one out of oneself. I was always able to blink hard, or shake my head, and my grandparents' bathroom wallpaper would return to the flat plane it had been before. Maybe I was lucky.
References and further reading:
* Wells, Sherah Kristen (2009) 'Another world,/its walls are thin': psychosis and Catholicism in the texts of Antonia White and Emily Holmes Coleman. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
** Hopkinson, L. P. (1988) Nothing to Forgive: A Daughter's Life of Antonia White. London: Chatto & Windus
"Who owns… a haunted house? Dead objects can circulate in space and change owners. Things that live throughout time cannot, in any unambiguous sense, pass into anyone’s possession. For this reason they must be approached in a different way. Tactically speaking, the one who seeks to appropriate such temporally layered objects with critical intent… must be prepared to relinquish the claim to full possession, loosen the grip on the object and call it forth, invoke it rather than seize it"
Jan Verwoert, Living With Ghosts
(Let's assume that there's no problem with the term 'haunted' - which I'm primarily defining for the purposes of this essay as the following: a place, object or person which is frequented or inhabited by ghosts, as well as considering its other meanings: preoccupied or obsessed; disturbed, distressed or worried. 'Ghost', then, needs some clarification too. For my purposes, it may mean any or all of the following: the intangible remainder of a dead person - sometimes described as their disembodies soul or spirit; a mere shadow or semblance; a trace; or a remote possibility. These terms are used in this essay as devices for thought only - not to support or deny any religious or spiritual hypothesis).
Verwoert's choice of the word 'dead' is an interesting one, implying that some objects are 'living'. Indeed, he describes some objects as living 'throughout time'. I have described my grandmother's journal - source material for Relic (2016) - as a dead document, and I would be inclined to use Verwoert's words to describe it too. It has passed into my possession, and yet it is her life, constructed from her words which are chosen to communicate her remembrances. What I hold is an object, yes, made of paper and ink. But what it contains is something which I cannot own, something which grows inside my imagination as I piece together an identity out of a combination of the person I remember, younger versions of that person which I have seen in images, this information she has chosen to share with me, the stories my grandfather and father tell, and the historical information available about the years in which she lived. It is, like many books, a dialogue between the writer and the reader, conveyed using the arbitrary signs we accept as 'writing'. The word 'dead', then, is accurate only to a point. The paper is old. The entries bear dates which are in the past, and reference past events in present tense. The pages show wear. The sellotape which fixes photos and newspaper clippings to some of the pages is yellow and has lost its stick. The writer is dead. The writing will not be added to (at least not by her). As far as we know, the mind which produced this text has now died, in the sense that she no longer interacts with the world as we perceive it. But the dialogue continues. In the way we are currently able to define the word, I am 'alive' and I still imagine, remember, suppose and enquire about her life. The journal still reveals things to me which seem more contemporary than the date at the top of the page they're written on. In 1993, Jacques Derrida coined the term 'hauntology', referring to a situation of temporal, ontological and historical disjunction, in which the seeming presence of being is superseded by a deferred non-origin. This is represented by "the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive."** He borrows from Shakespeare's Hamlet, "the time is out of joint". It has been written that the concept of hauntology is a close relative of psychogeography*, which also states that any attempt to locate the origin of identity or history is inevitably dependent on an existing set of conditions, thus making "haunting the state proper to being as such,"*** and agreeing with Verwoert that one's grip must be loosened, and the object invoked.
In the 2000s, hauntology was used in reference to paradoxes found in late modernity, particularly contemporary culture's persistent recycling of the 'retro', particularly in aesthetic terms, as well as the incapacity to escape old social forms. Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds have used the term to critique art preoccupied with this temporal disjunction and defined by a "nostalgia for lost futures."*/***
Derrida played a major role in getting the similarly themed, and chronologically earlier, work of psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok to larger audiences. Their work in question concerned transgenerational communication, and in particular the idea that "undisclosed traumas of previous generations might disturb the lives of their descendants even and especially if they know nothing about their distant causes".** In their case, a 'phantom' is "the presence of a dead ancestor in the living Ego, still intent on preventing its traumatic and usually shameful secrets from coming to light".** Unlike a traditional ghost story - in which the phantom might return from the dead in order to reveal something forgotten, or hidden, or to right a wrong, or to deliver a otherwise unheeded message - in Abraham and Torok's scenario the phantom is dishonest; it intends to mislead the haunted subject and to ensure the continued shrouding of its secret. In their case, "phantoms are not the spirits of the dead, but ‘les lacunes laissées en nous par les secrets des autres’."** The effect of this theory about phantoms with regards to ghost stories would have to be that fiction is a medium through which to encrypt the secrets of past generations, rather than simply a way to communicate imagined (or even observed) supernatural phenomena.
So, coming back to Verwoert, we could attempt to expand his view that "the object of appropriation… must today be made to speak not only of its place within the structural order of the present material culture but also of the different times it inhabits and the different historical vectors that cross it"^, in the direction of the psychoanalytical. If we supposed, for example, that his "object of appropriation" was a secret, then we would conclude that this secret must not be considered in isolation, but in terms of all its contexts - temporal, geographical, political, etc - both in the present of the considering, but also in the "historical vectors that cross it". Suppose, for example, that a daughter kept secret her knowledge about a parent's infidelity. It would certainly seem reasonable that she would need to consider this secret in relation to her relationship with that parent now, but also then, at the time of discovery, as well as at certain temporal points between those. Further, it would impact upon her relationship with the parent she had not told, and siblings, and friends, and her perception of herself as, perhaps, 'loyal' or 'deceptive' or 'alibi'; depending on who she was considering herself in relation to, and at what moment of their relationship.
Perhaps now is a good moment to go back to my consideration of furnishings, as written about in a recent post. Perkins Gilman's Yellow Wallpaper, for example, could be considered in Verwoert's terms, I would suggest. Let's take his description of appropriation as having "an intense sense of an interruption of temporal continuity, a black-out of historic time".^ It would certainly be possible to attribute interruption of the continuity of time to Perkins Gilman's narrator, trapped as she is in a space of "perfect rest", and surrounded by the wallpaper she detests so much. Perhaps we can consider not the wallpaper but the narrator herself as the appropriated object, given that she has been forced into a context she does not have prior experience of, and into which she did not choose to go. The manifestation of this non-choice (as well as whatever symptoms she apparently displayed that made others choose this for her) is for the wallpaper to begin to take on "a multitude of competing and overlapping temporalities"^ in the appropriated object's imagination/perception, resulting at least in part from her displacement. She at times seems to be "neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive,"** as Derrida has described, but in a non-temporality in which her previous experiences, observations and imaginative inventions become equally relevant and equally real. Verwoert is, of course, talking about a post-modern object, not a fictional narrator created before the turn of the 20th century. However, it is an interesting challenge to think about her in this way, as an object displaced from her usual context and yet subject to the various overlapping experiences and "multiplicity of spatialized temporalities"^ inherent within her.
* Gallix, A. (2011). Hauntology: A not-so-new critical manifestation.
** Davis, C. (2005) Hauntology, spectres and phantoms
*** Fisher, M. (2014) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures
^ Verwoert, J. (2007) Living with Ghosts: From Appropriation to Invocation in Contemporary Art
Lisa Stokes, Doll and Shoe Box (1999)
Rachel Joseph (2014) uses the term screened stages to refer to times when a stage appears within a film. She suggests that this inclusion creates a "moment of “liveness” within the cinematic". With reference to Wes Anderson’s films (above, left), she describes how the auteur uses these stages to create "miniaturizations of the mourning process and a working through and communal witnessing of the relinquishment of the mourned-for lost object". I've been asked recently how much nostalgia there is in my work, and I'm frightened of the term. I'm not sure why. It could be because of the warnings present in various writings on media archaeology. It could be due to the arguable lack of gravity in terms such as 'retro' and 'kitsch', though why I might feel my work needs to be grave I couldn't say. Perhaps it is the effect of arts education. Perhaps it is a feeling that borrowing from the past in order to create an atmosphere in the present is somehow cheating. Joseph claims that Anderson's stages within the screen act to "frame both an absent present and love (in combination with grief) for that which has disappeared", which really resonates with me and feels like a kinder definition of what could also be referred to as 'nostalgic'.
In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), the wallcovering takes on various roles including characters both benign and otherwise, stage or backdrop or context, and at times even begins to blend with the narrator's consciousness: "But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had! There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. I get positively angry with the impertinence of it..." Much has been written about the story's portrayal of mental illness, and its role in the Feminist Gothic. It's an interesting contrast to Anderson's films - the first person writing does not allow for the same "communal witnessing" that Joseph has written about. Instead, there is a feeling of witnessing the mind's own machinations, as if the narrator is externalising the flight of ideas she seems to be experiencing, and embodying the wallpaper with these transient figures and moments. In turn, as the relationship with the wallpaper darkens, she begins to read its influence seeping back into the corporeal figures around her: "The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John. He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look. It strikes me occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis, - that perhaps it is the paper! (...) I caught Jennie with her hand on it once (...) she turned around as if she had been caught stealing, and looked quite angry - asked me why I should frighten her so! (...) I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!" She even begins to display an ownership of and a jealousy towards the paper and the things she perceives in it.
The Yellow Wallpaper is often described as a ghost story, or a Gothic horror complete with the typical distraught female protagonist and repressive male antagonist - "sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes, only one... she keeps still, she... shakes. And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern - it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads. They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!"" - however, that is not perhaps the way it reads today, when terms like 'psychosis' are in everyday usage.
Michelle Massé has discussed the psychoanalytical dimension of the Gothic, claiming that "daydreams and neurotic symptoms are mechanisms of defence used to construct systems that satisfy basic desires while still letting us function adequately in the real world", which was cited by Coraline Dupuy in her writing about Kim Jee-Woon's 2003 film A Tale of Two Sisters (above, right) - an interesting work in terms of its attention to interiors as signifiers. She writes about his use of "colour-coding of the interior", claiming that it indicates that "the locus of anxiety in the film is the house itself" and "invoke(s) a sense of decay and stolen youth". These descriptions could equally be applied to other character-interiors such as The Overlook hotel in Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining (above, centre), the almost abandoned apartment building in Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow (below, right and left), the school in Suspiria (below, centre), or the apartment building in J. G. Ballard's High Rise.
And what is it about certain interiors that so convinces us they have personality, agency, an agenda, a persistent history? Perhaps it is due to the unheimlich motifs which populate much of our literature, particularly in childhood (well, mine at least). But perhaps that literature exists because of this suspicion we have about a still interior. Perhaps, then, it is due to the amount of time we tend to spend in our own domestic environs at the age when imagination is forming and awareness expanding, creating a combination of familiarity and uncertainty as the physicality of our homes creeps into our growing perception of things outside our bodies, and coincides with the beginnings of our ability to understand things symbolically, and to understand the ideas of past and future. Alternatively, perhaps it is simply an instinctive mistrust of such man-made environments, that hangs over from the time before they existed.
And what are the ingredients of this suspicion, this feeling that a domestic interior may not be entirely benign? Is a yellow-papered wall enough?
Wes Anderson and the Theatricality of Mourning
The End of Me
Who Speaks, Who Listens, Who Acts
Physical Space as Indicator of Women's Position within Society
Altogether Independent: An Analysis of the Feminist Perspectives of Gilman, Cooper, Woolf and de Beauvoir
'Why don't you remember? Are you crazy?': Korean Gothic and psychosis in A Tale of Two Sisters
Come and Play with Us: The Play Metaphor in Kubrick's The Shining
Glossary of wallpaper terms
Tina Keane - Faded Wallpaper
Flight of ideas
Jean Piaget's Four Cognitive Stages of Child Development
In 1912 Marcel Duchamp attended Raymond Roussel's play Impressions d'Afrique in Paris. He described the spectacle and therefore Roussel as being responsible for his later work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even, having inspired him with contraptions and illusions. And Roussel was "mad about magic"*, describing in his fiction illusory devices and mechanisms. Furthermore, Simon During comments that "he (Roussel) generated his best texts using a secret set of homophonic procedures that arbitrarily determined which phrases could complete particular sections of prose"* and William Clark describes how "one of the most remarkable peculiarities of Locus Solus and Impressions d'Afrique is that nearly all the scenes are described twice. First, we witness them as if they were a ceremony or a theatrical event; and then they are explained to us, by their history being recounted. This is particularly the case in Impressions; the author went to the trouble, after publication, of inserting a slip of green paper on which he suggested that 'those readers not initiated in the art of Raymond Roussel are advised to begin this book at p. 212 and go on to p.455, and then turn back to p. 1 and read to p. 211'",** which is interesting in the light of my writing about Carousel Narratives in a previous post. During goes on to claim that art and magic must be considered as bound together, given that both result from "the same trick"* that "the effect is consecrated as more than it is"*, and the same "deception of not revealing quite how the trick was pulled off"*, and the same "logic that enables something to be invented from nothing much."*
The idea of magic is helpful when considering the presentation of the Ghost Box. As Marina Warner writes, "magic embeds desires in things. Once imbued with power, they acquire different names: relic, icon, talisman, amulet"***, and it seems reasonable to say that the (mostly) rather ordinary items inside the Box have taken on this quality of embedded desire, for me at least, as a result of the context in which I found them and the significance they seem to have when considered together.
Warner also references Derrida's meditations on writing, in which it is claimed that writing is a pharmakon, suggesting that writing is to be considered as detrimental to the potential to think in dialogue with others. It seems to me that a similar conclusion could be drawn about the Ghost Box's contents and their resistance to representation. Despite the vastness of its contents, the box seems to lose its magic when expanded, as if concealment and secrecy is the crux. Which, looking back on that sentence, describes magic pretty well too. The box seems to want an audience (feedback from various methods of presentation is often that people like to hear me tell the story of finding it and to experience the revealing of the contents), like magic does, an audience who are willing to be transported. "To be true conjuring, the scene must be there in the theatre of the cabaret or the room... The characters must, at least in some sense, include the magician, the audience, the stagehands, ideally the security guard. Here and now is all part of the grammar of this art form."****
With thanks to Chris Cook for sparking the idea.
* - During, S., (2009). Magic Show. Hayward Touring, 29th November 2009 - 18th December 2010. [Exhibition Catalogue]. London: Hayward Publishing
** - http://www.variant.org.uk/15texts/Roussel.html
*** - Warner, M., (2009). Magic Show. Hayward Touring, 29th November 2009 - 18th December 2010. [Exhibition Catalogue]. London: Hayward Publishing
**** - Teller in Conversation. Quoted in Brown, D., (2003). Absolute Magic. USA: H&R Magic Books
Aberdeen by Rodney Graham (2000, above) is a slide show consisting of a series of photographs taken in the hometown of Kurt Cobain and accompanied by the artist's own soundtrack, which may allude to the influence that Cobain had on the artist's own music. The work has been said to emphasize Cobain's "aspirations toward both a figurative and literal "Nirvana" that would take him away from his despised hometown"*. The slide carousel seems to be used here in its capacity to create a rotation with no variation - 'same old, same old' - making Aberdeen inescapable, and consequently reminding us of Cobain's inability to escape himself, regardless of his geographical location or critical/financial success.
This work could be described as a carousel narrative, a term which I'm defining as similar to that of circular narrative, a literary form which is generally used either to make the reader feel like nothing has changed, or to give a sense of fulfilment or completion, but which seems to cover only a single, repeatable circuit. It is said that the tone of this kind of narrative is what influences whether the circularity has a positive, satisfying, tied-up effect, or a negative, unsatisfying, stuck-in-a-loop one, like Aberdeen does. Carousel narratives, on the other hand, would rotate in a similar way, but just like carousel horses move vertically as well as being part of a rotating whole, each element of the narrative shifts in its perspective to the others.
The carousel narrative is very skilfully employed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, writer of the theoretical work Pour un Nouveau Roman (1963) which concerns novel structure. Often using repetition and ambiguous timelines in his novels, as well as creating narrators who are biased and fallible, one of Robbe-Grillet's aims was to disrupt the reliance on literature's traditional omniscient narrator and chronological timeline to fill in the gaps between dialogue and plot events, and therefore to engage the reader actively as "an accomplice of the author rather than a spectator"**. His novels are also often chosiste, a phenomenological style (in the Heideggerian sense - rejecting the notion of the human being/subject as a spectator of objects, stating rather that both subject and object are inseparable), which uses lengthy descriptions of objects to highlight the interiority and psychology of a character, a construct that has also been described as psychoanalytical. In addition, the use of repetition in his characters' actions, thoughts, words, memories and dreams evokes a sense of Bergson's questions about memory - (is it something merely psychological, or is it possible to attribute an ontological status to it? Or, what is the reality of the past?).
In L'Année Dernière à Marienbad, the film Robbe-Grillet made with Alain Resnais in 1961 (below), these themes are explored visually as well as verbally. The characters' costumes change with the camera angle, suggesting that memory is being checked, re-worked, corrected. They repeat phrases, as does the narrator, who sometimes is and sometimes doesn't seem to be the male protagonist we see. Delphine Seyrig's (unnamed) character performs gestures and movements at the instruction of the narrator, repeats them in a series of recurring locations, wearing different clothes and surrounded by different or more or fewer other finely dressed mansion occupants. At one point she laughs, and her laugh is echoed by/repeated by/transferred into the mouth of another female, one of the human objects (I can't see these objects as people; they are props, furniture), which occurs at the same time that Seyrig's character is frightened by something we do not see and backs into this same woman, causing a glass to break. Seyrig's character's utterance is circular, coming out of her mouth and then into her ear via another person's mouth, ready to be laughed once more, in later scenes.
The repetitious, carousel nature of the physical movements of the three main characters in the space of the mansion appears to reference the experience of remembering. They move through the groups of human objects who stand in tableaux, giving the active figures a dominance which alludes to the detail that we might remember about a key person in a memory, as opposed to their surroundings which might be more sketchy, vaguer. There is a sense that these human objects are stuck in loops of time, destined to repeat their words and gestures forever, like ghosts, perhaps inflecting differently at times, perhaps not. This human furniture is poised, posed like automata - another topic that interested Robbe-Grillet, found as a motif in some of his writing, such as Le Mannequin (1954).
Indeed, even the mansion which provides the setting for the seemingly eternal house-party/limbo/afterlife that surrounds the main characters is a place of reflection and repetition - both in terms of memory and also more literally in its symmetricality, and in its mirrored surfaces in which simultaneous views are afforded, symmetry is created, and the scale of the building is exaggerated. There is a sense also that the structure of the mansion is not quite feasible, in a similar way that Rodney Ascher claims the hotel in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) is physically impossible, in his film Room 237 (2012). It seems that in the Marienbad house, it is possible to leave a room, walk directly away from it along a corridor, then take a single turn and re-enter that same room, where the same woman will be standing - albeit in a different pose, or a different dress, at a different time.
As in Robbe-Grillet's novels, the reader/viewer is unable to locate the beginning of this narrative. The opening scene features narration which describes the mansion interior that we see, using phrases such as "once more I advance through these corridors", giving the impression that this is not the speaker's first time here, yet describing in great detail the architectural features and decor of the room as if on a first visit, or in an act of memorising, the type of memorising one might do in a place which cannot be returned to. This opening sequence is evocative of the 'memory-palace' or 'method of loci' technique of remembering, which might imply that the narrator is engaging with a self-constructed memory aid rather than materially inhabiting a place. Equally, given Giorgio Albertazzi's (also unnamed) character's repeated command to Seyrig's character - "remember" - we could also suppose that this describing of the surroundings is a series of orders: just as he tells her how to position herself, how close she should be to him, where she was last year, so he commands her to remember these rooms and halls, the stucco and the columns, the mirrors and the garden, perhaps as a trigger for the other things she is being directed to remember. It brings to mind a scene in the documentary The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012) in which Frederic Bourdin claims that his 'sister' was complicit in his imposture, because she taught him all the names of the family he was about to deceive, repeating the words "you remember" with each photograph she showed him. (Interestingly, Layton had the whole of this documentary shot in standard interview style - with the subjects looking off-frame at an unseen interviewer - except for the interviews with Bourdin in which he invariably looks straight into the camera, straight at us. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet have Albertazzi's character looking into the camera too, just a few times, at moments when it seems the viewer is required to take up his role as accomplice).
The movement of the camera through the rooms and corridors of the mansion in L'Année Dernière à Marienbad is somnambulist, gliding (ghosting?) and autoscopical in places. It is also redolent of big-bang/big-crunch theory - perhaps these actions are always going to be repeated, back and forth, not exactly the same each time maybe, but repeated nonetheless. The carousel glides round, the horses shift perspective. At other times the fixed camera position freezes moments, especially those which are doomed to repeat or which are used to generate the physicality of the mansion and its grounds, and these moments have a strong, Barthesian punctum in comparison to the gliding camera's easy slip-through-the-fingers/virtual tour way of seeing. The human objects sometimes glide also, but more often pose, sometimes observing as if consciously being audience to something. They are at times like figures drawn on an architect's sketch; providing 'human interest'. They are reminiscent also of the human objects I encounter in my Google Earth investigations, "frozen lumps of dead time",*** which speak to the uncanny as much as they do to human interaction with place.
*Into the Light (Andrea Carson on Rodney Graham)
**Robbe-Grillet: Les Gommes and Le Voyeur (B. G. Garnham, 1983)
***Living with Ghosts (Jan Verwoert, 2007)
Anthony Burgess on the novel
Bergson's Matter and Memory
Big Bang & Big Crunch
The Imposter (2012)
Room 237 (2012)
Above: film stills from L'Année Dernière à Marienbad
How is it that a seemingly general acceptance that 'the camera never lies' has managed to survive, despite the reality that it is very difficult to think of any photographic image which does not contain a lie of some kind? It could be as overt as the decision of a photographer to exclude something which would cast the contents of the photograph into a different light; or post-production improvements, manipulations, enhancements and crops, which allow the creation of an image to which the camera can only contribute a part. Or it could simply be that by pointing the camera in one direction instead of another, it is never possible to see the whole 'truth' in a photographic image, but rather a single angle, a single moment, devoid of temporal context. "Photography evades us", as Barthes put it. Ernst Van Alphen describes how in an archive, the identity we presume we see in a particular photograph is not the result of the 'real' identity of whatever has been captured in the image, but of whatever system of classification has been imposed upon it. Mieke Bal, in a lecture on narrative, reiterated the ideas of Henri Bergson: "the co-existence of different moments or memories binds viewers to what they see, so there's not ever a single moment in the present. The story may be fictional, but the interaction with it is real".
It is interesting to think of these statements concerning 'truth' in imagery, and the way that previous experience and knowledge contributes to perception, in application to the recent outrage over the Plymouth University students in the image below. I saw this image first as a shared Facebook post, where it had already inspired hundreds of comments from two main viewpoints: one deploring the young people's "Nazi" behaviour, and the other arguing why that view was invalid, based on such reasoning as that the young man "making the White Power hand signal" had had his other hand cropped out of the image, but that if the uncropped version was consulted it would become clear that he was making the same gesture with the other hand, which then apparently doesn't signify far-right affiliation. For all I know, making the signal with both hands might make the effect even worse to those affected by its connotations, but in the context of my particular focus on the truth of images, it doesn't matter. What I looked for in the responses to this image, and what I didn't find, was anything which questioned whether the image itself could be trusted. I accept that the likelihood is that these young people really did write things on their own and/or each other's T-shirts. But the image itself is not proof of this. And how interesting that it should appear at a time when immigration, Brexit, nationalism, left v right, Corbin as antisemitist etc, are such critical topics. We can't know, just from this image, whether the scene we see is a record of one product of that climate, or manufactured to create a guaranteed polarising reaction in order to further a specific agenda. Is it effect or cause? The image itself has no way of telling us the answer, which is precisely why it must be questioned, and why photographic imagery is suitable for use as a tool of manipulation, and therefore why this image cannot be taken as truth, in and of itself. Particularly significant, from my point of view, was the instant belief in the truth of this image among educated, articulate, critically-minded friends and colleagues, many of whom work in visual and cultural fields. Why does the positioning of this image in a social media or news context make it more 'true' than the film/art/advertising/political/propagandic images they spend their working life decoding and even distrusting?
I recently heard Richard Broomhall speak at the premiere of his film Got You Mouse, a Peninsula Arts Film Commission, about an AI tool he had used to map the movements of soldiers in some of the archive footage, and which he claimed could then be used to replicate those movements. He used the case of this video (below) of Obama as an example.
We cannot trust images. We cannot assume that the context of a news website makes this rule inapplicable. We cannot continue reacting without thought to whichever images confirm our beliefs. Images are manipulation. Images are manipulated. The camera lies.
Russian troll confesses
Plymouth Conservative society suspended
I'm using Google Earth to take a look at the Ghost Box locations, observe their geographical relationships to each other and get a sense of the shape they create when considered together. After several weeks of looking at this data, zooming in on it, visiting and revisiting places I am starting to feel familiar with, I am beginning to experience reactions to the images that I did not expect.
I'm annoyed, for example, at the van parked outside a location which has consequently become one of the most intriguing to me - I can see the building from above, and for all of the zoom in; it is only when the street view kicks in that the building becomes obstructed. If I move along the street a little, I can look back at the building in all its oblique allure, asking me to step a little closer, free of its white van and beckoning me, as if telling me that by moving stealthily enough I can trick the vehicle into not being there. It never works.
I'm annoyed at the non-urban locations - as clear as the urban ones when seen from the height Google Earth chooses to stop at - but which flatten maddeningly beneath me as I descend, into their folded-flat foliage and cock-eyed constructions, making less and less sense the closer I get to them. There are far fewer incidental humans here. It's as if the population cannot exist here, outside the 3D cityscapes, here where the houses flop like a broken pop-up book, and disappear when you turn to face them. Which makes a kind of sense, I suppose.
But on the other hand, wonder is to be found in the glitches of transition. Buildings sink into roads, draped in a mesh which mimics their fascias. Buses are stuck in black, beneath which the matrix is exposed, holding the scene up out of the emptiness below. Houses unveil their skeletons, crawling up external walls and looming over outside spaces. Unwitting, unknowable humans are frozen, as if sketched onto an architect's plan. Images from above show streets loaded with tropical colours and soft, railway set bushes, drawing me down, down, closer, closer and then switching abruptly back into the invariable, hard, locked-door grey as I get close enough to really see. I am thirsty for those colours, but the oasis they promised was a mirage. It shimmered, and I fell for it. Again.
I can zoom back out though; catch the image at that moment when it is neither one thing nor the other, when the cold, photographic trees and fences are pulled from their reality and stretch, striping traces behind them before assuming their other, softer, more vibrant versions once more.
In a previous post in August I discussed the idea that the term life-story might now need to be replaced with life-archive, given the database-like records that now detail us. Here again, with Google Earth, this idea is suggested, as I can now see into the gardens I used to play in and even go right up to front doors for which I used to have a key (and in some cases still do - sshh). I wonder what Sophie Calle makes of all this. I realised recently that I am living at my 41st address, with two months to go until my 41st birthday, which has re-ignited an idea I had years ago to try to visit all my previous homes, in order. There's very little nostalgia for me in this revisiting, and in fact I'd be very anxious about going to some of the houses again. But I can start this exploration right here at my desk, thanks to Google Earth, vicariously re-experiencing my own life database-style.
Google street view and artists
Van Alphen claims in the introduction to his book Staging the Archive: Art and Photography in the Age of New Media (2014), that "the role of narrative is declining (whereas) the role of the archive... is increasing... (and) has become the dominant symbolic and cultural form". In the same year, talkdeath.com stated that "over 30 million virtual profiles have outlived their owners". The year before, what-if.xkcd.com had predicted that the time when the number of dead Facebook users outnumbered the living ones would be either in the 2060s (if the platform begins to lose popularity in the way that websites tend to do), or around 2130 (if it retains its current universality). Either way, at some point the facsimiles of lives in this digital graveyard stand to exceed the number of people physically living. And what will these online archives tell us about the people they represent, and about memory, remembrance and the idea of a life story?
If, as Lyotard (cited in Van Alphen) claims, postmodernism can be defined as "a radical incredulity" toward the religious, political, mythical and scientific meta-narratives which serve(d) to "legitimize the pursuit of knowledge", then these archives of personal material stored online may be good examples of postmodern narrative, in line with his idea that narrative has a "modest" place in contemporary culture, no longer being meta- but instead rhetorical, performative - which certainly could apply to these collections. Social media profiles have more in common with an archive or database than with the "cause-and-effect trajectory" that Manovich (cited in Van Alphen) believes narrative creates. And within this way of representing the story of our lives to the world, which he describes as reversing the traditional literary/cinematic narrative "relationship between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic", we find a new role for the 'reader' (viewer/user/stalker) - one in which numerous possible trajectories could be defined, based on his/her clicks, and not on a single path dictated by the teller of the story. Of course, each reader's journey through the information presented can be said to result in a linear narrative, but as Van Alphen says, "it is in the encompassing framework of archival organizations that... narratives are (now) embedded", which shifts the traditional writer/reader relationship from one of teller/tellee to something more like archivist/researcher.
But an archive, in a postmodern society, can not be viewed as a collection of things to be collected and guarded by a passive archivist. Each of us has a constantly updating and expanding archive of recorded presence - with our loyalty cards and social media accounts and qualifications and passports and online bank accounts and CCTV appearances - which forms an identity that will outlive our physical bodies. Our life stories, or perhaps we should start using the term 'life archives', may well be accessible for as long as the technology which supports the record of them exists.
In 2014, several websites including roadandtrack.com reported that a young man had encountered "the ghost of his parent" while playing an XBox game. The father had been dead since his son was six, after which time the young man left the console untouched for about a decade. But when he re-engaged with it, he found his father's record lap was still stored in the game, appearing as a ghost car that he was able to compete with. This spectre will last as long as nobody breaks the record - or until XBoxes no longer function - allowing the son to experience evidence of his father's actions on infinite repeat, unchanging and ultimately unsatisfying, I suspect, as memorials can be. But it seems like a decent analogy of the way we are beginning to encounter the deceased now - as ghosts, whose achievements and experiences will appear unexpectedly in the form of Facebook birthday notifications and new tags in photos, for example.
So will this make us remember the dead differently? As the photographs and letters that previous generations have as keepsakes are superseded by this online content, will the way we remember each other be richer, if it draws on so many more archived items than have ever been available before? Or perhaps it will actually remove some of the need for remembrance, if the deceased's online presence continues to interact with us beyond their bodily lifetime.
Van Alphen, E. (2014) Staging the Archive. London: Reaktion
Son finds his father's ghost waiting for him in vintage rally game
Facebook of the Dead
Facebook - The World's Largest Digital Graveyard
In my work as a study tutor to predominantly Arabic students I'm often prompted to reflect on the differences between a traditional faith-based society and a more secular one. I'm a secularly raised, secularly educated, atheist westerner, so it's really difficult for me to imagine not being required or encouraged to think critically, which is often what my students need help with the most. (Indeed, I struggled with choosing the word 'atheist' to describe myself here because, even though I feel absolutely no belief in any god, I'm reluctant to make 100% claims of any kind - I usually prefer to keep an open mind when possible, especially if the belief involves having to prove that something doesn't exist. I have used the word because I have no belief in any deity. I reserve the right to change my mind though, as I believe we all should, if presented with enough evidence to do so).
It has often seemed to me that the students I work with - while highly educated in their subject area, and sometimes a decade or so into extremely responsible careers which are shaping their countries' economic, political and scientific futures - are entirely unprepared for postgraduate study as it is in this country; in terms of self-motivation, independent study and critical thinking. Let's be clear at this point that I'm absolutely ignorant of what postgraduate study looks like in Saudi Arabia, for example, and that I'm basing my opinions here on my interaction with students, the questions they ask me, and the problems they have while studying. Perhaps an example would be a good idea at this point. A Saudi student I'm currently working with is studying for an MSc. He has worked for the military for over ten years, and teaches marine navigation and ship captaincy at a naval academy. A few weeks ago he asked me what critical thinking was, because one of his lecturers had commented that he wasn't demonstrating it in his written work. I gave him a few non-academic examples, which he dealt with well. He seems, however, to be unwilling or perhaps unable to apply the idea to academic study, and often asks me where to find 'the answer', or what his conclusion 'should be'. He is worried that he will be 'wrong'. It is my impression that he doesn't feel confident coming to a conclusion by himself, but prefers someone in authority, or a written text, to tell him what his opinion should be. He does not seem to mind if the written text or authority figure has evidence for their claim. Now, I do not suggest for a minute that students from societies governed in line with an organised religion are the only ones who prefer a straight answer to a question. I do not believe that all students educated in the UK, for example, have the tendency to think critically. However, I do notice in the majority of my interactions with Arabic students, and less so in my experience of being a student (during which time my peers have been mostly British or European) that there is a noticeable difference in approach. I feel fairly confident, too, in saying that critical thinking is probably not encouraged in societies which have traditionally relied on religious texts for their law-making and social policy.
So it's with this experience in mind that I begin to consider what post-truth could mean outside of the usual Trump/Brexit/fake news context. Lee McIntyre (2018) writes about the path from the 1950s Tobacco Industry Research Commitee, which Ari Rabin-Havt (2016) claims was "created to cast doubt on scientific consensus that smoking cigarettes causes cancer", to the more recent misconceptions of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, in which 'the backfire effect' - identified by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (2010) - caused partisans to believe more strongly in WMD after receiving a correction telling them that no such weapons existed, as well as the ongoing denial of climate change. We could consider, too, the recent phenomenon of flat-earthers - have they existed since before Pythagorus, Aristotle and Eratosthenes but are now able to share their ideas due to the increased communication channels of the internet? Or is this a recently reconsidered idea which might be linked to post-truth? It certainly seems to fit with what McIntyre is saying.
I still need to finish reading this text, so this post is not intended as a summary of what McIntyre has written. However, the things I want to think more about as I read, as I interact with students from other cultures, and as I continue exploring the alternative 'truths' of the Ghost Box, are these:
Firstly, is it possible that the logical conclusion of post-truth might look like a return to faith-based society, in which facts are overlooked in favour of "truthiness" (a term coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005, to mean that something has a feeling of being true, even without evidence to support it) or misinformation distributed to create a particular result or further a particular cause? I don't mean societies would become 'religious' again in the traditional sense. By faith-based, I mean a society in which the information you are told, and taught not to question, and perhaps even punished for questioning, is described as 'truth', despite evidence to the contrary. And how would that compare with traditionally religious societies?
Secondly, how does that affect the reading of my reluctance to investigate the apparent 'facts' of the Ghost Box? What are the similarities between not looking for evidence to explain whether or not a wedding occurred, and the wider human tendency of confirmation bias? In a post-truth society, would it be morally acceptable to enjoy mystery, or would it be the duty of those who disagree with the manipulation of fact-dismissal to search for 'truth' in all aspects of their lives?
More on this at a future date.
(And yes, I'm aware of the irony of talking about confirmation bias when I've said I'm approaching this topic in light of my experiences and with a tentative conclusion already forming - I'm keeping as open a mind as I can and am absolutely willing to alter any part of this if and when necessary)
McIntyre, L. (2018) Post-Truth. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Spherical Earth discussed in The Independent