It is quite astonishing how the relationship to ghosts has changed. In the past the omnipresent and grim fear of ghosts was culturally rooted. Rituals and myths circled around defensive strategies of keeping ghosts as far away as possible. It was commonplace to regard the ghost as a mirror of the dead, haunting the living and asking for attention in some way or another to escape its unbearable fate. A duplex gestalt, victim and perpetrator, intimidating and pitiful at the same time, caught in timeless suffering and therefore haunting the living. Be this as it may, our minds have long forgotten to focus on this angst and ghosts have become less real and needless to say less threatening. What once might have been the smart way to come about, to protect the own space against those demons, is nowadays nothing more than a strange obsession, a leisure-time pursuit, a voyeuristic interest that is envisioned in entertainment products, circling around those moments where we choose to give ourselves the creeps, yet it is not implemented in every day life.
While ghosts, phantoms or demons have been used as cultural instruments, conveying morals in tales and myths, their acknowledgement and instrumental use in academia is rather novel and might reflect the upcoming relationship we have with ghosts. Ghosts now become integrated as a conceptual metaphor or an analytical tool, meaning they evoke a discourse, a system of producing knowledge about something not associated with the ghostly in the first place. The ghost however transgresses its common depiction as an entity we fear and avoid and becomes a metaphorical tool to explore topics in a new manner considering the shifting position between ‘visibility and invisibility, life and death, materiality and immateriality’ (del Pilar Blanco & Peren 2013:2). But when does this technique become useful? Examples could be the discussion of matters that are ambiguous yet benefit from not becoming highly defined, questions that need answers typically not found in the common discourse and problems that should be illustrated differently to revive our attention.
Recently I have studied the archive as a concept and found myself trapped between two characteristic poles of the archives: their concreteness on one side and their vagueness on the other. It occurred to me that I might need a new starting point and find a method of seeing the archive once more differently. This article is the beginning of my experiment. To use the ghost as described above and apply its new functionality on my topic seemed especially useful for the archive, a research object, which in recent years has become increasingly prominent and is seen in cultural, historical and artistic discourse through different lenses. Despite its frequent illumination there is no fixed understanding of the archive anymore and after being discussed by big names such as Foucault and Derrida, being worked with by artists like Susan Hiller and The Atlas Group and implemented in discourse in numerous fields, it has been manifested: the archive is relevant but vague, intriguing yet uncertain, past and nevertheless present. This is why the connection of the archive with the ghost as concept is so alluring. It allows new discursive interstices and evokes a new twist to the archive or at least a new language that has not been used before. The experimental part within was that it was not clear what might come out of this endeavour.
In the winter of 2014 I started to think about archives in this way. Not in the usual manner of juxtaposing archival theories, which exist in large numbers. Via an artistic project, I wanted to illustrate the similarities between the archives found in cities and the ghost and deduct a visual experiment on how far their connection is seizable. This resulted in a series of instantaneous photographs of several archives within the cityscapes of Berlin and Amsterdam, my two hometowns. Something I originally did not intend to find was another conceptual metaphor, namely the guard. Guarding, however, is in many ways the main function of archives in the city, and for that reason the guard needed to be part of the equation. The moment I encountered the possibility of the conceptual metaphor, the connecting link between archive, ghost and guard seemed feasible to me in theory. Anyhow, I wanted to explore this connectedness and actually go on a ghost hunt in practice while simultaneously reflecting upon this attempt on paper. For me, the starting point to find the ghost was first of all the city.
In a city, ghosts might take on the form of imprints, traces, monuments or auras communicating the past – whether good or bad – and sustain the life of suppressed narratives, forgotten details or unspoken truths. Between narrow roads of a city as well as in between the lines of the daily press one can find a nation’s ghosts, which remain for posterity in order to continue the remembrance of a previous time. The timelessness of the ghost is what makes it still relevant in our fast-moving world of today. A ghost remains undeterred by progressive dynamics and technological developments as it ‘contains all times in one, [as] a trinity of time: interwoven, inseparable, unassailable’ (Jernsletten 2005:60). Guards, on the other hand, carry the duty to safeguard something that cannot be implemented into the daily discourse but still shall not be forgotten. Guards take on similar shapes as ghosts in institutions, monuments or inscriptions. Their space is assigned and fixed and therefore they prevent the past – just like a prisoner – of streaming into the daily city uncontrolled and everywhere. Metaphorically spoken, they become untouchable, carrying the secret of their power intrinsically and it is this secretiveness that makes them immune to attacks or unwanted interpretations from the outside.
Archives in the city function in similar ways as the ghosts and guards described here. Archives of all kinds, city archives, socio-political along side personal archives warden the past, isolate it through their buildings from the present to safeguard its content for the future. For the regular passerby it is therefore almost impossible to grasp the archives’ essence. Comprehending their true meaning is continually postponed since ‘if we want to know what [the archive] will have meant, we will only know in the times to come […]’ (Derrida 1995:27). Just as it is unfeasible to recognise the contours of the ghost and the power of the guards without engaging with them, the effects of the archive are not to be determined immediately. What else, however, makes the archive ghostly and how does it remind us of the ghost’s characteristics?
Ghosts’ liminal position between visibility and invisibility highlights the fact that the silhouette of the ghostly is difficult to define and especially hard to see (del Pilar Blanco & Peren 2013:2). Archives possess a similar embodiment, while their buildings within the cityscape might be visible, their content however is in most cases only accessible to the authorised and only comprehensible for the knowledgeable. For this reason archives handle a degree of lucency, describing the intersection between transparency and non-transparency. It makes them not entirely visible as elements of a city’s infrastructure – despite their physical presence – as their walls shield their content. Those walls function as the guarding instance, meaning their concrete walls as well as their bureaucratic procedures, their complex contents difficult to grasp and last but their closed entrance doors. The archive, the ghost and the guard are visible but never extensively nor at first sight, they are physically present but never connected to the present alone, they carry the burden of guarding the past as well as a future meaning in one.
In the photographic series ‘Ghosts and Guards’, I intended to catch the ghostliness and the guarding nature of different archives in the cities of Berlin and Amsterdam. I was especially interested to explore how capable photography would be to create an effect that could represent the intersection of archive, ghost and guard meaning also their shared characteristics of temporality, lucency and tangibility in one. The act of taking photos in its professional sense, namely adjusting the camera to the light situation and using the viewfinder to find the perfect shot appeared not qualified to represent something as elusive as the ghostly. The ghost, after all, does not give the spectator unlimited time to perceive it and usually guards do not allow their photographs to be taken, just as the archive in the cityscape is usually just perceived in the moment by passersby and only from the outside. It is not truly in the hands of the spectator how the ghost is perceived – how much of it is perceived – rendering the spectator in this sense not the one who decides. While the camera will be used as tool to capture something very tangible, namely the outside walls of the archives, the applied method of capturing must include the above-mentioned aspect, namely some degree of uncertainty.
In The Creative Act, Duchamp (1957:1) construes the process of transformation that takes place from the artist’s intention to the actual effect of the artwork as an unconscious struggle in which the artwork somehow takes on a life of its own and the artist herself functions merely as medium. Duchamp states that ‘In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfaction, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane.’. With this Duchamp points towards the degree of uncertainty that was crucial for me while photographing the archive. The ability to confiscate the moment that is needed for this artistic translation is, according to Doane (2002:209) found in instantaneous photography, which captures ‘a moment that does not exist’, an illusion similar to the one of a ghost. She defines ‘the image made possible by instantaneous photography as that which is beyond the limits of human vision, as that which no one has ever seen before.’ (209). When using this method it therefore appears that it would diminish the degree of certainty in the process of photographing the archives, something beneficial in this case.
My endeavour resulted in a photographic series circling around four different archives: The political archive, the city archive, the personal archive and the historical archive. First of all these images show buildings, their armour, the stone they are made of, thus their materiality and guarding nature. The chosen point of view – from the outside – emphasises the feeling of inaccessibility and furthermore depicts the position we have when seeing the archive in the daily routine, on our way to work, close to city hubs or in our neighbourhood. Despite the tangibility that is presented in the pictures, the effect that occurred through the instantaneous and the unplanned, often revealing movement of the camera or overexposure to light, brings the archives out of focus, never allowing full recognition. Exposed to this effect and unable to make full sense of what I see, I can only apprehend the focal point partly. The speed represented in the images through the smearing of the object, demonstrates my degree of hastiness and rapidity. While this mirrors how we pass by archives in the city, not taking the time or the energy to interact with them, it furthermore highlights that they cannot be erased entirely, as their traces remain – even if blurry – present and as their walls are tangible and concrete.
The 17 images shown as a series manifest my attempt to represent the unrepresentable. An endeavour that can never be more than an experiment. They try to translate the archives as tangible concepts to the metaphor of the ghost and the guard. If we could capture ghosts in an image they might manifest what has been described above: The temporal, the lucent and the uncertain. In fact, the only thing we could see in a photo of the ghost would be traces of a guard, signs of something keeping us on the outside. The archive is, however, a concept we are familiar with but rarely stand face-to-face with, reflecting on its true meaning in that moment . To capture its meaning time would have to stand still for a moment, as the passerby would need to stand still and look at the building, which is often ignored in the daily routine. If this does not take place, we remain merely viewers, grasping short moments of sight, never unblurring the contours the archives might have in our direct surroundings. But as we know now, relationships do change if we find new tools for perceiving them.
Riccarda Hessling (1986, Germany) is an Artistic Researcher and writer based in Berlin and Amsterdam. In 2012 she graduated in Museology from the Reinwardt Academy in Amsterdam. Meanwhile she was working as a freelance curatorial assistant at the State Museums Berlin, rethinking and developing a passion for experimental curatorial practices. In Fall 2012 Riccarda decided to combine her fervour for art and research and started a Research Master in Artistic Research at the University of Amsterdam from where she will graduate in June 2015. Since then she has developed her theoretical and artistic practice with a strong focus on personal archives, documents of the everyday and the interstices of notebooks and file boxes, which cannot be seen but must be found. Upcoming projects of 2015 will include the finalisation of her collaborative work entitled ‘How many Elephants would you die for?’ as well as her participation at a group show at the SMBA Gallery in Amsterdam with her work on The Personal An(archive).
Derrida, J. (1995). ’Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression’, Diacritics, vol. 25, no.2, pp. 9-63. Doane, M.A. (2002). The emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contigency, the Archive, Harvard
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Duchamp, M. (1957). Session on the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Texas.
Jernsletten, K. (2005). ’To Look from a Fell: Where do I come From ?’, in E Engelstad & S Gerrard (eds), Challenging Situatedness: Gender, Culture, and the Production of Knowledge, Duke, Ebuorn Academic Publishers: Delft, pp. 51-66.
Pilar Blanco, M. & Peeren, E. (2013). ’Introduction: Conceptualising Spectralities’, in M Pilar Blanco & E Peeren (eds), The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory, Bloomsbury Academie: New York, pp. 31-36.