The term ‘hauntology’ originates from Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994), though in the last decade it has found currency in contemporary art and music criticism, due to its usage by the late Mark Fisher. Prefixing the word haunt to the philosophical term ontology (the metaphysical study of being), the concept denotes the presence of a ghostly apparition that infuses itself into the fabric of contemporary reality. Attaching itself to cultural artefacts, this spectre manifests as the failed desires of forgotten futures; it conjures artistic forms that dissolve the positivistic perception of a linear chronology, in favour of atemporal loops that disrupt past, present and future in fictive constructions. History always lurches forward through narrative myths and imagined framing devices, venerating certain attributes whilst leaving others to rot in the process of disintegration. Reanimating the forgotten remnants of cinematic genealogy is one of the principal concerns of the films brought together for ‘Revenant Images’, an online screening programme curated by artist Patrick Hough, which is currently streaming on the aemi experimental film and artist moving image platform.
Although differing quite significantly in form, content and approach, each of the five moving image works are unified in their attempts to unearth discarded elements of filmic history. Anna Fraceschini’s DOPOSOLE (2013), which opens the series, is a short and silent piece shot on Super 8. Gesturing towards abstraction, the film initially presents an austere and sombre mood, as red fabric flutters peacefully in front of the camera, obfuscating our view of the sun. As it builds toward the terminus, the flickering accelerates, revealing fragments of the background scene – for a nanosecond a pier is briefly visible – whilst simultaneously disrupting representation itself through the action of the frenetic movement. Oscillating between stillness and motion, DOPOSOLE probes ideas of visual artifacts and post-processing technologies, as the dancing cloth is presented as both primary subject, as well as that which occludes meaning.
In comparison to this formal abstraction, John Skoog’s Shadowland (2014) explores more heavily the concept of representation – but representation which is itself a fiction. Captured in California, the film presents a collection of haunting and romanticised scenes of diverse biomes, that have been used in Hollywood for fictionalised locales as varied as Gotham City, Switzerland, Mars, Japan, and the Garden of Eden. The sheer multiplicity of topography destabilises the perception of both place and time, as these ‘real fictions’ disintegrate into the realm of pure aesthetic imagination. The tension between the real and artificial is mirrored in the soundscape, consisting of ominous synthesised drones that bleed from one scene into the next, occasionally punctured by a crescendo of choral voices.
Contrasting the forgoing of cinematic storytelling in the previous, Christin Turner’s Vesuvius at Home (2018) and Clemens von Wedemeyer’s The Cast: Procession (2013) employ more traditional narrative forms in their interrogation of forgotten histories. Turner’s work, perhaps the most compelling on display here, intertwines murky shots of the Californian desert, high-fidelity footage of the artist on location in Pompeii, and a home movie recounting a school re-enactment of the tale of the ashen, fallen Roman city. Overflowing with traces of both visual and sonic artifacting, lo-fi effects transition jarringly between guaranteer-of-authenticity and the parodic. The effluent of cinematic apparatus – these glitching effects of crackling, grain, and warbles – are hijacked to lend a sense of credibility to the historical reimaginings. Von Wedemeyer’s The Cast: Procession concerns itself with another element of the oft-disregarded aspects of the cinematic system. This time focused on human subjects, rather than technical residues, the film is a recreation of events that occurred in Cinecittà Studios during the shooting of the epic Ben Hur, where thousands of extras protested the studio due to the lack of promised work. Shot in enchanting high definition, the atmosphere is that of a contemporary period piece (aping the style of 1950s Italy), with the dreamy illusion only subtly shattered towards the climax, in an enthralling reverse shot that reveals a man filming on an iPad.
As the curator of the programme, Hough’s contribution, And If In A Thousand Years (2017), appears, suitably, the most ostensibly concentrated in its analysis of cinematic history as a speculative construction that runs parallel to reality. Confronting the viewer as mythos, the film follows the journey of an artificial Sphinx, used as a prop in Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, that was buried in the dessert following production, only to be unearthed and worshipped decades later by Hollywood scavengers-cum-archaeologists. Accompanying the creature on its pilgrimage of rediscovery is a phantasmal monologue that is equal parts grandiose and mischievous. Effortlessly prowling through a town that is presented in partial abandonment, the Sphinx eventually arrives at a museum, wherein it encounters an exhibition of its own self, signalling the artifice of its being and the simultaneous reverence of this fictionalised assemblage. At this point, the film disintegrates into an eldritch swamp of digitality, as the real-life footage putrefies as CGI lidar scans – a computational technique typically used in archaeology to re-construct artefacts as visual three-dimensional models, but here redeployed in the manifestation of a speculative digitalised dreamscape.
The ghostly double, the non-origin of the culturally fabricated real, is central to the concept of hauntology. The works in ‘Revenant Images’ herald the afterlives of a discarded filmic ancestry by crystallising representation on moments of history that no longer are, but which persist still as virtual spectres. Historical representation here is nothing more than fiction, but a fiction that hauntingly pierces the real.
Laurence Counihan is an Irish-Filipino writer and critic, who is currently a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the History of Art department at University College Cork.