Talking up ghosts

Stephen Jones

Ross Harley, Woman in Room 32

Ross Harley, Woman in Room 32

In an unused section of office space at the MCA, the seats were hard and the lighting fluorescent. Yet the symposium, Technologies of Magic: Ghosts & Their Machines, in itself proved an example of the technology of magic. It is in us, the beholden of those to whom we cede authority, that the magic is produced, whether in film or media, the theatre or the book, and with whatever tools they have at the time. The relationship “between technology and mysticism” and the production and representation of the immaterial was the theme of this one-day conference. Technology is our magic, it extends us with its reach, mediates our intimacy, vanishes from sight becoming ubiquity and environment. The invisible electrical fluids that we once understood as the spirit, inaccessible and beyond worldly thinking, are now the means by which we open our lives to others in the world, far beyond the local. The invisible is now the immaterial; a phantasm embedded in the Cartesian framework, animating the technological and the biological object.

Yet our emotions are quintessentially of the body: our visceral acknowledgement of the impact of the other. Rachel Moore, in her analysis of the role of archival film and old technologies in modern cinema, suggested that technology is often the mediator of the magical—ancient spirits and modern emotions (re)animated in the movie. The quickening of love between protagonists is triggered not by Cupid’s arrow but by incidental technological intervention. Magic and technology “alike accede to the notion that romantic love requires a magical trigger that comes from outside the lovers’ bodies, and is powerful enough to effect the bodies’ every sense.” Technology replaces nature and “in modern times, magic inhabits technology to produce the necessary elation of the body’s senses.” But technology also offers communication, bringing the remote into a single frame, a medium for emotions to weld and join, the medium through which that most magical event, falling in love, might be achieved.

Simon During introduced the magical effects of the 19th century stage. These, too, were the means whereby technology brought about the wondrous, and led to special effects in the cinema. Stage effects and optical illusions such as Pepper’s Ghost allowed the presentation in the theatre of all sorts of extraordinary occurrences. Nineteenth century popular concerns were imbued with the remainders of the spirit as religious object following the ravages of the Enlightenment. Spiritualism and a fascination with death presented a prime opportunity for entertainments based in phantasmagorical effects. Yet, as During pointed out, there was a curious interweaving of spiritualist séance and magical entertainment. Theatrical entertainment became the vehicle for ghost stories and mind-reading exercises with many practitioners moving from one stream to another.

John Potts provided a typology of ghosts: from poltergeist to personal ghosts, to harbingers of the future, to “non-interactive recording” ghosts obsessively repeating some event known only to themselves. Suggesting that they are often a moral warning or a signifier of the ancestors, he distinguished ghosts’ earlier cultural roles from their modern ones in the inexplicable. Now we have other terms for them: orbs, energy anomalies, yet they are still placeholders for things as yet unexplained. But hauntings are a re-presentation of the past, a kind of memory. As Potts pointed out, while the contemporary dialect we use to speak of magic borrows from science, “the ghost is the past speaking to the present and we will continue to hear it no matter what dialect it uses.” The “non-interactive recording ghost” is like a tape-recording and he wondered whether the magnetism of certain rocks might support such remembering. Human remembering is inadequately understood, and Potts offered a brief look at possible mechanisms, pointing to the role of emotion in the “recording strength” of memory.

Annette Hamilton, in her paper on the Uncanny, reminded us that Descartes dissociated the mind from the body—making it an object while rendering it immaterial. The mind, the ghost in the machine, becomes a thing in itself that houses within it all other things. We create technological objects through desire; they remain just a thing yet they belong to their maker. Hegel claimed that we carry a right to put our will into things and own them, producing a confusion of the subjective and the object. Hamilton explored this production of the object beginning with the mother’s breast and its fetishisation and following through to the function of the pet as a transitional object, a substitute, and finally the substitute for the substitute that we see in the Sony AIBO robotic dog. AIBO becomes an emotional prosthetic in its capacity to respond to its owner’s behaviour and voice. Finally Hamilton suggested that the fundamental break between the eye and the thing may well be coming to an end as the object begins again to have a meaning and subjectivity inherent in it, perhaps independent of our own desires.

Edward Scheer spoke about Stelarc and his relationship to the technology that increasingly adheres to him in his performances. Stelarc’s “visual excess of technology” ties him into the network of cyberspace, collapsing distance and representing a crisis in the identity of self and the body that emerges as we enter the new conceptual spaces that the net affords. For Stelarc the body in its narrow form is obsolete. It now extends across the net as the avatar, though animated as an emotionless extension of ourselves. But what will happen to these avatars? Do they become ghosts enabled to move bodies as Stelarc is moved within his exoskeletal Movatar? But Stelarc takes it further, folding his movement back onto the avatar in an endless precession—the exoskeleton becomes a servo-mechanism, staging feedback loops between the avatar and its rider. The avatar becomes a ghost riding our human machine, as it is yet a machine ridden by remote, networked users who are its ghosts. Stelarc’s cybernetic corporeality embraces the entities of its operation, extended across the net as they are, while in this curiously emotionless surrender he becomes the vehicle for animating the emotions of the networked personae of his riders.

Nigel Helyer’s concern is with the sound, the ear and the voice. For him the ear is a bringer of warnings, an indicator of danger signals; receiver of sounds regarded as phantastical, magical discarnate. The voice in the classical world of the oracle or the spirit guide is discarnate, separated from its origins. In drawing attention to the relationship between the dead, the spirit world and technological development, he mentioned Edison’s interest in recording the voices of people as memento-mori for their survivors and in his attempts to develop a “spirit-phone” to communicate with the dead. The 19th century idea that electricity animated the body leads to Edison’s interest and many other associations of technology with magic. Helyer spoke about his project for placing sounds, readings and music on the gravestones in the cemetery at St Stephen’s Church in Newtown. Engaging in the process of re-enchanting the world, he is developing means for enlivening objects, giving them their own voice using virtual reality technologies.

Ross Harley introduced 2 installation works that invoke the ghostly presence of people who had such an impact as to render them well remembered after their deaths. Woman in Room 32 remembers an eccentric woman who lived in the Regent’s Court Hotel in Kings Cross. She refused to move from her room when the hotel was renovated, embarking on “a campaign of terror” by playing her organ late into the night and giving hotel staff a difficult time. The installation in Room 32 of the hotel was built from a ‘live’ broadcast that could be viewed on the hotel’s TV system. Static and interference in the TV program marked the ghostly presence, in a room in which the TVs and their electronics were exposed and dangerous. The work seems to have had the effect of an exorcism in that the staff felt they could enter the room once the show was finished and the renovation of that room could be completed shortly thereafter.

I found it hard to see any real connection between the talks. The theme may well have been to do with the re-enchantment of the world, but this reading is contingent upon my own fascinations. We must invert this view so that we understand not that the world is some disjunctive realm of mind having priority over the material but that matter self-organises into the structures that bring it to life. This removes the need to invoke some outside agency—the ghost. Life and mind emerge as the results of this process, a necessary function of matter in its organised complexity. Technology is the prosthesis not the producer; it is perception which constructs and intentionality that produces, and these are themselves both functions of the conscious being.

Technologies of Magic: Ghosts and their Machines, a symposium organised by John Potts, Macquarie University & Edward Scheer, University of New South Wales, in conjunction with Performance Space; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, July 18

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 23

© Stephen Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 December 2001