Spectral Aesthetics: Old Ghosts in a New World

Caleb Madden is an artist, lecturer, curator and noise theorist, in the final stages of completing his PhD with the Centre for Digital Media Cultures Research (CDMC). Here he talks about his recent collaboration, a site-specific installation with artist and writer Luke Pendrell. Luke shares Caleb’s interest in the spectral nature of digital media and his work often explores the shifting relationships between scence and the supernatural.  The project ‘Spectral Aesthetics’, uses a digitally augmented version of the 19th century illusion ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, to explore the persistence of ancient ideas of haunting, spectres and myth within the 21st century digital world.

New messages, ancient spirits

‘Our primary area of interest is the noise-field in the digital age – the ways in which we interpret it and the messages we draw from it,’ explains Caleb. ‘In particular, where much of the digital noise that surrounds us is beset with negative connotations such as post-truth, misinformation and fake news, we wanted to explore the positive possibilities that can also exist. This work explores the link between old ideas of myth, occult and residual memory, and the contemporary messaging of digital information. My work explores how the noise-field of contemporary life can re-open the door to spectral, occult and mythical residual memory and how this can carry pertinent political agency.

‘As we began thinking about the nature of new ghosts in the digital age, those thoughts brought Pepper’s Ghost to mind. It seemed to be an excellent conduit for further research, exploration and creativity, and the idea for ‘Spectral Aesthetics’ was born.

Re-awakening Pepper’s Ghost

‘For my installation, ‘Spectral Aesthetics’, we chose to work with a strong visual presence. By using a 150 year old theatrical illusion, we were able to link explicitly the digital noise of the 21st century with residual memory from bygone ages. We all live in both virtual and actual realities and by using an old technique, such as Pepper’s Ghost, I can tap into residual cultures from past times but which still persist, consciously and unconsciously, in the modern world.

‘Pepper’s Ghost can be seen as both virtual and actual, as the illusion predates the digital age and was originally created using mirrors to change perceptions of actuality in the 19th century.

‘Pepper’s Ghost is a well known and documented illusion. The familiarity of the spectacle means that by using it I am able to draw attention to the illusion that is being shown – to make it clear that this is an illusion, and to highlight the virtual nature of the world that it creates. As an illusion and virtual presence, it has always had enormous theatricality. Because of this, Pepper’s ghost draws attention to its presence, drawing the audience into the underlying exploration of, and enquiry into ghosts, illusions and the question of what is real and what is a phantom.

Tech spec of a ghost

‘The technical elements used in the creation of ‘Spectral Aesthetics’ came from my starting point of a conceptual investigation into the nature of Pepper’s Ghost. That nature is something virtual within something actual. The actual component is the person or object shown in the illusion but physically at a distance from it. The virtual component is the ghost-like manifestation of that reality somewhere else, through the use of mirrors and reflection. This technical element is something that I’m continuing to experiment with.

‘To create the Pepper’s Ghost illusion for ‘Spectral Aesthetics’, we started by using the same techniques as those found in the Victorian theatres and music halls, but instead of using mirrors we used a semi-transparent theatrical scrim designed specifically for holographic projections.  It’s used quite widely in theatrical shows and exhibitions, the holographic recreation of the late Tupac Shakur being one of the best knowledge examples of this new mode of theatrical phantom.

‘Having created the illusion with this non-digital method, we then digitally filmed the spectacle, augmenting it for re-production and projection. Within that process the links between a virtual world and actual world become clearer but also more closely entwined.

‘Of course, we could not have created Spectral Aesthetics without the support of the CDMC. CDMC paid the costs, including the purchase of equipment. The Centre also enabled the creation of partnerships with other organisations, such as Dartington Trust and the National Trust. These partnerships will foster further collaborative projects with the CDMC.

‘Above all, CDMC gave us the space to think, discuss and take conceptual work into something physical that would bring an audience. That was fundamentally transformative. It meant that my research opened to a deeper level and a new understanding of noise as a spectral presence.

Ghosts in the lives of others

‘Spectral Aesthetics’ has been exhibited at Schumacher College, Dartington and at Hatchlands Park; a National Trust site in Surrey. Rachel Devine, the National Trust’s Collections and House Officer at Hatchlands Park reported that the response to the work had been overwhelming, with visitor numbers totalling 3,323 over the October half term period in 2021 compared to 1,306 over the same period in 2019.

‘The reaction from the visitors to the exhibition was amazing and clearly indicated that we had challenged their perception of the type of work that Hatchlands Park can offer,’ said Rachel. ‘A common positive response was from visitors who said that they had never had this experience in a country house before. Feedback in general was also overwhelmingly positive and supportive, generating much interest and praise. A typical comment card read “amazing haunted house, I wish it never ended.”’

The soundtrack to the illusion has been broadcast on Resonance Extra FM. The audience is anyone who is interested in a deeper engagement with, and consideration of, how we live in actuality in a digitally networked age.

Through the exploration of the Pepper’s Ghost installation, we would like the audience to take away the notion of a positive possibility within the noise between the actual and virtual. We live in turbulent times, and as spectres such as post-truth seem to have an ever more threatening presence, we want to explore the potential for positive manifestations in the noise between virtual and actual worlds. We waned people to have a new relationship with the noise of the contemporary world – for the noise to become a place of possibility, rather than oppression.

Blog prepared by Johnny Johnson


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