In The Presence of Phantoms

Kjersti Sundland, university of bergen, faculty of fine art, music and design

In this artistic research project, I will look at how electronic devices in our culture today –
computers, smart phones, tablets and television, can act like prosthetics; as extensions of the human body. By removing these electronic devices, would we suffer from phantom pain? Could this phantom be made spatial and temporally visible? I seek to explore the relationship between human physical presence and acoustic and optic devices, and how video and sound can function as both observers and infiltrators between the audience, performer and place.

Historically, phantasms emerge through forms of mediation; spirit photography, radio telepathy, phantasmagoria shows – using the human body as medium. Our communication systems host the phantom’s presence, but at the same time mask its identity, so that it exists on a level outside of what can be articulated or put in categories of emotion. In the project, I will use the spiritual séance and the phantasmagoria shows of the late 19th and beginning of 20th century as entry point. The phenomena belonging to a time where the spiritual encounters with the afterlife, transmissions of thoughts and telepathy, where intertwined with scientific research and experimentation. I will use the connection between mediumistic encounters and scientific research as a methodology and framework to explore how electronic devices act as bodily extensions.

During the Fellowship Programme, I will create three séances, serving as discursive tools for shared experiential events, where political, social and cultural ghostly matters can be addressed and materialized. Each séance explores how electronic devices affect cognition, lit through different mediums and communication technologies; specifically radio (channelling/transmitting), video surveillance (phantasmagorias) and human bodies (haunted self). The séance format will be used to develop artistic expressions and methods, in research groups prior to each séance, and as an interactive performance format, with sonic and performative gestures. Spiritualist séances and the phantasmagorias can be seen as forerunners of experimental cinema and sound art practises. In the late 19th century, they represented public and collective encounters, questioning their sense of reality, but at the same time exploring possible communication across time and place. The collective and inter-subjective dimension of the séance is lost in contemporary technological manifestations. This artistic research project aims to explore the re-enacting of this social dimension, to restage the physical encounter and disrupt the extension.