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In Between Seances, Yen Noh, collectieve studiegroep en evoluerende installatie (met werk van Theresa Hak Kyung Cha), 2022.

The current exhibition at BAK in Utrecht is focused around an inherently ephemeral and difficult to define term: hauntology. Stefan Cammeraat visits the exhibition and discusses the projects of ’the hauntologists’ – ‘who lives life as a way of spectral research’. Their enquiries and hauntings make tangible that which cannot be defined.

Defining terms is a touchstone for Western society. From the opening section of the bible, where things named are willed into being, or the many culti of religious nameseekers, all the way to the philosopher’s penchant for defining concepts and the buzzwords of advanced marketing. It is only through naming that a person gains civil rights. – it is no coincidence that one of the first steps in dehumanisation is to rid people of their name. And subsequently, when social injustice is enacted, acknowledgement of the victim’s name is the first thing asked in a call-out for protests to arise. ‘Say their name; repeat it like a spell.’ Not having a name in our world is to be invisible, unregistered and without rights. The unnamed, the undefined lives a spectral half-life. Yet spectrality does not presuppose a lack of agency. As any horror film will tell you, it is the repressed spirits that can shift the walls; that can fundamentally alter the worldview of the sceptical protagonist.

The Hauntologists, the title for BAK’s current show, is a reframing of an inherently ephemeral and difficult to define word: hauntology. Hauntology is a word clouded by definitions, first coined by Derrida as a portmanteau of the words haunting and ontology (the second perhaps being the more spectral of the two terms). Hauntology is that which haunts ontology. For Derrida, Hauntology was a means of engaging with a political past: the remnants of Marxism. Marxism was a spectre from its very inception: an insisting, absent, presence that ‘should not be just another ideology competing for hegemonic completion; rather, having been radicalised by deconstruction, [it] should continue to work away as a form of engagement and a continual challenge to hegemony’.[1] For Derrida, every act of definition invariably brings along repression as often something is best defined through what it is not.

Through this différance, meaning is never a given, it is always in flux. Like every hegemony, every concept is haunted by that which it is not. The term hauntology didn’t get much traction, however, until it was repurposed by Mark Fisher: firstly in his K-punk blog, and later in his 2014 book Ghosts of my life. For Fisher, rather than inheriting spectres from the past, as Derrida talks about, hauntology represents a feeling of lack in popular culture. He lists as examples music from the early 2000s, when, according to Fisher, popular culture was attempting to process its own inability to generate anything new.

Trou de Loup, Marina Papazyan, video met geluid, 2022

Spectral research
Hauntology acts in the exhibition The Hauntologists as an object of study, of which the hauntologists are its students. Their studies risk defining the nameless spectres; that which has value for being wholly undefinable. They risk exorcising the ghosts, smoothing over the rubble of capitalism’s unrelenting march. Yet the students of hauntology enquire. Or perhaps the students haunt, or are haunted by the unnamed, the gothic, the marginalised. The Hauntologists is, as Julia Morandeira Arrizabalaga frames it in the exhibition booklet, ‘a speculative propositional name for the multifarious figure who operates through artistic, discursive and social interventions that use spectrality to articulate unruly forms of critique and imagination – and who thus lives life as a way of spectral research.’

The spectrality of BAK as an institution, I think, is their unwillingness to adhere to the strict temporal reality of the exhibition world: where each succeeding exhibition is presented as a clean slate, a new chapter – where past exhibitions are present only as archive rather than leaving a perceptible trace in exhibitions to come. BAK’s exhibitions are often connected to long term commitments, spread out over many years and engaging with many different practices, media and people. The cracks, damages, irregularities of BAK’s space represent their mentality to refuse the eternal starting-over which plagues many art institutions. The clinical white cube is in its abstraction exemplary of the concealment of so much violence capitalism commits. The purge of latex paint by underpaid exhibition builders is only ever surface covering. The stones and concrete hold spectres unscathed by the imminent refresh the politics and economics of the artworld require. The eternal restart seems innocent enough when confronted with individual artistic practices: the individual artists should be given space to start afresh – but if art institutions are to be socially, politically acting bodies, the temporality of the exhibiting world is detrimental to any long lasting conversations to be held.

Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, Excerpts of Sea Matter, 2022, photo by the author.

Excerpts of Sea Matter, Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, installatie met zwarte inkt en kaarten, 2022

Excerpts of Sea Matter
One of the first spirits I encounter in the exhibition, Kerem Ozan Bayraktar’s Excerpts of Sea Matter, immediately engages with the alterity of the space. The outlines of black shapes, reminiscent of oil spills, mirror the cracks, splits and irregularities of BAK’s exhibition space. From the shadowy puddles of ink double-sided postcards emerge, reproductions of classical paintings on one side, textual fragments on the other. The texts conjure images of voyages at sea; the dark history of colonialism when the sea was employed by western Europeans to enslave, murder and dehumanize humans – hidden behind an unassuming still-life painting featuring a rose petal, cloves, nutmeg. In another doubling, the images are occluded, the black ink covering part or whole of the images and texts.

Trou de Loup, Marina Papazyan, video met geluid, 2022

Skin imagines identity as something that may come from without – not as an imposition but as a shield or disguise

Trou de Loup
Marina Papazyans’ videowork Trou de loup shows an invisible hand course through web pages and hyperlinks, outlining the framework of a non-linear narrative. A voice reads the text which appears on screen after each click, and slowly but surely we are drawn into tales of lycanthropy: werewolves and vampires, blood, skin and monsters. In one of the interpretations, a Mardagayl[2] skin is found by a man and burnt in an attempt to defeat the monster. The skin acts as a signifier for identity and the monster’s only weakness. It imagines identity as something that may come from without – not as an imposition but as a shield or disguise. Like this tale, most of what we know of monsters from old scriptures is how to protect ourselves from them: how to harm or destroy them, how to lay traps to catch them and how to ward them off and keep them at bay. Their entire being, their entire history, exists in order to deny them the very existence which the same history grants them (Trou de loup means wolf hole, a trap for catching werewolves). Focusing on details we, the audience, are presented with a pressing question: what does it mean if the entire definition of your being is based on the negation of your existence? Monsters are never merely their physical form, but always a production of the ills of society. Through these ills, alterity becomes monstrous, and the repressed comes back as a haunting force.

In Between Seances, Yen Noh, collectieve studiegroep en evoluerende installatie (met werk van Theresa Hak Kyung Cha), 2022

In Between Seances, Yen Noh, collectieve studiegroep en evoluerende installatie (met werk van Theresa Hak Kyung Cha), 2022

In Between Seances
Strewn throughout the space on the lower level, patches of soil and small brick constructions conjure the mirage of a past and distant place, It appears to be Yen Noh’s contribution In Between Seances. Semi-circular wooden tables, engraved and pasted over with fragmentary text and images, form a structure that functions both as a plinth for CRT screens, as well as the contours of a stage. Strange, eerie, sparse and almost still images of outside places in grainy black and white flash on the screen. The wooden table holds, next to the screen, a few pages from a screenplay that reads:

Within the interior of memory itself, within the mind of woman #1
The images are physicalized, materialized on screen, film projected on screen is the memory projected. One sees, physically, the memory, the ‘sense’, or the decaying sense.
Speaking to herself under breath, faint images, resemblances of images fade in and out, from/to white at different duration at different clarity.

Very sparse shots, of abandoned quality.

– barren road – still frame
– empty tracks
– cinema billboard…

The archival material which forms the basis for most of the texts and images are works from the 1970s by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a Korean American writer, filmmaker and artist, whose family fled from the US-backed dictatorship in South Korea in the wake of the Korean War. Behind me, surrounded by this tactile archive, on the stage, a number of invited participants are having a conversation. Rather than a stage, the soil is a site for seances, I read later: soil from Berkeley, where Cha lived, is mixed with local soil from the Netherlands. The seances revolve around studying a score based on Cha’s novel Dictee, as well as facilitating encounters between Cha’s work, the participants and with migrant matter. Dictee opens with a black-and-white image of a desolate landscape of stone, with on the next page an image of a stone wall with Korean text carved into its surface; the only text in Korean script in the entire novel. The second image was taken in a coal mine in Japan; the words inscribed by indentured Koreans during the Japanese colonization of Korea. These two opening images charge Noh’s seances with alchemical potentiality: political questions of land, language and nativity charged with the logic of magick.

Overview van de tentoonstelling op het mezzanine

Each structure would become the support for the next one, a formal exercise with an unpredictable outcome

Montecarlo. Learning structures and Bedtime Stories for the Non-Aligned, Merve Bedir, installatie gemaakt met pijpen en klankwerken, 2022

Merve Bedir’s work Montecarlo. Learning structures and Bedtime stories for the Non-aligned is an installation comprising a playful structure of industrial pipes and headphones playing audio works. The work is a result of research into the Demka steel factory, which stood at the Merwedekanaal in Zuilen from the late 19th century until 1985. From the 1950s Demka had their own factory school, educating Polish, Hungarian, German and later Yougoslavian, Greek, Turkish, Moroccan and Spanish migrant workers. These workers collectively built a structure, nicknamed Montecarlo, as a way to practise working with steel piping. Each structure would become the support for the next one, a formal exercise with an unpredictable outcome.
The challenges posed by the Montecarlo structure served to harness the efficiency of the factory: traditional fordist processes which break down the continuity of production into repetitive, efficient tasks: casting, clamping, bolting, drilling. Seen merely as fabricators of components, the workers are detached from the end product as increasing specialisation alienates them from the totality of the factory floor.
The Montecarlo, contrary to the fracturing of production processes, was for the workers a collective learning experience. Collective education and collectivity in general strengthened their unity during a 1982 strike at Demka, for instance, for which they collectively prepared posters and guidebooks centered on educating and sharing methods of striking. Their struggle was not about the polarizing international politics around labor and economy; it was about the acknowledgement of the value of their labor, their desire to work together and about the continuity of the factory as the ground of their life.
The workers’ collective counter-educational practice serves as an inspiration for considering new alignments. Bedir uses the history of the Demka steel factory as the basis for bedtime stories: the real, actual builders of the world, the laborers, forming the basis for imagining new worlds. The bedtime story is a first entry point into the imagination of a culture. It is one of the first cultural products we give to our children, and as such much more vital to our beliefs, morals and imagination than we give credit for. Bedtime stories, traditionally, were also a means of scaring children into obeying their parents. The monsters hidden in the dark undergrowth are embodiments of the way our cultural imagination exerts control over future generations. Guided by the questions raised by the solidarity of the workers from the Demka steel factory, perhaps we can gather enough courage to venture into the forest.

Combined, the works included in The Hauntologists teach us of shadowy beings without names; the spectres of a culture whose neurosis is the fear for the unknown, the undefined, the unruly and the unmarketable. The unnamed, rather than powerless, are those whose presence act as a continuous challenge to hegemony unseen by disenchanted eyes.

[1] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, 2006, pp XVIII

[2] A type of werewolf in Armenian folklore, who is characterised as a woman either choosing this form or being damned by it.

The Hauntologists is on view at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht, until November 13th, 2022, and will then travel to Istanbul and Jakarta:

18–20 november 2022
İKSV, Istanbul

2–4 december 2022
GUDSKUL, Jakarta

With contributions by: Özge Açıkkol, Merve Bedir, Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, Cell for Digital Discomfort (Cristina Cochior, Karl Moubarak, en Jara Rocha), Dika+Lija, Philippa Driest, freethought collective, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Ilgın Hancıoğlu, Alexandra Karyn, Gayatri Kodikal, Gatari Surya Kusuma, Yen Noh, Rifandi Septiawan Nugroho, İlyas Odman, Marina Papazyan, Anitha Silvia, en Zone Collective (Megan Hoetger en Kirila Cvetkovska).

For more information, see the website of BAK.

Stefan Cammeraat

is kunstenaar en student aan MAFA HKU

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