Are Ghosts Real or Do They Just Send Signals? by Liam Hudson Bishop

Paris is a city where they say the only way to escape a view of the Eiffel Tower is to be inside it. Guy de Maupassant reportedly would visit the coffee shop beneath it so as not to see it. Vienna is the converse to that. In Vienna the buildings appear to arise around corners, through gaps in a portcullis or archway, in sight on one street and then disappeared the next. Light is essential to this game.

It illuminates one street-side but then on the adjacent stra├če, the clean walls are cast with a dark-grey shadowing over-paint. If Vienna were monochrome it would be sudden and sharp, like walking through a chess board.

In Vienna I was taking photographs and I realized that there is a difference between the sort of photography that says “I was here” and photography that says “I wasn’t here.” Or perhaps this was my language. In the similar way I was talking about exposure and aperture, I was wondering whether these words, although fit to describe the tool I was using, were words that came from myself anyway. Although I was alienating myself by taking photographs, I was exposing myself. I felt and feel so blatantly there that my photography was about trying to not be there.

*

I used to work at the airport. It was about five minutes from my home and people would often remark how unsettling the noise must be as aircraft flew over the houses. But it wasn’t. You got used to it and truthfully, if you lived anywhere in the city, you got used to seeing planes drone in and out of the airport to land or take off. In fact my grandparents lived even closer to it than we did and I remember once as I played with a tennis ball in the garden, Concorde departing. That was one of the only times that I noticed it. The only time that I had been shocked, or scared by the noise of what was coming from the airport—although unsettling whirring late at night did accompany drunken walks home. When I found out it was Concorde though, I thought how fantastic that was.

The airport, despite being the airport of not just Leeds, but Bradford as well (Leeds Bradford International Airport) was eight miles outside of either city. This isn’t unusual for an airport though is it? How often have we booked flights to a destination and realized that the airport is actually several, tens of miles, outside the destination we’re supposed to be visiting and we then have to arrange for further transport which costs more money so that we can get to the actual destination. I wondered if this is what people who flew into LBIA thought. Or if their expectations were already beleaguered by the drab, stuffy space that served as some kind of antithesis to the big, roaming connotations of the word airport.

I was returning home to this town for Christmas.

*

The Anglo-American artist Anthony McCall had a hiatus of twenty years, but in 1973, he exhibited Line Describing a Cone. It is a beam of white light emitted from a film projector in a darkened room, and passing through that projector is a film of an arcing line that gradually joins up to become a complete circle. A line of light traces the circle as the far wall is projected with a beam that emanates into the room and becomes the cone. Mist is also pumped out to give the beam more material. McCall says that to fully see its emerging form “it is necessary to move around and through it.” The line “describes” the cone.

*

It was Boxing Day. Home now had a bifurcated meaning. This was the place I was expected to call home; this was my parents’ home.

I had taken my camera with me and in moments I could find myself exempt from the narrative of Christmas and family, or trying to at least with this camera. Although there was slight jesting which was to be expected, it said to me that I had achieved my alienation. It said that I was “outside” of that moment. Often, ridicule does not feel as affirming as that.

In this town there are a set of fields which you could denote as preliminary aspects of the countryside. It takes about fifteen minutes to walk from the town center to get there and it’s about a twenty-minute drive the other way to get into the city. For this reason, people say you’re “lucky” to live there. On Boxing Day my dad and I walked out into those fields where you’re not just acquainted with the open air, a relative state of wildlife, but also the Boeings that eclipse the skyline and judder through the stratosphere only just above you, or the little delicate Cessnas that whine and wince from the tarmac runway that can be estimated over the hill. Indeed, I used to associate these fields with freedom and I think everyone denotes open land as a romantic source of non-restriction, but freedom wasn’t necessarily a place without boundaries to me, a utopia, or a playground. Look at its juvenile lexicon. There is something about the openness that makes people believe that they’re “returning” to something, freeing themselves to something purer, perhaps more childlike. That’s the last thing I wanted.

As I walked through the town and onto the fields and hills that sit next to this airport with my dad, I began to wonder if this formulation of freedom was different to another definition of freedom I had: that of knowing the borders and barriers so that you know what you can and cannot do comfortably without breaching them. Or perhaps this was two definitions of two different kinds of homes.

*

Vienna has many patrons, many representatives of its history. You only have to visit it to see the various monuments to the composers and public figures. We most often associate Freud with Vienna but until the seventies he didn’t have any real recognition as a notable Viennese in Vienna. (Freud was not born in Vienna, but neither was Beethoven who has statues and a museum.) That’s not to say that he should have, and who is going to be the one that qualifies people’s achievements against another? But it was only after a campaign led by his daughter Anna that Freud ever really was paid homage in Vienna. His old apartment where his family and he lived for the majority of their lives, is now a museum. Freud though was somebody who knew a thing or two about what is “hidden,” what is kept or left in the dark, in the same way perhaps he was from Vienna.

Out on the Berggasse, the Alsergrund district, about a twenty minute walk down the Danube canal from Leopoldstadt, is the museum. The museum is hidden. The museum is his family home. Inside you find more “hidden” things, hidden for a surfeit of other reasons, like the fact that Freud was a “family man,” with a fondness for chow-chows, and holding parties on his wedding anniversaries. You don’t hear about this in the psychology lectures. Would we expect this of a man who overhauled Victorian conceptions of the family, revolutionized the way psychology is studied and interpreted? In theory at least. But isn’t that the thing about a “family-man”? The family-man is something that hides and that the man hides behind.

*

My dad and I walked through the fields and he was trying to tell me about his friend who had recently gone through a divorce, but for some reason I didn’t want to talk about that. A dry-stone wall mossy with gaps of light showing through its structure separated us from a field of lapwings, who rather than flying were territorially positioned as if on patrol.

Out of a rucksack he pulled two cans of a beer and a hip flask of whisky. We knew the loop we were doing. My dad is a hiker and takes it with the utmost seriousness when he travels to the hills and mountains of Britain every Saturday, so this indicated how much we knew this route. There was no way we could get lost and the walk would bring us back into the town where we would then and go and visit my grandparents (not the ones who lived near the airport; they had since died, although the surviving ones still live relatively close). I hadn’t been to my grandparents for a while and I felt slightly ashamed about it.

“Don’t tell your grandad that we’ve been drinking,” said my dad just before we arrived.

On arrival my grandparents displayed a shock, both feigned and slightly genuine I suspected, at my arrival. But walking into the living room we were confronted by a disarming spectacle of what looked like random pieces of technology and machinery laid on the living room floor. My grandfather is always on his computer. He seems to know more about technology than I do, which isn’t how the world apparently works: the young know the gadgets and the old know the lessons. This though went in some way of adding to the sense of shame, adding to the sense of unsynchronising time that shame can take advantage of, and as I looked at the living room floor, what was astounding was the many incompatible seeming devices connected to one another. Acronyms connected acronyms. VHS, USB, PC.

“I’m trying to get these old dancing videos onto the computer,” he said. My grandparents used to regularly and still in their eighty year-old bodies, go dancing. “A lot of them will be dead now I imagine. We were counting them up weren’t we love? Not many of them still going,” he said. He was talking about death frankly, almost wishfully I thought, as if it were the place that he wanted to be with all those people on the videos, trying to unlock and conjure it up through these era-disparate devices.

As he tried to get to it work, he pressed buttons, blasphemed and I wondered what would actually happen? Of course the image—if it arose—would be of people dancing, but I imagine the video grainy, the people gliding around the room knowing that this video being on a computer would not even be possible when they were originally being filmed. He was trying to bring them back like we all do with people who have died and whom we miss. It’s as if we’re never trying to keep ourselves alive, we’re just trying to keep others alive. And then I thought this is what ghosts were: slips, fissures, unsychronised moments of our timelines. Wishes. To be brought back from the dance hall of the next realm. If we ever wanted proof that ghosts exists then it would be when my grandfather loaded them up on his computer screen from a VHS.

But perhaps the proof was more in the fact that we never saw it. He couldn’t get it to work.

*

Solid Light Works is McCall’s first exhibition in the UK for ten years, held at the Hepworth, Wakefield. He uses projected light and mist to create the appearance of cultural forms in space in the same way he did with Line Describing a Cone. As you move through the space, you’re wondering does this constitute an illusion, or is the light rendered “material” in these solid seeming states of light? People entered the projections of the light, looked tempted to enter the light, creating shadows and forms behind and in front them, their eyes adjusting just so much that they could see other people in the dark corners of the room as well as the light. In our world light predominates. Light is not just essential for sight, but growth. Religious people take seriously the prospect of “seeing the light,” and where others may joke, there is perhaps some seriousness when they encourage their friends to “see the light” of a situation. In darkness we hide. And often, people who have undergone traumatic or periods of psychological pain describe the terminus of it as seeing the light “at the end of the tunnel.” We have states of lightness and darkness in our lives and then a person is referred to as being in “a state” if he or she is very emotional, or incapacitated by emotion. State is an ambiguous word; it is both related to real physical matter and concepts. In McCall’s work “states” felt entirely objective.

*

Before I left my grandparents that day, I told my grandfather about my interest in photography and showed him some of the pictures I had previously taken. He told me to wait and left the room before returning with a bag which he handed to me. Inside was a camera. Inspecting it I looked at its underside where in white letters it read: MADE IN USSR. A Zenith-E11; functional, rugged models made by the Soviets. I had been born eight months before the Soviets’ dissolution and now I had one of their relics. I saw though that next to that inscription was another; it was my grandfather’s where he had inscribed his own postcode of a previous home. It looked as if he had done it with a key, or a sharp knife, a coppery scrawl with a golden tinge. Unsynchronised histories I thought. Back to the start with a different tool.

*

When I got the developed film back from the pictures I had taken on Boxing Day, I told my dad. I said that I’d underexposed some of the shots but the low-light made it quite difficult. I was an amateur. I always would be an amateur.

“What does underexposed mean?” He said.

“It’s where you don’t let enough light in,” I said, my dad not picking up on my internal cringe.

Later I looked through the photographs and then I was brought back to the image of Freud and his chow-chows from my visit to Vienna, five months previously. Was that what his psychoanalysis was about? Was it the camera, the tool at which he had found a way to remove himself from the narrative of the family? Did it allow him to escape the idea of a “family-man”? I wondered how often Freud, as he wandered the streets of Vienna, going in between the patches of light and dark, in the city where the grandeur is as much as part of the concealment as its exposure, thinking about his family, thinking about himself, thinking about his theories, if he ever thought “I wasn’t there” during it all. I wondered if he ever wanted to find a way to not be there.

*

I walked through McCall’s exhibition. In the light and dark you are there, very much there. Like the title of his first exhibition, Line Describing a Cone, the line is “describing” the shape or the state. Does this mean the line is more powerful? Is the light the definition? Definitions become outdated but we can often still try and fit them when we don’t really want to but don’t know any other way of being described. Unsynchronisation becomes the mechanism and when we look back we find all these little moments of when we were never really there.


Liam Hudson Bishop is a writer based in Leeds, UK. A collection and directory of his writings can be found on curbcomplex.com, where he is also running a series on writers based in the North of England. He can be found on Twitter @liamhbishop and on Instagram @l.h.bishop.