by ECTOPLASMIC MATERIALISM
Report on the sitting at Konstfack RW, Stockholm, January 31, 2018
W e are hosting a sitting or workshop in a sound recording studio, it’s fairly spacious, like a cosy theatre space, only the walls are covered in blocks of grey padding, which lend the room a sci-fi 19th-century-parlour quality. It’s also possible to put the room into almost pitch darkness.
The space is a bit disorderly so participants are asked to move the oblong table to the centre of the room and place chairs around it.
This is taking place after a day that, resembling many other days, involved a lot of chairs and tables. It was also a day of rigorous theoretical presentations from the Konstfack research week PhD candidates and invited guests.
Earlier in the day various lectures and presentations had been delivered from a small lectern to the left of a large projection screen, in front of which stood a large rectangular table and a row of empty chairs that faced the audience.
As a first slide for the talk we gave, we photographed this setup and projected it onto the screen, doubling its presence.
After the presentations from the lectern, a panel discussion on the spectral themes of the day was held at this table. At the end of the discussion, the topic of the evening’s workshop was announced, and — as if to trumpet the event to follow — the panel tables began to shudder for a few moments, but were calmed upon being seized. The tables had somehow absorbed the words spoken and had begun to respond.
Then we had dinner, another occasion of chairs and tables, and after that, participants were invited to the sound studio/parlour room.
Participants are here asked to set up the room as if to sit down to work at the table (echoing the communal dinner), but are then asked to remove the table and chairs and sit on the floor.
This is followed by a short description of feminist writer Sara Ahmed’s ideas on phenomenologists, their tables and the hidden domestic work entailed in making the table ready for the philosopher; all that work which is unseen “behind” the cleared table.
The overall aim of this sitting is to try to collect and then collectivize participants’ ectoplasm;* a substance that can be interpreted, via a feminist-marxist reading of the film Ghostbusters II, as a material manifestation of emotions, or the residue of dead and living labour, waste products scattered across a society-wide factory floor: back pains, debts, heartaches, etc.
Participants are asked to place their phones in front of them on the floor, and we discuss the hauntological elements of telephony; a technological development that is historically entangled with the desire to communicate with the deceased. Essentially, we haunt one another when we remotely communicate. Telephones are haunting — and haunted — devices which contain the labour power involved in their production, and which embody exploitative networks of affect and economy.
We move on to sharing haunting technological moments with one another.
Stories include: an anonymous aardvark gdocs contributor; a renegade fire alarm; someone asking Siri if “Simon” would ever reply, so Siri directly formulated that question as a message to Simon; there was a dream someone had where their friend was composed of a male and female character and they had to kill the male character; someone mentions a mysterious symbol they found on their phone or TV remote control and had wondered what its function was.
We brainstorm methods of how to collectively make something, and there is a suggestion to send Simon another text message using predictive mode and see what happens. One participant explains that predictive writing on a smartphone is the result of an algorithm that fuses your own personal writing habits with that of millions of other users within the ubiquitous, looming information cloud.
Messages are drafted to Simon and then collectively sent to undisclosed recipients. The phones are placed on the oblong table, the lights in the room turned off and the table begins to levitate. The table goes as high as it can go and from below one can see a faint blue glow on the ceiling above us. There is also some amusing chanting of “Simon” going on, as well as some other things. When our arms grow tired the table lowers and phones are checked for replies. Some phones beeped during the lifting.
Post-Event: Slate Writing
The sitting reminded us of and seemed to mirror the automated or slate writing of 19th- and early 20th-century séances. During a slate writing séance chalk writing would appear on a blank slate, allegedly through the intervention of spirits. Typically, pupil’s slates were used to capture hidden energies and communications. The writing was assumed to appear once the slates were closed and out of view.
We see this generative engagement with phones — their circuits of conglomerate affect, networks of contacts, the labour involved in their making and the work they go on to enable — as spectral, not in a supernatural sense, but in the sense that concrete energies synergize on those screens and in those minerals and electronics. Even the predictive messages we wrote are like waves from a sea of stored information, washing up onshore and leaving behind various traces. They are a very material kind of spectre, one with clearly identifiable productive processes and historical trajectories. When using our phones we take a dip in this ocean — comprised of emotions, finances, technology, work and bodies — what we call ectoplasm.
After the sitting, we are left with these questions: what is the purpose of an activity like that of today? Is it a form of therapy? Can this sea of ectoplasm offer a visualization of potential connections and solidarities, also historically? Could perhaps the predictive text algorithm be influenced, by re-infusing our collective ectoplasmic energy into it? Can we direct the ectoplasmic flow: to the slate on which these words are being written, to the room we are in now, with its dancing chairs and tables?
* Ectoplasm is also a term coined by the psychical researcher Charles Richet in 1894 to denote a spiritual substance manifested by psychic mediums, such as Eva Carrière. Together with the sculptor Juliette Bisson, Carrière staged complex performative installations in which ectoplasm was produced in the form of chewed up paper, fabrics and collages. Tentatively placed in an art historical framework, the work they did can be seen as a forerunner to conceptual art in the sense of its transformative character and readymade quality.
Ectoplasmic Materialism is a group of non/emerging artists based in Vienna and Copenhagen. The group deals with material spectres, in workshops, performances and sound works, and investigates how to conjure the energies of dead labour. Its members are currently wobbling in the pink substratum of the art world and the labour market. www.ectoplasm.work