Against nostalgia

The spirit mediums of "Hauntology" carefully conjure the living presence of the past


VISUAL ART/MUSIC Whether through the distorted visual crackle of old videotape or the gauzy gaze of a photograph, there is a class of artwork that challenges the spectator to engage with something not immediately present. It's as if there is something floating behind the image at hand, which the mind is desperately hungry to grasp, but cannot perceive. This effect we call "haunting," and often leave it at that. But 17 years ago, French philosopher Jacques Derrida developed a way of thinking about the concept of the ghost in terms of its symbolic relevance to our experience of history, and his "hauntological" approach continues to inform strains of art and music criticism as well as political philosophy.

Inspired by Derrida along with a recent spate of hauntologically inclined British electronic music, the Berkeley Art Museum's "Hauntology" exhibit assembles an array of such unsettling works across several media. Curated by local artist/musician Scott Hewicker and BAM director Lawrence Rinder, the small but affecting gallery is composed mostly of selections from BAM's collection that fit in one way or another into the rubric of hauntology.

Working, with a few exceptions, from within the museum's existing collection was ultimately liberating, according to Hewicker. "I think we wanted to take it another step further in some other open direction, and kind of be very poetic about it, and not be in this defined realm that doesn't really have a very strict ... defined realm," Hewicker laughingly explains, on the opening day of the exhibit.

Besides that circumstantial constraint, the idea of a hauntology show presents a couple other interesting conundrums. For one thing, hauntology is not a genre of art; it's an I-know-it-when-I-see-it affair at best, more of a critical framework than a set of conventions. For another thing, there is no defined hauntological movement in visual art (though there is arguably one in music), now or at any point in the past.

What defines hauntological art is loosely derived from Derrida's idea, as quoted in the exhibit's manifesto, of "the persistence of a present past," a past not immediately perceptible but always exerting itself on the present. Hewicker and Rinder interpret this in a number of ways through their selections. The 1820 painting by an unknown artist View of Providence, Rhode Island invites questions of context — who painted this? and why? — and its ominous black grids of windows necessitate a similar curiosity: what's behind them? In Roger Ballen's Twirling Wires (2001), on the other hand, the question has more to do with what is actually transpiring in the photograph of a blanket-swaddled man seemingly menaced by a floating mass of wires.

Besides Derrida's foundational 1993 book Specters of Marx, the curators point to British music journalist Simon Reynolds' writings on electronic musicians such as Burial and the various artists on the Ghost Box label. Reynolds seems to have opened up the field for discussing hauntological aesthetics in modern popular culture. Another acknowledged inspiration is Adam Harper's blog, Rouge's Foam (, which treats music and visual art from a hauntological perspective. Hewicker elaborates: "He was sort of the motivation for the show in the sense that he called for kind of a nonstylistic approach to art in a hauntological sense — that it wasn't just about spooky images, necessarily, but ... these things that have these layered meanings beneath them."

Also from this author

  • Year in Film: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks' Eclectic 2013 Countdown

  • Eternal spring

    Chris Marker's 'Le Joli Mai' remains relevant 50 years later

  • They see me rollin'

    YEAR IN FILM 2012: The "limo operas" of 2012: 'Cosmopolis' and 'Holy Motors'