Spectres seem to be everywhere these days, wandering untidily and for the most part unseen but for the shadows they cast across so many of our concepts and technologies. They can be mischievous in spirit, disjunctive and dyschronic, frustrating the cosy cohabitation of self-possessed timeliness and retro-swagger that characterizes so much of the contemporary mediascape. It is no surprise, then, that some artists have become investigators of the supernatural. In her film and installation The Spectre and the Sphere (2008) Jesse Jones seeks out the unsettling spirits of a political past in the artefacts and architecture that remain as witnesses to almost forgotten dreams and promises.
Her protagonists are more or less familiar – the Theremin in its role as both Communist dream and Red threat, the iconic socialist fortress Vooruit (Forward) built in Ghent between 1910 and 1918, Pierre de Geyter’s workers’ anthem the Internationale – as are the political sympathies that, at first glance, it seems she wants to mobilize. But Jones’ rather singular achievement vis-à-vis contemporary art’s lately renewed engagement with the idea of communism, is to have created a cinematic sensorium whose affects vibrate between spectacular and spectral, and which, through the deployment of a heterogeneous set of sensuous relations with images, figures, sounds and textures that trouble the idea of a sensation as something to be privately consumed or possessed, points towards a possible communism of the senses.
The opening chapter of the film is a blank screen. Floor-level lighting illuminates two side-walls of the heavily carpeted gallery, synchronized to the varying pitch and intensity of a recording of the Internationale played on the Theremin. The seeming dispersal of agency through the technologies present turned this display towards a David Lynchian uncanniness that kept at bay the otherwise clichéd strangeness one would expect from Theremin wobbles and flashing lights. The hushed, upholstered fullness of the gallery ceased to be quite so comforting.
An opening shot of heavy red stage curtains is followed by a slow pan to Lydia Kavina, the celebrated Theremin player. As she draws out the familiar phrases of the Internationale with glissandos and vibratos, Kavina is circled by a long tracking shot. Whatever the historical density of the constellation of this figure with this instrument and this song, the restrained and precise freedom of movement of Kavina’s gestures offers the greater puzzle. Their vivid presence here hints at cinema as the repository of precise gestures after they have withdrawn, redundant or clichéd, from everyday situations. And as we watch Kavina in this profound exchange with the ethereal, we can pick up a thread of correspondences between these gestures and the movements of Jones’ camera as it passes over the surfaces of its objects, attempting to coax out the genie within them, and then a further correspondence of these both with cinema as an art of perpetual passing away in the present. As the film nears its finale, this dancing, vertiginous camerawork repeats the flickering, intense strangeness of the earlier light display.
After circling Kavina, another slow pan across red stage curtains gives way to green, then opens onto the theatre of Vooruit. Jones explores this labyrinth – corridors and washrooms, gantries and upholstered seats – in a sequence of gliding, diverging pans and zooms. And again the camera brushes across these surfaces, as though by its repeated movement it could spread out the present architecture into discrete sheets of the past, whose textures could then be traced and decoded. These lateral movements accompany steep zooms that hollow-out architectural volumes, giving an occasional temporal depth to this stage, which we by turns appear on and observe.
As these sequences and shots fit overlap, Jones can allow the affective charges of each to make untimely leaps across the intervals between them. There is no need, then, to force associations, such as when a whispering choir too clearly identifies the ghosts haunting Vooruit by reciting as a round the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto (1848). Such a reference to the Communist canon is unnecessary because, with the perceptual apparatus of the cinema at her disposal, Jones is already in command of a medium that is able to recollect a more diverse past in the present, within which certainly Communism marks a crucial set of trajectories, aspirations and promises. But far more has been forgotten, and it is the capacity of cinema’s repertoire of gestures to connect us to the forgotten that allows for Jones’ richest investigations into the untimely and urgent return of spectres.
First published in Issue 117