The Spectre and the Sphere

In the face of recent economic upheaval, the old adage that history repeats itself may seem trite. Perhaps history does more than repeat. What if it instead echoes and reverberates throughout present understanding and future imaginings? Dublin-based artist Jesse Jones’ recent video installation in Toronto (originally commissioned by Project Arts Centre, Dublin), is a remarkably orchestrated interplay of ideological, cultural and political narratives, explored through the tangible memory of historical sites, protagonists and artifacts.

Filmed in the empty halls and theatre of the Vooruit (“Forward”) arts centre in Ghent, Belgium, this 12-minute, 16mm film opens with the strains of the Communist Internationale, socialism’s theme song and the first anthem of the Soviet Union, performed by Lydia Kavina on the Theremin. One of the first electronic musical instruments, the Theremin is unique because it is played without actually being touched. The performer plays the air, or rather, the radio waves that flow in between two metal antennae, to manipulate the pitch and volume of the signals, which are then amplified through a loudspeaker. Invented in 1919 by Leon Theremin, a Russian physicist, military officer and musician, the instrument was subsequently heralded by Vladimir Lenin as a symbol of Russia’s scientific and technological might. Exemplifying Lenin’s revolutionary slogan “Communism is Soviet Power plus the electrification of the whole country,” the Theremin was toured and promoted throughout Europe and North America for the next couple of decades. However, by the 50s the Theremin had lost its utopian overtones, and its ethereal, otherworldly reverberation was appropriated for use in American science fiction, thriller and horror movie scores. In other words, the Soviet-designed instrument became the soundtrack to cinematic allegories of xenophobia and Cold War tensions.

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Kavina, a celebrated musical protegee and the great-niece of the instrument’s inventor, is shot playing the Theremin against a rich red velvet curtain, enhancing its phantasmal presence, while inviting comparison to the stage performances of great illusionists and magicians. Besides the haunting whine of the instrument’s sound, the act of playing it suggests a supernatural phenomenon. As if inhabited by a paranormal presence, Kavina is almost completely frozen, save for her arms and hands, which gesture like a marionette’s, plying the air stiffly to produce eerie, unearthly sounds that are almost unrecognizable as the people’s anthem.

Following Kavina’s performance, the camera slowly glides along the corridors of the Vooruit. Built by Ferdinand Dierkens between 1910 and 1918, it was conceived by the Vooruit collective as a socialist community centre. Following its occupation during World War II, the Vooruit fell into disrepair until the 80s, when a new group of artists and activists took hold of the building, turning it into the vibrant centre for the arts that it is today. Significantly, Ghent is also the birthplace of Pierre de Geyter, composer of The Internationale, and the musical notation of his famous work is captured in the stained glass window that overlooks the Vooruit’s Theatre Hall. As we are guided through the empty halls, bathrooms and staircases, the camera zooms in on various architectural details: a chandelier, curtains, tiled floors, gilded molding and the inscription of Kunst Veredelt (“Art Ennobles”). An overlaid vocal track recites lines from Marx’s Communist Manifesto, a so-called Whisper Choir that echoes throughout the empty Vooruit in a spectral manifestation of the building’s past. As Marx’s murmured chorus increases in volume, the camera travels over the plush velvet seats of the theatre’s interior. As it focuses in full view of the stage, the whispers reach a crescendo; the film convulses and quickly jumps between details of the theatre–a seat, a flickering light bulb–and finally, dramatically, the screen goes dark. In an enigmatic encore, the curtain rises, and the viewer is now in the position of the performer, facing a vacant theatre audience. Jones’ Vooruit is paradoxically empty and occupied, imbued by an invisible presence.

The culmination (or prelude, depending) of The Spectre and the Sphere consists of an ominous interval. During the cinematic portion, the viewer is transported to an alternate reality, yet during this interval, the gallery space is rather uneasily transformed. Orange light emits from the baseboards of the two side walls, illuminating in tandem with the “Theremin’s omniscient moan, as if the room is suddenly activated by a supernatural presence; a recreation of a haunting, a disruption of space and time.

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The invocation of the spectral in recent art has been theorized by writers such as Hal Foster, who, informed by Derrida’s concept of “hauntology,” proposed that such uncanny transgressions of temporal and spatial boundaries embody a logic of disruption: the destabilized site of a haunting acts as an intervention, with the goal of producing criticality in the viewer. By invoking apparitions and sifting through the residue of cultural and political ideology, Jones uncovers the embedded histories of her chosen sites and artifacts. Yet spirits are untenable and ambiguous; and the layers of collective historical narratives remain disrupted and precarious. By restaging an experience of the historical within a contemporary context (e.g. the renovated Vooruit), original meaning is scrambled, and time is rendered disjunctive. As the verbal slippage between the words “spectre” and “spectator” insinuates, hauntings require witnesses. But Jones’ Whisper Choir urges us to examine how architecture shapes our social spaces, and ultimately, how it resonates both physically and psychically with the residue of our past, present and future aspirations, fantasies and phantasms.

Leon Theremin’s decade-long promotional sojourn in the United States purportedly had another purpose, that of low-level espionage. Upon his return to the USSR in 1938, “Theremin spent several years detained in a Siberian labour camp. (Stephen Montague, “Rediscovering Leon “Theremin,”