In Haunt

By Emily Oldfield

Intricate pencil drawings encompassing parts of the body, animal-headed people in abandoned buildings and photography exploring the wild forces of nature – all of these are elements of Manchester-based artist and photographer Jane Samuels’ work.

Jane is one of the panellists at Following Hauntology: Twilight Streets and Dark Horizons – an event arranged by HAUNT Manchester in association with Not Quite Light ahead of Not Quite Light Weekend 2019 - discussing the theme with other creatives and academics in front of a live audience at Manchester Metropolitan University's Number 70 Oxford Street.

Jane Samuels

Having studied art in Manchester and Salford, Jane is significantly inspired by place and how it is represented, influenced also by the work of the Situationists and Psychogeography. Her ongoing ‘Abandoned Buildings’ project, for example, has seen her enter abandoned spaces, along with a cast of costumed characters often complete with animal-headed masks; foxes, deer and mice being just some examples. Jane will then photograph these figures, creating disconcerting scenes which draw on the isolation, dispossession and themes of tension associated with these areas – areas accessed in a variety of ways including squeezing through windows and running over rooves. The result is striking, even haunting.

After all, buildings Jane has explored as part of the project include Victoria Baths and Fair Mile Asylum – places layered with past narratives, former lives and multiple experiences, to which Jane is perceptive and sensitive. Also a keen advocate of freedom and equality, Jane’s work in turn often involves rediscovery via trespass, raising the question of who owns the landscape and exploring the ideals attached to it.

Jane also takes inspiration from the natural world, and much of her current photography documents the wild North and beyond, when she goes walking. One of her artistic projects ‘Terrain: Anatomical Landscapes’ considers this in an especially unique way; creating research-informed pencil drawings which place past walking experiences and images inside delicate sketches of human anatomy. This has included, for example, the wild imagery of Leighton Moss layered into a lung and Gloucester-inspired wildlife worked into a skull. 

Now teaching students in Manchester and Salford, Jane also continues to practice from her studio in the city. HAUNT Manchester decided to speak to this fascinating artist to find out more…

Hello Jane. What does it mean for you to be involved in the upcoming Hauntology event and why do you think an event like this is important?                         

“Hi! I'm really excited to be a part of Hauntology. It’s a fascinating and varied panel, which I think is likely to be coming at the topic from quite different directions. It really underpins in theory, much of what will be happening during the Not Quite Light festival, too. Hauntology offers the chance to explore Hauntology theory, right here in Marx's old stomping grounds. Derrida coined the phrase ‘Hauntology’ in ‘Spectres of Marx’, and the past, present and future ghosts of Marx certainly roam Manchester. It feels very appropriate to be having this discussion here.”

Jane Samuels' Work

Much of your work is grounded in Psychogeography. In terms of place, from the ‘rural wilds’ to the ‘dark city’, the media often presents something somewhat sinister in the landscape. Do you feel this and how has engaging with place through photography enhanced your perception?

“I definitely do experience that sense of unease, and usually, that comes from the tensions between people and place. Sometimes that is very overt, as with the Abandoned Buildings Project. Entering spaces illegally, dodging guard dogs and taking on the role of the intruder, and then the very complicated relationships between the people who lived in those places and us as the observers of, at once, their absence AND presence, creates something naturally tense and uncomfortable. I'm really at pains to remember that real people lived there, and real stories played out, though I don't want to disrespect those realities.

“In the rural work, especially the photography, it's perhaps less immediately tangible.  People respond to them, I think, because they love big, colourful landscapes, but they're hyper-real, a little uncanny. They're always empty of people, but really, they're filled with humanity and the ways in which we affect the land. There's definitely something tense about that - and that's explored further in my ‘Terrain: Anatomical Landscapes’ series too. Taking the photos in land often cut through the experience of being in it. There's romanticism and a bit of horror in the country, and the act of taking photographs helps me to find both.”

Do you think there is something ‘haunted’ about photography in a sense – preserving still images of the past and projecting them into the future?

“Without a doubt, yes - I love that! At its most literal, when people stare from old photographs, we are briefly visited by them. There's at once the ghost of the moment, the place, the subject, the photographer. The viewer brings their own ghosts, too, so suddenly a photograph of an old pub can be a photo of one viewer's history: their family, their love and loss. All photographs are haunted, in incredibly rich and visceral ways.”

Jane Samuels' Work

Can you tell us about a particularly dark or perhaps mysterious place in Greater Manchester that has inspired your work?

“Again, with the caveat that real people lived there, and it's important to remember that reality, I'd go for a building I've always just called ‘The Manchester House’. I won't say where it is. Abandoned, it had been squatted and used as a base to take heroin for quite a few years. The only way in was around the back of the house and down, through a hatch in the floor of the yard and into the cellars. I had wanted to get in for years, through that little rectangular portal, but it was one of the few places I felt unsafe entering… it’s always been other people that frighten me in lawless spaces. Collapsing floors are fine, but there are different rules when you enter somewhere forbidden: they fall outside of the usual societal bounds.

“I got inside one day in the middle of summer: hot and bright outside: black and cold as soon as I dropped down, unsure of where I'd land, and keen to avoid needles or people in the blackness. I found more ghosts inside than I could have dreamed of: past, present and future. It’s the one place I've ever taken a few things away from, because the place was due to be developed, and the photographs and objects were too precious to go to landfill…I think I'll probably bring those things with Jane Samuels' work 3me for Hauntology. It was one of my earliest explores, and still one of my favourites.”

Do you ever find The Gothic emerging in your work?

“The Gothic definitely runs through my work, and it’s something I have to balance quite carefully – I don't think I've always got that right.  Again, for me, it is that need to respect real people, and to try not to romanticise their lives, while allowing those elements to exist in the experience. There is often the presence of death/loss, the macabre and fear in my work, and a great chunk of romanticism and the sublime - especially in the land work. I was a teenage Goth, with all of the crushed velvet and dry ice that goes with that. For a long time, I would have really hated the idea that teenage me was in any way moodily stomping through my work still, but she's there alright. She's my very own moody ghost.”

Can you tell us about some of your current projects and future plans?

“At the moment, I'm working on ‘Terrain: Anatomical Landscapes’, a series of graphite drawings that combine landscape elements with Human anatomy. My next piece will be based around Manchester, and I'm in the process of collecting research for it. It’s the first place I've drawn that is so incredibly full of personal histories for me, and it's harder to do, it turns out, while all those ghosts are yelling. Hopefully, I'll be exhibiting the series next year. I'll be teaming up with the wonderful Morag Rose to lead a walk during the NQL festival, and I’m gearing up for a summer of land photography.  I'm also enjoying a few writing projects at the moment. My chapter for ‘Psychoanalysis and Psychogeography: Walking Together’ should be out later this year.”

For more information on Jane and her work, she has a website and also can be found on Instagram.

Image titles (in order shown) – with all images thanks to Jane Samuels

8.12am. A fly against glass. Soft green light. Step.

12.20pm. The sound of graphite on paper. Breathe. Step.

Terrain/Anatomical Landscapes:Gloucester.

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