In Haunt

Thrills of exploration, the intrigue of urban edgelands and opening the mind to being terrified – these were just some of the topics covered by a fascinating Hauntology-themed panel event held at Manchester Metropolitan University’s No 70 Oxford St on the evening of Wednesday 27 March.

‘Following Hauntology: twilight streets and dark horizons’ was an event presented by HAUNT Manchester and Not Quite Light, ahead of Not Quite Light Weekend 2019 – featuring academics and artists offering their insight on Hauntology, the changing cityscape and a range of related themes. It was also part of the Research In Arts and Humanities at Manchester Met (RAH!) series of events.

Hauntology panel

The panel featured (pictured above, from left to right) Dr Natalie Zacek (The University of Manchester), Dr Matt Foley (Manchester Metropolitan University and The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies), artist Jane Samuels and Professor of Urban Design Nick Dunn (Lancaster University) - author of Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City. It was chaired by Simon Buckley (pictured above, far right), the artist and photographer behind Not Quite Light.

Chair Simon Buckley opened the evening’s discussion with a reflection on his own interests in Hauntology and its significance in the origins of his Not Quite Light photography project. It was when walking in the dark across St Michael’s Flags, the park where the notorious Manchester slum Angel Meadows once stood, Simon reflected on the 40,000 human bodies lying beneath and wondered what they would make of the city as it has expanded. “I felt the souls of my ancestors on my shoulders,” Simon reflected on the moments that inspired him, as a photographer, to take his camera and document the cityscape in the early hours.

Conversation then expanded into a consideration of how the panelists themselves approached the city and if its changing nature affected perceptions of Hauntology. Nick Dunn, who is a keen nightwalker of the city as well as Executive Director of ImaginationLancaster, reflected: “the cityscape is composed of layers of history; there are always parts of the city that endure.” Amidst extensive development across Manchester, Nick’s reflection was somewhat uplifting - a view emphasized by Jane Samuels. “We bring our own magical realism to places all the time,” she reflected, drawing on her experience as an artist completing her ‘Abandoned Buildings’ Project: photographing a range of characters in derelict urban spaces around the county.

Natalie Zacek followed, offering an alternative perspective on ‘haunted space’; insight gained by growing up in America, and her role as lecturer in English and American Studies at The University of Manchester. “America is fertile ground for hauntology… and slavery and the aftermath of slavery are the ghosts that still stalk America,” she began, before giving the example of what is often referred to ‘New Orleans’s most haunted house’. On this subject Natalie told the story of wealthy society woman Madame Delphine Lalaurie, who occupied a French quarter mansion in the city with her husband in the nineteenth century. However, a gruesome tale is attached to this location: that it was the place where the couple would abuse and torture slaves.  This story, whether true or not, has been so often retold that it has created its own form of ‘dark tourism’ – tourists still visiting the house today, despite its appearance having largely changed and being now privately owned. In turn, the panel elaborated on what constitutes a ‘haunted space’ and whether it is stories which create this, rather than events themselves.

Matt Foley, author of Haunting Modernisms and Academic Lead for HAUNT Manchester offered further insight into how human beings can create their own ‘haunted space’. “It is about allowing yourself to be terrified,” he expanded, before drawing attention to the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1990s – a thinker who offered a “new Hauntological way of being, involving speaking to ghosts rather than being afraid of them.”

Another Hauntology Image

Buoyed by the exciting concept of exploring urban space and the educational experience it can bring, the panel also considered its limitations. This included Jane’s point that certain individuals could be seen to have more ‘privilege’ than others to walk through the city streets at night, and the point that the city can be an unaccommodating place for many potentially vulnerable pedestrians: given the lack of public toilets and benches especially. Cars and online delivery systems also change personal relationships and limit interaction with the cityscape, according to Natalie.

But is there more affecting our engagement with urbanity? Nick Dunn reflected that architects working on the city present further challenges – as although more are now sensitive to site conditions, they are not typically sensitive to the narratives attached to these places. In turn, the panel emphasized the importance of personal experience in place – “we after all need alternative readings and different voices,” said Nick. Matt added: “The individual often projects the haunted onto a space, creating a spectral presence in an act of representation or in being there themselves.”

A phrase which emerged with increasing frequency in the discussion was ‘Failure of Absence’, used by Matt and attributed to the academic Mark Fisher, who used it to describe the sense of being in an urban space at night, and rather than feeling alone, being surrounded by a ‘presence’. After all, it is the sense of loss in a space rather than its emptiness that can be most disturbing; and this was a point Natalie Zacek expanded, giving examples of abandoned malls and retail parks often used as sets for horror films.

Other areas discussed during an in-depth 90 minutes of conversation included personal experience of hauntings, perceptions of the future and the question of whether the city is ‘losing its rabbit holes for discovery’ -  Simon emphasizing the importance of celebrating the undersides and edgelands of urban space as he chaired. This was reiterated by Nick, who expressed his fondness for edgelands and revealed that one of his favourite places to explore is under the Mancunian Way. On this topic, Jane added that one of her favourite places is Pomona. Whilst Matt chose Nexus Art Café for its sense of community yet underground nature, Natalie picked the characterful Ducie Pub behind The University of Manchester and Simon talked about the beauty of Salford Meadows.

The panel event finished with questions from a highly receptive audience, underlining the level of interest in Hauntology as a subject and its intersections with popular culture. It certainly was a discussion which opened up even more avenues for exploration and a fitting start to what is set to be an immersive and eye-opening Not Quite Light Weekend 2019.

By Emily Oldfield

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