Absent But Not Forgotten, Kathryn Campbell Dodd and Jacob Whittaker
Kathryn Campbell Dodd and Jacob Whittaker, the artists behind experimental art project Absent but not Forgotten present their Friday 13th event tonight at The Last Gallery. We are also very lucky to have a text by Kirsten Hinks, who has also written about the project - scroll down to read the full essay...
The project uses installations, video and sound works which investigate ideas about the paranormal, ghosts and unexplained or uncanny occurrences and the ways in which these phenomena are expressed culturally and socially. To mark five years of collaboration, Absent but not Forgotten have been staging a series of events during October/November 2015 which reviews their previous work and generates new work for 2015.
Absent but not Forgotten, Kathryn Campbell Dodd and Jacob Whittaker
Following events at Abacus and Rose Street Flee Market, tonight sees Thirteenfridays The Return take place at The Last Gallery, Llangadog, Carmarthenshire.
This strictly invitation only finale event will be a reprise of Absent but not Forgotten s 2013 project. Thirteen guests have been invited to a Friday 13th meal. Each of the thirteen dishes will contain 13 ingredients along with a spectacular 13-dessert trolley created byQueen of Cakes Kirsten Hinks.
Essay by Kirsten Hinks on Absent but not Forgotten
Kathryn Campbell Dodd and Jacob Whittaker have been working together as ABNF for five years. ABNF started at the Last Gallery in Llangadog where they put on their first exhibition after discovering their shared interest in the paranormal.
Campbell Dodd works largely with installation and video - creating works which explore everyday objects. Whittaker works with both visual and sound art often working with his collection of vinyl records. Both artists in their respective solo work have an interest in collecting and the fetishising of the object. Both also touch on the ephemeral in their work. Whittaker explores memory and nostalgia through his use of scratched records, LP covers and recording. Campbell Dodd uses the re-imagining of neglected and unused everyday objects such as toast racks and sugar tongs as a way of investigating relevance and the significance of objects and their associations with memory.
When they came together to create ABNF Whittaker and Campbell Dodd sought to create a project that would look to explore subjects which are not necessarily traditional subjects for contemporary visual arts: ghosts, horror and the paranormal. The first event at the Last Gallery in Llangadog was an exploration of the materials and ephemera of ghost hunting and of our cultural relationship with the spectral and the uncanny. Monitors and gadgets lined the shelves of the gallery and white sheets obscured furniture. It was the first time that the collaboration had used sheets in this way letting the form and nature of the material create loose associations exploring how basic our interpretation of the unnerving can be.
Later in the project sheets featured heavily in ABNF s projects with their billowing forms seeming to stand in for the strange shape in the corner of one s eye, or the little jolt of adrenaline from some half formed feeling of uncertainty. ABNF went on to explore the area of those who investigate these things deeper with the use of Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) capturing devices and methods.
The project is at its best when the audience is questioning the artists position are they believers? It is this lingering question, forming a backdrop to all of the collaboration s pieces, which leads to the most challenging aspects of the work. The subject of ghosts, horror films and the supernatural are very much pigeon holed in western culture as being distinctly lowbrow. Taking on the subject in the visual arts is unusual. Alongside the inherent ideas of loss and the fleeting nature of existence ABNF is always confronting ideas of cultural cache. What makes one object art and another object memorabilia? Why does the classic imagery of horror films and ghost stories seem to be so firmly lodged in the somewhat unseemly side of our cultural catalogue?
There is no doubt that collectively we are drawn to these ideas horror films for example continue to grow in popularity. Despite their grizzly and often scary nature we go to see them in our droves. It is part of the fascination of the project to try and understand what it is about what is essentially an uncomfortable experience which seems to be so enthralling. Yet the visual arts have rarely sought to explore this strange pull. One notable exception is Susan Hiller who has explored the supernatural in her work with a notable focus, also, on collections and collecting.
Writing about Hiller, Jonathan Jones has saidThe collector is both outside and inside the collection. When you amass curiosities, your relationship to them is richly ambiguous. Perhaps the mermaid in your private museum is there as an example of human credulity and fantasy. Or perhaps you believe in mermaids. Hiller's collections of mentalities allow us to encounter ideas, images and intuitions outside the mainstream of western rationalism that are at times genuinely unsettling 
Collecting is a recurring theme in art, horror films and also in believers the world over who prize their collections of photographs of auras or ghostly recordings. This connection between the two areas is what unites Whittaker and Campbell Dodd s solo work with ABNF. Collecting objects is something both artists are interested in and like the search for ghosts it can trace its roots to ideas of loss. Collecting objects is a way of preserving them to take a thing and keep it separate and safe from the entropy undergoing its fellows with glass cabinets and regulated humidity. Campbell Dodd and Whittaker both explore these ideas whether in the context of those collections themselves or by the subversion of them.
Collecting and ghost hunting both seek to capture some piece of something that is lost. The real fascination of ghost hunting is the energy and the expense invested by believers just for the slim hope of capturing some echo of the past just a few strains of a voice or the dull glow of an orb to snatch back from death. Perhaps the draw of ghost stories and horror, however unsettling, is this desire to somehow plug the gap of those things and those people who we cannot bear to have lost.
The world of the paranormal has an intersection here with the world of the religious where in both cases the experience of loss is intimately connected with concepts of belief and faith. The question of belief is one that infiltrates our whole society, religious tensions still shape the news agenda, but to question someone s belief in God is a kind of taboo impertinent and antisocial. Yet the world of the paranormal is fair game it is one small area of faith where questioning a person s belief or radicalism is not just accepted it is actually part of the DNA of the thing, it s expected sceptism and the spectral go arm in arm. In this way the paranormal can act as a kind of playground for ideas, a place to test theories on faith, science, evidence, belief and the sacred largely without consequence.
Absent But Not Forgotten have used this freedom to make what they do controversial and to challenge our ideas of what we can and can t do and why we feel that way. With the thirteen Friday s project ABNF asked guests to sit down to eat at a table of thirteen guests, explaining to them the common superstition that whoever is first to leave the table will be the first to die. It s unnerving, of course, for those guests- a classic horror show party trick but perhaps the usefulness of this confrontational approach is more complicated than that. The piece uses, once again, the test bed of the mythical and the paranormal as a tool to mirror the world and examine it. What are the impulses that you follow yet prefer not to look at? What does it mean and what is the effect on your life when you don t believe in a superstition but you follow it anyway because you d prefer not to tempt fate? We are guided by strange impulses and without knowing it, it is sometimes the things we don t want to look at that shape our steps more than the things we do. What ripples are played out on the grander timescale when a small, unexamined impulse slightly alters our behaviour?
I think there is a good argument to say that these concepts, which are played out in the relatively safe place of the fantastical and the paranormal, can be mapped back on to the bigger picture. In his article The Eeriness of the English Countryside Robert Macfarlane explores a current cultural trend towards artists, musicians and writers exploring the paranormal and the mythical in their work. Macfarlane suggest that:
It would be easy to dismiss all this as an excess of hokey woo-woo; a surge of something-in-the-woodshed rustic gothic. But engaging with the eerie emphatically doesn t mean believing in ghosts. Few of the practitioners named here would endorse earth mysteries or ectoplasm. What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression. Contemporary anxieties and dissents are here being reassembled and re-presented as spectre, shadows or monsters: our noun monster, indeed, shares an etymology with our verb to demonstrate, meaning to show or reveal (with a largely lost sense of omen or portent) 
Indeed, the paranormal and ghosts in particular, have been an underlying theme for some of the most important thinkers and social critics of recent history. Yet their interests are often dismissed by their readers or biographers as a quirk, an unusual departure in their genius rather than a part of it. The two most remarkable perhaps being Karl Marx and Jaques Derrida both of whom had an interest in the spectral and a fondness for ghostly metaphors. Consider the very first line of Marx and Engel s communist manifesto:A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre.
From this perspective you could say that the paranormal is more than just an exercise in thrill seeking. The ghostly figure in the film is not just about exercising those tingly parts of your nerves and the hairs on the back of your neck; it s a kind of language. A binary of dissent that is used to explore those things that we don t want to look at but which are sometimes, maybe even often, the things which it is most important that we examine. What terrible things have been done or gotten away with because of the collective instinct to turn away from those things that give us that difficult feeling of fear, uncertainty, uncanniness - the horror that we may glimpse some small aspect of ourselves in the things in the dark.
In his 1994 essay Spectres of Marx Derrida described the visor effect the eerie feeling of being looked at by someone who you cannot look back at. And to Derrida it is not the spooky figure on the edge of the woods or the unnerving person on the edge of society who lurks behind the visor, it is the powerful, it is the law, quite the opposite:
This spectral someone other looks at us, we feel ourselves being looked at by it, outside of any synchrony, even before and beyond any look on our part, according to an absolute anteriority (which may be on the order of generation, of more than one generation) and asymmetry, according to an absolutely unmasterable disproportion. Here anachrony makes the law. To feel ourselves seen by a look which it will always be impossible to cross, that is the visor effect on the basis of which we inherit the law 
If it is true then that the paranormal can act as a test bed and a language of questioning and dissent then wouldn t it be sensible for the powerful to characterise it aslow brow ? Would it not be eminently sensible for them to tell you to dismiss the kind of language through which you might configure your dissent? To explain that the prickling on the back of your neck that says something is not right should be dismissed, that the unnerving shot of adrenaline must be swallowed back and that the best response to a strange movement in the corner of your eye is to look firmly in the other direction?
Exploring the paranormal does not have the weight or the potential consequences of an honest examination of other systems of belief. It can be a mirror on the world where it is safe to explore the myriad human motivations that might be described as irrational those small steps we take for which no hard evidence or definable reasoning can be given but which shape our lives. It is in the silliness of the paranormal and in the ease with which we dismiss it and in its unabashed darkness that its power lies. These unique properties mean that things too serious or too uncomfortable to be looked at straight on are able to be thoroughly examined in the light of it. It can reinforce the fortitude not to look away from uncomfortable realities and in so doing be part of a set of tools that help to hold truth to power.
 Jones, Jonathan Susan Hiller: a Sceptical Spirit? 17/11/08. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2008/nov/17/susan-hiller-art
 Macfarlane, Robert (10/04/15). The Eeriness of the English Countryside [Article]. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/10/eeriness-english-countryside-robert-macfarlane
 Derrida, J 1994. Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International. Routledge: London.p.7