Ghost Townies

By: Peggy Nelson
April 9, 2010

Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted —

What is a ghost town? Something now empty, that was once lived in? Something gone wild, that was once domestic?

Yet what if it’s still inhabited, after a fashion?

[Ohne Titel (Kunstakademie) Düsseldorf, Andreas Gefeller, 2009]

Andreas Gefeller, profiled by Stephanie Mitchell on Harvard’s Nieman Storyboard recently, photographs interior and exterior spaces from a hovercar perspective, stitching together hundreds of smaller images to make large-scale aerial collages, assembling evidence for future anthropologists. The result of both scrupulous documentation and massive digital manipulation, he offers us a raven’s-eye view of the spaces we’re still living in, empty of us but full of what we leave behind on a daily or hourly basis.

Less formalized and earnestly objective than the industrial portraits of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gefeller’s work is more playful and subjective, while no less obsessively documentarian. Ohne Titel (Kunstakademie, R 217) seems to offer us Jackson Pollock: not the prophet of the future, but a subjective chronicler of a variegated past.

[Ohne Titel (Kunstakademie, R 217) Düsseldorf, Andreas Gefeller, 2009]

[detail, Gas Tanks 1982-1992, Bernd and Hilla Becher]

You might think such a detailed, almost photojournalistic overview would provide a perfect narrative frame — or better, game; a treasure hunt for a protagonist. The residue of a quest or a life, the intersections of action and adventure, are known to the present and the future alike only by their more substantial, slower-to-decay artifacts. Detail shots present baroque yet spare dioramas, with room for technology’s inevitable embeds and immersions. Imagine: the woman is walking, here. The man will look, there. The child drops the toy, then becomes distracted by a plane out the window: a frame, a “still,” and we project the quickening and the reeling forth.

[Ohne Titel (Kunstakademie, R 209) Düsseldorf, Andreas Gefeller, 2009]

Of course this takes forever. The rooms have roofs, the yards have trees. Gefeller can’t just zoom in from Google Earth. He attaches his camera to a boom and inches over the space, inch inch inch inch, then stitches together the hundreds, or thousands, of photos into a single final view.

Akin to the #slowtwitter movement, Gefeller’s process increments along, segmenting out the flow of everyday life and eventually accreting to significance, if indeed we rate significance by the size of the midden. But unlike #slowtwitter, which is never just a single tweet but a process of craft that unfolds over time, Gefeller’s images are experienced all at once, presenting more of a objet than a relationship, to all except the artist himself.

The scenes do indicate narrative possibilities. But what story are they telling? Perhaps it’s not so much a story of space, but of time. An image captured in slow motion yields only the memories of movement, not the movers themselves. Slow down enough and all fast things become a vague blur: Insects. Cosmic Rays. Thoughts. People.

[Llangernyw Yew, courtesy Wikimedia commons, from The Oldest Trees on the Planet by Tia Ghose for]

To a tree, we hardly register. Our lives are a summer season, one long forgotten in the vast before. At best we’re a decorative beetle, inscribing scars that long outlast their proximate urgency. At worst we’re a mysterious plague, a wake of sudden death, implied only because everything must have some cause.

And yet the fast leave their mark on the slow. Something is left, when we go.

[detail, Initials, Peter Wong, 2006]

[Ohne Titel (Parkplatz 2) Tokio, Andreas Gefeller, 2007]

We like the idea of the ghost town, we think we want to visit. It amuses us to limn the edges. But amusement is a daytime game, when the busyness of the world keeps us fast. At night, the lines blur. We slide, a bit, into other time; we slow and see with other eyes. Better to turn on the cable. Better to go back to the city, maybe right now? The field has turned trippy. We want to turn away, we’re suddenly unsure.

In these depopulated landscapes we may not see ghosts, but the fear is there. For these are our edges, externalized; made simple and manifest in our dwellings. Safe inside for now, with our heads at ease reclining, we have our bust of Pallas and velvet cushions by the door.

And the feral watches from behind our eyes, implacably, and waits. And nothing more.

[Raven from Birds of America, John James Audubon, 1861]


[Initial quote and scattered rhymes from The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe, 1845]



What do you think?

  1. A beautiful image “At night, the lines blur. We slide, a bit, into other time; we slow and see with other eyes”

    Perhaps if you have come from a ghost place it never leaves you, as I often have the opposite reaction – I want to be in that depopulated place/state nearly constantly, but recognize that do affect culture/ be a part of it, I must remain citified.

    What place do I have in this zeitgeist – more akin to the feral behind the eyes, perhaps?

    And now you make me contemplate this – the best kind of writing! Thank you!

  2. I can’t look at a landscape – even way high in the mountains – without wondering about former ancient footprints, impacts. Even the stars above our heads have been routed, though the constellations as we know them are slowly shifting, spreading, sinking.
    In The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant, he describes how intimidated the English were by the wild forests of New England…”hideous and desolate” and that settlers aimed to create order out of verdant chaos.

  3. Word, Mrs. Winds.

    I spent the last couple of weeks trying to find the grave of a friend’s mother in Forest Hills. I knew the section, the range, the grave number, which placed it in a flat section where many stones lie flush with the ground, littered with needles from the spreading pines. But I couldn’t find the grave–and soon, I began to worry that it had somehow been obliterated. Finally, I stopped in at the office to get some advice. The man there brought out a huge section-by-section map, on which he indicated the grave’s location. I could visualize it immediately. I went to the spot; there was nothing there. So I began to dig. Yes, I was grave-digging in Forest Hills! With a pine cone, but still… anyway, I hit a stone almost immediately, and brushed an inch of accumulated soil off of my friend’s mother’s name.

    I often wonder how the cemetery will look in a hundred, a thousand years. Eventually, of course, all the stones will be covered with soil–and later, the sea; and some while later it will all be ice, and on to who knows what elemental scrubbings and reconfigurations. And yet… I was five when Margaret K. passed away. No one could have known that thirty-five years later I’d be kneeling at her grave, scrubbing dirt from the graven stone. That’s Margaret, still rippling outward. Who knows how far her influence will extend?

  4. Ghost towns are populated by failed potential, they feel wrong and wonderful. Useless things are typically removed from the path – Ghost towns are not-removed, meaning that the usefulness may yet still prove itself, or else the inhabitants simply grew too tired to go on? In either case the caretakers left with unfinished business.

    Thus the uncanny – was it exhaustion that prevented the watchers from placing the coins over the eyes of the dead? Why not a decent burial? Do the husks remain as a monument or a warning?

    Pollock claimed to capture action, but what he really captured was the wake, which ought to trace a path and then fade. Of course it doesn’t (in Pollock’s case because of the army of wake-restorers that churn the waters behind him). Digital ghost towns are both more and less uncanny, because of the lack of both time indicators and of deliberate restoration. The archiving function is accidental, and so one can encounter a digital ghost (an email, webpage or voicemail from the dead) and not ever realize what they’ve seen, whereas a ghost-building is difficult to ignore.

    Fill the space with noise and light!

    Gorgeous images and imagery, thank you Peggy.

    End quoth. SK.

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