I’ve been reading a bit about hauntology lately and considering how my own work relates to the concept. The term itself appears to be somewhat ambiguous. Introduced by Derrida, it is, put simply, concerned with the significance of the past in our present. The term has also been applied to certain fields of music and, in particular, artists who have mined digital and analogue archives in search of potentially creative material. As a concept, I can’t help thinking that it’s all a bit obvious and has already been exhausted in several other areas of philosophy. Still, I like the “literal” element of phantoms and spectres that seems to be a recurring theme: the imprinting of a past life or death on something as tangible as a building or landscape.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see a live performance by the band Public Service Broadcasting. During the gig I kept thinking about this whole hauntology malarkey. Sound-wise they have a very post-rock feel – long instrumental numbers that slowly build to a cacophonous crescendo – albeit with a strong sense of parody – and littered with samples of “Keep calm…”-style commentary, which struck me as being very nostalgic and yet very current – (I’ve lost count of the many variations of “Keep Calm and Carry On” that I’ve seen on Facebook in the last couple of years, and I wonder how many of those posting the images are aware of its origins). Visually, the performance shared that same kind of recontextualisation as the audio material. A stack of old-fashioned TVs had been piled on either side of the stage displaying meticulously edited archival news footage, occasionally combined with real-time video of the audience. Whether this was a conscious fusing of past and present or pure gimmick remains unclear.
Overall, the mood was satirical, at times recalling Harry Enfield’s public service announcement skits (see below). Even the ritual of live performance was parodied, a faceless, stiff upper lipped-voice introducing the band members, telling the audience how nice it was to be “back in…[pregnant pause]…Aberdeen!” or announcing the end of the show followed by – gosh! – an encore.
It’s hard to imagine where PSB will go next – it feels like a very self-contained, one-off kind of project. But maybe that’s the point…? The sources that the band have incorporated into their act are ripe for piss-taking, even if many of those sources come from a dark part of our history. Perhaps in a few years someone will create an act based entirely around the “dirty old celebrity” epidemic that we’re currently being made aware of. Imagine a band riffing over Jimmy Saville’s “jingle jangle jewellery” catchphrase. Would it be any more distasteful?