Ghost Towns and Cyberspace: conversations with photographer Elena Kendall-Aranda
Kendall-Aranda: ‘I wanted to create a mise-en-abime of time.’
The idea of time mirroring itself is encapsulated and explored by photographer Elena Kendall-Aranda’s digital interactive artwork, Ghost Town Initiative, shown and experienced at the Venice Biennale, 2017. Many of us might use Google Maps Street View to travel through space vicariously; Kendall-Aranda’s project uses these cybernetic technologies to travel through both time and space.
Ghost Town Initiative has a Spanish name: Los Despoblados, literally “the unpopulated.” There are approximately 3,000 abandoned villages in Spain. Through studying historical documents and records, Kendall-Aranda has created an interactive viewing experience in which the viewer virtually walks these abandoned villages using Street View, and encounters ‘inhabitants’ (actors, in traditional dress) going about their daily lives as they might have done in the time in which these villages were populated.
Katrina Russell: How did you first come upon these ghost towns – Los Despoblados - of rural Spain?
Elena Kendall-Aranda: Through travelling, really. I love Madrid, and I love the city - but I also love getting out of the city. Every time I come to Spain I make a point to get out of large urban areas to see new out of the way places. During one of these daily trips I went to lunch with my father in Patones de Arriba. It’s a beautiful village up on a very steep hill whose inhabitants have made a point of preserving it. However it has shrunk these past decades, and visitors can hike up to the outskirts of the village and see several houses in a state of ruin. That got me thinking about how often I had heard Spanish people around me mention there were more people in the cemetery than in their village, and how often I had come across abandoned houses while driving through Spain.
In Spain, one can see that people really belong to villages, not cities - at least in my parent’s generation, less so in mine, I would say. I believe it’s very particular to Spanish culture. So when I see abandoned towns, it feels as if as a culture we are losing more than just something physical, that in fact we are straying further and further from our roots.
In an age of geo-tagging and surveillance debates, using digital technology to document neglected places has particular resonance. If Walter Benjamin associated reproduction with a loss of the artwork’s “aura”, Kendall-Aranda’s work seems to enhance the aura of these spaces that no one has cared to maintain, nor to reproduce.
K: Travel in general seems a source of creative empowerment, and perspective, for you.
E: Having three nationalities, having lived in the US and Spain, travel definitely influences my work and goes back a long way. My Dad is a paraglider; he used to take my brother and I to his tournaments when we were young, and so I got to travel quite a lot. We usually drove there, so one of the ways I got into photography was because so much of what I was seeing was already framed, that is, through the car window. I guess the idea of the framed image became embedded in my subconscious.
K: And now you have Ghost Town Initiative, which really goes beyond photography to involve movement, immersion, and seems more about breaking the frame.
E: Right, I am interested in creating an active viewing experience - and one of the first steps necessary to do that is to break traditional, static moulds. Even when I first started experimenting with photography, I would connect the prints into collages , blur the edges or create circular shapes. I avoided creating rectangles and squares. In the first photography course I took, we had an assignment about fairytales. And I just didn’t think of fairytales as ‘square’.
K: Sure. There’s something about fairytales and their relationship to fantasy and escape that makes them fundamentally non-right angled. Fairytales are about breaking out of confines, and out of squares.
E: They are also supposed to contain a moral lesson of some kind, which can become kind of dangerous in the context of art.
E: In terms of photography, there is a difference between political art and propaganda, and that line has , unfortunately, often been crossed both in the past and in our present. I see a lot of art nowadays that claims ‘this is what you should believe’, and I am not necessarily in favour of that.
One of the first things I do when I go to a museum is wonder why that specific exhibit or artist is being shown at this point in time – whose agenda does it serve? Never accept anything, always be questioning. With Los Despoblados, I had to be aware that the documents, records and photos I was using to reconstruct scenes of daily life from the past had been created by a certain photographer, or recorder, with their own bias and agenda.
Whatever the message I may intend, or want, to convey with my images, I believe as an artist there is a responsibility to create something that makes viewers ponder a particular issue rather than dictate how they should feel about it.
A background in political science – International Relations – and studies in cybernetics is felt in Elena’s work, though she avoids explicitly politicised commentary, and writes that Ghost Town Initiative is about ‘keeping memory alive.’
K: Employing cyberspace to recreate and channel a thoroughly pre-cybernetics era is interesting. That is, the existence of Google Maps bespeaks a digital-urban culture, the very formation of which comes hand in hand with the abandonment of those same rural villages.
E: The Ghost Towns project is about the past; but it’s also a past consciously created in the present. It’s a pseudo-past, shaped by my current imaginings and interpretations, and which can be updated and modified in perpetuity. This being an online project, I have the constant possibility to generate, upload, edit and delete information. Other users can do so as well. The possibility to publish a continuing, transformative memory collectively, creates a space where time can be projected over and over again. I think this new form of commemoration is one that can resonate with our generation - internet users- so accustomed to phenomenons like virality, in which an image or a phrase becomes widely shared, and in turn creates a whole series of new images mimicking and referring back to its original. As our communities evolves, we must find new ways to remember our past. Physical demonstration of collective memory, such as memorials or museums give way to virtual monuments where we can not only be spectator but contributors.
K: In your paper Embodying New Technologies, you write about subversion through imitation, and the quiet power of complacent aesthetic to point out contradictions and make arguments. While you wrote that about a different context – cyberfeminist art – do you think that same approach has potential for some of the themes you explore with Los Despoblados?
E: With Los Despoblados, I am not trying to subvert anything, only to keep a national memory in circulation. However, the fact that it has a fictitious component in a time where “fake news” runs rampant may in time influence how I continue this project. I can see potential in imitating the form of fake news in order to subvert it.
The disappearance of the villages takes place in memory more than space. It’s a very different kind of disappearance to that of urbanity, wherein locations and places are consciously, explicitly overwritten and built over. Spain’s rural ‘ghost towns’ are compelling for their disappearance as much as their appearance.
E: The villages are really diverse. I mean, some of these villages are really very ugly. There was one that was especially creepy - there were bones and bits of fur everywhere, as though a slaughter had happened.
K: Maybe that one could be a whole other photo project. What makes it so appealing to see these kinds of signs of lived experience? It’s almost like walking around Pompeii - except these abandoned Spanish villages aren’t ticketed or swarmed by tourists. Somehow it’s sadder to see somewhere partly demolished rather than fully, deliberately demolished.
E: I think it’s that sense of spaces stuck in time. There’s something about seeing a place , which doesn’t belong to any clear moment in time, and which has become atemporal, that spreads a sense of nostalgia and peace. There is a longing for a traditional past where times seemed simple and moved slower compared to now where everything feels so fast-paced.
Elena tells me how a lot of the villages contain stories of cruelty and fiefdom, power and neglect. They represent a time when agricultural workers lived off the land at the whim of landowners - when say, a Duke decides he doesn’t want this village of workers on his property, so he banishes them. The hollowed out spaces feel melancholy for their evocation of disposable people. In other cases, families were driven to the cities by economic recession. The villages have been largely neglected ever since.
K: Did you have to get any kind of permission to create this work (e.g. from local government?
E: No. There are some villages that are abandoned but still have signs marked “private property.” Others leave their dogs to protect the houses they have left behind, but I steered clear of those. However I specifically chose villages that are clearly abandoned, and thus have become public spaces.
The term ‘ghost’ implies the intangible soul of a person that lingers long after their physical body has lost its purpose. ‘Ghost town’, by contrast, refers precisely to the physical remains of a place once its inhabitants have fled. It suggests the soul of a place might be something more than we realize when we inhabit it; the now-disused space isn’t haunted, but the space haunts.
K: So on your latest project, Los Despoblados – ‘Ghost Town Initiative’. Slight aside, but: great names! Both in Spanish and English.
E: Thank you! I think about names so much. Sometimes I have the name before I have the project. I’m thinking about the name of my next project now, and hopefully will decide on one soon, actually.
K: Can you talk a little about your next project?
E: Time is a recurring theme in my projects. The idea of linear time, of not being able to go back to a certain time both frustrates and fascinates me. The project I’m working on now is with a man who has lost something – someone, from the past - and is trying to access a certain point in time again.
E: I’ve been reading The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (La invención de Morel), which came to mind given that the theme of this issue’s content is called ‘ukiyo’ – floating world. The book is about a man who finds himself on an island. It’s pretty short, and in a way it anticipates the concept of virtual reality. The reader is given to understand that the man is a political fugitive of some kind. After a while, he realizes there are other people on the island, and so, being still on the run, he hides from them. As he spies on them he notices a woman who he falls in love with, and eventually starts to approach. She ignores him, and so too does everyone on the island. [spoiler:] It turns out that all of the people on the island are virtual memories, created by a machine that can replicate reality. This was written in 1940.
E: One of my mentors told me something that always stuck with me. Japan’s doll manufacturing industry has developed in such a way that they could make dolls, sex dolls, so realistic as to be mistaken for human. But they didn’t invest in that, ultimately, because the customer base didn’t want that kind of realism. Consumers wanted that uncanny point of resemblance in between. People needed to feel that it was fake, in order to enjoy it.