Essays

Art for Ghosts

by Sarah Walko on June 7, 2012

Fernando Orellana, "Her Bell"

Fernando Orellana, "Her Bell" (all images courtesy the artist)

Artist Fernando Orellana is making work for a very specific audience: the recently departed. His current project, Shadows, consists of interactive works designed for posthumous use. Inspired by paranormal research, spiritualism and ghost folklore, Orellana’s machines continuously search for the dead, attempting to allow the departed a chance to interact with the world they left. He described to me how the project evolved:

The last couple years, I have become very interested in designing interactive devices for ghosts or spirits. After several design approaches, I settled on visiting estate sales from around the New York State area. I figured what better way to design for the dead then to find the discarded objects of the recently departed. My idea was to find object(s) in the home that seemed to have a personal connection with the departed, be it a collection of things, clothing, tools used at their trade, etc. I then design and fabricate machines that allow for the departed to continue using the items. For example, in one home I noticed that the person bells in each of the rooms in her house! I bought three of the bells and then made the machine “Her Bell,” to let her toll one of the bells from the great beyond.

To detect the dead, the machine is constantly sampling three different measurements: electromagnetic, temperature, and infrared. All three of these are some of what pseudo-scientist and paranormal researchers measure when they try to detect ghost activity. The readings of the measurement are displayed on a small LCD screen for viewers to observe. If at any moment there is a sudden spike in all three of these measurements, the machine deduces that there is a paranormal “event” occurring and triggers the associated device.

To date, Orellana has created three different machines, including one called “His Minerals.”

About this work, Orellana said:

This person was an avid mineral collector, who also made his own handmade incense. I bought his entire mineral collection and the last batch of incense he left behind. I then made a machine that elegantly displays the minerals and using a wooden match, lights the incense for him upon his return. In order to showcase the mechanism in operation, in the video, a simulated paranormal “event” takes place.

I asked Orellana about how he approached designing the work once he had the idea.

My first design approach was from the point of view of an industrial designer. For a moment, regardless of your belief structure, lets assume that ghosts are real. They would like to continue leading normal lives, but cannot without a proxy. In the case of the dead, who are missing their entire bodies, there are many challenges for those charged with designing prosthetics for them.  First and foremost, what do ghosts need? Meaning, what specifically would they like to interact with in this world? I foresaw designing a variety of devices, all at different levels of complexity. None of those designs materialized because I hit a roadblock, which had to do with usability.

The overwhelming question I kept asking myself was if the living-impaired can learn something new. Since they no longer have brains, could they learn to use a new technology? Are ghosts frozen in time, made up of all the memories that they learned while living? This pointed to the old debate of where consciousness resides: Is it something that is stored in our neurons, ceasing to exist after death, or does it dwell somewhere else? Perhaps it lies outside of our corporal self, in a realm we do not understand or can measure yet. Interestingly, this argument is at the heart of the belief in ghosts in the first place.  Since I wasn’t able to satisfactorily answer the question of ghost learning, I figured I should stick to things that ghosts could recognize and be familiar with, thereby already knowing how to use. What better way to find these objects then scavenging estate sales for the departed material possessions?

Fernando Orellana, "His Minerals"

Fernando Orellana, "His Minerals" (detail, click to enlarge)

In Orellana’s explanation, the needs of the dead supersede a focus on those who would actually be experiencing and viewing the object, the living. If there is no paranormal activity, the machine sits as potential, waiting for its otherworldly visitors. Living viewers do not get to see it function unless they’re accompanied by an unseen companion or watching a simulated “event.” There is a kind of role reversal here, in that the artist and object have a dialogue with the dead that we can observe from the outside but cannot activate ourselves. We become the invisible observers, the ghosts.

I have always been drawn to work (and people) that have an extreme spectrum. The bipolarity of either dormancy or a supernatural event in Shadows is intriguing. The relationship of the viewer, time, certain controllable factors and chance creates prolonged anticipation. In that sense it recalls Walter De Maria’s monumental “Lightning Field”: you might see an amplified, unforgettable lightning storm or experience a quiet night in a field among a bunch of poles sticking up from the ground. As a viewer, you attend with a silent expectation or an evocation to forces beyond your control.

The idea of an evocation or calling a spirit is widely regarded and used in differing contexts and terms, from prayer to the muse. Perhaps a lot of our involvement with everyday objects and scenarios in our lives can be considered a form of calling. I asked Orellana about his research into the paranormal and how he went about learning how to build something that can detect paranormal activity.

I did do a fair amount of research into this subject, which is ongoing. Paranormal research these days has more to do with Extra Sensory Perception (ESP) than the hunt for ghosts. It turns out that the common tale of a person seeing an apparition of their recently deceased loved one has more to do with ESP than with the spirit world. Researchers have a working theory that at the moment of death our mind might send off very strong ESP signals that can be picked up by people miles and miles away.

There are three types of ESP: telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance. All stem from the idea that people can perceive things beyond the scope of their normal bodily senses. I clarify this because currently there is discussion about how ESP may be explained in terms of science through quantum mechanics, and more specifically, quantum entanglement.

In quantum mechanics particles can become “entangled” and interact over vast distances. Albert Einstein famously called this “spooky action at a distance.” It basically means that any two particles that have interacted before are bound to each other regardless of distance; one always affects the other. That Orellana’s inspiration from folklore led him to a science- and technology-based series attempting to provide evidence of ghosts somehow seems to mimic this phenomenon.

Fernando Orellana, "Their Dolls"

Fernando Orellana, "Their Dolls" (detail, click to enlarge)

The connection also reminds me of tales I’ve read of Roger Bacon, the English philosopher and friar who is often credited as one of the earliest advocates of the modern scientific method. Bacon was inspired by Aristotle and wrote in his Opus Majus of 1268 about experiments with light shining through crystals and water droplets showing the colors of the rainbow. He often wore long robes and grew out a beard, gaining a wizardly reputation as an alchemist simply because, unlike many of his contemporaries, he understood the properties of lenses.

A more philosophical conversation that the ghost machines bring up is, as Orellana said above, “the old debate of where consciousness resides.” Many visionaries and inventors have pondered the quest of a tangible measurement of the soul, but I appreciate Orellana’s emphasis on the brain and his questions about learning by the dead.

I asked Orellana if he believed in ghosts. He responded:

I don’t know if I have a concrete answer for this question, at least not yet. I myself have never seen a ghost. I will mention this: during my time with this project, I have had a number of strange dreams involving crowds of people I don’t know milling about my apartment. They aren’t scary or horrific, they are just regular-looking people sitting around, chit chatting with each other and generally appearing to be waiting for something.

Their machine, perhaps?

*   *   *

Part of why I was drawn to Orellana’s ghost machines is that there are multiple stories within them, from the biography of the dead to the life and energy of an object without its owner to the story of the machines’ maker. These works spark a multilayered discussion about the power of storytelling and the combination of the energy of an object with technology. They raise questions about object frequency and the reaction to frequency, as well as the omnipresence of technology and its relationship with the limitations of biology.

What’s more, these pieces spark a conversation about the art object, the role of ephemera and about not just where consciousness lies but where value and energy lie. Orellana’s work traverses the spectrum of ways to resurrect old, worn things, from rummaging through estate sales to designing with CAD (computer-aided design) software and digital fabrication using water-jet, laserjet and CNC (computer numerically controlled) technology. And even if none of these pieces are ever activated without a forced event, they still have a power of potential. Orellana commented on this:

Extracted from recent estate sales, the personal objects found in these techno-effigies are in a constant state of potential energy, awaiting their owner’s return. By monitoring sudden fluctuations in temperature, infrared and electromagnetic readings, the machines try to open a channel or doorway into the neither [sic] world.

I asked Orellana if he would consider commissions:

A key part of my process during this series has become walking into an estate sale without a clue as to what I might find. I walk around taking in the person’s former dwelling, trying to get a picture of who they might have been and what objects they may have connected with most. With a commission, I could see that process amending a bit, having the living person tell me why the object is special to them and how they use it. That might be really interesting, adding another layer to the narrative. Another step I have considered along those lines is training the living to use the machine with nothing but brainwaves (EEG). The goal being that when the person is in the neither world, they can better use their devices posthumously.

Fernando Orellana, "Their Dolls"

Fernando Orellana, "Their Dolls"

I also asked him about his influences, and among a short list of artists, he said something that surprised me:

Last month I found myself staring way too long at a couple Hieronymus Bosch paintings at the Met. I love his portrayal of heaven and hell, filled with such beautiful and horrific visions. I think that work is probably rolling around in my head most during the Shadows series development.

This reminded me of conversations I’ve had with several artists lately, who said that no matter what medium they are working in, much inspiration for the original ideas of their work still comes from specific paintings. I wonder if this will still be the case in 50 years.

As for the immediate future, we can expect more of these pieces from Orellana:

There are more machines coming down the pipeline, including one that involves the items a seamstress left behind, complete with her old singer sewing machine, some fabric she left behind and the radio that she used during her work.

Ultimately I think the most powerful aspect of these works can be summarized in two words that often make for great art: openness and conduction. These ideas call to mind one of my favorite Werner Hertzog quotes: “The human soul is a vast abyss; to look right at it, we get vertigo.”

I was finishing this article late at night in my Brooklyn apartment when no one else was home. As I edited, one of the oldest pieces of furniture in the room made several creaking sounds, and I thought of Orellana’s dreams. Perhaps when we invite the conversation, the conversation arrives.

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  • mkhajdin

    Imaginative gimmick. But it’s still a gimmick.

  • mkhajdin

    P.S. The more words you need to explain a work, the less powerful the work is. True artistry doesn’t need a big pile of rationalization / sales pitch.

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      Have you experienced any of these works in person? I’d say it’s impossible to judge how powerful something is until you see it for yourself. I’d also point out that a writer choosing to write about artwork that she finds intriguing and inspiring is not a sales pitch on the part of the artist.

      • mkhajdin

        Since they’re for ghosts, I’ll have to wait till I’m dead to experience them properly. I’ll have to give my review through an Ouija board.

        Art writers are in the promotion business; it’s disingenuous to claim otherwise.

        • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

          Artists are in the self-promotion business — which is worst than general promotion, and commeners … don’t get me started on that ;)

          • mkhajdin

            Jillian Steinhauer claimed this article was written solely because the author found the work “intriguing and inspiring”. That might be true if this were the writer’s personal blog, but it’s not; it’s a commercial site. However entertaining this site may be, it is in the promotion business. It’s not wrong to promote, but it’s wrong to pretend one is not doing so when one clearly is.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            I have no idea why you think that’s not the case with most writers. Since most write what they are passionate about. Some people may assume writers write what they are told, though I don’t know why. That’s a seriously bizarre understanding on how writing works and what it means to run a commercial site. Then again, you seem to have everything figured out … so don’t let facts interfere with your world view.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            btw, my last comment probably sounds snarkier than it was meant to be because it is 1:30am and I haven’t finished what I was meant to tonight … ARGH!

  • http://www.facebook.com/teresavillegasart Teresa Villegas

    Fun. I enjoyed this. Who hasn’t thought about “how to come back and say hello” in their lives? Remarkable work. I love the spiritual concept alongside with the scientific empirical-capturing apparatus. Excellent execution.

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