The Ghosts of Senate House is one part of a creative research project led by Sarah Sparkes. It serves as an archive for uncanny, apocryphal stories emanating from Senate House. These stories formed part of "a Magical library for the 21st Century" an archive of writings, recordings, artwork, artefacts, and other contributions, which was first shown at the University of London as part of The Bloomsbury Festival October 2011.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Recording a spirit

Output Arts have recently been considering ghost stories, how they relate to a sense of place and why people look for ghosts. As an artistic collective, we make audiovisual installations specifically for non-gallery venues that link in some way to the space in which they are shown. Thus, the theme of the Ghosts of Senate House project particularly interested us in its focus on a particular place.

Much of our interest lies in the recording aspect of ghost hunting: the setting-up of equipment in the hope of "capturing" a ghost on tape. There is a strong desire to prove the presence of something that is really about absence; the absence of someone who was once alive and present in that space. Recording interests us as our work largely involves recording audio to compose into pieces that provoke consideration of an idea. In a sense, all recordings are ghosts - reflections of something or someone that was in that place at that moment.

For the Ghosts of Senate House project we have been particularly considering the sense of place and how a place can have a character or feeling. We hope to record this "spirit of place" in audio form for a number of different spaces in Senate House that relate to hauntings and turn these into audio sculptures that will allow the listener to consider the character of sound and how this can evoke a particular feeling.

The Goetia of Senate House by Magick Concrète.

About Magick Concrète

Magick Concrète is a collaboration between Andy Sharp (English Heretic) and Mark Pilkington (Strange Attractor), the moniker a word play on "real music" - extending the concept to the practice of reel-to-reel magic. Combining interactive pilgrimage, with the subsequent and ceremonial manipulation of found sounds and narratives.

The Goetia of Senate House by Magick Concrète.

A shared aural experience of people who visit or work at Senate House is a howling sound, heard in various areas of the building. For Magick Concrète's contribution to The Ghosts Of Senate House project, we will attempt to investigate the imaginative significance of this phenomenon, drawing together Renaissance theurgic philosophy, the use of oral history, archetypal readings of the genii loci, and avant garde tape processing practices.

When first told of the phenomenon what immediately connected with us, was its relation to the word Goetia. Goetia is a form of medieval spirit communication, etymologically, it is speculated, derived from the word 'to howl'. On the surface, and somewhat glamorously, Goetic theurgy purports to practice the summoning of a host of 72 spirits, though a more subtle reading of the system suggests that these spirits are all around us, and conversation with them is less achieved by direct invocation, than communication, apprehension of, or simple noticing of their presence.

In many ways rapport with the spirits of the Goetia relates to conversing with the genii loci of a given place. The genii loci, a term from antiquity, is traditionally considered to be the protective spirit of a particular building or environment, though a more open ended interpretation, might be to consider it the governing atmosphere. Less a deity, more a collection of feelings, intuitions and experiences of a place.

The Goetic theurgist would attempt to capture these spirits in brazen vessels and the grimoires describing this form of magic gave instructions for the fashioning of these receptacles. The analogy with the genie in the lamp of Arabian lore is no coincidence; much of the practice being disseminated in folklore by the tales of the Arabian nights. For our project we will use modern recording media as the means of trapping the genii loci – if one considers a tape recorder to be a technological analogue of the genie's lamp, then the metaphor is obvious and natural.

The legions of Goetic spirits speak a language that is pan-cultural; in other words conversing with them is a means of identifying archetypal experiences. For our practice we will use oral history evidence to create sound recordings which we will process using the techniques of musique concrète to create what we hope is an aesthetic yet tangible spirit of Senate House. Senate House itself as the instrument through which the genii loci communicates.

Our results will be presented in concrete form as a sound installation housed within a listening apparatus – a means for the listener to hear and intuit their own sense of the spirit of the place.

Friday, 3 June 2011

What's up on the 8th floor?

We have already posted several stories telling of strange occurrences on the 8th floor of Senate House Tower.  Many who work in the bookstacks report that this floor makes them feel downright uncomfortable.  (The bookstacks are the many floors of library books and archives that belong to the University of London.)

The north side of the 8th floor used to house part of the Harry Price Archive.
Access to Senate House Tower, where the bookstacks are housed, used to be via a lift the size of  and telephone box, known as 'the Coffin'.

Helen Duncan under investigation on 'the Séance Chair'

Stefan Dickers was cataloguing the Harry Price  Archive between May 2004 – May 2005.  Stefan admitted that it always made him feel uncomfortable up on the 8th floor and indeed it is considerably colder than other parts of the building.  He explained how the room was full of boxes, piles of pamphlets and letters, shelves of books  and even test tubes from the laboratory of psychical research.  The séance chair, used by Price when testing  the authenticity of mediums such as Rudi Schneider and Helen Duncan, was placed at the end of a corridor. In another corner stood  a large chest containing the magic lantern slides Price used in his lectures.  It all sounds amazing and I find myself somewhat envious of this job and being surrounded by so many curious and interesting items including Dirty Dings Filing System (more on that later).

However it was, as with most of our contributors' ghostly stories, in the south part of the 8th floor that Stefan experienced a moment of sheer terror.

Stefan described how whilst he was shelving some books he heard the sudden and violent sound of a book being thrown onto the floor and travelling with some speed past him.  He couldn't wait to leave the 8th floor. In those days the bookstacks were lit individually, each light had to be turned off behind one on leaving the room.  This made for a dark and shadowing atmosphere added to by the darkening winter night outside the window.  To make matters worse Stephan had to make the long journey in the dark alone using 'The Coffin' to make his escape.
You can read more about Stefan's experience here

and another account of the presence stalking the bookstacks on the eight floor here