New York's 35th Annual Halloween Parade
OCTOBER 31, 2008. Sixth Avenue from Spring to 22nd Street
CONCEPT, DESIGN, and DIRECTION: Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles
PRODUCER for VHP: Jeanne Fleming
VIDEO & AUDIO MIXING: DJ Wa (Jordan Matthews)
TECHNICAL / ARTISTIC SUPPORT: Anne Townsend, Stefanie Loeb, Linda Lambertson, Louis Munroe, Moira Sauer, Howie Callies
SILK INKJET PRINTING: Chad Kleitsch
A white cotton sheet with two holes for eyes floats before you. It is the first and the simplest of masks.
The sheet defines an absence, or rather an invisible presence, made perceptible only by its earthly veil. Beneath the veil lies the sum of our hopes, fears, and memories. As it haunts us on the threshold of the visible, the shrouded figure warns us of the transience of the human form, even as it assures us that the human spirit persists forever.
The iconic ghost image of the floating veil owes as much to modernity as it does to ancient myth. It was no accident that the Spritualist movements and sceances of the Victorian era coincided precisely with the advent of photography. A device that could scientifically capture ephemeral moments held out the promise that things unseen (or unseeable by ordinary, human vision) could find their way onto a photographic plate. Might the spirits of dead be able to finally break through the veil between life and death, to leave some fragile, yet scientifically irrefutable, trace of their presence? To many of the era, photography offered nothing less than objective proof of an afterlife, and a bridge to loved ones who had passed on.
Inevitably, skillful charlatans and professional magicians saw an opportunity to profit from these hopes, and the medium of Sprit Photography was born. Using a blend of classic stage lighting tricks and newly discovered darkroom techniques, Spirit photographers created a distinctive genre of imagery. The Victorian ghost was often characterized by layered flowing drapes of fabric and gauze, which provided versatile projection surfaces for superimposed images, while conjuring an elusive visual presence somewhere between form and formlessness. Thus, what was born of necessity for Victorian spirit photographers, nourished by ancient images of the shroud and the veiled penitents of Medieval rites, and fueled by the human fascination with the object obscured, now appears as the bedsheet apparition in our doorway. Boo, indeed!
As New York's Village Halloween Parade celebrated its 35th year, we looked back towards first principles, toward the root of a festival of All Souls, the one hopeful night when our ancestral spirits might return and walk among us. Ghost drew inspiration from the rich history of spectral images from the Gilded Age. Fusing photographic sampling with pageant puppetry, we recreated the ethos of a Victorian séance. Eight ivy-covered windows illuminated by fleeting projections, defined the mobile architecture of a haunted parlor, complete with suspended chandeliers and floating teapots, spoons, and chairs. At the center of the room, a tea-table laid with crystalware began to rise, calling forth through the walls a retinue of diaphanous spirits, each 18 feet tall, with illuminated faces sampled from anonymous Daguerrotypes printed on Japanese silk. As the spirits gathered around the table, the clatter of flying silverware and the cadence of phantom projections grew more and more frenetic, ending in a sudden silence and a somber bow.
As with any act of levitation, many hands were joined to realize this vision, and hundreds of volunteers participated as makers and performers, helping to celebrate the night when only a cotton sheet separates our world from the next.
Alex Kahn, 2008