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Return of the Gothic: Digital Anxiety in the Domestic Sphere


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When telegraph lines were first installed in the US and Europe in the mid-1800s, people complained of sightings of ghosts traveling along the wires. In 1848, two sisters in a village near Rochester, New York claimed that rapping coming from the floorboards of their bedroom were Morse-code messages from the dead. Telephones and electric machines were viewed with suspicion, and theater performances often portrayed them as vessels of magical powers. Such supernatural interpretations of emerging technology chimed with popular fascination with the Gothic, which functioned as a nexus for a variety of anxieties: the intrusion of the colonial Other into everyday life (symbolized as the inhuman monster or vampire), fear over women’s desire for professional and sexual freedom, and above all, the rapid modernization of daily life. From the 1700s on, the Gothic assumed its primary form in the novel. Fittingly, women constituted a large part of its audience—the Gothic novel often used architecture and private space to address questions of domestic life and the role of women. Old, creaky, labyrinthine houses (such as the Bates house in Hitchcock’s latter-day Gothic Psycho) became mainstays of the genre, serving as metaphors for both the constraints on women’s lives and the suddenly outdated lifestyles that would not go gently into that good night. The architectural elements of these sites also became characters in themselves, aiding and abetting the horrors that went on within.

In its barest bones, the Gothic is a clash of the old and the new, weighted toward the former as it struggles with its own obsolescence. By focusing on the domestic sphere, authors of Gothic novels could reflect on or directly channel those changes that were so difficult to fully comprehend. The sheer unknowable “otherness” of Gothic villains—their monstrosity, vampirity, non-humanity—reflects not only the scale of these great domestic alterations, but also that of the inability to make sense of them.

A similar substrate of anxiety and domestic disruption can be found in recent moving image work. Their reappearance or re-conjuring in these settings suggests a return of the Gothic as a way to wrestle with daunting, ongoing questions prompted by current technological shifts: How has the internet affected our sense of self? Our interaction with others? The structures of family and kinship? The return of the Gothic, which navigates between old and new and holds ties to an earlier era of rapid technological change, complicates the popular notion that post-internet art is concerned with a featureless and anonymous present. Coded and significant mise-en-scènes, anachronistic details, and forms of the digital uncanny upset the idea that moving image work dealing with new technologies is a-psychological or abstract in character. Rather, a preoccupation with the Gothic tropes of the uncanny, the undead, and intrusions into the home show how notions of the individual, the family, and the domestic are in fact being newly contested. These features and impulses underscore a number of recent art films and videos by artists such as Mark Leckey, Ed Atkins, Shana Moulton, Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch, and Laure Prouvost, many of which take the internet and the digital as a primary subject. It seems, in looking through this work, that Gothic tropes are returning as a reaction to the unprocessable changes of the “information age.”

Last year, Mark Leckey’s touring exhibition entitled The Universal Accessibility of Dumb Things (2013) addressed techno-animism, or as he put it, the fact that we are surrounded by “devices that bring non-living things to life.” Bringing together stereo systems and other machines, talismanic objects, fossils, “prop-relics” (props from TV shows and films that have achieved the status of both sculpture and documentation), 3D models, and “spirit creatures,” the show crystallized a fascination with the agency of objects and object-to-object relations that one can see in other arenas, such as the questions of thingness and objecthood (for example, in the work of Hito Steyerl) and Massimiliano Gioni’s Venice Biennale (in which a number of the artists under discussion here featured), with its exploration of the fetish object and mystical or supernatural icons. All these inquiries return to the physical object at a moment when, firstly, the object itself is endowed with more power (phones, cars, and fridges have become “intelligent”), and secondly, when digitization and dematerialization promise a world made of pure ether. They also ask the same question posed by the Victorian Gothic when it bestowed supernatural powers on new technologies: How do these objects function autonomously from human power? (Notably, Freud’s essay on the uncanny was written roughly during this same period, in 1919.) The link, aesthetic and otherwise, between current work and the Victorian age is in some ways explicit: Leckey’s exhibition design, for example, deliberately referenced Victorian modes of display such as the diorama, and positioned visitors so they would look at the assembled goods from a remove rather than circulate among them. The significance of the connection to the Victorian Gothic, however, goes beyond that of the digital uncanny. The way these works associate horror and intrusion with new forms of visual and reproductive technology suggests that the traditional subjects of the Gothic novel—mainly the home, and the identities sustained within it—are now being radically reorganized, similar to the way the introduction of the TV reorganized domestic life in the 1950s.

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