IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR AND WE’RE GETTING GHOSTLY WITH A BOOK FULL OF PHANTOMS BY OSSIAN BROWN (OF CYCLOBE AND COIL FAME), HAUNTED AIR, NEWLY AVAILABLE IN THE US.
British artist and musician Ossian Brown has made his way through life off the beaten path. His bewitching collection of found American Halloween photographs from 1875-1955 is comprised of odd portraits peeking from the past, the most remarkable part being that each of these little ghosts found their way, individually and over time into Brown's possession. Perhaps it's no surprise that this project was undertaken by Ossian, who, with his partner Stephen Thrower (both ex-members of the seminal experimental electronic group, Coil) has been creating hallucinatory music for the last 15 years as Cyclobe). Halloween is traditionally a celebration of the time of year when the veil separating our world from that of the dead is thinner, and this exquisite collection is like a game of hide and seek, with the playful phantoms of yesteryear. Ossian Brown's book, Haunted Air is now available in the US, featuring an introduction by David Lynch and an afterword by Geoff Cox.
"All the clocks had stopped. A void out of time. And here they are—looking out and holding themselves still—holding still at that point where two worlds join—the familiar—and the other." —David Lynch
Have you had any new portraits enter your collection since the publication?
OSSIAN BROWN I'll always be adding new members to the family, and I'll perhaps show them if I decide to work on any exhibitions in the future. I find their haunting melancholy completely absorbing; all of these photographs, once neatly displayed in family albums, but now torn out, disembodied and forgotten, and of course impossible to trace back to their human state—they've now become fully and utterly the masks and phantoms they dragged up as, all those years ago.
Something I love and which excites me greatly is when, over time, an object ages and corrodes, when it transforms and becomes something completely unintended by the original maker. In the case of Haunted Air, many of the photographs have undergone great transformations, the picture gathering small tears and stains over the years, the laminate melting, dissolving, often creating beautiful and enthralling new surrealities, mutations to the image, radically changing how you experience it. It's like when old mercurial mirror blisters, for instance. There's something very magical and beautiful about that process.
What has the reaction been so far?
OB It's been incredibly good. It was an emotionally difficult book to produce but I'm thankful I was with a publisher that wasn't motivated to steer the project into a more commercial adventure, which would have been intolerable. The book is pretty much exactly as I hoped it would be, very much so atmospherically.
I've had such huge support and enthusiasm for the work, from all quarters. And from many people I greatly admire as well.
As a British person collecting American photographs, have you been noticing the trend of dressing up on Halloween has found it’s way into British culture as well?
OB The strange things was, for a long time I never considered these pictures to be American, although, of course, absolutely all of them are. I also never approached them as Halloween photographs. To me, the phantasmagorical and oneiric atmospheres they conjure eclipse all sense of their placement in history, the confines and departmentalization of a holiday festivity. They felt to me utterly magical, overwhelmingly so. My response to every one of these haunted portraits was completely emotional.
England is riddled with ghosts, the streets are heaving with them. I think there has been a resurgence in the celebration but unfortunately no one really understands why they're doing it any more. Since the 1950s it's become increasingly commercialized, with mostly mass-produced plastic costumes, vehicles to sell you more products, for instance advertising whatever the latest horror blockbuster is doing the merry-go-round. There's little if any spiritual investment, no imagination or creativity, no real transportation occurring. There's no magic in the darkness, just emptiness.
Culturally we're so gorged on entertainment and product that a great many people don't know how to imagine any more. In many of these old photographs, the people were living in great poverty, but not in their imaginations. They could invest inanimate objects with a new and previously unimagined life, using whatever came to hand to create these incredible and phantasmagorical apparitions: old soot stained sack-cloth for masks, for instance, crudely stitched with string and daubed with paint, torn out holes for eyes. All dolled up in old soiled frocks and rags.
Have you been approached by galleries interested in these images?
OB I've shown a selection of my pictures twice, once at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, as part of a larger exhibition called “Teenage Hallucination: Read Into My Black Holes,” alongside pictures by Felicien Rops, Rodolphe Bresdin and mannequins by Morton Bartlett. I was invited by an astonishing French artist, Gisèle Vienne, and the writer Dennis Cooper. I also showed my pictures in the Temple of Hadrian in Rome. I've never exhibited them in America, though.
How did David Lynch get involved in the introduction?
OB David got involved with Haunted Air through Pierre Edelman. Pierre is a great friend of David's and worked with him on Mulholland Drive (he helped to save the film after the American backers dropped it). He kindly showed David my pictures, believing he would be very moved by them. David's response was beautiful, completely enthusiastic and passionate. I found him to be wonderfully unguarded and direct. It was a great honor to have him contribute and support Haunted Air. Primarily, at the root of it I just wanted to share them with him. I have enormous respect for him; he's an astonishing artist.
Why was the book dedicated to Jhon Balance (of Coil), if for any other reason than your being dear friends?
OB For a number of reasons, most importantly because he was absolutely my closest friend, and I feel he would've adored the book. I'm sure, had he been alive, that he would've very much wanted to be involved, although he never really collected photography. That same year we also dedicated our Cyclobe album, Wounded Galaxies Tap at The Window to him. I think perhaps if I hadn't dedicated Haunted Air to Jhon, I could have severely risked the possibility of him manifesting in the form of a screaming poltergeist! I'm certain he would've been in a fury if I hadn't. We both shared very similar obsessions, fascinations with unusual artifacts. We spent many hours hunting together around early-morning street markets in London, Covent Garden, Brick Lane, and around London's auction houses as well, down the old Lots Road in Chelsea. It felt absolutely right that Haunted Air should be dedicated to him. A bouquet of spectres, a family of revenants for my ghost brother.
Any news that you'd like to share regarding Cyclobe?
OB We're working on a number of projects. We're soon to release a soundtrack album of music we composed for three short films by the artist, filmmaker and queer activist Derek Jarman, called Sulphur-Tarot-Garden. We have a 12" EP of new recordings we'll also be releasing on Phantomcode by the end of the year focusing on music composed for hurdy gurdy, voice and border pipes. We'll also be making an announcement soon about our fourth concert in 15 years, which will be held early in the new year in Europe – we can't say anymore that that! The next full length Cyclobe album, though, is due to be released in the Summer of 2014.
"Human creatures with the feeling of being turned strange and open to falling. And glee—they seemed to have a glee for somehow stitching a laugh to darkness." —David Lynch