In an original commission from Trauma Bar und Kino and Fact Magazine, concept artist and 3D designer Hannah Rose Stewart and musician and performance artist Blackhaine present MIASMA, a haunted world of lost souls, abandoned spaces and egregores.
An ‘egregore’ can be defined in various ways. An occult concept dating back to the 16th-century Enochian magic of John Dee and Edward Kelley, egregores were understood to be angelic beings, watchers of earthbound civilisations and the ancestors of the Nephilim, mysterious beings of gigantic stature that are written about in the Hebrew Bible. An egregore can also be understood as a non-physical entity, or thought-form, created by the conscious or unconscious will of a group or community, whose emotional and energetic focus imbues the entity with autonomy and the power to influence. Defined variously as an energised astral form, the result of communal will and visualisation and as a symbolic pattern, the concept of the egregore lends itself eerily well to the hyperstitional meme magic of our contemporary multi-platform mire, a strategy for thinking through the increasingly esoteric and atomised communities, complete with their own multi-user shared hallucinations, that break off as the result of the dispersion and entropy of the platforms we once mistook for a digital commons. For Hannah Rose Stewart and Blackhaine, the egregore is also the spectre which haunts and is embodied by MIASMA, their ambitious and enigmatic multi-disciplinary collaboration stretching from Berlin’s foremost exploratory art space, Trauma Bar und Kino, to the algorithmically compressed plane of the screen. At once a visceral live production and an intricate digital environment and performance built in Unreal Engine, MIASMA is enveloped by what Stewart describes as “socially imbued feelings of loss, ghosts, magical realism and the uncanny in post-industrial society,” chasing an egregore formed from the “architecture, ephemera and history of the working class in the North,” as well as death drone, the Japanese dance theatre of Butoh and abandoned urban simulation as seen through the eyes of philosophical horror writer Thomas Ligotti.
Opening in total darkness, the opening excerpt of MIASMA presented above makes itself known via the dread hum and rusted industrial buzz of Blackhaine’s score, a dark, amniotic throb that rises up from pitch dark waters which slowly reveal themselves, the undulating surface of the waves forming a writhing skin, as though stretched over the crawling, intumescent flesh of a hulking leviathan. Submerged on the other side of this a man drifts listless, limbs outstretched toward the mirrored membrane of the water’s surface, pale flesh barely visible through grey currents. Wrenched up and out of the water, the muffled echoes of Blackhaine’s defiant cry come keening through thick fog, an inaudible invocation that nonetheless transports us to MIASMA’s next apparition, a grey glimpse of a stained beach, framed by the grim bricks of industrial coastal development. “One example of the egregore that MIASMA incorporates is world building in games,” explains Stewart of MIASMA’s opening scene, which is modelled on a culmination of places, non-places, and spaces important to both her and Blackhaine. “There’s a similar building by the beach in my home that was also used as a WWII artillery,” she continues. “I remember similar spaces being abandoned and littered. Each state changes how they are perceived through time.” Understanding her own process of collaborative world building as itself the making of an egregore, a contemporary, Neo-Gothic mode of ghostly virtual composition, Stewart associates her practice with Mark Fisher’s writings on hauntology, specifically, as Fisher describes in Ghosts Of My Life, the transposition of “ghost stories out of the Victorian context and into contemporary places, the still inhabited or the recently abandoned.” In this excerpt of MIASMA, an abandoned beach, the “shallow place, bled dry” of Blackhaine’s macabre utterance, is positioned as one of these ‘non-places,’ pervaded by the kind of haunted stillness that permeates the dull concrete of once thriving ports and old military fortifications, paved over with memories of death and drowning.
“One recurring theme in gaming worlds is that of the ghost town, found in titles like Silent Hill, or in the fact that game architecture sits vacant until the player enters,” says Stewart. “Vacant aesthetics generally proliferate game space. I think this parallels physical spaces plagued by ghosts such as defunct industrial shipyards, old bed and breakfasts no longer in use, or empty playgrounds in the rain.” The harsh whirr of Blackhaine’s score signals an uncanny glide onto the beach, revealing abandoned pill boxes and signal towers, all sodden metal, salt-flecked stone and splintered wood, standing as headstones marking the violent processes of industrialisation that birthed them. Here is from where the egregore emerges, a haunted space of a different kind. For Stewart and Blackhaine these ghosts have a very material presence, the result of post-industrial chaos magic in the liminal spaces of late capitalism, producing phantoms hanging in the wake of the disembowelling effects of austerity and inequality. In this way, the sinister autonomy of the egregores of MIASMA can be understood in terms of what Fisher described as “the agency of the virtual,” a spectre understood “not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing,” a formulation borne out in Stewart’s 3D practice. “Even though the buildings are taken from real places, they are hollow and merely a veneer,” notes Stewart. “In the Unreal environment, you wouldn’t see anything behind any door, just grey. We took a similar approach to the defunct business signage, which we generated through AI tools that rendered this stylised, illegible language. That detail brought out a dissociating quality to walking through a place designed to be familiar.” Suspended in time, as though past, present and apocalypse are all collapsing in on each other, the virtual world of MIASMA can itself be understood as an egregore, a familiar place made strange, an environment that has created an apparition, which itself is an entity around which an environment has been constructed.
In his essay ‘The Slow Cancellation Of The Future,’ Mark Fisher describes haunting as “a failed mourning,” asserting that “it is about refraining to give up the ghost or – and this can sometimes amount to the same thing – the refusal of the ghost to give up on us.” Washed up on this beach at the end of the world, Blackhaine exists as a digital homunculus, an avatar made in the image of a man, left to wander through the ruins of MIASMA, his words echoing off wet brick and cold stone. Reflections on desperation, dead bodies and suicidal thoughts are shot through with void noise and creeping tension, vivid images of heels dug in dirt, a spade dug into sand. “Tide’s keeping me awake,” he mutters under his breath, “been numb to the waves, let me dance let me dance let me dance.” Drawing on Stewart’s imagery, which for Blackhaine evokes “Blackpool, another hotel room,” the artist uses MIASMA as space to reckon with personal demons in a motion capture performance he describes as “semi biographical” and incorporates elements of Japanese dance theatre practice Butoh. “It came about from an empty resort,” he explains, “it is a situation with both possibility and doomed inside – I chose to use this space as a symbol of how I feel.” Butoh, developed in the years following World War II, is a discipline that by its very nature evades definition, drawing from taboo and modelled on movement under duress or pain as an aggressive response to bourgeoise refinement. One of its pioneers, Tatsumi Hijikata, described it as a “turn away from the Western styles of dance, ballet and modern,” intended to evoke “the natural movements” of working class people. Assimilated into Blackhaine’s iconoclastic movement practice, Butoh serves as a cathartic expression of raw emotion, his violent, primal movement translated in staccato animation and virtual glitch. Bent double with rage, contorted with pain, hands and fingers twitching with rigor mortis tension, the Blackhaine avatar is pinned under the collective weight of MIASMA, neither entity able to give up the ghost.
“The movements were not captured entirely by the computer,” notes Stewart. “For me, Tom’s approach ascribed a certain possessed quality to the character on screen, which helped emphasise the feelings we were looking to capture in the work.” As iron lung bass and harsh percussive scrapes beat out a slow, funereal pulse, rock formations shrouded in smog swinging past, Blackhaine’s intonations become more urgent, eerie ambient wails glancing off his words as he breathes: “got me hung up on this wire.” The oceans turning turbulent, his naked appeal churning the waters around MIASMA’s rocks, his visions become apocalyptic (“I’m the only one alive in these streets”), glacial synths staking his stream-of-conscious prayer of pain into the sand, delivered at once inward and outward, the voice of MIASMA, channelled through the collective smog of generational trauma and malaise from which the egregore emerges. “Through the virtual and the choreographic, MIASMA autopsies the post-industrial urban corpse, carves out and meditates on its wounds in unparalleled catharsis,” concludes Stewart, “an embrace with a dark simulacrum that’s intimate, melancholic and abrasive.” Parsing through the entrails of this non-place, one of many sites of the most egregious hollowing out via the tentacles of capital, we can catch glimpses of its true nature, shards of mirrored glass protruding from internal organs, glinting back the familiar from within the abject flesh of the haunted. “We must also recognise the extent to which the capitalist dystopia of 21st Century culture is not something that was simply imposed on us,” writes Fisher. “It was built out of our captured desires.” From a now empty chest cavity there springs a new entity, an intoxicating miasma, a cold and empty portrait of our captured desires shone back at us, presented as abandoned architecture for us to chase ourselves through. In this contemporary Gothic mode the present is irrevocably ruptured by the eternal creep of the past, all signs of life extracted, leaving Hannah Rose Stewart to map its ruined landscape and Blackhaine the only one left alive to speak its name. With no glimmer of hope, no room for optimism, each artist is compelled to share this emptiness with each other, as well as with us. “Being able to talk about a shared experience is a form of solidarity,” asserts Stewart.
MIASMA was originally performed at and commissioned by Trauma Bar und Kino, curated by Madalina Stanescu and featuring music from Rainy Miller and Croww. The above excerpt is a new commission from Fact, elements of which were presented in Issue 04 of Fact Magazine alongside original poetry from Blackhaine.
Video, installation, & performance Presented at Trauma Bar und Kino on October 12, 2022.
Curated by Madalina Stanescu
Credits – Hannah Rose Stewart & Blackhaine
Photo Credit – Lengua
Principal Filmography, Production UE5 – Filip Setmanuk
Editor – Marco Stoltze
Motion Capture – Samuel Capps
MOCAP Cleanup – Anastasia Holumbovska
3D Asset Creation – Lucas Hadjam
Lighting Design – Felix Ward
Music Production – Rainy Miller
Music Production – Croww
Choreographic Performance – Louis Ellis
Graphic Design – Jordi Theler
Special thanks to Kyle Van Horn & The Trauma Bar und Kino team
Watch next: Fact Residency – Blackhaine