The phantasmagoria was a form of entertainment popular in the late eighteenth century in which mobile magic lanterns were used to project fantastic images that conjured ghosts and demons. At the time, many viewers believed they were witnessing genuine necromancy, the spectral, flickering projection surface functioning as an interface between the living and the dead. Nomadic lanternistes also disseminated the news via their portable projections. The Magic Lantern, 2019–22, a film-based installation by French Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili, delves into the dual origins of cinema, which emerged at once as a form of entertainment and a tool for mass education—and, by extension, emancipation.
At times, these two often divergent tendencies intersected. In 1798, the film tells us, the phantascope (a film projection machine) brought George-Jacques Danton, beheaded in 1794, back from the grave, affording bereaved citizens an opportunity to both mourn and channel fallen revolutionaries. Étienne-Gaspard Robert, alias “Robertson,” patented an optical stage in the crumbling Couvent des Capucins, on which he made ghosts appear, awing his audiences until French police shut down the shows.
The sight of a ghost, according to literary theorist Sladja Blažan, always exposes the entanglements of horror and history, which is perhaps another way of saying that the past often haunts us with demands we find difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill. The Magic Lantern is a film about haunting as an inherent characteristic of cinema, and the ways through which the history of the moving image is entwined with the quest for social change, with every failed revolution littered with discarded or discontinued optical technologies. Whereas the phantascope channeled the ghosts of the French Revolution (which still haunt Western political theory), Khalili’s Sony Porta-Pak camera channels Swiss documentary-video maker Carole Roussopoulos, summoning the undertheorized histories of anticolonial struggles.
It was Jean Genet who persuaded Roussopoulos to buy a Porta-Pak camera with her severance pay from Vogue. The first video she shot with it was Jean Genet parle d’Angela Davis (Jean Genet Talks About Angela Davis), 1970, which showed Genet denouncing the US justice system in the wake of Davis’s arrest. The following year Roussopoulos filmed Le F.H.A.R., its title deploying an acronym for Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire (Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action). During Black September, a conflict between the Jordanian Armed Forces and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), King Hussein of Jordan ordered the shelling of Amman and Irbid. Roussopoulos recorded the survivors of the napalm attacks for her video Hussein, le Néron d’Amman (Hussein, the Nero of Amman), 1970. When Le Néron d’Amman began to circulate, Roussopoulos and her collective, Vidéo Out, were contacted by Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther Party’s exiled minister of information who had founded its international section in Algiers. Cleaver wanted to learn how to use this “revolutionary machine for revolutionaries” in order to “produce our own information” free from dependence on “other people’s cameras.” The early portable-video technology provided the tools for exploring counterhistories and anticolonial subjectivities, but, paradoxically, Le Néron d’Amman’s wide circulation led to its erasure, as the tape—the only extant copy—eventually deteriorated from wear and tear. In Magic Lantern we see the few remaining stills, which survived because they were included in Roussopoulos’s Munich, 1972. The Magic Lantern calls them spectral images—ghosts, if you will—who make once-lost histories reappear, even if fleetingly.
Here, as is often the case in Khalili’s work, the method becomes the content: Montage approximates a forked temporality that scrambles the polarity between nostalgia and militancy. Temporal and spatial ellipses conjure a multitude of ghosts that haunt both the history of cinema and, perhaps more importantly, the history of revolution and, by way of their haunting (to paraphrase sociologist Avery Gordon), demand our engagement, our commitment, or at least our attention. For Khalili as for Jacques Derrida, the ghost is not just a revenant but also an arrivant who undoes linear time by arriving uninvited from the future to unsettle the past.