Alexandre Estrela's the hauntology of the sign
How does one re-read oneself or look back at the traces of one's own life?
Alexandre Estrela’s Forgotten Sounds of Tomorrow seems to pose this question anew, though answering it beyond the limits of biographical retrospection. As the title indicates, the focus lies on something forgotten, on oblivion, on the one hand, and its reverberation for tomorrow on the other. Nietzsche famously characterised the philosopher as the man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. But is this an ambition the artist can unambiguously share? I would argue that the artist, an artist such as Alexandre Estrela, rather shies away from assumptions such as Nietzsche’s, but he is nevertheless aware of a genuine potential how art always related to a tomorrow and the day after tomorrow as well, perhaps in a more errant way as practice leaves its traces, and certainly by detour, not via the conceptual realm only, but through forms and shapes of time.
Estrela’s exhibition—like other shows of his in the past—presents, first of all, a various set of media. Drawing, photography, video, and sound are all thematised as allegories of media specificity, but also displayed as parodies of what has been conceived as the expanded field. While form and movement are central, time, it seems to me, is more crucial than space in this exhibition. This goes for the historical anchoring as well. Estrela is well-aware of the long histories of modernism, though in 2022 it seems impossible to still believe in any vivid connections to those traditions, at least without some kind of mistrust. In fact, Estrela shows the return of the repressed in its ghostly nature, as an impossible presence haunted by a spectral past that was always already projected towards a future. And it is precisely this temporality that needs to be understood here.
Consider “future”—Estrela’s and that of his work 20 years ago in New York. Is it now not merely a very different idea of the future? Reappropriated from the point where we find ourselves, it is in fact ghostly, present only in an unexpected hauntology of signs. Unrevealed futures of the past become the material of a new tomorrow. Entering the exhibition spaces of Galeria Bruno Múrias, we are concretely and suddenly confronted with a mantra-like soundscape, at least unconsciously, before our eyes take their time to adjust to the experience, from the sonic to the visual field. In Forgotten Sounds of Tomorrow, Estrela works with a meandering effect in between this background noise of sounds and a foreground of visual sensations. The exhibition resembles a sort of graphic, performative, and sonic commentary on what lies in a seemingly frozen past as vibrant potential, what Feuerbach coined the “potential for development” [Entwicklungsfähigkeit].
However, if in Feuerbach the potential lies inside conceptual language, for Estrela the denominator of the show is mainly drawing. In graphic works, photographed and archived urban graffiti, or drawn or written remnants, he reactivates and, in a literal way, animates (thus restituting soul) this potential, developing video works, sculptural displays, and light projections. He thereby discovers a kinetic energy that tells an unknown, forgotten, yet traceable history over this 20-year arc; and this reveals a different tomorrow—a future these works ought not to have had.
In the first space, we see with Lanterna  an appropriation that Estrela already appropriated, when he found a simple sign on a billboard in Lisbon. This sign had reminded him of Simone Forti’s and Charlemagne Palestine’s drawings and their chorographical indication to be reactivated. The nameless tack had appropriated a logo. Estrela appropriated this gesture. And now, as a third appropriation, he analyses what had happened back then on a formal level of a palimpsestic energy. His method follows these layers. Estrela generated a video which is projected on an acrylic-painted canvas replicating the tack. The smooth urban graffiti underneath is overlapped by this video projection. The image is then animated. Three dots follow the gestural course of the tack, similar to how the writing of Japanese or Chinese signs is explained in textbooks with an order of arrows. While the photograph that Estrela took concealed and froze the movement of the tack, the video animation sets it back in motion, replicating the former drawing as process and changing the stability of the painting. Similar to the explanation of Chinese or Japanese signs with little stories, the work reveals a mnemonic system. Form follows a narrative function.
Because what remains in a trace? What can be revealed from a sign? What, in other words, are the forgotten sounds of its tomorrow, and even, to paraphrase Nietzsche, of the day after its tomorrow?
The idea of modular regulation, similar to the controller in a music studio, returns in the works Magnetic Field Prepared for Video [2001–2022], Motion Seekness [2003–2022], and Throat Clearing . We both hear and see aleatoric collisions of points as lightnings. Eternal rules are analysed, parameters are given, and, in the end, they invariably reveal a surplus energy, a sort of transgression of the pattern and the rule into an escalating form. The writing in Magnetic Field Prepared for Video—perhaps a reminiscence of Raymond Pettibon’s late-1990s drawing and writing aesthetics—resembles, in its square shape, a record cover, and plays with the aesthetics of old video games as well. Throat Clearing  adds a coughing sound to the collision, as energy destabilises the programme and the mantra disperses, creating a sonic sculpture in time and space together with the inclined display.
Forgotten Sounds of Tomorrow [2003–2021], the work that gives the exhibition its title, is crucial for Estrela’s idea of ghostly projection. Here, reflection and projection become indistinguishable. Calligraphic principles of movement trigger ghosts in the final appearances. The German language has a beautiful expression for this: “Erscheinungsbild”; we see an “appearance-image.” What is a calligraphic movement? Are its implicit narratives in their formal abstraction, in their histories of collision, exciting, or what Michael Marder calls “energy dreams”?The energy dreams resist in the ghosts, but the ghost also lacks energy; it is an exhausted figure; however, some remnant energy haunts its time out of joint.
Finally, From sound to speed , placed at the end of the gallery in a small and dark corridor, works as sort of schema for the constellation of works as well as for Estrela’s axiomatic, kinetic, and mnemonic method. We see a fade out, a linear void, a passing, but also an acceleration. Sartre had already distinguished the vector from the geometrical line or the Kantian “line in thought.” Every material line is always a vector, with an innate, sublated energy of drawing as process.
Going back to my initial question—how do we re-read or look back at the traces of a life?—a comparison might shed some light on Estrela’s positioning. In 2015, Merlin Carpenter exhibited at Kunsthalle Bern his so-called Midcareer Paintings, reflecting on his promising early career into the no-man’s-land of his midcareer in the 2010s. Forgotten Sounds of Tomorrow, in a way, has a similar mood, but it is tuned in a very different key. Whereas Carpenter [born in 1967] reduced his hyper-ironic gesture to a minimal usage of light and fabric in stubbornly monotonous paintings, Estrela [born in 1971] unfolds the ghosts of his past procedures. He does so, again differently from Carpenter, not primarily as a biographical tale of the promising artist, but as an unfolding of what the traces already contained before he could even be aware of it. The kinetic energy within the drawings made 20 years ago in New York thereby reveals what Rosalind Krauss—back then too—called the “optical unconscious.”
Estrela’s hauntology of the sign relies on a practice that sees in drawing and graphic arts a potential for the moving image, not as a simple translation from one art, drawing, into another, sculpture or video, but rather as a constant return of ghosts. In this sense, the displays, videos, and images of Forgotten Sounds of Tomorrow are spectres of the past and presence at the same time, and they are allegorical, already seen as a past of tomorrow. Why so? Because there is always a day after tomorrow! We could use a term from psychoanalysis to define them: “body doubles,” Doppelgänger, appropriations that had already been appropriated from the beginning, in a very formal sense, pointing to the return of the repressed not in the subject but rather in the life of forms and the shape of time.
The ideal projections of the past become material projections in the present, projected not from the past but instead within a present that is haunted both by dreams and expectations.
Alexandre Estrela, Forgotten Sounds of Tomorrow (2022). Exhibition Views. Photography: Bruno Lopes. Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Bruno Múrias.
Toni Hildebrandt is an Advanced Postdoc and the Coordinator of the SNSF Sinergia “Mediating the Ecological Imperative” at University of Bern in collaboration with UNAM Mexico City. After receiving his PhD in Art History at the University of Basel in 2014, for which he received the „Wolfgang-Ratjen award“, he was a guest lecturer at University of Basel, the University of the Arts in Bern, the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel, the Maumaus Independent Study Programme in Lisbon, and New York University, and he held fellowships at the Istituto Svizzero in Rome [2013-2017], the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich  and the Walter Benjamin Kolleg [2020/21] at University of Bern. Most recently, he published the anthology PPPP: Pier Paolo Pasolini Philosopher [with Giovanbattista Tusa], and he is currently working on a new book on [Post-]apocalyptic Imaginations: Representations of Nuclear Catastrophes in Art and Film 1945-2011.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro
See Stanley Cavell, Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2006.
Ludwig Feuerbach, Darstellung, Entwicklung und Kritik der Leibnitz‘schen Philosophie, Leipzig: Wigand, 1844.
Michael Marder, Energy Dreams: Of Actuality, New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
On hauntology see Derrida’s fundamental analysis in Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx: l'état de la dette, le travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale, Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1993.
See my longer analysis of Kant’s and Sartre’s different theories of line and vector in Toni Hildebrandt, “Die tachistische Geste 1951–1970”, in: Bild und Geste: Figurationen des Denkens in Philosophie und Kunst, ed. Toni Hildebrandt, Fabian Goppelsröder and Ulrich Richtmeyer, Bielefeld: Transcript, 2014, 45–64; Toni Hildebrandt, Entwurf und Entgrenzung: Kontradispositive der Zeichnung 1955–1975, Munich: Fink, 2017.
Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994.