The Paranormal is Personal – In conversation with Jason Sweeney & Fiona Sprott.

Ahead of their upcoming dual-project residency The Paranormal is Personal, we caught up with artists Jason Sweeney and Fiona Sprott to talk ghosts, haunting, and paranormal audio investigation tools.

The Paranormal is Personal comprises two distinct, separate, but deeply interconnected projects. Where did the two concepts come from?

Jason: The project Corporeal has been with me for almost a decade now. It was meant to be a follow up to my first feature film, The Dead Speak Back, which deals with a character using paranormal methods to try and access her personal ghosts. Before that Fiona and I had also worked on a podcast project called Download the Dead which was about a number of characters ‘speaking back’ from the grave. So, you know, that interest has been there for a very long time. But Corporeal eventually transformed into what it is now – a deeper and very personal exploration into my own queer personal hauntings. As both Fiona and I had an interest in paranormal investigation – as well as our own 30 year artistic collaboration being marked in 2023 – it made sense to celebrate that with a joint residency project.

Fiona: I suppose my own interest in the paranormal and strangeness began back in childhood. My book collection was dedicated to amateur sleuths, ghost stories and unsolved mysteries. It was a local unsolved mystery of a girl abducted from her bedroom in the 1980s that formed the basis of about a decade in total studying predatory crimes and homicide – both the factual and fictional representations in popular culture. I became fascinated with the notion that traumatic events create a lingering energy in spaces and people’s lives – often in the guise of an absence that is so present it is palpable. What is the nature of a haunting, and what is a ghost? This question led me to explore paranormal investigation, initially to understand how people were attempting to communicate with the dead. 

Over time I have become convinced that ghosts are far more complex. As someone deeply motivated by research as the entry point to my creative work, I had a question to ponder and wrangle with. I also had a poltergeist living with me and I wanted to try and communicate with it – which is to say that a personally traumatic event unfolding in my house was creating a sensation of feeling an unseen presence that was moving things, turning electrical items on and off. I was curious to see if I could communicate with, essentially, the energy of my own trauma, my own personal ‘ghost’ haunting me. It was this point of connection between us – a desire to connect with and explore the personal ghosts using the technology, that made for a natural compatibility between us creatively. It’s like entering a world of its own, and having two people in it, was helpful for navigating and seeking feedback on the specifics of that world impacting on each of us artistically. 

Jason, you’re using ‘paranormal audio investigation tools’ to generate music and text-based materials that are used in Corporeal – what spurred this interest in the intersection of the paranormal and contemporary technology?

Jason: I’ve always loved the idea of tapping into the ‘unknown’ through sound and audio technology. As a child I used to obsess over number stations using shortwave radio and recorded hours of this to cassette to listen back to. When I listened to that I felt like I was hearing ghosts of the past, reaching out over the airwaves – even though apparently there is a more covert intention to them! And so now, with devices such as a Spirit Box (which scans at various speeds over radio frequencies as a way to potentially detect intelligent responses through words that might appear), I feel as if the world of paranormal research is made for sound artists! 

The incredible SA-based team of Amy’s Crypt designed a series of apps called GhostTube that generate spoken words from a vast dictionary triggered by a magnetometer, it can scan internet radio like a Spirit Box and can now also create AI imaging responses integrating white noise. Again, such great creative fodder for a composer like me. It’s almost like the cut-up technique used by the Dadaists and later by William S Burroughs using actual recorded tapes whereby random word associations could be made. 

I’ve been particularly interested in the complexity of multiple channels of input of materials (text, audio, tech, film etc) and how to piece it all together in separate compositions. There is, of course, also Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) – a term popularised by the Latvian parapsychologist Konstantīns Raudive in the 70s which has been used to detect voices on audio recordings. This technique takes patience and doesn’t necessarily produce much for my own research. I also used my own recordings pressed to vinyl to remix using filters and mixers to produce much of the soundscapes for the compositions as I really liked how ghostly these processed sounds became. So, audio technology is a perfect tool for paranormal enthusiasts such as I!

Fiona, you’re using a combination of writing and audio storytelling for Ghost? How do you utilise what’s written in your Journal of Hauntings to inform the audio component?

Fiona: The background to my dedicating myself to the pursuit of an audio based storytelling is rooted in the early days and years of the pandemic. I was granted funding by Arts SA to explore how to create in isolation – how could I reinvent my practice, which had largely been from the tradition of theatre and live performance. I was technologically challenged, to say the least, but I had a microphone, a computer, and Audacity software. I also had Jason as my mentor. The text in my Journal of Hauntings (which are stories inspired by the findings/specific words and results of the paranormal investigations), is the baseline for a layering process I enter into. 

I focus on creating what I refer to as ‘theatre for the ears’. Instead of lights or props and costumes, I am using the delicacy of sounds filtering in and out, the moments of music, the quality of, in this case, a ‘dirty audio’ reflecting a kind of raw documentary of my experiences, as layers to be fed in. I am constantly in headphones and fine detailing edits, re-recording, and using this listening process as my authoring process to ascertain how I can make the experience for the listener as interesting as possible. As affecting as possible. I didn’t want to just do a recorded reading from the Journal because audio is, and certainly can be, its own performance artform and I love the challenge as a storyteller of having to figure it out as I go – and I’m hoping our audiences will be able to offer valuable feedback and engage in a dialogue about the methodology itself. 

What led to you choosing to develop these separate projects together?

Jason: I think there really was more power in developing both projects alongside each other as we share the 30 year artistic collaboration and also the passion for the paranormal. Each of our projects has helped inform the other – plus we were able to initially create a series of Youtube paranormal investigations that can be found here: Abnormal Paranormal – this video series specifically allowed both Fiona and I to visit sites where we had trained or made performances together, as well as places in the southern suburbs where we both grew up. I think it’s interesting also that our approaches take very different lenses to them, which has always been a fascinating aspect to the collaborations Fiona and I have done. For me one of my central questions was: is there something inherently queer about an interest in spirits? So my view on the research was through this queer lens and how, as an ageing gay cis man, I can mess with what I perceive to be a very ‘straight’ approach in the paranormal investigative world.

Fiona: I agree. For an audience too, there is such a richness in the methodologies used by each of us, and the array of creative offerings coming out of the direct and indirect collaborations. At the heart is a shared interest in, and use of the paranormal technologies and mythologies and lore for that matter. Early on we determined that the paranormal is very personal. On an emotional level, our long standing friendship was very helpful for mutual support – as fun as the paranormal can be, the ghosts of the past do turn up… To be honest, at times I think we entered an eight month long exorcism together to confront and send off some of the more troubling memories arising for both, or either of us. But too, I absolutely trusted that we would create a fantastic synergy between us whereby ideas could find full flight and not be restrained by the need to find a singular outcome representing us both. 

What will the process of making this sort of work look like? Anything you are hoping to achieve throughout your residency?

Jason: I’m making a live music performance based on the 18 compositions that I’ve created. The residency will allow me to inhabit Waterside and revisit my own haunted past as a performer, curator and maker in the hall. I want to draw upon past performances I’ve presented there (Hall Monitor, Emission, Masc Confessional, Sentients) and ‘remix’ specific aesthetics and approaches I used in these works – to basically re-inhabit the ghosts of my performance past at Vitals! At the end of the residency I’m going to present a 60 minute performance-in-progress on the grand old hall stage, red curtains drawn and footlights on!

Fiona: I am returning to Waterside after a very long absence but it’s a fitting finale to the project, to be based there and explore the memories and “ghosts” that linger there. I’m focused on presenting a listening experience which encapsulates all the textures of the eight months of investigation and writing I/we have been immersed in. I’d like to create the sensation of entering a haunted house, where the disembodied voice lingers there, trying to speak to those who might be willing to hear. My goal with the residency is to explore how audio storytelling, a body-less performance experience, non-visual at heart, might translate into a live event. Is anything gained by listening ‘together’ in a shared space? I’d especially value understanding more about how to make this a comfortable, and enjoyable live experience for people who are vision impaired or without any vision at all. 

What are you hoping that audiences will take away from The Paranormal is Personal?

Jason: Hopefully to be inspired by the use of paranormal tools as a way to create art. I’m a healthy skeptic when it comes to the investigation of the ‘spirit world’ but I’m also absolutely invested in the creative potentials of the technology that is available as a way to experiment and ‘dialogue’ with entities or energies that may, or may not, exist. Some of the results that can be found using GhostTube, for example, are incredibly uncanny and spookily accurate at times as to make me wonder if, indeed, I have made contact with the ghosts of my life.

Fiona: First of all, I really hope to introduce audiences to the work of Amy’s Crypt! Amy and Jarrad are Adelaide creators, and have been a source of great inspiration for the project. They developed all the app technology themselves so, I’m very proud of them, and that they’re local to South Australia. Overall, I really hope the audience enjoy an evening of thought provoking material, find the methodologies employed by us both to be interesting, and to enjoy the material presented. We both experienced some genuinely intriguing responses and results using the paranormal tools.These are in-progress projects. I’m really keen to have the focus on the process I’ve undertaken for crafting audio storytelling and to generate some interest in further dialogue about alternative ways to create performance ‘texts’. 

Any final words or thoughts to add?

Jason: In presenting the in-progress performance I’m hoping that I can have conversations with (living) humans about the future of the work: Where might it be performed? What kinds of spaces would be good for such a work to be presented? How could it tour? I’d also be interested in conducting workshops for performance/sound using paranormal audio tools! Hit me up!

Fiona: I’m keen to have my audio work/s listened to via being hosted by anybody who feels that ‘theatre for the ears’ might be an interesting addition to a program, especially as it can be situated online. I’m an occasional academic so anybody in the university or education sector that would like to learn more about the making process, to talk about workshops on creating work using a basic program like Audacity, any writer-focused folks that want to hear more about the creative approach… I’d love to talk!

Work-in-progress showings of The Paranormal is Personal will be presented on May 26 & 27 at Waterside Workers Hall.