How useful can the Ghost Labs format be in starting conversations and bringing people together? Andrew McMillan talks us through how they do just that.

The thing about Ghost Labs (and probably the thing about ghosts come to think of it) is that each one is different; each one has to be adapted to whoever it is we find there on the day. Partly that’s due to making the participants comfortable, but perhaps more importantly it’s about making sure they have a good time. This can’t be simply an exercise of extraction, of mining things out of local people, holders of their own knowledge, and then taking it away to burn in the fires of academia. It has to be something much more collaborative than that.

Participants discuss their stories

The sessions...

When we were in the North East, we did a session at Town End Farm; we only had a few participants (people have lives, people have lives which mean they can’t always make themselves available). Working with the few participants we had, I decided one exercise we might be able to do would be to map the place they’d lived (either for many years and in some cases all their lives). We spread lots of blank cards out on a table – in the middle, so as to orientate ourselves, I put where we were at the time (the church hall/community centre)  and then asked the participants to write onto the cards their own map of the things they remembered from being younger. So not street names necessarily, but the slang name for the local park, who lived in such-and-such a house; I wanted a personal geography of the place.  I told them, truthfully, that having lived in Manchester on and off for years, I’m still terrible with street names, even in the city centre – but I know where I met a certain person in that specific cafe, I know where my friend used to live – I’ve created my own map of the city which would be no use to an outsider but makes perfect sense to me.

Participant reads through old text

The results...

After we’d mapped out the old area, we began placing new cards on top, thinking about what had been knocked down, what had replaced it, what was still there, and then a third time we thought about the future, what might we like to see there that isn’t currently, or what do we want to see remain.  It’s a very simple exercise, but it allowed (I think) the participants to place their own narrative on a place which often has narratives imposed from the outside, by politicians, the local council, by the media; by doing this simple task we were able to begin a conversation about how places shift, how our relationship to them shifts or stays constant and also how personal that connection is – there were great moments when one participant who’d grown up with another all their lives in the place had different names for the same space. If we are to rethink the imposed narratives on communities, if we are to craft and make space for a new language of moving forward, then it will be something personal and unique to each participant; helping them no longer feel trapped in an imposed narrative they feel they must join in with or be trapped by, but to craft their own.

Participant studying old photograph

You can learn more about the project and the methodology of social haunting by visiting their website here.