Remembering is mind-wandering into the past. We can also wander into the future, imagining what might happen tomorrow, or next Christmas, or when the Antarctic ice melts. The evidence shows, in fact, that people spend more time thinking about the future than about the past. Nevertheless, there is a natural continuity between future and past, as time glides relentlessly from one to the other. What we’re about to do quickly becomes what we have done -assuming we actually do it. Sometimes we don’t, and when that happens we’re inclined to say: ‘Well I forgot.” Even forgetting, it seems, can apply to the future as to the past.
(Corballis, 2014, p.36)
One day a few years ago my mother took out of her cedar chest the turquoise blouse she bought for me on that trip to Bolivia, a miniature of the native women’s outfits. When she unfolded the little garment and gave it to me, the living memory of wearing the garment collided shockingly with the fact that it was so tiny, with arms less than a foot long, with a tiny bodice for a small cricket cage of a ribcage that was no longer mine, and the shock was that my vivid memory included what it felt like to be inside that brocade shirt but not the fact that inside it I had been so diminutive, had been something utterly other than my adult self who remembered. The continuity of memory did not measure the abyss between a toddler’s body and a woman’s.
When I recovered the blouse, I lost the memory, for the two were irreconcilable. (Solnit, 2006, p. 37)
I just finished reading Jonathan Foster’s Memory: A very short introduction which covers a lot of ground for a mere 138 pages. He looks at how memory works from encoding to storage to recall, as well as forgetting, memory impairment, and improving memory. Throughout he draws on the studies of scientists and psychologists, and gives a surprisingly thorough overview.
Most pertinent to my interests was the idea that memory is not a reproduction, rather the is a re-construction:
Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organised past reactions or experience, and to a little outstanding detail which commonly appears in image or in language form. It is thus hardly ever really exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote recapitulation… (Bartlett as cited in Foster, 2009, p. 17)
Memory is a perception, and as such it is not the truth, only a truth. It is filtered through the mind and is subject to interpretation, and not just a single interpretation, throughout their duration memories are reconstructed many times over as new understanding gives way to new perspectives. “The memory that we assemble may contain some actual elements of the past… but – taken as a whole – it is an imperfect re-construction of the past located in the present” (Foster, 2009, p. 14). We are all aware on some level that memories are not completely accurate, the cliched example being the varied accounts of an accident when there are numerous witnesses, but even personal memories are reinvented whenever we revisit them. While reproduction suggests creating the same thing in an identical way, reconstruction implies starting anew to create something that has already been, but has left no trace.
Forgetting on the other hand can be seen not only as the anthesis of memory, but perhaps also as a sometime collaborator in the the process of memory. There is a suggestion that forgetting occurs in order to make way for the storage of newer, more important, memories:
There are two traditional views of forgetting. One view argues that memory simply fades or decays away, just as objects in the physical environment might fade or or erode or tarnish over time. This view represents a more passive conceptulisation of forgetting and memory. The second view regards forgetting as a more active process. According to this perspective, there is no strong evidence for the passive fading of information in memory, but forgetting occurs because memory traces are disrupted, obscured or overlaid by other memories. In other words, forgetting occurs as a consequence of interference. (Foster, 2009, p. 62)
Forgetting and subsequent remembering concerns our access to the way the memory is stored, whether it is in the short term memory (or consciousness) or long term memory. It can occur that a memory we are not actively aware of can be prompted by a trigger of some kind. So often when we say “I forgot” it is this kind of forgetting we are talking about, and the phrase “I forgot” actually means “I forgot, but I remember now.” Much more disconcerting is the knowledge that there are many many things which we seemingly have forever lost. Although proving this kind of forgetting is much more difficult: “The existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them to” (Nietzsche as cited in Foster, 2009, p. 62). Anecdotal evidence suggests that forgetting is actually a relief, as Foster explains in his recount of the study of a man with a near perfect memory (likely related to his synaesthesia) who discovered after some time that he couldn’t bear to have conversations anymore because of the overwhelming wealth of associations he got from this simple interaction (p. 133). People have a tendency to remember the things that are important to them, and let go of details that are not useful or interesting. It is true that sometimes we lose details we would rather have kept clear, but as an alternative, a perfect memory is not necessarily a blessing.
Justine Giles, 2014, Theme and Variations I (and and and But but) [graphite on paper, 420 x 595mm] Continue reading
The series Black Mirror is a dark commentary of technology and media and its pervasiveness in our lives. Each episode is a stand alone story with a different cast, what links them is a bleak and pessimistic view that taps into the social and ethical unease that exists at the periphery of modern technology.
Episode two The Entire History of You (2011) was recommended to me because of my investigation into memory. The premise of this story is that people have a tiny device inserted behind their ear called a ‘Grain’; this device is linked to the brain and collects and stores memory. With a small hand held remote it is possible to scroll back through your own memory and replay the events of your past as though you are seeing them again. In addition, you can also play your memory on a TV screen for other people to view.
The episode suggests that if people had access to all of their memories, they might be tempted to relive all their failures in horrifying detail, or become lost in what were once happy memories, that in the reliving only serve to underline what we no longer have.
Having a technological memory storage means that you cannot forget unless you actively delete a memory. Crimes can be played back to authorities, and airplane security can check out your recent memory for anything untoward. It also means that through assault your ‘Grain’ and thus your memory storage can be stolen for someone else to experience vicariously.
One interesting minor character has had her Grain stolen, and she explains that although it was an excruciatingly painful experience, her memory of the attack has almost disappeared. Forgetting is a relief. Instead of replacing her Grain she decides to revert to ‘Organic memory’ and is much happier. But the flip side is that she is no longer a reliable witness when she later tries to report a crime.
The main character employs the technology to scrutinise the minutia of his interactions and subsequently discovers a brief affair his wife has had. Far from bringing any resolution or happiness, instead he tortures himself with all the details.
The episode rigorously critiques our desire to record the details of our everyday lives. How tempting it would be to be able to have easy access to the full clarity of recorded memory. It is not a huge leap from obsessively updating social media with what we eat for breakfast or ‘selfles’ taken in the bathroom. Having a recordable memory would be invaluable to police for instance, it would make losing things virtually impossible, important information or knowledge could be revisited easily. But given human fallibilities how many would succumb to self-obessively living in the past? The role of forgetting is vastly underrated.
This work by Douglas Gordon is from the exhibition PREPASTPOSTCONTINOUS with Miroslaw Balka at Dvir Gallery in Israel.
I came upon an image of this work in the latest Flash Art International in an article which bizarrely talks about one of Balka’s works that is not pictured in the article, and says nothing at all about this Gordon work that is.
Douglas Gordon, 2012, 33 degrees of enlightenment [pencil]
The sentences are repetitive, although the words shift and change. I enjoy the way it is lyrical and rhythmic, and yet also nonsensical. The more you read the less sure the meaning becomes. I’m interested in the way that language, a communication tool, is used in a way that causes it to become meaningless. Or, not meaningless so much as less able to be understood… which is not quite the same thing.
Also interesting is that the words are the places where the mark making is absent. It is the ground that is inscribed, leaving the white as a ghost mark… the absence of mark is where the message lies.
Colter Jacobsen, 2013, Holding my breath [Graphite on found paper, 278 x 215mm].
Colter Jacobsen’s drawings are meticulous and combine found images with found paper, breathing new meaning into items of forgotten significance.
Indeed, through a process of depictive doubling, relying on a technique Jacobsen refers to as ‘memory drawing,’ the culturally occluded cast-off instead becomes, for the artist, a means to foreground intense personal reflection. (Akel, 2013, p. 120).
Jacobsen talks about how people are interested in comparing and talks about how copying is an attempt to retain memory (Peck, 2011). Of course the implication is that a memory cannot be held perfect in time, and the charm in his work comes from creating something new, interesting, and present rather than past.
The drawing process adds a sense of dislocation to the imagery, where it is cut adrift from its origins, his drawings defy being pinned down to an existing narrative.
Colter Jacobsen, 2010, Mental Magic [Graphite on found paper, 203 x 130mm].
Colter Jacobsen, 2008, Potential furlong [Graphite on found paper, 298 x 240mm].
Colter Jacobsen, 2013, Rip’s revelation (…revolution) [Graphite on found paper, 300 x 465mm].
Colter Jacobsen, 2013, Suddenly the screens were turning on their people (Stills from Abbot and Costello meet the invisible man [Graphite on found paper, 248 x 325 mm].
Gathering her paints together she looked forward to losing herself for a few hours in the pleasure of painting. It removed you from yourself. She could forget all about grief and sorrow while she was intent on reproducing a certain visual effect on paper. Remembering was all very well – and there had been years when it was all she wanted to do – but these days it was a relief to forget. Forget sorrow, forget the past, forget what was lost … It took something engrossing to enable her to do that, and painting was the one thing she could rely on. (Setterfield, 2013, p. 228).