Retrospect.

 

Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.               (Calvino, 1997, p. 16).

 

Looking backward can so easily be cast as sickly sentimentality or self-involved navel gazing. Somehow the word ‘memory’ has come to imply a romanticising of the past. We forget that it’s not synonymous with nostalgia.

Some revisiting of the past is like sticking a finger into an old wound. Memory also consists of those things we long to forget, but somehow can’t quite. Sometimes I think I prefer other people’s memories.

Despite that, memory is the backbone of the cities we build for ourselves. It is what it is, a set of signifiers that we choose to interpret sometimes this way, sometimes that. Like sand it shifts, it can sift through fingers, and it can settle, pack tight and form a foundation.

Memories themselves are smokescreens. They don’t matter. They are the things on which we construct our stories.

 

 

(Stories matter).

Main Catalogue text

There’s a story that Pliny tells about the Corinthian potter Butades, and his daughter Kora. Kora’s lover is about to leave her for a time, and she is compelled to capture his silhouette. This story is used by Pliny to describe the origins of painting and of relief sculpture (Kora’s silhouette is then appropriated by Butades as he presses clay to it and turns it into something else), but it is also, more obviously, a story about drawing. Moreover it is a story about traces, shadows and haunting. What Kora does is depict something that is fleeting and distorted, a shadow, and does so in the most immediate way she can. Her impetus is not to create a portrait of her lover, but to capture a silhouette he has temporarily cast on the wall. In order to do so she must turn her back on her lover while he is still present, and reduce him to an outline. In the act of copying his shadow she holds on to her lover in a way she already realises is tenuous. The very act of drawing his shadow is a recognition of her understanding of the implication of absence.

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Parallel Text (from MFA catalogue)

Having heard, for the first time, that my adventures have been doubted, and looked upon as jokes, I feel bound to come forward and vindicate my character for veracity, by paying three shillings at the Mansion House of this great city for the affidavits hereto appended.  

This I have been forced into in regard of my own honour, although I have retired for many years from public and private life; and I hope that this, my last edition, will place me in a proper light with my readers.

– R. E. Raspe

Singular travels, campaigns and adventures of Baron Munchausen

 

1780

The Marquis de Sade, an infamous French aristocrat, spent just over a decade in the 1780s imprisoned on charges related to his violent sexual fantasies. He was held at the Chateau de Vincennes and the Bastille before finally being transferred to the insane Asylum at Charenton.

While imprisoned de Sade wrote the novella Justine. It tells the story of a girl who is orphaned at the impressionable age of twelve, when she and her older sister Juliette must learn to make their own way in the world. After they part company Juliette is quickly corrupted, but becomes worldly and is ultimately rewarded with riches and happiness. Justine, determined to be virtuous, is subjected to a series of misfortunes, betrayals and assaults. She is briefly reunited with her sister before she is eventually stuck by lightning and dies.

After the French Revolution de Sade enjoyed ten years of freedom, but 1800 would be his last; the following year Napoleon ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of Justine and de Sade was returned to Charenton asylum where he died in 1814.

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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)

All that remains of my childhood

But the effort still to be made is great.  So many years will be spent searching, studying, classifying, before my life is secured, carefully arranged and labelled in a safe place – secure against theft fire and nuclear war – from whence it will be possible to take it out and assemble it at any point.  Then, being thus assured of never dying, I may finally rest.

(Boltanski, 2006, p. 25).

Circular logic… or something to do with drawing circles.

In 2009, on a brief trip to London I visited the Science Museum where two things made a lasting impression on me: Charles Babbage’s brain (or half of it), and a pantograph.

C Babbage brain

Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) is largely credited as being the father of computers, due to his invention of the Difference Engine, which was basically an enormous mechanical calculator, and the Analytical Engine, which was a more refined machine that was programmable. He never actually completed a machine, but subsequent engines built from his plans, using technology that would have been available to him were made and work! (Science Museum, 2014). When Babbage died his brain was removed in an attempt to sate Victorian curiosity about what made him so smart, and half of it sits in a jar in the Science museum. It was my first encounter with a preserved brain.

Also on display at that time was a Pantograph, and it fascinated me with its ingenious simplicity. Struck with enthusiasm I was determined to come home and make my own, but as it happened it got stored for later in my own brain and largely forgotten. It was only recently through a deeper research into drawing and reproduction that I got to thinking of drawing machines and I revisited the pantograph idea.

Through my research into the pantograph I discovered references to The Turk, a chess-playing automaton invented in 1770 by Wolfgang Von Kempelen (1734 – 1804), because part of the armature of the automaton uses the scissoring mechanism of a pantograph (Buchanan, 2013, p. 21).

Mechanical Turk

Built to impress Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, this mechanical player was a source of fascination for over 80 years before it was destroyed in a fire in 1854. During that time many people tried to discover how it worked, most concluding that there had to be a human chess player cunningly concealed within. The Turk famously bested Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte -when he tried to cheat, the automaton responded by sweeping the pieces off the board (Standage, 2004).

Charles Babbage played it twice, and though he was positive it was a hoax, the Turk inspired him to work on his computing machines, convinced that a machine capable of calculating could, in fact, be done (Standage, 2004).

One of the tricks the Turk performed was the Knight’s tour, a mathematical problem in which the knight (moving in its characteristic diagonal moves) must travel to every square on the chessboard just once. It turns out that there are endless solutions to this problem (although it is difficult), however there are a limited number in which the tour ends in a way that a final move would place it on the square on which it began, a ‘closed’ tour, and this is the performance the Turk was known for.

Knight's tour

Currently on my reading list is Georges Perec’s Life a Users Manual, which I was delighted to discover follows the format of a Knight’s tour (Gidley, 2000). Using the tour as a literary device, Perec builds the story by investigating, chapter-by-chapter, the rooms of characters living in an apartment building – a ten by ten block.

Life a user's manual

When I was growing up my dad was always trying to teach one of us to play chess. Arguably the most patient of our pack, he must have torn his hair out to discover that I had no interest in learning what seemed like endless rules. I remember he had an electronic chessboard that was designed so you could play chess alone. What a melancholy thought! I could just barely remember what it looked like, but with a little research and the help of two siblings I discovered it was called the Chess Challenger 7.

I want to call it the Turk of its day (1970s rather than 1770s), but that’s problematic of course, as it owes more to Charles Babbage than it does to Baron Von Kempelen, being more about technology and less about misdirection and illusionism. Writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clark as cited by Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, 2014). A chess playing machine from the 70s is very old hat when you consider the technology of, say, a smart phone, and yet, I couldn’t even build you a chess machine, let alone tell you how a smart phone actually works on a technological level. So despite the fact we take these things for granted a little, particularly now that chess games like this are obsolete, they really do represent magic to people like me.  Even though the Turk was just an elaborate disguise for an uncomfortable chess master, the mechanics of the hoax seem far more magical to the modern eye than the electronics of the Chess Challenger 7… in fact I find my memory wants to make it more magical than it was: “I can’t remember, did it talk?” I asked my sister.  In retrospect we’re fairly certain it didn’t, but somehow I can almost hear it say “Check Mate!” in robotic tones.

Chess Challenger 7

The Chess Challenger 7: was it possible Mum still had it tucked away in storage? When I asked, my mum was confident it was long gone, probably to a school fair, but as a consolation she offered me a smart leather folder belonging to my dad that housed a note pad and a calculator.

I’ve been thinking a lot about truth and fiction, hoaxes, copies and substitutes, and the serendipitous connections that link this to that. With all that in mind it seems fitting that I should go home to find the Chess Challenger 7 and come back with Dad’s old calculator.

Turquoise Blouse

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)

Memory: A very short introduction

Memory cover

 

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.

 

Two works from January

I wrote this (detail 2)

Justine Giles, 2013-2014. I wrote this in a language I can’t read (detail). [Cut-out and graphite on vellum, 594 x 841mm]

In July I started experimenting with the idea of writing as a form of drawing.  Since then I have become more and more interested in the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and what they mean in terms of art making. The left hemisphere, which controls the right hand (my dominant hand) is a linear thinker, this is the part of the brain where language is stored, and it is also the part of the brain that is utilised in writing the alphabet.  The right side of the brain is often associated with creativity and a more holistic understanding of the world.  The right side of the brain is more associated with art.  In looking at text as a drawing process, I realised that it became a very interesting question of which part of the brain is in control.  When drawing the English writing I was trying to pay attention to the forms of the letters over the words and the meanings, but in the process I would slip between the two modes of understanding, sometimes breaking out of the characteristic almost meditative mood that takes over when I am drawing.  I began to think about the watercolour I did that incorporated German written in a child’s hand.  Because I don’t understand German, it occurred to me that this was more like drawing, however to push it further still I knew that the next step must be to draw a language where even the letters are a mystery to me.

The above work, written in Farsi and translated by a friend, reads “I wrote this in a language I can’t read” or at least that is what I believe it to say.  It talks about Trace in the faint graphite gridlines used to create the pattern of the letters, as well as graphite on the wall that is seen through the cut lines, and more faintly through the slightly translucent paper.  This work also experiments with the idea of both additive and reductive marks (drawing and cutting). It is about the hemispheres of the brain, of tricking the right into believing that these are just beautiful lines, and frustrating the left in its quest to make sense of the language.

It is about not knowing, and never having known (as opposed to remembering and forgetting).

Prefigurements

Justine Giles, 2014. Prefigurements. [Ink and ballpoint pen on detail paper, 420 x 594 mm]

These handwritten book dedication pages are fascinating to me.  The combination of printed words and personal messages inscribed, create something unique.  There are many books in a print run, but as soon as someone alters it with the addition of their own handwritten text, there is only one just like this.   These works are representations removed from their original context (as part of a book) and original scale, but painstakingly copied to the pressure of the handwritten line.  This communication was meant for one person, but in the process of leaving the possession of the recipient, they are now messages dislodged from their purpose, outdated.

In the absence of the book, these become representations of a transaction between people.

The Entire History of You

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.