Meditations on Memory

So I’ve been reading a collection of essays regarding the use of memory in art (book here) to expand and understand my own use of it. Memory itself is this weird fluid thing that is constantly created, recreated, reordered and reassembled to compensate for perceptions of things and historical accuracy. That is, as a timeline develops, rather than being a linear, rationalized progression, emotional relationships are altered as interactions take place and reexamined through different lenses as that initial established relationship/interaction alters. A prime example to highlight this would be the use of an epoch to define a relationship. An epoch refers to a period of time marked by an event that begins a new period or development; ie an epoch for a couple might be when they first met, their first date, their marriage, etcetera. Take, for an example, a couple who grew up next door to one another, seemingly oblivious to one another’s significance in their life for the first 25 years of their life. They met, and that’s one point of time, and continued to have at least a stagnated relationship of seemingly trivial interactions that didn’t warrant examination as far as either of them were concerned. But, somewhere the timeline was altered along the way, and as their relationship with one another became more significant, aka it changed and developed, it took on different characteristics. Some may argue that the epoch for that relationship was the first time they met, others would argue that it was the moment that significant relationship developed. But how does one measure when the significance began? Is it when both of them first went on a date, or was it a series of tiny moments leading up to their changed perceptions of one another than led to them going on that date? Was it the moment they became engaged, or even wed? Regardless, their memory of one another changes under certain contexts. For instance, it may be recalled that they used to play house as children, or even had a fake neighborhood wedding in kindergarten. What was just childhood memories now becomes something symbolic of the relationship that would later develop when read in hindsight.

Same goes for relationships where at least one party spoke up “too late” or never got the chance to. People are sort of like budding alchemists when it comes to their memories. Things that would typically be taken for granted, like the last words you spoke to someone assuming you see them again, become so much more when the context changes. What was once “I probably won’t see you, so goodbye” gets reworked until it becomes an almost hauntingly knowing premonition of one’s own death. Minor fights become symbols that the beloved died not understanding how important they were. Yet memory is still viewed as some infallible record keeping index. 

I’m not saying disregard memory, but rather recognize it as non-neutral, and utilize it as a source of relational material. Much like language, memory is subjective and a product of construction/reconstruction/context that’s easily influenced and adaptable to the public sphere’s “collective memory” of advertisements, world events, film, television events, etcetera. That is, through media, we are able to “recall” things that never happened to us/we never experienced much in the same way that we are able to recall our own life events; in fact, most neuroscience argues that these two seemingly dichotomous recollection methods are identical when it comes to brain patterns.

What this means is that what I construct regarding my own memory can be interpreted under the context of and applied to another’s. What this means for me as an artist is that understanding my own path through non-linear chronicling and exploration, aka using memory as a subject matter in and of itself, my body of work/practice can still be understood by the viewer with little to no context about my own personhood/experience/whatever. 

Memory’s something that I wanted to work with for my own peace of mind, but also for the duality of it. It’s both public and private, accessible and inaccessible, generic and specific, truth and relative, practical and emotional, symbolic of loss and recovery, destruction and reconstruction, etc

Memory and the remembrance of it is evidence of change (and subsequently loss) not only because of the tiny reworks of the memories themselves as context changes, but because memory itself serves as a gauge to compare to. I say loss not as a negative but just as, as all change involves a loss of some kind, welcome or unwelcome, blessing, curse, or indifferent. As Barthes says regarding photography, “What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once; it mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially”. In a similar way, memory reproduces moments that have only occurred once, or may have never occurred to begin with. And, as Holzer points out, “A single event can have infinitely many interpretations”. That means, in any given body of work with a memory as the subject, the amount of interpretations available to the viewer are innumerable, allowing the work to be accessible to people of a variety of backgrounds, over a variety of locations, with a variety of capacities, over a variety of time, etcetera. And each subsequent viewing of said work could produce different interpretations from even the same viewers. 

Pretty cool shit, if you dwell on it long enough. And I clearly have.


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