Wednesday, 2 February 2011

15 minute version of longer paper here for safe storage:

Tensers and detensers; lost memories and embodied traces in the Marriage of Eliza Dagworthy 1915


Like many people I have gaps in my memories, and thus in the symbolic narrative of my life. Before the age of nine my childhood memories are largely without detail. By and large those years may therefore be described (at least by convention) as ‘lost’. As a visual artist and artist-programmer the notion of such an aporia or cognitive deficit is particularly problematic. In the absence of representation what, if anything, can be retrieved, and what exactly can be communicated to others? In a wider philosophical sense such questions of representation and stable meaning have a high degree of cultural urgency. Marita Sturken (1999) urges us to examine the ‘cultural encoding of forgetting as a loss or negation of experience’ (1999: 252). Her question ‘what is an experience that is not remembered?’ (234) is one of the fundamental riddles of my own childhood. Sturken asks us to question the presumption that unmemorised experiences should be framed as a ‘loss of self’, and a ‘loss of subjectivity’ (243). These are critical questions in the context of my own research into amnesia.

Lost Memories and embodied traces is an idea for a computationally based project about the representation of my missing childhood memories. The focus of the project will be to explore the notion that memory is not an exact replica of events but is pieced together in a dynamic process that is strongly influenced not only by past experiences but by social contexts and sensory responses.

A core conceptual focus of the project is the idea that memory is not located in individuals, objects, or social systems alone, but is spread across complex social, technological, cognitive and biological systems. The project therefore aims to develop a conceptually innovative methodological and practice based focus for the exploration of memory.


Proust wrote in relation to the past: ‘it is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect’ (Proust, 1913).

I have not accepted Proust’s assertion at face value but instead have used it as the catalyst for my core research questions, which are as follows:

• In light of Proust’s assertion what representative realm does the past (here taken to mean memories of the past) inhabit?

• If it is beyond symbolic/intellectual representation what other forms of articulation are available?

• Is there such a thing as somatisation of memory, or, less contentiously, embodied memory?

• Is memory itself an idealised notion – like that of the stable, originary subject?

•What is the relationship of time to memory, can we even be certain that a rigidly tensed time exists?

My attempts to address these questions have so far taken the form of generating two artist’s books and writing image manipulation software that uses EEG (Electroencephalography, the detection of the electrical signals emanating from the head) and GSR (Galvanic skin response, sometimes known as a ‘lie detector’) biosensors. The research has also drawn upon Philip Ausslander’s notion of ‘the performativity of performance documentation’ (the title of his 2006 paper), Peter Fritzsche’s paper ‘The Case for Modern Memory’ (2001), and, of course, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (2000) among many other sources, including populist texts and Wikipedia articles about improving memory, losing memory and theories of forgetting.

The first action I decided to take in attempting to examine my own amnesia was to create a book, arguably the reactive behaviour of a book-artist. But in the absence of coherent material what was I to put in such a book? Of course I am not the first person to try and represent absence in lexical form. Georges Perec’s novel, La Disparition (The Void, 1969), is a book without the letter e. These gaps represent, or so we might conjecture, the absence, and indeed, the murder in Auschwitz of his own mother. In a similar vein Austerlitz (2001) by W.G Sebald is a 428-page book without paragraph indentations. The book articulates absence through an embarrassment of riches or non-sequiturs – architectural and historical details as well as mystifying photographs that painfully magnify autobiographic lacunae. For my own book, Method of Loci (2011), the only content I have been able to draw upon is that which is publicly available, as I have no childhood photographs apart from one passport image dated 1971.

The child who looks out at me from that old blue passport is apparently lost to my adult self and to my adult memory structures. In the absence of other materials I have resorted to documenting web-based images of places, feelings and textures, symbols of fragments that have traveled with me into adulthood. These include low-resolution images of a church hall play group on One Tree Hill in South London which I attended in the mid 1960’s, the first road I lived in, swarming ants, black and white kitchen tiles, and Tom Thumb cigarillos, which my grandmother used to smoke while knitting, engulfed in a musky blue miasma. It was in documenting generalized memories into this book that I re-discovered online the old photograph that has become the loci of memory for this project.

The book, with that one exception, is therefore constructed from generalities, which might be characterised as ‘frames’ or ‘scripts’ in the language of artificial intelligence – declarative attempts to logically reconstruct human processes of remembering. These are contrived sets of structures amidst the chaos of missing data, not unlike the lexical structures assembled by Perec and Sebald.

Having constructed a book solely consisting of photographic images, some of which represent non-visual qualia such as postures, smells, sounds and felt textures, I then constructed a second book, Loci of Memory, which consists only of texts, though I have subsequently added a few drawings. These texts represent academic, populist and fictional accounts of memory loss and memory retrieval, as well as my written responses to them. Thus these books represent both reconstructed subjective memory fragments sourced from public data and collective accounts of memory also sourced from publicly available information.

I drew upon the data contained in Loci of Memory to try and construct a morphology of my own amnesia which I do not have time to elaborate upon now. But I can briefly state that a bio-chemical account of my own amnesia is more compelling then the trauma-memory argument. In a study of 10,000 trauma survivors (Pope, Hudson, Bodkin & Olivia, 1998) found there were virtually none who suffered from trauma-amnesia. Indeed my own memory of the ‘private’ trauma of maternal abandonment is clearer than the events that surround it (though never conforming to full a blown narrative, but more akin to an unedited film without a script (Sturken, 1991: 235), in which I am always an external observer). This is in keeping with models of memory that posit (in certain circumstances) the negative and traumatic as more memorable then the neutral or pleasant [3].

The cognitive neuroscientist Michel Gazzaniga has stated “Everything in life is memory, save for the thin edge of the present” (Foster, 2009:2). However, Gazzaniga’s assertion is not without ideological significance and should not be taken as an unassailable statement of fact. When he says everything is memory, this is perhaps an over generalised memory of memory. Likewise there are pressing theoretical arguments for tenselessness that refute Gazzaniga’s belief in a thinly edged present, let alone a past represented through memories.

Serious doubts about the absolute value of time were implicit in Einstein’s conception of simultaneity (1905), in which time is dependent on both observers and on space, thus undermining Newton’s absolute belief in its ontological independence. Hilary Putnam (1967) extended this theory into tenselessness, the counter intuitive refutation of our belief in a tensed temporality. Instead he proposes a transitive and relational coordinate system of unprivileged observers situated at different coordinate points in space and time.

The thin edge of the present: memory and the concept of now

Michel Gazzaniga’s statement “Everything in life is memory, save for the thin edge of the present” (Foster, 2009:2), is at odds with other neuro-scientific accounts of experience, in particular those of Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch (1993). It is also at odds with philosophies associated with Varela and Maturana’s enactivism, including Bergsonian Process philosophy, Buddhism and Nils Bohr’s principle of complementarity (1933-), the idea that items can have contradictory properties and subsequent conceptions of quantum level behaviour and the influence of observers on events. Between them these bodies of thought may be drawn upon to support a conception of human experience that is contingent, unfolding and for want of a better term, always occurring, or entangled within, the present. In Bergsonian terms time is a non-discrete, flowing duration (which is not, perhaps as radical as Putnam’s detensing).

My work with biosensors aims to explore a more process based conception of memory, and to test the distributions of agencies that relate to the way we remember what we call the ‘past’ through what we call the ‘present’ through the body. The Marriage of Eliza Dagworthy, 1915 has become the focus for my work with sensory technologies and image manipulation techniques. But of course an image is not a memory or a fixed reality and to treat is as such is to enter perilous theoretical territory, but as W.J.T Mitchell (Mirzoeff, 1998) warns in relation to the post-modern presumption of the non-naturalness of images, the naturalistic fallacy should not become an ‘unexamined dogma, it threatens to become a fallacy just as disabling as the naturalistic fallacy it sought to overturn’ (Mitchell in Mirzoeff, 1998).

The photograph entitled The Wedding of Eliza Dagworthy is the Loci of memory for an investigation into the ontological integrity of both memory and photographic images, enabling me to test their distributions within both cultural and non-cultural dimensions. The image is particularly significant in light of Marianne Hirsch’s (1997) concept of post-memory, or ‘the experience of those who grew up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth’ (Hirsch, 1997:23). My paternal grandparents, and to a slightly lesser extent, my own parent’s lives were temporally and experientially anchored to the second world war, events were defined as having taken place before, during or after it. The war was their compass point, indeed, I think of my own birth date as ’20 years after the end of the war’, something my grandparents must have instilled in me by example.

The Wedding of Eliza Dagworthy 1915, was taken one year into another defining war, and arguably represents the entangled nature of the personal and the historical, family history and national history. Within my practice this photograph also relates to the performativity and dynamism of documenting events and to the embodied nature of both photography and memory.

The Wedding of Eliza Dagworthy apparently presents a hackneyed trope of yokels in their best clothes standing outside their family farm in South Devon, it is superficially reminiscent of Lark Rise to Candleford (1945) or Cider with Rosie (1959). A quick troll through the world-wide-web will reveal many such images of wedding groups standing stiffly outside English farms. However on close examination only one or two members of the Dagworthy wedding party can bring themselves to present full smiles. Perhaps the subjects are bored or aching, having stayed in the same stiff postures for several minutes? Everyone has long sleeves and the flowers are restricted to white roses or carnations, an indication that it is early spring and that there is an uncomfortable chill in the air? Or perhaps there is a deeper reason for their half smiles. The clothes are not fashionable, the ugly outsized hats are from an earlier era and the women’s dresses are also unfashionably long, indicative of both the economic situation of the family and the fact that the war has been going on now for a year.

We can see then that the counter-narrative of this image is rapidly emerging, and is quite separate from the ostensible theme of a happy rural marriage. As Roland Barthes writes, it presents ‘an altogether different ‘script’ from the one of shots, sequences and syntagms’ (Barthes, 1988:57). But the punctum of this image (that which both wounds me and connects me to it, as opposed to the studium or intellectual content) is not the economic restraint of the situation or the stereotypically unfashionable dress of rural families. It is historical and personal, the knowledge that many of the young men in the villages of Woodbury and Woodbury Salterton are away at war. Those with the Devonshire regiment are stationed in India, Egypt, Iraq and Italy, undoubtedly their first trips abroad. Perhaps even their first time out of the county of Devon. An additional punctum or piercing element in this image is also represented by the absence of my great grandfather who I presume has just died in his late thirties or forties, and by the forlorn presence of my own three year old grandmother, Amelia Dagworthy, who will one day have to look after myself and my siblings after we are suddenly abandoned by our own mother. She is standing unsteadily at the front of the group, frowning at the photographer.

This impression of loss is at odds with the national image of its time, of necessary sacrifice and patriotic fervor. It is at odds with a telelogical picturing of history, as a path towards progress despite wars and premature, violent deaths. But are these false divisions –between the punctum and the studium, the pain of the punctum is informed by my socio-historical and cultural knowledge of what this image represents. I am not convinced the division is real, nor am I yet to be convinced that they meet in a via media such as Bergson’s conception of intuition. (But I’d really like to know what other people present here think about this.)

In relation to the conditions of my own childhood a deep-seated cultural suppression is at play. In spite of the shock and incomprehension that was customarily offered to us as a response to our own childhood abandonment, (this was in an era just before the liberalisation of Britain’s divorce laws) such abandonment is not historically rare, or biologically inconsistent. Indeed there have been what Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (2000) describes as ‘epidemics’ of both infant abandonment and infanticide:

For the past millennium, Europeans under legal and religious constraints preventing them from killing their children have still opted to abandon them whenever opportunities arose. By 1640, 20 per cent of baptised babies in France were being left at state orphanages…..It seems that women's desire to abandon their children has always been underestimated.
(Thomas Sambrook, 2000).

Amnesia relating to children’s experiences is not limited to my own childhood memories; it has deep seated implications for our understanding of the historical realities of family life and the conditionality of parental attachment.

The photograph of Eliza Dagworthy’s wedding seems similarly ambivalent, withdrawing and denying an umbilical nexus, in this case, with the past. However, despite its ambivalence and the generality of its composition, I still recognize myself in the image of my great aunt Eliza’s marriage, and also likenesses to my father, my uncles, my younger half brother, my sisters, and my grandmother. But should I ask myself as Barthes does, ‘who is like what?‘ (Barthes, 2000:100). Am I imagining an identity in these fragments of myself and my living relatives - scrying a ‘truth of lineage’ as Barthes calls it (103), a generalised ‘persistence of the species’(105), an identity that is at odds with reality of this image? For, in addition to my own memories the photograph, like all photographs, in its ‘seizing of a moment always, even in that very moment, assures loss’ (Kuhn, 2002).

As Fritzshe states ‘in this view photography is the very expression of Terdiman’s “memory crisis”, at once creating a documentary record of the past to fashion a sense of continuity and performing the anxiety about the durability and authenticity of the connections that have been established’ (2001).

And yet my own reactions to this image fluctuate; I observe that they are in process. Do these fluctuations point to the contingency of memory itself or the subject who ‘holds’ these memories, if they are even seperable? I suspect the obvious answer is that it points to the contingency of them both. One day while looking at this image I felt a kick in my stomach, a moment of visceral shock. It was not a moment of logical analysis. I realised that we were both, in a sense, abandoned and betrayed by our parents at about the same age, the age my grandmother is in that photograph. So much made sense to me after I felt this, perhaps even my choice to work with this image out of all the many images I had amassed for this project.

What else might my body tell me? Was I remembering or reconstructing? Was this deductive logic, embodied knowledge, or Bergsonian intuition? More importantly, what might my body tell you about my memories and about the nature of memory itself? In other words, what is there beyond a textual reading of this image, beyond my previous exegesis? I wonder if there are other responses that might disrupt my own narratives of family history as reflected in this photograph from nearly a century ago? What is there now, or indeed, is there only the now in which to articulate memory?

Conclusion: Point-Instant, sensing and making memory traces

In keeping with Plato’s Pharmakon my work with images and memory supports the idea that symbolic representations of memory are at once both poison and remedy. At the same time, I would like to test the notion that memory has neither meaning nor autonomy outside of the present. Of course I am not alone in questioning the tensedness of time, belief in the totality of the present moment as Michael Eido Luetchford explains (2004) is a core tenet of Buddhist philosophy:

According to Buddhist thought, the past is not real, because it no longer exists, and the future is not real because it has not yet come into existence. Only the present moment is real existence. Early Buddhist philosophers developed a theory of existence as a point-instant
(Michael Eido Luetchford, 2004).

This is supported to some extent by Bergson’s resistance to the mathematical reducibility of time as an experience, but to instead a non-linear and flowing, mathematically unbounded experience of time or duration. However, Bergson clearly does believe in the past (as well as the future) but it is one that is activated as memory by action in the present.

Again this notion of memory accords it an agency, but can it really hold such power and if it does, is amnesia also agential? My use of biosensors, in the form of EEG and GSR sensors enables me to perform the dynamism of my relationship to my own memories and my embodied responses to the photograph of my Grandmother and her family. I propose that the photograph has the potential to be both symbolic and sub-symbolic, offering a complex complementarity, in this case, that they are both culturally and biologically received and conceived, signifying absence and presence, that like memory they are embodied and dynamic, indexical and generative. As my relationship to this image unfolds the image itself is transformed, when the GSR sensor detects a significant drop in resistance I am shocked, and at the same time the software generates a new image of Eliza Dagworthy’s wedding photo.

The shock to my body triggers a re-imaging and dissolution of Eliza’s wedding, one that is ontologically entangled with its own documentation. Phillip Ausslander highlights the paradox at play in two notable and even more extreme works of performance documentation, Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971), a ‘notorious’ work in which the artist enlisted a friend to shoot him (with a gun) in a gallery setting, and Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void (1960), in which the artist appears to be flinging himself out of a window. My work with Biosensors and photography aims to similarly destabilize the originary event while questioning and inverting the status of documentation and the conventional notion that an event precedes and authorizes its documentation. As Ausslander points out, our perception of these processes is taken for granted:

the presumption of an ontological relationship between performance and document in this first model is ideological. The idea of the documentary photograph as a means of accessing the reality of the performance derives from the general ideology of photography, as described by Helen Gilbert, glossing Roland Barthes and Don Slater: “Through its trivial realism, photography creates the illusion of such exact correspondence between the signifier and the signified that it appears to be the perfect instance of Barthes’s ‘message without a code.’ The sense of the photograph as not only representationally accurate but ontologically connected to the real world allows it to be treated as a piece of the real world, then as a substitute for it.’”
(Ausslander, 2006).

At the same time, the vulnerability of biosensor technology (even medical grade EEG sensors) to environmental noise and false readings adds another element of ontological doubt to the technologies of representation at play in this work and arguably blurs the boundaries between subjects and objects, originary and documenting events.

This is in keeping with my conception of the Lost memories and embodied traces performance / installation (loosely diagramed below). The roboticist Rodney Brooks wrote ‘In AI, abstraction is usually used to factor out all aspects of perception and motor skills…When we examine very simple level intelligence we find that explicit representations and models of the world simply get in the way. It turns out to be better to use the world as its own model’ (Brooks, 1987). But what happens if you try to factor out abstraction and leave only perception and motor skills in an arts context? Not at the level of Brook’s very simple situated robots, but at the level of human interaction with such a performance/installation?

This is the core methodological framework for the project. To participate in this work subjects will be finely calibrated via their bodies to the corresponding state diagram of my own body at varied times of memory retrieval. Calibration will be facilitated via heart rate (using a treadmill), galvanic skin response and EEG readings. I am also considering the use of urine and hormone tests to establish both a biological and psychogenic calculus of my unfolding experience of memories. Participants will experience mild electric shocks when near exact states are matched. The shock will also trigger and impact on the documentation of our corporeal synchronization and a reconfiguration of Eliza’s wedding photograph.

In effect I would argue that this is a type of sub-symbolic time machine in keeping with a detensed and embodied theory of time and special relativity. Whether this type of spatiotemporal synchronisation and performativity is possible, or indeed, is in violation of physical or logical laws will become apparent at the time of its implementation. At the same time the project seeks to explore Maria Sturken’s question (1999) ‘what does the act of forgetting produce?’(243). The project acknowledges the possibility that forgetting is, to quote Sturken, a ‘primary means through which subjectivity is shaped and produced’ (243). I would also suggest that representation, in the form of memory may be a way of separating ourselves from the world, and that amnesia, in contrast, has the creative potential to erode conventional notions of the ontological split between ourselves, others and our experiences.

[1]Available at 20/01/11.[2] J.E. McTaggart (1908), among many other physicists and philosophers, questioned the existence of time, although he recognized the value of tenses, he also asserted the logical incompatibility of the past, present and future. The biggest challenge to Newton’s conception of a stable, independent and absolute time was Einstein’s emphasis on relativity or simultaneity, in which the order of events is dependent on an observer’s reference frame.[3] An anecdotal experience of vivid trauma memory was the witnessing of a multiple high-speed car crash a few years ago. I was with several friends who all reported afterwards that, like me, their view of the event had unfolded in slow motion. As we witnessed one car somersaulting over another it felt as if we could have made phones calls, drank coffees or chatted about the weather before it finally landed and smashed into the other cars. An experience that illustrates the strangeness of both memory and time, and, perhaps, their non-linear co-dependence and arguably the way they are both entangled with our biochemistry.[4] ‘Recruiting for the Devonshire Regiment in 1915’Available at 11/01/11[5] Before relativity the main theoretical approaches to time included absolutists (such as Newton) who believed that time exists independent of material objects or anything external and on the other hand, relationists, who believed time was dependent on physical movement. Conventionalists such as Poincaré, did not believe in an absolute time as Newton did, but were committed to the convenience of a general agreement upon time. [1] Sullivan, G. (2005) Art Practice as Research, Sage). [2] Available at accessed 28/01/11

Panel idea:

More than at any previous time in history, we are continually engaged in the simultaneous living/authoring and reporting/critiquing of our lives. To what extent does the click-here label culture of the internet, social media, and 24-hour blogging prescribe rather than describe the present moment?

First I would challenge this statement, and argue, that perhaps, since the invention of written language, and probably even since our conception of ourselves as subject to a mind body split – that necessitates an infinite regress of self-checking homunculi, we have passed into a state of near continuous self-filtering, self-consciousness and self-representation, or re-presentation. Discourse of ‘the gaze’ (from Lacan to Laura Mulvey and Annette Kuhn) has also described the way in which we, and arguably, women in particular, are engaged in continuous acts of self–conscious self re-presentation, that we our encoded with "to-be-looked-at-ness", in Mulvey’s words. So I would not want to hark back to an idealised, pre-networked past in which we were not engaged in some form of living/authoring schism. Though of course the question of who were being looked at or scrutinised by is contentious and contested.

I like Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen’s notion that that the gaze, which here I read off, to apply to an invited readership, is a relationship, one that moves ‘between offering and demanding a gaze’, entailing a more complex framing of the power relations ay play in self-presentation.

More importantly I would also argue that we need to explore alternative forms of communication that are mindful of the dangers inherent in re-presentation. Any practice of representation is to quote Donna Haraway ‘a boundary making’ practice, representation is generative of an a priori ontological split between ourselves and the world, between ourselves and events. We put the world at arms length in re-presenting it, so, as I hope my paper has made clear, I would emphasise that blogging’s limitations and prescriptions are no less sedimenting then other forms or representation, they exist within a continuum, and that what we are looking at here are differences in degree, not significant differences in kind (thanks to Bergson and Sarah Kember for this insight). In keeping with my own doctoral methodology I would recommend a performative turn in such self-authoring, and point to embodiment (as I do with amnesia) as an opportunity for more fluid, dynamic, becoming.

The roboticist Rodney Brooks wrote ‘In AI, abstraction is usually used to factor out all aspects of perception and motor skills…When we examine very simple level intelligence we find that explicit representations and models of the world simply get in the way. It turns out to be better to use the world as its own model’ (Brooks, 1987). But what happens if you try to factor out abstraction and leave only perception and motor skills in this digital context? Not at the level of Brook’s very simple situated robots, but at the level of human interaction with such self authoring?

I’d point as at Karen Barad and Fransico Varela, Alva Noe, Haraway and Rodney Brooks…to conceive of an intra-active critique – something closer to the diffraction Barad and Haraway discuss as a more generative, dynamic, alternative to reflection.

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