Author: Spiro, Rebecca
Date published: January 1, 2012
Memory is undeniably subjective. In fact, as Astrid Mania has noted, "The retention and recollection of experiences are among the most unreliable and unpredictable of cerebral functions, and our ability to accurately recall events is affected by neurological, psychological and cultural factors."1 Yet our desire to resist the inevitable and preserve the integrity of our memories - guarding our experiences and discounting revisions and editions - is so ingrained that rather than accept the malleability of our memories, we unconsciously forget, invent, and edit, resulting in a loss (or gain) of detail, a re-contextualization of experience, and a re-shuffling and re-combination of fragmented words, images, and knowledge.
In the work of two contemporary video artists, Omer Fast and Kerry Tribe, three manifestations of this process are exposed and deconstructed, demonstrating several ways we unconsciously access the past and construct a coherent representation from incongruent - or even incompatible - fragments. Specifically, to organize and rationalize memories we piece together available information; to broaden the appeal and significance of our memories we recontextualize our experience in imagined space or time; and to clarify and confirm foggy or undocumented memories, we intersubjectively correlate verbal, visual, and mental clues. In turn, upon finding that both external cues and internal gauges are in fact subjective, malleable, and unreliable, we may acknowledge the difficulty of collating memory with reality and venture beyond a harmonized and structured illusion toward a more collective interpretation of the past.
In Fast's video installation "The Casting" (2007) interviews based on personal experience are reconstructed so that each successive retelling or invented sequence of imagery distances itself from the original source (an American soldier's recollection of two unrelated and traumatic experiences in Germany and Iraq). Although core elements or details are retained for the sake of recognition, memories transition from private to public, prompting peripheral change. According to Fast, this process is analogous to a piece of fruit, which starts with "a hard, indigestible heart" surrounded by perishable "good stuff," and a seed that "if swallowed comes out the other end pretty much the way it started."2 Applied to identity, this theory illuminates the multiple roles that constitute subjectivity.
To install "The Casting," Fast projected two two-channel films back-to-back onto suspended screens, forcing viewers to choose between a "front" and "back" perspective. In The Casting (Back), set in an anonymous production studio, an actor playing Fast interviews another actor impersonating an unidentified United States Army sergeant. In The Casting (Front), the same interview is voiced over a series of what appear to be film stills, but are actually tableaux vivant images that restage the sergeant's memories of domestic scenes in southern Germany and highway checkpoints in Iraq. Viewers encountering The Casting (Back) for the first time might assume that they are watching an exchange between the artist and a real soldier. Specifically, the brunette actor, playing Fast, looks vaguely familiar, brooding, and scruffily dressed (as a stereotypical artist might be), while the "all-American" type, cast as a soldier, appears self-assured, aggressive, and physically strong. Further enhancing such credibility, the soldier's tone is sincere, so that even in The Casting (Front), his disembodied voice is convincing. In this sense, our trust in the soldier is not determined by the believability of his story, but is instead related to our media-based notions of authenticity and character, physically or visibly expressed through gesticulations and/or facial expressions. In other words, analogous to the experience of watching reality television, Fast collapses the so-called "back" and "front" regions of his work so viewers are exposed to and then denied access to a secret world, making that which is "hidden" all the more seductive.
Created by filming actors in frozen poses, these shots emphasize the fact that we are watching an artificial reenactment rather than real-time footage, and in this way Fast rebels against his medium. However, as the footage refers to distinct and unrelated experiences (accidentally killing an Iraqi civilian and a love affair with an emotionally damaged woman), unsuspecting viewers remain unsure whether the images complement or interrupt each other and naturally seek connections or parallels between the coupled shots. As such, while potentially distracting from the dialogue, viewers may overlook narrative discontinuity in order to grasp the "big picture." By producing temporal and spatial ambiguity, Fast not only demands active response, but relies upon contextual factors such as the level of perceived authenticity (of the story and the storyteller), the type of exchange involved, and the role of the camera; and as a result, our constructed meanings epitomize not misinterpretation, but the role of individual perspective and knowledge in the process of formulating opinion.
Given our need for authenticity and the pleasure gained from strategic withholding, Fast's refusal to provide answers is thus precisely why we return to his work. Are the images we see imagined or real? Who is actually speaking? To what extent has the dialogue been edited? When none of these questions are answered and we accept our inability to determine the veracity of what we see or hear, we unconsciously fill in the gaps, satisfying our desire for resolution.
In the final moments an actor playing the artist expresses his interest in the way memories become recorded and broadcast into stories. Echoing this idea, the final sequence of shots involves a series of visual breaks, revealing the constructed, edited, and revised nature of the video. In this way, Fast's work draws attention to how readily we accept artifice and/or representation and, specifically, how media-generated images may influence our formulation and retention of memories. That is to say, upon recombining, re-contextualizing, and collaboratively reconstructing experience, Fast's work suggests that our coping mechanisms may ironically diminish our ability to remember, as we assume that anything significant will surely be documented within our culture of constant exposure to and absorption of media-produced information.
Alternatively, assuming that we frequently share memories in reaction to an increasingly accelerated pace of life - documenting to remember and to cope with the fact that time is irreversible and unrepeatable - perhaps our tendency to communicate is a defense mechanism or a rebellion against modern ideas of progress and linear experience. In the final seconds of Tribe's H. M. (2009), for example, the narrator presents an alternative vision:
What would it be like to live without recourse to the past? To lose the fourth dimension of time and live in the three dimensions of space alone? Perspectives would flatten, and one could only guess at what these signals from another dimension would mean. In this way, time would not be linear and fixed but liquid. Malleable.
Today time is money, and rationalized and alienated "clock time" (born of industrial capitalism and the availability of relatively cheap watches), has created a new definition of time, resulting in a situation in which one of the few means of resistance is by way of art. In this way, H.M.'s statement reminds us that before clocks, time was understood in terms of everyday life experience, in closer accordance with nature, and completely dependent upon diurnal activity. Rather than allowing time to control us, we controlled time. In contrast, today we suffer from what writer, theorist, and media artist Svetlana Boym defines as "the paradox of institutionalized nostalgia, (in which) the stronger the loss, the more it is overcompensated with commemorations, the starker the distance from the past, and the more it is prone to idealization."3
The content of H. M. is based on the story of Henry Gustav Molaison ("H. M.") who, in an attempt to cure his epilepsy, underwent experimental brain surgery in 1953 (involving the bilateral removal of the hippocampus) and consequently suffered from anterograde amnesia, which inhibits the formation of episodic memories. While H.M.'s immediate memory - lasting approximately twenty seconds - remained intact, all lived experience between 1953 and his death in 2008 was irretrievably lost. This condition is evident as the first scene opens with a frontal shot of a bewildered H. M. staring blankly into the camera and then gazing off to the left; however, seconds later, as H. M. responds immediately and enthusiastically when prompted by a female interviewer, Tribe effectively disproves our assumptions concerning H.M.'s mental status.
Echoing her subject's condition and forcing viewers to rely upon their own short-term memory, Tribe created H. M. with a Bolex camera and 16mm film that could only record up to twenty seconds, resulting in a video played through two side-by-side projectors with a twenty-second delay (the entire video being 18 minutes 30 seconds long). Images on the left disappear before reappearing on the right, and based on this disjunction it is initially unclear if the projected films are subtly distinct or the same. However, as explained by Richard Dyer in his discussion of "pastiche," since conventional film is "based on sticking together shots ... to conceal spatial and temporal dislocations and play down graphic contrast," viewers will often conclude that editing has taken place.4 Alternatively, the "double exposure" may be interpreted as a superimposition of two images that are in fact distinct, or as an analogy for H.M.'s inability to bridge the past and the present. Either way, the split screen requires focused observation, and in the process of comparing and contrasting the projections, Tribe succeeds in effectively grasping our attention and communicating H.M.'s experience, shuffling information to create new associations.
The disappearance and reappearance of images in H.M. produces a tension that recalls Hollis Frampton's film (nostalgia) (1971), in which a series of photographs are successively burned on screen, revealing the ephemerality of cinema and the incompatibility of dialogue/text and images. In Frampton's film, as we watch each image disintegrate we hear a description of the image to come (rather than the image we are looking at), and as such, we continuously attempt to remember the description we have just heard while simultaneously absorbing the image. After a number of photographs have passed, however, we acknowledge the challenge inherent to this push and pull, and wonder what we missed while anticipating what was to come. In this sense, both H.M. and (nostalgia) "conceptualize cinema" because, as Ian White points out in "Life Itself! The 'Problem' of PreCinema," "their entire content is the persistence ofthat which is not there (not being looked at, not being heard) . . . The opposite of 'life itself.'"5
Visually, H.M. consists of three components: documented visuals representing people and places from H.M.'s lived experience; experimental animation and appropriated imagery; and reenacted performances of H.M.'s time spent with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, as these categories are not delineated, viewers encountering the work for the first time are likely to process all visual information at once and without discrimination, resulting in a jumbled inventory of H.M.'s documented life. To emphasize that certain content is fictional and composed of fragmented memories, Tribe uses an actor to play Molaison, and historical figures and incidents that H.M. can't remember (such as the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Kent State riots, and women's rights demonstrations) appear on screen as static photographs rather than moving images. In turn, as this visual material is arbitrarily ordered and selected, historical events, physical places, and personal experiences are projected into an imaginary realm where, although they still retain their "realness" and continue to elicit a strong emotional response, they are somewhat liberated from previous associations.
Retold, our experiences will never bear our unique signature or personality, but that of the artist or communicator, so perhaps the price of communicating our memories is ownership. In Fast's video Talk Show (2009), for example, we watch and listen as two people seated across from each other engage in a talk-show style interview, shot from various angles, on three screens. Compared to what we might see on television, however, the conversation is much less an equal exchange, as the interviewee tells a long and complex story in response to the question, "So tell me about the first time you saw her." After the interviewee finishes talking, she stands and exits the stage. As the audience applauds she is immediately replaced by a new person, who then assumes the role of the interviewer. The previous interviewer thus becomes the interviewee and recounts (in first person and as accurately as possible) the story he or she has just heard. A chain effect, analogous to the game of "telephone" ensues, resulting in a nearly unidentifiable story, completely different from the original.
Described by art critic James Trainor as a "controlled epidemiological experiment,"6 Talk Show was originally created for the New York Performance Biennale, Performa, and was staged over a three-day period at the Abrons Art Center auditorium in front of a live audience, involving six well-known American actors and three anonymous guests. Fast chose participants with interesting stories, such as Lisa Ramaci, whose husband (journalist and art critic Steven Vincent) was kidnapped and executed in Iraq. Despite the inclusion of numerous details, the successive retelling of Ramaci's memory results in a barely recognizable version in which facts and details are omitted but authenticity is still assumed. That is to say, as Ramaci's story becomes abstracted, the narrative becomes more accessible and open to interpretation. Upon finishing his account of Ramaci's experience, the final actor to appear on stage, aware that he may have offended Ramaci, apologizes for violating her story in any way. However, rather than appearing angry or offended, Ramaci (who has returned to the stage for the final version of her story) responds with a smug smile, "You had no idea what my story was."
Fast's and Tribe's work provokes endless questions. How does the presentation of narrative - oral vs. visual vs. textual - determine what information is communicated or how narratives are interpreted? How does the power of the spoken word compare to visual or textual evidence? To what extent do chronology, sequence, and repetition captivate or engage viewers? What factors enable others to empathize, connect, or relate to our experiences? Ultimately, how do we construct memories, and how much of this process is within our control? Fast's and Tribe's films and videos do not explicitly answer these questions; instead, their form and content test our inclinations and assumptions. Their images are immediate and tangible, encouraging viewers to substitute artistic re-imaginings for individual recollections, and thus activated and empowered (by this new-found selfconstruction), viewers respond by instinctively connecting the dots, filling in missing information and organizing facts - shaping, rather than accepting, what they see.
Fast and Tribe's work responds to our hypermediated condition, in which our memories have atrophied in the face of increasing reliance upon recording devices and other technological crutches, and yet we simultaneously suffer from a kind of information overload, unable to prioritize or distinguish significant memories and/or forget that which is insignificant. If, as Jorge Luis Borges claims, "to think is to forget,"7 by making us conscious participants in the work of memory and forgetting, these films enable us to rediscover thought - and thus regain our ability to subjectively imagine, to produce original thought.
By foregrounding the processes of individual perception, Fast and Tribe test our ability to confront the unknown and resolve the unexplained based on our subjective experiences. Given the way art often challenges us to form our own conclusions, it might even be argued that they expose the unavoidably subjective and dialogic nature of art. So while acknowledging that some viewers may be initially offended by "revisions," ultimately these films support Jean Baudrillard's theory regarding the caves of Lascaux, in which "under the pretext of saving the original . . . duplication (was) sufficient to render both the original narrative and successive replications artificial."8
NOTES 1. Astrid Mania, "Screening Memory," in Kerry Tribe: Recent History, Catherine Nichols, ed (Berlin: American Academy in Berlin, 2006), 18. 2. James Trainar, "Truth Bends and Decays as It Travels, "Ari Asia Pacific 68 (May-June 2010): 129. 3. Svettano Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York Basic Books, 2002), 17. 4. Richard Dyer, Pastiche (London: Routledge, 2007), 14. 5. Ian White, "Life Itself! The 'Problem' of Pre-Cmerm" in Film and Video Art, Stuart Comer, ed. (London: Tate Publishing, 2009), 24-25. 6. Tramar: 124-129. 7.JorgeLuis Barges, Funes el memorioso (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sur, 1942), 42. 8. Baudrillard, 18, 120.
REBECCA SPIRO is a graduate of Sotheby's Institute of Art in ^don. She currently lives and works in Baja, Mexico.