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Memory and Punctuation Signs

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Hercules Papaioannou

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Hercules Papaioannou (Thessaloniki, Greece, 1962):

Photography scholar and curator of photography exhibitions and publications. He has published the books The Marlboro Land and the Lukewarm Wild West (Agra, 2009), The Photography of the Greek Landscape - Between Myth and Ideology (Agra, 2014) and he curated the publication Hellenic Photography and Photography in Greece (Nefeli, 2013).

Memory and Punctuation Signs

by Hercules Papaioannou

The relationship between photography and memory has always been intimate and special. And when a medium is being acknowledged for a long time as a ‘window to the world’, how distant is the possibility of using it as a concrete complement of an immaterial memory? In the 19th century, Oliver Wendell Holmes defined photography as ‘a mirror with memory’. Retaining easily an adequate volume of information, photography has, indeed, always been a preferential, analytical tool in the service of memory. As a still image it also maintains certain advantages over accessing and managing information. Memory of course, is being distinguished into personal and collective. The personal memory runs through the private sphere and records microcosm’s cognitive limits. The collective memory helps the formation of a broader identity, introducing through facts and dates, heroes and victims, images and texts, truths and lies, a cautious and convenient narration. This narration, schematic and incomplete, aims to constitute a cohesive community through guidance, inspiration or manipulation. Photography essentially served both personal and collective memory, enabling through time their indiscernible intertwining.

Fortunately, we remember. Fortunately, we forget. It would be unbearable to remember everything and obviously dangerous if we also forgot everything. Too much memory is perhaps, something equally harmful as no memory at all. But if this filtering happens inside the human brain, with a mechanism that has not been yet fully verified, what happens in the photographic field? How to select what owes to be forwarded to the grand, collective tank? Is all that we want or need to see rescued? How many are those things for which, in reverse, a fight is made in order not to survive through pictures and not to be engraved upon consciousness? How many decades did the photograph of Vladimir Lenin on a wheelchair remain unseen in order to avoid the connection between the great revolution and the image of a cripple leader? The examples are plenty, enlightening and beyond simple classifications.

"A ceaselessly updated sea of images is constantly on the doorstep of memory and claims an attention that was not requested"

The forging between photography and memory started a long time ago. We have changed a lot throughout this time. Photography too. The way we organize memory as a capacity has also changed. From a spiritual issue it became mostly a technical one. In the past photography had been widely used to recall real life experiences: casual companionships, festive meals, holiday souvenirs, all introduced a short chain of images about oneself and its close ones, in various ages and periods. The chain was completed by certain, sometimes intense, photojournalistic pictures, as well as some other uncategorized ones proposed as art. Photography often emerged from experience and it subsequently penetrated memory. Today, in the era of vast oceans of images, the opposite occurs: photography is mainly a memory capability without experience. It suggests a distant, impassive substitute for experience, allowing someone to touch anything just by gazing in a detached way and from a secure distance. That happened gradually: while photography began to proliferate endlessly, it persistently related man to things he had not experienced: Che Guevara, Marilyn Monroe, a famous singer’s ‘selfie’, a picture of Nepal’s recent earthquake or one of an exhibition. Starting a century ago with the acme of illustrated magazines and increasingly in the last decades, the unprovoked memory gains ground at the expense of the direct one. A ceaselessly updated sea of images is constantly on the doorstep of memory and claims an attention that was not requested. Thus, besides the profound memory, where the holy and sacred things are recorded, we develop a shallow one, in which fragments of the contemporary sea of images are gathered. How much is this profound and active memory relying on true experience diminishing, while the shallow and superficial one grows gigantic? Of course, no one desires to return to a pre-photographic age. Yet, we witness silently a mutation in which photography turns from an instrument of memory into a virtual reality of things we have not experienced, of people we have not met, of food we have not tasted, of places we have never visited. Thus, the phrase “I have seen it all” acquires a rather bitter meaning. I have seen it all but experienced a minimum. One might say that memory today lies on a wide surface but has not deep enough roots.

"Are we at the beginning of an age in which we construct our future memory out of images more consciously than ever before?"

Maybe, this is a reasonable shift for an era of globalization and increased mobility. But can anyone survive free, without a profound memory? How much more passive is a man’s stance when most of the images he recalls concern things he has not experienced? How are we even certain about the truth of a memory that consists mainly of images? How will the memory of today’s children be like, if they grow up from the age of zero in a thick forest of images? What kind of memory will be formed in a time with such excessive passion for directing and inventing images? What kind of memory is produced by events designed, almost exclusively, in order to be depicted? Are we at the beginning of an age in which we construct our future memory out of images more consciously than ever before? And if we consume a great amount of obviously directed or fixed images now, what about the time in which many images were constructed in secrecy?

"As the level of the sea of images that surround us rises, memory becomes a painless ‘surfing’, while it is continuously besieged by insignificant information"

In the history of human civilization, there was never before such potentially available information. Today, Sunday’s ‘New York Times’ contains more information than a 17th century man acquired in his whole lifetime. In an era of overwhelming information, the constitution of functional memory is an alluringly difficult venture. As the level of the sea of images that surround us rises, memory becomes a painless ‘surfing’, while it is continuously besieged by insignificant information. Insignificant information though, possesses a surreptitious peculiarity. When in abundance, it creates a communication noise capable of concealing other, often important, information. It functions, as Ignacio Ramonet said, as a ‘screen phenomenon’. It is reasonable then for the personal memory to wane while the collective one appears to be in a state of confusion and volatility. Collective memory of course, was never left to chance. It has been always receiving high pressure, as it constitutes the welding material of the narrower or broader community of people. It contributes to the formation of public opinion. Today, if someone wants to remember, he must be, more than ever before, an educated viewer. He should not only participate in the creation, managing and storage of information but also in its critical synthesis.

Recently, for the first time, French scientists succeeded in creating an artificial memory in laboratory animals while asleep. Researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research managed for the first time to manipulate memory: by using electrodes they implanted a pleasant memory in the subjects’ brain. Relying upon this artificial memory, when they woke up they were searching for a location where they had enjoyed something pleasant in the recent past. Scientists talk about a non-invasive method that can help depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr Neil Burgess from University College London remarks that «...the fact that you can do it during sleep is a bit worrying, in that it implies that you could make somebody want something even if he doesn't really». Dr Loren Frank from the University of California, San Francisco, distinguishes the medical from the ‘Orwellian’ implementations where the government intrudes into people’s minds and controls them. It will take many years until an application such as memory implanting into a human brain, can be feasible. Is it though, a perspective about which one should be indifferent? In maybe two decades there will be no need for a criminal or an objector to be held in prison. Maybe, he will be submitted to an obligatory implanting of pleasant memories that will alter his personality. But if science offers such an ominous perspective, doesn’t the contemporary circumstance of image ‘bombing’ lead us to a softer kind of memory implantation? Are we already experiencing a process of memory mutation due to which one can see plenty while understanding and remembering very little?

"If the dominant language of images is formed or filtered at centers of power, don’t artists have a greater responsibility in the enrichment of the modern collective memory?"

Memory is finally, a severely political issue. Although we live in an age that provides more information than any other, issues such as the denial of the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide, keep coming up in the public discourse. We are what we remember that we are. Today, this is conveyed precisely through the handling of images’ language. If the dominant language of images is formed or filtered at centers of power, don’t artists have a greater responsibility in the enrichment of the modern collective memory? Shouldn’t their work reveal the phenomenon itself and drag the ‘unclaimed’ into common view? During this text’s analysis, many questions were expressed; something that memory is not particularly fond of, since the question mark contains informational uncertainty. The complete absence of images though, suggests the beginning of a different relationship with memory. In this case, maybe an exclamation mark would be more suitable.

*Translated from greek by Gerasimos Lountzis and edited by Athina Stathaki.

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