Tuesday, March 15, 2016

memory disc time capsule

Remembering is a branch of witchcraft;
its tool is incantation.
-Ruth Kluger

One cold afternoon during my first winter in Chicago I took a series of self portraits on my digital camera. It was during the blizzard of 2010, the city was shut down and I had no reason to leave my apartment. I played around with the limited manual controls on my relic of a camera, took the pictures and then stashed it in the back of a drawer. That was one of the last times I used that camera before it completely died. I soon replaced it and forgot about its contents entirely. Nothing became of those pictures; they weren't posted online, made into prints, or even looked at. For the last few years they've only lived the quiet life of data on a memory card.

I recently cleaned out my junk box of technology leftovers. I'm sure you have a similar one: a box or drawer filled with dead batteries and things that need batteries and anonymous tangled chargers that don't fit anything in your house. This is when I rediscovered that old camera and out of curiosity pulled out the memory card to see what it contained. Even though it's only been a handful of years, it felt like opening a time capsule from myself that I have no recollection of ever making.

Seeing these strange forgotten self portraits again got me thinking about how we store and carry our memories, art and culture. What is the legacy of our digital media and web-based selves? Will our granchildren unearth our Instagram accounts in lieu of a dusty photo album? Historically, literate traditions carried much of their cultural inheritance in physical objects: books, maps, recipe boxes, memorials, museums, photo albums. A faded photograph of a beloved family member is precious because of what it signifies and for the memories is preserves rather than the value of the object itself. But sentimentality aside, doesn't a digital picture on a screen serve the same function?

I took a class in art school called the History of Paper. The most memorable day of that class was when a fellow student asked us all to bring in a photograph of someone we care about. He began by showing us a picture of his grandmother, who had recently passed away. He told us about her life and what she meant to him, then he told us he was going to destroy the photograph of her. With a deep breath he tore it into tiny shreds. He then asked us all to go around the room and share our photographs and if we felt up to it, destroy them as well. It was a very emotionally charged day, and when class was over there was not a dry eye in the room.

The point of this exercise, our classmate explained to us, was to experience just how much we value objects, specifically paper ones. By choosing to destroy that photograph we were recommitting the memory of our loved one in our selves. It was a way to shift the memory and feelings the photograph gave us to an intimate and active place in our hearts and minds. It was incredibly revealing to feel how much power and importance physical objects can be and how closely they can be associated with "the real thing." 

So my classmate was talking about the power and significance of paper-based photographs, documents, and memorabilia and I'm talking about digital media. But both are still culturally relevant. I keep all my pictures backed up on my computer and an external hard drive and some are on CDs and the cloud. I also order prints of my favorite pictures and store them in heavy photo albums and in frames on the wall. I'm an object-oriented person. I work with my hands and when I look at art, I'm keenly interested in form and craftsmanship. But what moves me in a work of art is always its content. What a work of art teaches me or says to me is what counts, while its quality, intricacy, beauty, etc is secondary. 

A picture (digital or analog) is a reproduction but a memory is not. Memory is always in the present, an active process and construction each individual makes for herself.  Looking at a picture of my deceased dog is equally potent as a printed photograph or a jpeg viewed on a screen. Either way I see my dog just as vividly and the same memories flood in. And isn't that the magic of photography? To not only stop time but to preserve our memories, to hold them for us anytime we want to look.

What I found interesting about my accidental time capsule, was the encounter I had with these images. Because they were hiding on an old memory card, it was as if they appeared out of thin air. Had they been Polaroids, I would have at least known they existed; they'd be hanging out in a shoe box and I probably would have stumbled across them in a matter of months rather than years. The moment I saw these pictures on my computer screen, I was transported back to that day that otherwise I would probably never have recalled again. I could remember in great detail the apartment I spent a year in, how uncharacteristically quiet my building was that day, and what the snow covered street looked like from my 3rd story window.

Stumbling on these old photos makes me wonder in what other ways our digital selves might jump out at us unexpectedly? Since they aren't physical objects anymore they can go out into the world and replicate and transform and change hands and we'll probably never know. Appropriation and Found Art goes back to Dada and Duchamp's Readymades, but there is now such a wealth of intimate pictures and online personalities blurring the lines between private and public. When I publish this blog post, I will have no idea what future lives my digital portraits will take or how many people might view them in one form or another. And that's really just like keeping a blog, you write about your life, thoughts, fears, hobbies, pets, family, clothes, anything and everything to total strangers but never really know who's on the other side. No matter, whoever you are, I'm glad you're here.

So all this is making me think again about my online self with Arcadian Mermaid. I've been away from my little blog corner lately, and now I'm wondering what to do with it. I'd like to post more, I just need to keep a camera handy while I'm crafting and cooking! I think I'll have a bit more time this Spring, so I hope to talk to you again soon. And if not, then I guess my blog contents will still haunt the internet for years (lifetimes?) to come...

(but seriously, I'm not planning on abandoning it just yet)