“The photograph functions for us not so much as a document but as the reminder of our nearly lost sense that the world possesses hermetic meanings.”1
“…Antonio realized that photographing photographs was the only course that he had left – or rather, the true course he had obscurely been seeking all this time.”2
Photography is a medium present in virtually all aspects of life. It has a manifold relationship to memory and historical experience. As an artistic medium in its own right it has a complex history, and it has always been intimately related to art history. Photographs are records and as such they have an important memory function, but precisely as records they are intimately linked to forgetting. Photographic records cannot be said to be memories, but images that prompt memories. In order to have a memory function for us, they require an act of animation by our gaze. While records are stable or fixed inscription, memory is a dynamic process and it constantly edits and modulates itself. Accumulations of photographic images have multiple potentials to have a life after they fulfil their documentary or archival function. With the passing of time the link to the referent they record is gradually lost, and they become photographic ruins or visual surfaces that lend themselves to multiple interpretations and operations.
On another level, photography as a mass-medium, as theorists as Siegfried Kracauer have argued, has an amnesiac aspect.3 If we consider photographic images as records, a different model of memory comes to mind. Thomas Elsaesser has argued that records, and machine memory, carry a resemblance to traumatic memory.4 On the other hand, some trauma theorists speak of traumatic memory by using vocabulary that belongs to the field of photography.5 They compare trauma with an intrusion of the literal in the mind, and understand it as an indexical trace, a record that cannot be subjectively integrated and transformed into the meaningful narrative of a memory.
I will employ the mentioned aspects of the photographic image in its relationship to a memory function – the loss of referent, the amnesiac aspect of mass-media images, and the proximity between the traumatic and the record, in order to unpack questions related to the redefinition of image accumulations and archives in the works of artists, who by re-animating those, propose different models of memory and ways of historicising. Many artists working in the last two decades involve in their practices image collections of existing photographs, in order to create artworks with and on the surfaces of older images. Such artistic approaches don’t fall into the category of archival art in the sense that they don’t attempt to fix the omissions of history, but create micro-histories of media and modes of looking. They address the question of the temporal complexity of images related to obsolescence of media, and significantly history as both relate to cumulative and entropic processes. Such works invite us to look critically at our own processes of viewing, at the way image streams structure our daily experience, to contemplate our empathy with images, and the nature of historical experience.
The generic condition of photography is that of being a record. Photographic images are “footprint[s] of everything with which we ever have come into contact, the proof that such-and-such things and events must have existed when they were photographed.”6 But photographs are also characterised by a dissociation from the reality they record. The passing of time modifies, and gradually loosens the link between the image surface and the referent it records. In this sense, photographs are associated with a particular form of forgetting. The things and events that photographs register “are torn away from the flow of life and ‘fixed’ in an image that is left-over from a past reality.”7 To forget means to not be able to recall something, or access a memory. The experience of forgetting includes the awareness of an outline we are left with, a trace that suggests, negatively, that there is something forgotten to which we no longer have access. Similarly, the visual presence of many photographs outlines the disappearance of their referents.
For the duration of its history, photography in its use as a medium of documentation, journalism, art, and a mass medium, produced an immeasurable number of images, many of them included in collections, databases, and archives. Hans Belting observes that in its contemporary version the archive is an image storage or the black box of the database “Not only photographs no longer portray the world, but we have decided to move them out of the world altogether, to hide them in the black box of the database.”8 In this sense, image accumulations indicate a specific tension generated by the difference between memory as a dynamic process and records. Photography has the capacity to transform the visible world into “an archive of images” and “photographs are mute remains of our transitory gaze. We animate them only when they bring back our own memories.”9 As they gradually lose the link to, or become dissociated from their documentary function, photographic accumulations acquire a particular image weight. Such archival objects when separated from our animating gaze, and the descriptive condition of the caption, become not an archive of a particular field or a period, but a visual surface with an amnesiac aspect. This applies to a different degree to different types of photographic images, but it is strikingly present in found images, discarded family albums, and press images. Their documentary function is eroded, and if they maintain a degree of documentary weight, it is related to the history of their medium visible as a network of traces on their surface. By becoming detached from their referents photographs also acquire a potential to be linked to other images and to form image constellations. They become a second level surface, which can be associated by subject matter, structural or formal resemblances, contrasts and differences.
Memory is not a record, but it has a relationship to records and various technologies for making records. It is dependent on artificial aids or hypomnemata, which makes it a question of technology. Philosopher Bernard Stiegler argues that when exteriorised “memory expands technically as it extends the knowledge of mankind; its power simultaneously escapes us and surpasses us.”10 Exteriorisation of memory, skill or knowledge in apparatuses of recording and storage poses an urgent question about “the massive industrial development of mnemotechnologies”, which might in fact “represent a systematic loss of memory, or, more precisely, a displacement of memory.”11 In the present various technologies shape lived memory, which itself is a dynamic process of constant ‘editing’ and selection of what is to be remembered or forgotten. Recording technologies don’t involve an active selection, but register an excess of information, and in this sense can be said to ‘flatten’ lived experience. For Stiegler, the criteria for the selection of what is to be remembered become increasingly delegated to technology, and in this sense they “become industrial – and the selection takes place in real time, not through this work of time that is history, whether as Historie (the facticity of “what happened”) or Geschichte (its meaning).”12 Lived memory involves a selection and elaboration “it is never the mere reporting of what takes place. … One memorizes only by forgetting, by effacing, by selecting what deserves to be retained from all that could have been retained.”13 Memory, then, is intimately entangled with two types of forgetting. One is associated with selection of significant details to be remembered and the omission of others. On another level forgetting can be a result of the excess of information a record provides, which can foreclose the possibility of forming a memory resulting from selection.
In his well-known essay titled “Photography” Siegfried Kracauer argues that photography works against the memory image and is related to forgetting. He states that meaning-making and memory processes are based on exclusion and selection and are at “odds with photographic representation.” Records provide excess of detail that offers itself a mere “surface coherence,” which should be destroyed in order for the memory-image to “condense in a single graphic figure that is meaningful as an ornament,” and “from the perspective of memory, photography appears as a jumble that consists partly of garbage.”14 The phrase contrasts the record as an exhaustive inscription with the work of memory, which through a selection and interpretation crystallises the form of an ornament as meaning. While artworks reflect such historical meaning, photography is a medium of repetition, storage, and stockpiling “of elements” and does not achieve the constellation of meaningful fragments, which an artwork assembles. Photographic images are stitched to the present moment they record, and with the passing of time and disappearance of their referent, they remain as mere “sediments” of the referent they once recorded.15 More importantly, as part of mass media, they cover over the world they claim to represent.16
Theorists working in the fields of both trauma theory and media theory make comparisons between photographic images and traumatic memory. Discussing the debate between three discourses: history, media and memory, Thomas Elsaesser argues that we should consider popular models of memory in their entanglement with recording technologies:
…every age or period in human history has tended to use its dominant recording technology as a metaphor for the mind and the working of memory (wax tablet, engraving, printed book, camera obscura, mystic writing pad, all the way to the computer – currently by far the most dominant model of the mind).17
Often we think of memory in terms of storage capacity, sorting methods and technical means of access. Elsaesser argues that this model might provide a good analogy, but it resembles one particular kind of memory “Computers cannot forget: they crash… Though, if we think of memory in terms of trauma and disaster” it might be a “potentially pertinent analogy.”18 Machine memory resembles traumatic memory, insofar the computer is “fated to repeat, mimetically re-activate ‘data’, and is haunted by the possibility of system failure or breakdown.”19 Traumatic experience does not lend itself to narrative memory; it is persistently present, but is not available for integration into the conscious mind. In this sense, the model of machine memory can help us understand traumatic memory, which is made analogous to a record carrying plenty of detail and information, but impossible to render into a subjectively significant narrative. While Elsaesser employs the analogy in one direction - machine memory is taken as a model for traumatic memory, an experience that happens in the mind, I would like to consider the analogy in the opposite direction. Trauma and traumatic memory can provide a model for records and recording technologies. We readily consume records, photographic images being a subcategory of those, and delegate to them a memory function, while they in fact, might be closer to the traumatic, which comes with a particular form of amnesia. Lived memory, Elsaesser argues, or in a broader sense cultural memory is an “active and dynamic, regulated by the need to forget as by the will to remember.”20 The task of cultural memory, then, is to acknowledge the complexity of memory as a dynamic process.21 Models of memory, collective and cultural, have to consider absences and missing pieces, overload of detail and information and their entanglement with recording technologies. In this sense, memory has an important role of supplementing history “by taking it into the territory of subjectivity, individually experienced but collectively legitimized.”22 Information overload, inaccessibility to narrative rendering, as well as, missing pieces complicate the model of cultural memory and make it closer to some aspects of models of traumatic memory. Elsaesser observes that traumatic experience can provide a model for “other epistemologies, in the relation of knowing and not knowing, of amnesiac forgetting and mimetic enactment.”23
Trauma theorists, and discussions within the field of trauma theory borrow words that describe photographic images and processes in order to conceptualise and describe traumatic memory. It is understood as having a quality of an imprint, which carves itself onto the mind, and is usually associated with intrusive repetition of flashbacks, very much like replaying a record. This experience renders the subject as a passive, almost mechanical medium, who registers the traumatic event almost like a camera that takes a photograph, a record of part of the visual world without interpreting, or filtering the experience according to its subjective significance. The suspension of interpretation creates a ‘record.’ Paradoxically, its presence in the mind is characterised by inaccessibility. For Caruth:
…trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature – the way it was precisely not known in the first instance – returns to haunt the survivor later on.24
Trauma persists in time and is related to entanglement of knowing and not knowing.25 I would extend this description and compare it to a photograph that has lost its referent. It is there preserved, kept in archives, it persists as a visual surface defined by a great degree of detail, but its meaning remains elusive and in a sense lost. A photograph is in a way similar to traumatic experience, sensorial, rich in visual detail, and with its narrative meaning being lost. The traumatic content repeats itself as flashbacks, the subject is overwhelmed by an experience she has no access to as a subjective representation. Such experience is a missing piece, or as Caruth calls it, an “unclaimed experience.” With photographs and with trauma, there is something that persists in time. A photograph detached from its referent becomes an image, which in many cases is not possible to connect to a story or a situation. I am sure the following experience with a photograph has a familiar resonance, sometimes one would say “I see it, but I don’t know what it is.” In the case of trauma there is a fragment of experience that persists and returns, but it too, is situated before words. Another aspect that renders photography and trauma analogous is repetition. Traumatic experiences are described as repetitive flashbacks, while the nature of the photographic medium is doubly determined by the possibility to repeat and create series – the photographic act itself can be repeated, and on another level multiples can be printed from one negative.
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Theoretical models of human experience, the mind, and trauma can help us to understand the work and effects of technical media, and records on memory processes and offer an alternative to ways of relating to the past and historicising. Undoubtedly, traumatic experience, and the photographic object cannot be neatly mapped onto each other, but the analogy can be productive in helping to uncover specific effects of photography on memory processes, specifically collective ones, and their role and relationship to art works that re-animate archives, or work with found images. Another important aspect of traumatic experience, which potentially can prove to be interesting to analyse further, is its intimate connection with visual and sensory experience, and not narrative forms, which are mostly textual. In my analysis the materiality and the visuality of image collections re-animated as artworks throw back at us what is outside the reach of the signifier. On one count, they might be asking the question of the ‘real’, and on another, they are asking the question of collective amnesia and forgetting. Yet on another, they might be indicating the necessity to develop other models of memory that can take into account images, and will be more in touch with the traumatic, subjective, material epistemologies. The artistic re-animation of archival material is different from historical interpretation, as it reflects on the amnesiac function of images in their relationship to technical media.
Link to the symposium In the pause of a gesture there might be an echo:
1. Hans Belting, An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 2011), Translated by Thomas Dunlap, 151.
2. Italo Calvino, “The Adventure of a Photographer” In: Difficult Loves, Translated by William Weaver (London: Vintage books, 2010), 52.
3. Siegfrid Kracauer, “Photography” Critical Inquiry, 1993:19 (orig. 1927), 432.
4. Thomas Elsaesser, “History, Media, and Memory – Three Discourses in Dispute?” In: Witness: Memory, Representation and the Media in Question, eds. Ulrik Ekman and Frederik Tygstrup, (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2008), 402.
5. This is a subject to a larger debate in the field and there are various different models of traumatic memory. Here I refer to the theories of Cathy Caruth and Bessel van der Kolk.
6.Belting, An Anthropology of Images, 146.
8. Ibid, 150.
9. Ibid, 148.
10. Bernard Stiegler, “Memory” In: Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. by W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 67.
11. Ibid, 68.
12. Ibid, 80.
13. Ibid., emphasis mine.
14. Kracauer, “Photography”, 426.
15. “Once a photograph ages, the immediate reference to the original is no longer possible. … In inverse proportion to photographs, memory-images enlarge themselves into monograms of the remembered life. The photograph is the sediment that has settled from the monogram, and from year to year its semiotic value decreases.” Ibid, 429.
16. “In the illustrated magazines people see the very world that the illustrated magazines prevent them from seeing.” Ibid, 432.
17. However, the moving image, “the cinema, have never seriously been seen as an apt analogy for the mind, consciousness, and for memory” no matter that “key devices of the cinema …from flashback and superimposition to editing, and close up have a remarkable affinity even to some of the neurologically attested properties of human memory.” Elsaesser, “History, Media, and Memory – Three Discourses in Dispute” In: Memory, Representation and the Media in Question, ed.by Ulrik Ekman and Frederik Tygstrup, (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2008), 407.
18. Ibid, 400.
19. Ibid, 402.
20. Ibid, 401.
21. “to testify to the overload of information inherited from the past, and the sheer multitude of detail, uniqueness and specificity that claims attention, can neither be integrated by the subject (individual or collective), nor unified by narrative emplotment.” Ibid, 405.
22. Ibid, 404.
24. Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, (Baltimore and London: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 4.
25. “…always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is otherwise not available. This truth, in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language.” Ibid.