In the twentieth century, the rise of digital communication, institutional and state-sponsored archives is challenged and contested by individual, private and micro-archives, while personal remembering has shifted to more public and mundane spheres. The differences between pre-digital and digital memory are conditioned by technological changes that empower three predominant features of contemporary communication: ubiquity, emotionality, and synchronicity.
Ubiquity: the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argues that a shared living territory conditioned pre-digital memory, while digital memory bypasses temporal and territorial preconditions in favor of chance encounters and entanglements in digital (social) media (Appadurai, 2003, p. 17). In the past, memorial activity was a product of communities that were sharing geographical and temporal environments. Thus, cohabitation in pre-digital memory was narrated by institutionalized archives composed of documents and photographs selected and organized according to geographical and chronological factors.
Emotionality: memory in the Cloud, the virtual space, acquires new dimensions that affect not only the individual and collective but also the temporal and spatial dimensions of encounters. Institutional archives are challenged by multiple micro- and personal archives, where feelings and individual perceptions are mainly important and determine what enters the archive.
Contemporary micro-archives are created by individuals, and these have shifted towards the privatization of content. The use of widely recognizable devices (such as smartphones and social networks like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter) homogenizes memorial activities, although they are still individually driven. Contemporary political debates are dominated by both the repetition and variation of the idea of “one against many” and the conversion of citizens into “followers”. Meanwhile, the anonymity of social networks allows expressions of anger and reduces complex debates into synthetic “like” versus “do not like”. It is evident that the poor communication of complex problems has prepared the way for the rise of populism, and it might further prepare the field for undisturbed authoritarian governments disguised as democracies.
Synchronicity: nowadays, connectivity and instant communication entangle users regardless of their time zones and historical contexts. Consequently, digital co-presence is essentially non-punctual and it affects the collective rhythmization of the everyday: it is a mediatized routine. Virtually, our attention is attracted by different content, happening at different times and in different geographical areas. Nonetheless, as Martin Pogačar argues, «events occurring at various points in the past appear in the interfacial geography as if it is present, causing a continuous actualization of the past in the everyday engagement with media and creates an endless now» (Pogačar, 2016, p. 101).
Following these considerations, I started to reflect on physicality and the role of exhibitions in engaging visitors beyond virtual communication. The exhibition is the ideal scenario for testing the relevance that collective history has in contemporary society. However, for all the above-mentioned, nowadays the diffusion of technological devices and social networks has obscured historical events, consecrating private archives and family albums. As the anthropologist Fabio Dei points out, monuments and representations of historical moments and societies have been deposed in favour of daily celebrations of the self. Memory has become more physical and continuously recorded in big data that will not be consulted in the future – with the attitude that only what is recorded deserves to be experienced (Dei, 2004).
If international exhibitions (Biennials, Manifesta, etc.) and modern museums have converted exhibitions in connective architectures, Giuliana Bruno on her part says that «the separate domains of private and public become connected, and the boundaries between the two are redefined» (Bruno, 2014). The experience of visiting a show has often transformed the spectatorship, with new itineraries through memory and imagination. The use of space, the redefinition of light and sound are directed to create a public intimacy with the visitor through a persistent relationship between motion and emotion, through the sense of the haptic. As Bruno argues «the Greek etymology of haptic tells us what makes us able to come in contact with things, thus constituting the reciprocal con-tact between us and our surroundings» (Bruno, 2014, p. 144). In this sense, my interest for the physical engagement of spectators let them “able to enter in contact” with the content of my work. For this reason, in my recent projects, I took inspiration from methodologies adopted during the 1970s, using Douglas Crimp’s expression that «works were constituted in a situation and for a duration» and «the spectator literally had to be there» (Crimp, 1980). An artist’s practice can cross different disciplines, giving a broader perspective beyond the time and the place in which the viewer lives, and it is widely accepted that the artwork affirms not only its presence but also a new world, as an encounter that permits us to think otherwise. As Joan Gibbons explains «many artists have chosen the role of counter-histories and/or counter-memories of socially and politically oppressed communities (through gender, political belief or race)» (Gibbons, 2007).
However, we must recognize that artists’ artworks operate ever-changing questions rather than offering answers in a dialectical process where interrogations can move new reflections about the identity of a society in a specific time. For example, my taking pictures of places where leftist terrorist attacks occurred in the 1970s is to create a fictional museum dedicated to an invented scientist whose story is firmly anchored in the last century’s history of science and culture. When I systematize “dream encounters” throughout different countries and continents, I am dealing with cultural artefacts, where personal and public, or personal and politics, cohabit.
Making the intangible tangible
In The Collective Memory, Maurice Halbwachs states that «an individual finds it impossible to remember without a comparison with the memories of others» (Halbwachs, 1950). Similarly, when the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur speaks about the process of recollection and recognition in the construction of a common memory, he claims that in so doing «we encounter the memory of the others, shared memories, common memories» (Ricoeur, 2004).
According to Ricoeur, John Locke was the first theoretician to define the notions of identity, consciousness, and self, introducing the expression “appropriate” to justify the concept of imputations of responsibility. This appropriation plays a decisive role on the path of remembering: with the intervention of psychoanalysis the patient can reconstruct his/her memory and through the definition of the border between self and the other, a comprehensive mnemonic chain is set on the path of oral history and narrative, whose structure is utterly public. This is the process of testimony passed from one to another, and eventually, it can be conserved in an archive, that will permit the testimony to survive long after the disappearance of the speaker and the “first listener” (Ricoeur, 2004).
Nevertheless, re-enacting memories is a process that makes the distinction between memory and history, even though they are mutually productive. As Dominick LaCapra argues, despite the inconstant nature of memory, it is crucial for history, which in turn provides instruments to critically check memory that is composed of testimonies or primary witnesses and sources (LaCapra, 1988). In fact, LaCapra underlines how the testimony represents not only «a crucial source for history», but also an instrument that «poses special challenges to history»: it questions the process of transfer operated by historians and their «acceptance of the subject-position with respect to the witness and his or her testimony» (LaCapra, 1988). The American historian argues that this sense of memory lives in the past, but its interpretation is a point of departure for future positions towards the present; thus, memory lasts in the future. He criticizes the binary oppositions frequently made between memory and history, because they do not take into account the fact that the historian’s job stems from the ground position of memory, which, for LaCapra, is basically the essence of history. However, testimonies need to be tested by history, which can transmit «a critically tested memory» (LaCapra, 1988). Hence, memory and history benefit from an osmotic relationship: history has the role to provide a more exhaustive approach than memory by giving «demographic, ecological and economical overviews» – in particular, it tests the accuracy of factual or fictional remembrance. Meanwhile, memory serves to give the emotional consistency to the events: mourning and trauma, the intensity of an experience, the feel of an occurrence (LaCapra, 1988). The duty of memory in challenging history has been particularly significant in the confrontation between memories and experiences of ethnic minorities and official and institutional archives. Often, authorship of history has passed through the ownership and control of archives. As Aleida Assmann says, the archive «always belonged to institutions of power: the church, the state, the police, the law […]; without extended archives of data, there is no state bureaucracy, no strategy to organize the future and no control over the past» (Assmann, 2010, p. 98).
Thus, questions over the ownership and the aim of an archive have progressively concerned philosophers and artists interested in challenging both the concept of the production of knowledge and how history impacts on cultural memory.
Assmann follows Jacob Burckhardt’s idea of “traces” and “messages” in defining ways of maintaining active the process of memory. While “messages” are texts and monuments and directed to posterity, often produced by state institutions, “traces” are unintentional leftovers belonging to unrepresented and minority groups (Assmann, 2010, p. 98-99). Sas Mays argues that «the art’s relation to archival forms is not simply positive; the twentieth-century Western avant-garde’s antipathy towards the status quo, […] has often been articulated through antipathy toward, for example, the state museum, figured as a mausoleum of dead forms» (Mays, 2012, p. 145). Nevertheless, the archive has become one of the most addressed themes in contemporary art: including either the use of existent archives for artistic projects or the production of imaginary museums or collections as artworks. James Putnam identifies two dominant approaches in archival art: one in those artists that use assemblages and different objects collected to create their own Wunderkammern; the other in those ones that explore «the parameters between natural and artificial materials, by imaginative manipulation and transformation» (Putnam, 2001).
The so-called “archival art” has crossed different disciplines, from history to ethnography, from geology to psychoanalysis. It has always been informed by an encyclopedic spirit, but did not always coincide with the principle of historical authenticity. The process informs the content: the systemic practice of collecting documents or primary sources is the work, even though it remains unfinished. Hal Foster is one of the first critics to define archival art practice more like an “archival impulse” that leads artists to focus on «obscure traces and incomplete projects», which «might offer points of departure» (Foster, 2004, p. 5). Foster clarifies that archival artists producing collections rather than archives are less interested in the creation of institutional integrity; they suggest other forms of ordering. In fact, when Tacita Dean talks about her practice, she uses the term “collection”, while Sam Durant mentions “combination” and Thomas Hirschhorn “ramifications”. All of these remind us of the endless nature of the process. For a better definition of similar methods, Foster states that «a work is archival since it not only draws on informal archives, but produces them as well, and does so in a way that underscores the nature of all archival materials as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private» (Foster, 2004). Mays has underlined the common identifier between those artists quoted by Foster: all of them show a certain tension «between the archive of the private, and the questioning of public archives» (Mays, 2012, p. 148).
Generally speaking, their idea of archive corresponds to the figure of the “rhizome”, defined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their Thousand Plateaus, as a network of “finite” parts, that do not have a beginning or an end, constantly inclined to further versions, and rearranging (Deleuze, Guattari, 1980). As Mays argues, both in Deleuze and Guattari and in Foster, any “rhizomatic” figure needs to avoid fully ordered, centralized forms in order «to connect the unconnectable» (Mays, 2012). Thus, the archival practice is able to maintain a non-hierarchical and rhizomatic form that expands and enables its principle of connectivity. Hence, its territory of work is not restricted to a specific territory. This stateless, ‘‘nomad’’ art creates a smooth space «independent of the classical paths to striation» (Deleuze, Guattari, 1980). In A Thousand Plateaus, nomad space and nomad art satisfy the haptic rather than the optical dimension, offering a way to escape the taxonomic order of the traditional archive. The haptic in Deleuze and Guattari reminds us of animality, embodied as it is by rats and wolves, which in the smooth space the haptic perception to create alternative ways of understanding. The interest of both Deleuze and Guattari for the haptic indicates an antipathy towards the archive, towards its vertical, hierarchical and centralized organization (Deleuze, Guattari, 2007). While in Derrida, the haptic corresponds to the need for proximity, to the necessity of creating a non-mediated relationship with the impression of the document, and, thus, to the event to which it refers (Derrida, 2005).
The perspective of a practitioner
In the last four years, my research has developed to specifically address systems of memory, brain functions, and how the progressive and increasing use of social networks has transformed the concept of collectivity. These experiences have brought me to a position where I seek to define the perspective of spectatorship in the digital era. In fact, I have progressively reflected on the conceptual premises and reasons behind my own practice, analyzing the relevance of physicality and the importance of representation in my works. Recent reflections on digital archives and virtual communication have informed my concerns into the creation of interactive installations in the exhibition space, focusing on the connection between design decisions and concepts.
My practice has turned into the action and process of selection, which involves the operation of both memory and storage systems. Systems of memory can reveal how the human brain tries to decipher imaginary things. The choice of dealing not only with reality but also with the immaterial (something intangible like imagination and language) is, for me, a political matter. How does memory react to different temporal and geographical conditions? How can these parameters interfere in the continuous process of the “reconstruction of a memory”?
Working with primary sources, such as testimonies, photographs or documents, means to interrogate the process of selection (of images, stories, encounters) and the authority by which memories are archived or rejected. My previous artistic projects have departed from a concern with real facts (Italian leftist terrorism, war in the former Yugoslavia), whereas this text will prove that my interest was primarily directed to finding a condensed deposit of personal memories of people and their dynamic evolutions in the context of a collective reconstruction of identity. For instance, Nema Problema (No Problem) is a collection of nine images and nine texts, realized in 2009. It recounts, through portraiture, landscape, and interviews, the dramatic lives of women touched by the trauma of war in the former-Yugoslavia. They are victims of torture and sexual abuse, who were imprisoned in Bosnian detention camps and are now fighting to take the perpetrators of these crimes to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Muri di Piombo (Lead Walls) proposes an analysis of Italian and historical identity, through a series of 50 pictures taken at scenes of the terrorist attacks of the “Anni di Piombo”.
Looking at my practice retrospectively, I have endeavored to understand if the archival practice was more than a tool, if the process of archiving witnesses, pictures of places and objects was the main aim of my practice. To do this, I compared my recent work both to older projects of mine and to other artists’ practices. I have concluded that the leitmotiv of my work is the relationship between individual and collective memory: archival practice is an instrument to discover the nuances of this interaction, rather than an end in itself. Fictional or real memories are equally important if they contribute to a better understanding of our times, and if they can define collective imagination, regardless of their personal or geographical distances. For instance, this consideration is particularly important for the participatory project Dreams’ Time Capsule. It was born as a participatory research project aimed at tracing collective memories and common imaginaries in dream encounters; today, in contrast, it traces social fragmentation as it coincides with political appointments, such as elections or demonstrations. As we will see, archival practices operate in a state of indeterminacy and continuous “rearranging”, in accordance with Deleuze’s and Guattari’s concept of rhyzhome (Deleuze, Guattari, 2007).
A case study: the Dreams’ Time Capsule project
Dreams’ Time Capsule relates to a ten-year-long process-based participatory project about dreams. The practice was produced through surveys of the public that were staged within an inflatable structure, where visitors could enter and inhabit, bearing witness to their dreams. The structure was installed in museums, university libraries, and public spaces. The aim was to create a database and audio-installation in which testimonies of dreams and memories from different continents and generations could be deposited. Since 2011, the audio archive acquired more than 2000 recordings of testimonies in many different languages, during many participatory events hosted in various cities in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. The first step of the work involves the collection of testimony, followed by the organization of the audio recordings, the production of the publication. At the end of the process, in 2021, the recorded testimonies will be returned to the original donors. The shell-shaped inflatable structure is a linen and cotton cabin, hand-stitched and inflated by two internal fans. It is EEC certified and was designed in collaboration with the designer Michele Tavano. It was produced in Piedmont, with the financial support of the Swedish Museum of Architecture. The structure can easily travel inside a suitcase and can be installed indoors or outdoors; it is designed to immerse the visitor in a unique experience of intimacy and silence, which favors the story of a dream and its audio recording by a directional microphone. I imagined the structure conceiving a small passage that forces the visitors to move and adapt their bodies to the narrow aperture. Similar to a tent, the entrance had an L-shaped zipper opening, located on the single layer area of the membrane. The door was 20 cm high from the floor, and required the donor to enter sideways, one foot at a time. In so doing, visitors would struggle to enter the capsule and “physically” renovate their will to be part of the participatory process.
The DTC project engages participants to enter an inflatable installation, to sit alone inside it and record their memory of a real dream. This produces an open work where the content is also conditioned and influenced by the contingency of the recording. Participants were aware of contributing to a collective process-based project informed by geographical and temporal coordinates and projected towards a future outcome. In Cairo participants leaving the capsule remarked on the unusual experience of being alone in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The variability of the process determines the continuous expansion of the action: in the interaction between the public and the installation (recorder, chair, and other objects), as well as in the period of registration and in the time following the transcription. The meeting between the participant and the inflatable structure creates a unique experience of timeless self-reflection and projection towards the future. From 2011 to 2019, the art project aimed at creating a laboratory that can be both content and container; an experiment consisting of an archive of the process of oneiric memory, in a collection process of ten years’ total duration. I have already described before how temporal and geographical conditions have informed the art project, but there is another aspect to take into consideration, which remains unpredictable until the restitution of the testimonies in 2021: the distance of time between the recording of the dreams and their return to the donors and the restitution. Being a “time capsule”, the audio-file will be returned to their legitimate donor, in order to give them a memory that is parallel to the historical distance and that allows them to understand and interpret it in the best possible way.
In a recent essay on participatory art, Boris Groys defines true interactivity as opening up to conditions, locations, and participation which contribute actively to the realization of a participatory work». According to Groys, the tendency towards collaborative work «questions and transforms the fundamental condition of how modern art functions – namely, the radical separation of artists and their public». The economic valuation of artworks amplifies the distance between the artist and its audience, because the financial value is always mediated by professionals (galleries, art advisors, auctions). Thus, the binding value of art can be explored only in non-commercial practice. In an essay about participatory projects, Groys compares bodily and virtual participation underlining the fact that the «bodily experience, for which modern art has continually striven, is absent in virtual communication. As a computer user, one is engrossed in solitary communication with the medium; one falls into a state of self-oblivion, of unawareness of one’s own body, that is analogous to the experience of reading a book». In fact, even though Net Art projects and collections made online are mainly participatory, they require a good deal of knowledge in using internet technology. While dealing with the idea of collecting dream testimonies, I discovered many websites where people can report their dream memories. I realized that digital devices make a differentiation on the basis of technological knowledge. On the contrary, I was looking for a system of collection accessible «here and now beyond education, professionalisation, and specialisation» (Groys, 2008).
On the other hand, collaboration in the creation of an artwork establishes a more egalitarian and democratic aspect to the project. It is a gesture that cedes control of the content of the recording and entails a different relationship between the artist and visitors. As argued also by Claire Bishop, this choice «is understood both to emerge from, and to produce, a more positive and non-hierarchical social model» (Bishop, 2006). Furthermore, cultural, political and social conditions that surround visitors during their participation make an additional contribution to the selection of the encounter destined to be recorded. In the time-frame between remembering, selecting, and telling their experience, participants are emotionally conditioned by different factors, such as recent news, personal events and, more in general, their environment.
As with German-based conceptual artist Tino Sehgal’s ephemeral performances, many artworks in relational art constitute “moments of sociability”, or are «objects producing moments of sociability» (Bourriaud, 2002, p. 21). Many artistic projects engaged in relational aesthetics are created to set in context the development of growing urbanism on a world scale that has brought increased social exchanges and mobility. Thus, relational art reminds us that memory is always formed at specific times and in specific places, contrasting contemporary activities of digital memory. In this sense, relational and participatory art are potentially able to give a sense of community according to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of an «interruption of singularities», where a better awareness of political and social conflicts can be addressed (Nancy, 1991, p. 31).
In the anthropological field there is a specific distinction between dreaming as a mental act and the dream account as “public social performance”, when the dreamer tells about his/her experience (Tedlock,1991). For instance, a dream story, in its being selected among many, and in the way it is narrated becomes the expression of individual culture, and representative of one’s own time. Previously, the project traced pre- and post-election climates in some countries that have undergone significant political changes. In 2012, the research project took place during the first democratic elections in Cairo, after decades of former President Mubarak’s dictatorship. People between 20 and 40 were voting for their first time. In the ensuing period, the military government removed the winning coalition only a few months after the results. In 2016, the project was hosted in the Yorkshire area, in the United Kingdom, just one month after the Brexit vote. Listening to the collected recordings, the majority of dreams and wish testimonies revealed a persistent use of the word “anxiety”. The same year, the project was hosted at the Carmine Monastery in Bergamo, upon the invitation of the nonprofit organization Contemporary Locus. During almost two months it has involved more than 300 inhabitants, regardless to their age, gender, religion. Considering the actual sanitary emergency, the restitution of the recordings will have the significance of a gift from a very different time. It will show how self-perception changes over time and, mostly, during this present time of social distancing.
Given the nature of the survey’s engagement of its participants, with an appeal directed towards their future themselves, the investigation revealed personal perceptions about the experience of being part of a contemporary global society. As a consequence, the project represents an invitation for participants to gain a better comprehension of their pasts and actions and it can provide crucial insights into a range of themes, including personal expectations or anxieties about politics, or the formation of alternative social identities. At the same time, the confrontation between recurring themes and words can give us clues to the main fears and desires shared by communities of the same country or continent, and if there are dominant state of minds or factors that condition our contemporary times. Even though memories of dreams will have ostensibly little in common with the convention of realistic narrative, they do represent a combination of historical, poetic and legendary forms of speech, where personal and collective imagination are intertwined. As Alessandro Portelli argues on oral history life stories «The degree of present of “formalised materials” like proverbs, songs, formulaic language, stereotypes, can be a measure of the degree of presence of a ‘collective viewpoint’» (Portelli, 1981).
As we have witnessed in the 2016 U.S. election, and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, the political potential stored in the complex networked analytics of information and their neural analogues is now being fully engaged as an apparatus of control. Data is used to create psychographic profiles and to suggest what kind of advertisement would be most useful to persuade a particular person in a particular location for some political event. Economies of attention and inattention, cloud analytics, memes, social media, and fake news are subjectivizing communication. Could the worldwide wave of populism be the result of forms of embodied and extended cognition linked to contemporary neoliberal apparatus? How can this tendency be traced in contemporary art?
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Eva Frapiccini is a researcher and visual artist who works between Italy and the United Kingdom. She has received her doctorate at the School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. From 2011, she has been teaching as Associate Lecturer at the Fine Art Academy of Bologna and Ravenna, IED – European Institute of Design in Turin, NABA New Academy of Fine Art, Milan; Visiting Professor at the UAL – University of Arts of London, Master of Fine Arts Imaging at the Fondazione Fotografia in Modena.
Her works have been shown in a series of international institutions such as the BOZAR Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels; La Maison de la Photographie, Paris; kim? Contemporary Art Center, Riga; the Arkitekturmuseet, Stockholm; the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, and festivals such as the XII International Exhibition of Architecture in Venice. Her works are included in numerous institutional collections in Italy, among which the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation, MAXXI Museum in Rome and the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art.