How to build a memory machine

The computer screen glowed in the black void that was the room and the text ofKafka’s In the Penal Colony tinged the light a soft grey. I was alone, delirious from thefever and lack of sleep. Perhaps in a roundabout way I was not completely alone, I hadbegun to feel this the past few weeks.

“He doesn’t know his own sentence?” “No,” said theOfficer once more. He then paused for a moment, as ifhe was asking the Traveler for a more detailed reasonfor his question, and said, “It would be useless to givehim that information. He experiences it on his ownbody.”

A rotten crucifix of text, it hung over my head threatening to pry open my skin. Andyet the moment was strangely arresting like discovering a word that suddenly explainsand expands an emotion you never knew you felt - Kafka taught me the words withwhich to speak of what I have in front of me. Robert Smithson, Roland Barthes,Gaston Bachelard, Susan Sontag, Bruce Nauman, Donald Judd - they made sense tome but they hadn’t taught me a language. Their objects were removed, their gaze hadan outside where what I built had no outside or inside. I was in the machine as muchas the machine was inside me, and I needed it as much as it needed me to function, togive it the first order.

The machine lives in an empty room in a relatively empty building. The room is blackso no light from outside taints the light that the machine secretes. I boarded up theonly window with black cardboard and smothered the last glowing beads with blackmasking tape. Air does not circulate, I turned it off before I built the machine. When Iclose the door, and before I slide into the machine, I can hear nothing, feel nothing,and see nothing. There is a complete deprivation of the senses in the room, which Ihope you realize is necessary as the functioning of the machine becomes clearer.

The room used to be full of things. In it were three small tables, two chairs, and anobscene assortment of loose pages, books, tools and materials. Bolted onto the rearwall were two sculptures, both titled “Papá”, made of unfired clay, nails, and recycledwood. On the longest wall I had mounted dozens of small ikea frames and in these,pictures of Kozaki cavalry. A photograph of my grandmother during her firstcommunion stared back from the opposite wall. Documents, artist’s papers, andpictures of my father before I met him littered the space. I often felt when walkinginto the room that the walls would collapse under the weight of that which had beenplaced on them. Back then people often got lost when leaving the room after spendingsome time there. This is perhaps because the room sits in a tolerably empty building,which in turn sits in a barely inhabited campus, on a desert island next to an artificialcity. Artificial in the sense that everything is imported, even culture at times. I don’tblame it for the country this city belongs to is only 40 years old. But that’s a differentstory though it bears some weight in explaining why I placed this machine here andnot in Chile.

What came before the machine had looked (from the outside) like random and forcedinsertions into an otherwise pristine and empty space. But the making, accruing, anddismantling was a way of thinking. When I began what I now call the Amnesia ProjectI realized one of the first things I had to do was develop a new framework of thinkingabout modes of expression. I was interested in memory and the gaps in memory andhow these gaps are inherited and can be rearranged to create artificial but continuousnarratives into the present. So the first impulse was to mythologize this memory. Afew years ago I was given an extremely detailed horoscope that had been written by aSwiss doctor when I was born. In it, it said over time I would begin to deify my fatherand my mother - I think this is what I wanted to do with my mythology, which I hadcalled Abaddon. Abaddon was and maybe still is the pagan son of the devil. This personal mythology had come together during a summer I had spent in Chiapasstudying the Zapatista movement; I think their voices had a great deal of influence inhow I wrote of myself and my father in this story. This impulse, like most things that Ifirst think about, faded away as I realized that mythologizing history did nothing toforward questions and think critically of this history at an individual level - it servedonly to request awareness through my magnification of everything. It allowed me agreat expanse of expressive freedom while at the same time forfeiting any thought ofwhat was actually being expressed. And so I pinned up some pages of the story ontothe room’s walls and left them there to mark that this had happened and that I couldnow go on without fear of forgetting.

Then in November I returned to a somber Santiago. The purpose of this visit was toproduce a three day durational performance created with my father and my mother.The piece, titled 143 kg, made real an unspoken hierarchy of memory in my family,and made me understand my place in this order as the reconfiguring element in theflow of memory. Hearing my father’s voice struggle with the repetition of letterswritten by people he once knew and had since been cut open with knives and throwninto rivers or electrocuted while crucified onto bed frames, noticing the growingexhaustion of my mother’s hands over the course of the three days as she furiouslytranscribed what my father was saying - I made a note to pin these things up on thewalls of the room to mark that this had happened and that I could now go on withoutfear of forgetting.

This soft violence opened up a problem in my rendering of the tension betweenmemory and what thanks to Marianne Hirsch I began to describe as postmemory. Inpostmemory I found a language to describe the relationship between my body and theinterrupted stories that are caught inside it. This structure is precise and delicate -history comes to you primarily through the embodied reactions of people you love, indexing in this way the trauma of an earlier period. Hirsch used the concept toexplain the ambiguous affect the un-lived memory of the Holocaust had on her body,and I found that it helped me understand what Steve Stern sees as a Holocaust ofmemory in Chile where the only certainties about what happened are found in theflesh and not in the archive. And in doing so I also learned that there is a distinctionto be made between forms of archive, because the archive of material and the body isas valid as the photographic archive in reconstructing or mending un-livedexperience.

My duty during the performance in November was to wrap rocks with papers that hadbeen inscribed with phrases of the disappeared. I felt that by doing this I wasexplicitly adding weight to words that now only existed in a digital format which hadrobbed them of presence and made them subject to a homogenizing medium. It wasonly after the performance that I realized the affective charge of these new objects wasdue as much to the intersection of their material as it was to the action. The rockswere from the desert of Copiapó, near the place where 33 miners had been trappedunderground for 69 days. The papers had been bought at an old stationery store myfather used to frequent in the 70’s when his office was still on Calle Lyon, and thetypewriter used to print the phrases had been my grandfather’s.

It was also in November that I saw Alfredo Jaar’s “The Sound of Silence” for the firsttime. The Sound of Silence is both installation and performance - an enormousstainless steel cube placed in the center of an empty gallery inside of which is a tiny,pitch-black screening room. The viewer sits inside the cube while the story of KevinCarter is projected onto one of the walls. The entire story is told through text - theinfamous image of the vulture hovering over the starving child is shown only oncetowards the end, accompanied by the painful flash of strobe lights that leaves youblind except for the fading traces of the image. One of the exterior sides of the cube, lined with bright fluorescent tubes, inundates the space around it with a cold light. Ireturned home and strayed somewhat from the path to catch the setting sun and Icouldn’t stop thinking about the weight of the light. Yes, Jaar the photojournalist wasinterested in the political dimension of Carter’s story in its relation to the west’sdismissal of Sudan, but Jaar the architect knew how to render the ways in whichperceptually we can either extract ourselves from the scene or burnish it into ourmemory. Jaar’s light carried weight and structure not because its source wasparticularly well defined but because his cube operated under the same internal-external binary of the body and the photograph - the light that came from it was bydefinition internal, projected outwards from the image inside. And in this re-projection the image was destroyed and re-constituted by passing through amechanical system that tied the whole machine together. I walked and I thoughtabout this for a long time. I thought about how I had to come home to understandmaterial as archival and how this archive could be torn apart, dismembered, andreassembled into its constituent bits and pixels and in doing so rid itself from thespecificity that tied it into the past. I also thought about how curious it was that thisprocess struck me as entirely organic, as if the machine created by Jaar was nodifferent to a plant repurposing air.

I returned to the room ecstatic and confused - I was infected with the images of Jaar’scube, the performance, and Barthes’ Camera Lucida. But I was also doing my best tobury a sense of dread when I thought back to our private exercise in Chile. Despite mybest efforts I hadn’t been able to engage my father and my mother in a conversationabout how they felt and how their bodies had changed after the performance. I knewsomething was different because I could sense it, I could tell the wall that stopped mefrom peering too far into the past had shifted slightly in what I thought was the rightdirection. Perhaps the failure of an open conversation on the effects of theperformance was rooted in my inability to teach them the language with which to speak of these things, with which to speak of the body. I blamed this failure on time,on translation, on the Museum. What was the use of it all if I couldn’t teach them thevocabulary I was slowly learning to describe the affect of absence? This failure ofdialogue, manifested in a guilt for what I felt was an opportunistic use of their bodiesas markers for my own, began what in retrospect I understand as the birth of the ideabehind the machine.

I knew Jaar was key but I had yet to understand the conceptual implications of thetranslation of light and medium he was playing with. I also realized that myperception of an overwhelmingly cold, calculating mechanism as being behind TheSound of Silence was due simply to the absence of the artist’s body. I re-read Barthesand Sontag and some Wodiczko and began building a vocabulary of binaries in orderto speak of images and by extension of archives and memory and bodies. Text andimage operate as a binary, some images contain unexplainable access points -nucleuses of affect resulting from uncanny coincidences. The image is ultimately amirror, suffering is diluted in its representation, and saturation is another word forhomogenization. In these texts I read the image as a proxy for the body, and throughit began to understand my relation to a physical archive that had been given to me bymy father before returning to the machine, so that I could use it as a source or as fuelfor it. But I could not shake the uneasy feeling that somehow my failure in Santiagowas also a way to begin understanding the material I now had to work through andmy relationship to the family I had left at home.

There was an understanding to be gained in re-reading these texts and sitting with thetension created by the failure of dialogue with filial bodies. I had assumed, as didmany of the theorists I was basing my work on, that the immediacy of access tophotographic archives (and by extension all other forms of it) was largelyunquestionable seeing as this immediacy was a result of the medium itself. Be it paper or pixel, once obtained the information is spread open, allowing a filterless access (beit shallow or deep) that demanded little dialogue with the origins of the archive. Theimage was taken as it was - context, source, author, even technical details wereinformational satellites that allowed for a more focused reading of a physical entitythat was powerless to remove itself from scrutiny. In the same vein, the fascinationwith the creation and subsequent access to an archive remained unquestioned to me -the gaps in this archive were only unfortunate consequences of larger political andsocial processes, censorship, and death. The assumption of access, so central to thereading of the post-dictatorial Chilean experience, had turned its tables on me. Myunquestioned “derecho de saber” had led me to sadist exercises in the alteration ofarchives in order to affect filial bodies, as was the case with 143 kg. and other projectsbefore that. This form of learning about my father and mother was a violent exercise. Ihad started this entire exercise and body of work assuming the failure of my parents’generation to communicate. The derecho de saber and my fervent adhesion to it, towhat I perceived as my inalienable generational right to memory, had resulted innever questioning whether or not the very structure of mnemonic discovery wasviable.

Perhaps a better question would have been “Why were the voids not filled; why wastheir archive incomplete when it was passed to me?” If anything, this question beginsto represent an impossibility of access. And yet I also realize that the answer wouldonly exist if the question had been posed at the right time, and I feel I am far fromthat right time. What remains - the only thing I am left with is the questioning of theimplications of my own work and its relationship to contemporary art’s imaginativeability to intervene in negotiating structures of traumatic memory. What are theethical implications of encountering and modifying another’s archive? Is it possibleto, through this modification, build an uninterrupted narrative into the present inorder to understand my body and the burden of memory inscribed in it? These became my questions, and I feel they begin to acknowledge an unrecoverable,incomplete and affective archive birthed by trauma. With these questions I couldbegin to access the methods, practices and bodies that are called out by the structureof the archive itself. Had I realized this before I might have spared my parents thepain of accessing the trauma they chose to bury. But I was too late, and so I pinned upsome pages of the story onto the room’s walls and left them there to mark that thishad happened and that I could now go on without fear of forgetting.

What followed was a renouncing of the archive. Having discovered the tension Idecided to begin building what would eventually become the memory machine. Thequestions I now carried had the strange side-effect of distancing my body from thematerial I had at hand - the pondering of an archive that had become inaccessible as aresult of an ethical problematic meant that the subjective nuances of my efforts torearrange it would be counterproductive. These questions could not be posed by mybody - I had engraved the archive too deep into it and thus could no longer rearrangeit. The whole process had to be external in its execution and yet affect my bodybrutally in order to wipe away the mistakes I had imposed on it. I had to build amachine that rearranged memory; I had to build the Sound of Silence but the sourceof light, the image, was to be the body and not the text.

The machine was built using a mix of pine-wood and ply-wood. In total, seventy fivesquare meters of wood were cut, rearranged, bolted together and sanded in order tohouse twelve meters of LEDs, thirty meters of cable, six screens, two video splitters, aset of five speakers, two fluorescent light racks and a hacked video cassette recorderthat would drive the entire thing. I made the machine so that two bodies (in this casemine and my sister’s) could crawl into it - our faces and hands obscured by thescreens and lit by the backlight of the footage being played by the VCR. Four witnesses- I call them “operators” because the functioning of the machine is left up to them - are invited to be present with the machine for fifteen minutes. Once inside, theoperators pick five tapes from a total of eighteen - these tapes drive the machine, andtheir contents dictate the direction and experience of the performance. At no point doI or my sister have any influence on their choices and actions. The operators never seeour faces, and we never see them - we encounter each other through the screens. Allwe the see is the soft glow of the screen’s backlight, and the witnesses see the footagethey pick out projected towards them through the screens. This footage is anamalgamation of my family’s archive and a larger, more institutional collection drawnfrom different museums and foundations in Chile. There is no real specificity to thecuration of the footage - it is chosen if it contains images I feel are already inside me.

I had no real plan when I started building it. If anything, it grew out of a series ofimages that kept recurring in the texts and works I was studying. Many times Iimagined a conversation between Barthes and Jaar on the rearrangement of light andthe excess or absence of light as points where a punctum might become more solidand evident. Nauman, Bachelard and Sontag contributed by speaking of how this lightmight be related to the body, how perhaps the inherent properties of a photograph (amedium where light is engraved through a chemical process) could be the beginningsof a proxy for understanding and affecting the body. The key to how the mechanismwould operate wasn’t clear to me until sometime later, when I saw Luis Nietoperforming Carlitopolis - a short piece where he uses video as a device to trick anaudience into believing his arm is performing experiments on a trapped lab mouse. Irecognized, in Nieto’s work, the ability to use video as a mechanism to co-opt the bodyand suggest impossible virtual alternatives to an otherwise largely unmodifiable andpreconfigured scaffolding of the body, always bound to the present. The backlight ofthese screens acts in the same way that the fluorescent lights in Jaar’s Sound ofSilence do - they cast a condensed light that is both the result and the source of theimage they are displaying. I think too many people overlook this, perhaps because we’ve made screens so that their backs and the light that emanates from them areinvisible; we consider this light a distraction from the constructed (or full, projected)image. Yet when I acknowledge this negative light, and place my body in front of it, Iam deliberately choosing to experience the deconstruction of the image that is shownon the other side - my body is exposed to the origin and end of the image at the sametime. It’s like peering into the fire that casts shadows on the cave wall - not by doingso do I ignore the existence of the figures that cast the shadows: if anything, itreconfigures my relationship to them, because by seeing the fire I realize what theyreally are. It works the same way with the screens. Seeing the backlight allows me toreconfigure the relationship of my body to the image displayed on the screen which isa process of both recognition and erasure. This is how I begin to access the trauma inmy body as well as the trauma in the images so as not to fictionalize or rearrangeanything, but to erase and heal at the same time.

In this way the machine activates my body and my sister’s body in the same way thatJaar activates Kevin Carter’s photograph. It is an organic mechanism that works torearrange and understand trauma, reconfiguring its etchings on my body allowing meto create a new, cohesive narrative. The complexity of the system, the components ofthe machine that in the end acquired the structure of a body, complete with a nervoussystem, brain, and limbs was necessary because the trauma is complex and the affecthas to be complex as well. The machine proved to me that the reconfiguration of thebody through light was possible, that the body parsed through light can exist as aperformative framework that goes beyond the detached and cold medium of thesolitary screen. The machine allows the archive to be trackable to the body, while atthe same time emanating from the artist, creating a mediated exposure to the otherthat is necessary to transmit the affect of the performance.

The machine lives in an empty room in a relatively empty building. The room is blackso no light from outside taints the light that the machine secretes. I boarded up theonly window with black cardboard and smothered the last glowing beads with blackmasking tape. Air does not circulate, I turned it off before I built the machine. When Iclose the door, and before I slide into the machine, I can hear nothing, feel nothing,and see nothing. I made this machine in order to reconfigure my memory, in order toheal the trauma in my family, in order to prove myself worthy of my birthright - thecarrying on of a cohesive narrative. My machine sounded the silence, and it did so bydeploying my body and my sister’s as post memory receptors. We were the source ofillumination as well as what we were already - platforms of somatic recording, bodiesin which an archive was inscribed: no longer static, made malleable and active by thememory machine.

Works Cited / References / Sources

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill andWang, 1981. Print.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture afterthe Holocaust. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.

Jaar, Alfredo, and Okwui Enwezor. Alfredo Jaar: The Sound of Silence. Paris: KamelMennour, 2012. Print.

Jones, Mary MacAllester. Gaston Bachelard, Subversive Humanist: Texts andReadings. Madison: U of Wisconsin, 1991. Print.

Kafka, Franz, Willa Muir, and Edwin Muir. The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony,and Other Stories. New York: Schocken, 1995. Print.

Nauman, Bruce, and Robert C. Morgan. Bruce Nauman. Baltimore: Johns HopkinsUP, 2002. Print.

Raskin, David, and Donald Judd. Donald Judd. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. Print.

Smithson, Robert, and Jack Flam. Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings.Berkeley: U of California, 1996. Print.

Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,2003. Print.

Stern, Steve J. Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet's Chile,1973-1988. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.

Wodiczko, Krzysztof. Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews. Cambridge,MA: MIT, 1999. Web. 

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