My mum has Dementia. She is experiencing profound difficulties with the way her brain and memory work. She time travels, desperately trying to locate herself in the here and now, at other times profoundly sometime else. When I am with her, it is as if the present is crumbling away and falling in on itself, quite literally. Alzheimer's is destroying the structures of her brain and giving way to a direct default replaying of past events, roles, responsibilities, experiences and sensibilities. She is herself, through her past experiences. I love her and I can’t grieve for her yet. She is still present in the past, living in a reconstruction of the past, that is growing out the ruins of now. I wish I could spend more time with her before she vanishes forever. No matter where or when she is, she is a magical person to spend time with. She is still familiar to me, for the time being.
I can no longer side step referencing Dementia in relation to the archive I am working with as part of my PhD. I am mindful that my experiences with of my mum’s condition are running alongside my research in an archive that is not only framed or punctuated by my historic presence but belongs to an institution whose future is precarious and questionable. The archive in some ways is a diseased memory, the past in ruins, a place where the past and present isn’t whole anymore and plays tricks on the person travelling through it. Memory is after all not a mirror of truth.
"The mirror, if that is what history is, distorts as much after revision as it did before. The aim of revision is to get the distortions to match the mood of present times. But the mirror is a poor metaphor of the public memory. The seeker after historic truth is not trying to get a clearer image of his face, or even a more flattering image… When we look closely at the construction of past time, we find the process has very little to do with the past at all and everything to do with the present. Institutions create shadowed places in which nothing can be seen and no questions asked."
Mary Douglas, p 69, How Do Institutions Think, Syracuse University Press, 1986
This extract from Mary Douglas’ How Do Institutions Think 'Chapter 6 Institutions Remember and Forget' continues with what feels like a personal warning to me.
"History emerges in an unintended shape as a result of practices directed to immediate, practical ends. To watch these practices establish selective principles that high light some kinds of events and obscure others is to inspect the social order operating in individual minds."
Mary Douglas, p70, How Do Institutions Think, Syracuse University Press, 1986
There is a photograph from Box 9 of Arnolfini's Education Archive that documents a Reckless Sleepers project which I project managed as Education Coordinator at Arnolfini for Gallery Education Week, 1999, nearly twenty years ago.
Arnolfini Archives, Bristol Records. Credit Lisa Whiting
The photograph shows two young women in the foreground; they are reflected in the mirrors that surround them. The young women are drawing on large square blackboards with chalk. There are two additional figures reflected in one of the mirrors. One is taking the photograph with the flash reflecting in the mirror. The figure standing next to the photographer is me. Looking at myself gazing out from the background, causes me to catch my breath. Arnolfini’s public toilets, where the photograph was taken, no longer exists. That past space, only exists in the photograph as a reflection; it is now reconfigured and rebuilt somewhere between Arnolfini’s current café bar and foyer space. So too, I am a radically different from the person reflected in the photograph, suspended in a space that no longer applies to actuality, despite there being elements that are familiar or recognisable.
I am reminded of Clare Thornton’s 2013 work Corridors, Stairways and Corners: Restaged that developed out of her residency, that was part of a series celebrating Arnolfini’s Live Art Archive.
Clare selected six performances that took place at Arnolfini between 1976 and 1998; she re-worked archival material into a bookwork that operated as a performance score. The bookwork along with an accompanying Soundcloud audio track, guided and prompted visitors to re-activate traces of the selected performances. Each person overlaying or transposing their interpretation or responses to processed archival fragments onto a building that had radically changed almost a decade earlier (after a major two year redevelopment in 2005). Movements breaking out of and emerging from spaces that are no longer relevant; the past altered by the present.
Above: Corridors, Stairways and Corners: Restaged, Clare Thornton
Below: Corridors, Stairways and Corners: Restaged, Clare Thornton, performer: Laura Dannequin, photocredit: Justin Yockney
In November 2018, during a 3D3 PhD Induction Weekend, I experienced Tools That Propel, an interactive video installation developed by Adam Russell and Sarah Levinsky in . The piece consists of a digital projection or screen that appears to mirror back the space it sits within, through a live feed. At Falmouth, students and teachers watched themselves; when they realised their movements would be reflected on the screen everyone began slowly moving. Some people at the Induction Weekend were from a performance background and began confidently physically playing and moving in relation to the technology. It soon became apparent that the screen had a memory, that replayed or looped movements or behaviour that overlapped or mimicked something that had happened before. Adam and Sarah describe Tools that Propel, as interactive video installation that confronts,
"... its subjects with a life-size projection of themselves and other bodies, it blends live ‘mirror-like’ video and recorded fragments from the recent past that resemble their current movement. The dancer improvises with ‘ghosts’ of themselves and others tracked by the sensor before them; the entanglement encourages breaking of habits and mining of memories, exploring subtle variations."
You can watch films of dancers experimenting with Tools That Propel as a choreographic tool here.
This digital intervention acts as a catalyst, reflecting back or enabling those encountering it to experience a physical and digital overlapping, looping or repetition. The following extract is from an email I wrote to Adam and Sarah in response to their installation once I had returned home:
"On reflection, after experiencing the digital intervention, my mind turned to my mum. She is in the latter stages of dementia. When I experienced the technology, I watched as other people's movements and memories were traced, retraced, and overlapped in space and time. I couldn't help but reflect on how I now have conversations with my mum. She talks about who she is with, who is missing, who she can't find, how she doesn't recognise where she is but knows she wants to go somewhere - back in time or in the present. As her mind shrinks, she is desperately trying to locate herself in time and space - which for her is collapsing and falling into an unrecognizable new landscape. Whilst orientating and disorientating myself around the work, I found myself thinking in similar patterns to my mum; it reminded me about what it feels like to understand or follow her trains of thought."
I want to trace and retrace the neural pathways that exist within archival memory, the loops, the overlaps and the collapses that happen when we try to orientate ourselves within the past.
The Showroom is an institution that describes itself as "a contemporary art space focused on collaborative approaches to cultural production within its locality and beyond". A recent show Women on Aeroplanes asked the following curatorial questions;
"What makes it possible for certain individuals’ stories to prevail, whilst others remain invisible, or disappear into oblivion? What are the intricacies of institutional or structural erasure? And how does the unveiling of such silenced narratives contribute to collective thinking?"
Women and Aeroplanes Exhibition Leaflet
This is a more nuanced articulation of my questions from my previous blog exploring power and institutions. Women and Aeroplanes was a curatorial intervention that aimed to observe:
"…the largely unrecognised role of women in struggles for liberation, their participation in transatlantic networks, and their key voices in revolutionary socio-political movements that helped achieve post-colonial nation states in Africa."
Women and Aeroplanes Exhibition Leaflet
I am curious about the potential of applying The Showroom and The Otolith Collective’s curatorial questions in the context of Arnolfini’s Education archive.
Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, Carrying Yours and Standing Between You, 2018
Mixed media installation, photocredit: Daniel Brooke.
When I met with The Showroom’s Director, Elvira Dyangani Ose at the gallery, as part of Extend, I responded to Women With Aeroplanes by starting to talk about my recent meeting with an Archivist. She stopped me before I could complete my sentence, by stating very clearly that the artist was not an archivist but employed archival strategies. Initially I found this interruption a little obvious and frustrating as I had wanted to share what I thought of an insightful anecdote. On reflection Elvira emphatic differentiation between the artist and archivist was liberating. She inadvertently reminded me that I do not need to operate an archivist within this PhD. I can also employ archival strategies but have latitude to problematise them as an artist.
Barby Asante is an artist whose
"...artistic practice explores the archival, makes propositions, collects and maps stories and contributions of people of colour using storytellings, collective actions and ritual to excavate, unearth and interrogate given narratives.
She resists the idea that the stories of "Other-ness" are alternatives to dominant given narratives, but are interruptions, utterances, presences that exist within, that are invisible, unheard, missing or ignored. By making these narratives visible, asking questions and making proposals she is interested in what these possibilities offer as we examine our present and envision our futures."
Recent projects include The South London Black Music Archive. Barby worked as lead artist alongside Barbara Steveni during SERP Reactivated. Barbara Steveni co founded the Artist Placement Group and her current work I Am An Archive
"....gathers artists and professionals across three generations in a series of participatory and documentary walks, taking place on the site of original APG placements, exploring the potential to reactivate and re-contextualise APG methodologies today."
Barbara Steveni also instigated and co founded SERP in the late 80's;
"Between 1989 and 1995 the Southwark Education Research Project engaged over 1,500 children and teachers by placing artists in fifteen schools across the London borough of Southwark. SERP created interventions in the schools it worked with, encouraging participants to question the education process and providing new ways for them to engage with the arts. The project created a model for replication across the country by involving the local authority, the inspectorate, teachers and pupils – and in doing so gained recognition nationally and internationally.
In 2018 Peckham Platform revisits SERP’s significance, at a time when education policy focuses overwhelmingly on measuring attainment through exam results and league tables, and increased bureaucracy coupled with reduced budgets has seen a reduction in the opportunities for young people to engage with culture and the creative process in-school.
SERP Reactivated has two main strands – securing and preserving the original SERP archive; and reactivating elements of the archive through public programmes at Flat Time House and Tate Exchange in 2018."
I am in contact with staff at Peckham Platform to find out more about how they worked with young people from local schools to reactivate the archive. I am intrigued by photographic documentation and archival material that I have found online. I get a sense of what happened publicly but I want to know more.
I want to know what is missing from the publicly presented archive material - or where the memory lapses are. I am very drawn to the idea of reactivating rather than re-enacting. Platform (an arts, activism, education and research collective - not to be confused with Peckham Platform) considers it's archives as anarchist archives that should act as a catalyst. Like SERP Reactivated, Platform is interested in the archives potential for reconsidering the present and questioning future action.
In some ways the SERP archives feels as though it has a lot in common with Arnolfini's Education Archives; they differ distinctly too. Arnolfini's Education archives document the politics and approach of a department of an arts institution; although they contain artist led activity they also include material about how staff practiced the institution through their encounters with each other, partner organisations and participants. Barbara Steveni collected papers and notes documenting her processes as SERP evolved. Arnolfini's Education Archives appear to have evolved sporadically, chaotically and perhaps a lot more unintentionally. As my research progresses, I am becoming increasingly interested in how institutions practice the production and distribution of cultural power through examining historic practices present in the archives. I am anticipating these questions and themes would have been present in SERP Reactivated. I am curious to learn about how the artists and Peckham Platform chose what to reactivate, how they shared the material with young people, what agency the young people had in the work, what happened during the performances and what themes and questions emerged through these processes. I also want to know what didn’t happen, what went wrong and what new thinking was discovered about SERP and future possibilities were uncovered for arts education and cultural production.
I have a whole new series of questions about digital culture and memory;
How could digital culture enable new cultural collectives or rebuild or reconnect damaged neural pathways?
What would a new cultural network look and feel like?
What culture could we build from what remains of the past?
Who or what should those new connections or pathways be?
Helen Cole’s recent sound and light installation We Are Warriors felt like a neural network.
We Are Warriors, Helen Cole, photocredit: Evoke Pictures Lifestyle Bristol Photographers
Each point of light connecting with each other, in an infinite community.
My mum’s power and agency flickers like the lights in Helen's
installation as she drifts in and out of capacity and coherency. Her intellect and personality have enabled her to maintain her place in the coherent world for as long as she can manage. Her light will slow and gradually fade away altogether. As I watch her disappear into the past, I am aware that one day I will most likely struggle with the same disease. Our Alzheimer's is hereditary.
At some point, in the future, I don’t know when, I will be tasked with going through my mum’s things. Her Dementia have caused her to ‘stir up’ her precious family history archive, scattering it and reordering it randomly all over the house. Every now and again when I visit, this chaos throws up an isolated family photo, a death notice, a funeral eulogy, a blood donation record or a passport. I am carefully spiriting away the odd thing I come across. I want to hold onto as much as I can save
This is my history that I want to preserve and hand down, an incomplete, partial and disordered archive of things. One day I might piece it all together, tidy it up, make sense of it.
I am after all, like my mum, desperately trying to locate myself in the here and now.
I will end my post with this, a beautiful film by Elaine Kordys. She is described on The Workroom website as an "Artist who works in movement and film specialising in working with people with dementia". The film I've linked to features her and her Dad reactivating their memories of ballroom dancing. It so clearly and eloquently honours Elaine's relationship with her Dad, through their individual and shared experiences of dance. As far as I know her Dad hasn't got Dementia but there is something in the film that speaks to me of a dance I now find myself rehearsing with my mum.