Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Digital Archive

The future is stubbornly resistant to prediction, but we try anyway. I’ve been thinking lately about memory, technologies that mediate our memories, and the future of the past.

The one glaring fact — and I think it is more or less incontrovertible — is this: Digital technology has made it possible to capture and store vast amounts a data.

Much of this data, for the average person, involves the documentation of daily life. This documentation is often photographic or audio-visual.

What difference will this make? Recently, I suggested that in an age of memory abundance, memory will be devalued. There will be too much of it and it will be out there somewhere — in a hard drive, on my phone/computer,  or in the cloud. As we confidently and routinely outsource our remembering to digital devices and archives, we will grow relatively indifferent to personal memories. (Although, I don’t think indifferent is the best word — perhaps unattached.)

This too seems to me incontrovertible. It is the overlooked truth in Plato’s much-maligned critique of writing. Externalized memory is only figuratively related to internalized memory.

But I was assuming the permanence of these digital memories. What if our digital archives prove to be impermanent? What if in the coming years and decades we realize that our digital memories are gradually fading into oblivion?

Consider the following from Bruce Sterling: “Actually it’s mostly the past’s things that will outlive us. Things that have already successfully lived a long time, such as the Pyramids, are likely to stay around longer than 99.9% of our things. It might be a bit startling to realize that it’s mostly our paper that will survive us as data, while a lot of our electronics will succumb to erasure, loss, and bit rot.”

It might turn out that Snapchat is a premonition. What then?

Scenario A: Digital memory decay is a technical problem that is eventually solved; trajectory of memory abundance and consequent indifference plays out.

Scenario B: Digital memory decay remains a persistent problem.

Scenario B1: We devote ourselves to rituals of digital memory preservation. Therapy first referred to the care of the gods. We think of it as care for the self, sometimes involving the recollection repressed memories. Perhaps in the future these senses of the word will mutate into therapy understood as the care of our digital memories.

Scenario B2: By the time the problem of digital memory decay is recognized as a threat, we no longer care. Memory, we decide, is a burden. Mutually reinforcing decay and indifference then yield a creeping amnesia of long term memory. Eternal sunshine indeed.

Scenario B3: We reconsider our digital dependence and reintegrate analog and internalized forms of memory into our ecology of remembrance.

Scenario C: All of this is wrong.

In truth, I can hardly imagine a serious indifference to personal memory. But then again, I’m sure those who lived in societies whose cultural forms were devoted to tribal remembrance could hardly imagine serious indifference to the memory of the tribe. They probably couldn’t imagine someone caring much about their individual history; it was likely an incoherent concept. Thinking about the future involves the thinking of that which we can’t quite imagine, or is it the imagining of that which we can’t quite think. In any case, it’s not really about the future anyway. It’s about trying to make some sense of forces now at work and trying to reckon with the long reach of the past, which, remembered or not, will continue to make itself felt in the present.

From Memory Scarcity to Memory Abundance

The most famous section in arguably the most famous book about photography, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, dwells on a photograph of Barthes’ recently deceased mother taken in a winter garden when she was a little girl. On this picture, Barthes hung his meditative reflections on death and photography. The image evoked both the “that-has-been” reality of the subject, and the haunting “this-will-die” realization. That one photograph of his mother is also the only image discussed by Barthes that was not reproduced in Camera Lucida. It was too personal. It conveyed something true about his mother, but only to him.

But what if Barthes had not a few, but hundreds or even thousands of images of his mother?

I’ve long thought that what was most consequential about social media was their status as prosthetic memories. A site like Facebook, for example, is a massive archive of externalized memories preserved as texts and images. For this reason, it seemed to me, it would be unbearably hard to abandon such sites, particularly for those who had come of age with and through them. These archives bore too precious a record of the past to be simply deleted with a few clicks. I made this argument as late as last night.

But now I’ve realized that I had not fully appreciated the most important dynamic at play. I was operating with assumptions that were formed during an age of relative memory scarcity, but digital photography and sites like Facebook have brought us to an age of memory abundance. The paradoxical consequence of this development will be the progressive devaluing of such memories and severing of the past’s hold on the present. Gigabytes and terabytes of digital memories will not make us care more about those memories, they will make us care less.

We’ve seen the pattern before. Oral societies which had few and relatively inefficient technologies of remembrance at their disposal, lived to remember. Their cultural lives were devoted to ritual and liturgical acts of communal remembering. The introduction of writing, a comparably wondrous technology of remembrance, gradually released the individual from the burdens of cultural remembrance. Memory that could be outsourced, as we say, or offloaded could also be effectively forgotten by  the individual who was free to remember their own history. And it has been to this task that subsequent developments in the technology of remembrance have been put to use. The emergence of cheap paper coupled with rising rates of literacy gave us the diary and the boxes of letters. Photography and the film were also put to the task of documenting our lives. But until recently, these technologies were subject to important constraints. The recording devices were bulky and cumbersome and they were limited in capacity by the number of exposures in a film and the length of ribbon in a tape. There were also important practical constraints on storage and access. Digital technologies have burst through these constraints and they have not yet reached their potential.

Now we carry relatively unobtrusive devices of practically unlimited recording capacity, and these are easily linked to archives that are likewise virtually unlimited in their capacity to store and organize these memories. If we cast our vision into the not altogether distant nor fantastical future, we can anticipate individuals engaging with the world through devices (e.g., Google Glass) that will both augment the physical world by layering it with information and generate a near continuous audio-visual record of our experience.

Compared to these present and soon-to-be technologies, the 35mm camera which was at my disposal through the ’80s and ’90s seems primitive. With regards to a spectrum indicating the capacity to document and archive memories, I was then closer to my pre-modern predecessors than to the generation that will succeed me.

Roland Barthes’ near mystical veneration of his mother’s photograph, touching as it appears to those of us who lived in the age of memory scarcity, will seem quixotic and quaint to those who have known only memory abundance. Barthes will seem to them as those medievals that venerated the physical book do to us. They will be as indifferent to the photograph, and the past it encodes, as we are to the cheap paperback.

It may seem, as it did to me, that social media revived the significance of the past by reconnecting us with friends we would have mostly forgotten and reconstituting habits of social remembering. I’d even expressed concerns that social media might allow the past to overwhelm the present rendering recollection rather than suppression traumatic. But this has only been an effect of novelty upon that transitional generation who had lived without the technology and upon whom it appeared in medias res. For those who have known only the affordances of memory abundance, there will be no reconnection with long forgotten classmates or nostalgic reminiscences around a rare photograph of their youth capturing some trivial, unremembered moment. It will all be documented and archived, but it will mean not a thing.

It will be Barthes’ contemporary, Andy Warhol, who will appear as one of us. In his biography of Warhol, Victor Bockris writes,

Indeed, Andy’s desire to record everything around him had become a mania.  As John Perrault, the art critic, wrote in a profile of Warhol in Vogue:  “His portable tape recorder, housed in a black briefcase, is his latest self-protection device.  The microphone is pointed at anyone who approaches, turning the situation into a theater work.  He records hours of tape every day but just files the reels away and never listens to them.”

Andy Warhol’s performance art will be our ordinary experience, and it is that last line that we should note — “… and he never listens to them.”

Reconsider Plato’s infamous critique of writing. Critics charge Plato with shortsightedness because he failed to see just how much writing would in fact allow us to remember. But from a different perspective, Plato was right. The efficient and durable externalization of memory would makes us personally indifferent to remembrance. As the external archive grows, our personal involvement with the memory it stores shrinks in proportion.

Give me a few precious photographs, a few minutes of grainy film and I will treasure them and hold them dear. Give me one terabyte of images and films and I will care not at all.

In the future, we will float in the present untethered from the past and propelled listlessly onward by the perpetual stream of documentary detritus we will emit.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google appear

Social Media and the Arts of Memory

More than a year and half ago, I published two posts, in what was to be a series of three, framing social networking sites, Facebook in particular, within the arts of memory tradition. The third post, for a variety of now forgotten reasons, never appeared. Recent discussion regarding Facebook and memory prompted me to complete what had been left unfinished. Below you will find the complete essay including the text of those two earlier posts, lightly edited, along with the concluding section. 

memory theater (2)

Early in The Art of Memory, Frances Yates pauses to envision a “forgotten social habit” of antiquity.  She invites us to wonder,“Who is that man moving slowly in the lonely building, stopping at intervals with an intent face?”  That man, Yates tells us, is a “rhetoric student forming a set of memory loci.”  The rhetoric student would have been creating the architecture of a mental space into which they would then place vivid images imaginatively designed to recollect the themes or words of a prepared oration.  While delivering the oration, the rhetor would navigate the mental space coming upon each carefully placed image which triggered their memory accordingly.  This work of designing mental space and populating the space with striking images followed the prescriptions of the techniques of artificial memory widely practiced in classical antiquity.

What if, however, we updated Yates’ scene by setting it in the present?  The scene would be instantly recognizable as long as we equipped our imagined person with a cell phone.  The stopping at intervals and the intent face would correspond to any of the multiple uses to which an Internet-enabled smart phone may be put:  reading or sending a text message, downloading songs, taking or sending pictures and video, updating social media profiles, or finding directions with GPS, to name but a few.  What is striking is how often these activities would, like that of the ancient rhetor, involve the work of memory. Much of what cell phones are used for has very little to do with making a phone call, after all. Cell phones are more likely to be used to access the Internet, send a text message, take a picture, or film a video.  Given these capabilities cell phones have become prosthetic memory devices; to lose a cell phone would be to induce a state of partial amnesia.  Or, it may be better to say it might induce a fear of future amnesia since our ability to approach the present as a field of potential memories would be undermined.

Social networking sites (SNS) are of special interest because of how they explicitly trade in memory.  This leads Joanne Garde-Hansen to ask in “MyMemories?:  Personal Digital Archive Fever and Facebook,” “If memory and identity can be seen as coterminous and SNSs involve literally digitising ones’ self into being then what is at stake when memories and identities are practiced on Facebook?”

She goes on to add,

“It goes without saying that the allure of the site is in its drawing together in one place memory practices: creating photograph albums, sharing photographs, messaging, joining groups and alumni memberships, making ‘friends’ and staying in touch with family.”

It would be fair to acknowledge that SNS such as Facebook traffic in more than the allure of memory practices. Nonetheless, the production, maintenance, and retrieval of memory is integral to the practices deployed on social networks.

Following Jacques Derrida, Garde-Hansen considers Facebook as an instance of the archiving archive. Thus, she points out, the architecture of a SNS such as Facebook is not neutral with respect to the memories it archives.  As Derrida observed,

“… the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future.  The archivization produces as much as it records the event.”

Garde-Hansen also draws SNS into the tension between database and narrative addressed by Manovich in The Language of New Media.  In her view, the most significant aspect of Manovich’s analysis of new media for SNS is the comparison he draws between the visual organization of digital media interfaces and spatial montage.  “Manovich’s emphasis upon spatial narrative is,” according to Garde-Hansen, “extremely pertinent to thinking through the emergence of SNSs and how these sites remediate personal and collective memory.” Framed in this way, memory as spatial montage challenges “the rise and dominance of history,” the “power of the written word” to order the past temporally, and the “twentieth century’s emphasis upon the single, unadulterated image (think cinema).”

Derrida’s insight suggests that the sorts of memories we are able to archive with social media may already be directing our interactions in the present.  (For an insightful discussion of this point anchored on an analysis of faux-vintage photography see Nathan Jurgenson’s, “The Faux-Vintage Photo.”)  Drawing in Manovich’s database/narrative opposition further suggests that the visual/spatial mode of ordering memories on SNS potentially shifts how meaning is derived from memory and, consequently, how we understand the self.

Returning to the scene suggested by Yates we may also consider SNS such as Facebook as instances of new artificial memory spaces constructed to supplement and augment the natural memory.  In the artificial memory tradition we already see memory rendered spatially and visually in a manner that anticipates the representation and organization of memory on SNS.  Situating SNS within the long history of spatial and visual memory also affords us the opportunity to consider such sites in the context of a complex and rich tradition of philosophical reflection on the nature of memory.

What emerges is a history of memory practices that alternate between a Platonic focus on memory as the presence of an absence and an Aristotelian emphasis on memory as the record of the past.  There are several thematic threads that weave this story together including the opposition of internal memory to memory supported by inscription, the connection between memory and imagination, memory as the index of desire, the related tensions between space and time and databases and narratives, and the relationship of memory to identity.  Yet for all the complexity those themes introduce, we will begin with a story.

The Origin of the Arts of Memory

Spatiality, images, and death have long been woven together in the complex history of remembering.  Each appears prominently in the founding myth of what Yates called the “art of memory” as it is recounted by Cicero in his De oratore. According to the story, the poet Simonides of Ceos was contracted by Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman, to compose a poem in his honor.  To the nobleman’s chagrin, Simonides devoted half of his oration to the praise of the gods Castor and Pollux.  Feeling himself cheated out of half of the honor, Scopas brusquely paid Simonides only half the agreed upon fee and told him to seek the rest from the twin gods.  Not long afterward that same evening, Simonides was summoned from the banqueting table by news that two young men were calling for him at the door.  Simonides sought the two callers, but found no one.  While he was out of the house, however, the roof caved in killing all of those gathered around the table including Scopas. As Yates puts it, “The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash.”

The bodies of the victims were so disfigured by the manner of death that they were rendered unidentifiable even by family and friends.  Simonides, however, found that he was able to recall where each person was seated around the table and in this way he identified each body.  This led Simonides to the realization that place and image were the keys to memory, and in this case, also a means of preserving identity through the calamity of death.  In Cicero’s words,

“[Simonides] inferred that persons desiring to train [their memory] must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it.”

Cicero is one of three classical sources on the principles of artificial memory that evolved in the ancient world as a component of rhetorical training.  The other two sources are Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria and the anonymous Ad Herennium.  It is through the Ad Herennium, mistakenly attributed to Cicero, that the art of memory migrates into medieval culture where it is eventually assimilated into the field of ethics.  Cicero’s allusion to the wax-writing table, however, reminds us that discussion of memory in the ancient world was not limited to the rhetorical schools.  Memory as a block of wax upon which we make impressions is a metaphor attributed to Socrates in Plato’s Theaetetus where it appears as a gift of Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses:

“Imagine, then, for the sake of argument, that our minds contain a block of wax, which in this or that individual may be larger or smaller, and composed of wax that is comparatively pure or muddy, and harder in some, softer in others, and sometimes of just the right consistency.

Let us call it the gift of the Muses’ mother, Memory, and say that whenever we wish to remember something we see or hear or conceive in our own minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions or ideas and imprint them on it as we might stamp the impressions of a seal ring.  Whatever is so imprinted we remember and know so long as the image remains; whatever is rubbed out or has not succeeded in leaving an impression we have forgotten and do not know.”

Plato and Aristotle in Rafeal's "School of Athens"

The Platonic understanding of memory was grounded in an epistemology which located the ability to apprehend truth in an act of recollection.  Plato believed that the highest forms of knowledge were not derived from sense experience, but were first apprehended by the soul in a pre-existent state and remain imprinted deep in a person’s memory.  Truth consists in matching the sensible experience of physical reality to the imprint of eternal Forms or Ideas whose images or imprints reside in memory.  Consequently, the chief aim of education, and the highest calling of memory, is the remembering of these Ideas and this aim is principally attained through “dialectical enquiry,” a process, modeled by Plato’s dialogs, by which a student may arrive at a remembering of the Ideas.

At this point, we should notice that the anteriority, or “pastness,” of the knowledge in question is, strictly speaking, incidental.  What is important is the presence of the absent Idea or Form to be contemplated.  It is to evoke the presence of this absence that memory is deployed.  It is the presence of eternal Ideas that secures the apprehension of truth, goodness, or beauty in the present.  Locating the memory within the span of time past does not bear upon its value which rests in its being possessed as a model against which to measure experience.

By contrast, the principle aspect to note about Aristotle’s understanding of memory is that he distinguishes it from the imagination by noting its reference to the historical time.  While Plato’s focus on the image and its presence becomes “an obstacle to recognizing the specificity of the properly temporalizing function of memory,” according to Paul Riceour, in Aristotle’s “proud declaration” that “all memory is of the past” we find acknowledgement of that specificity.  In Aristotle’s account, memory is also, as it were, naturalized.  Along with his emphasis on memory being “of the past,” it is the past of sense experience that, for Aristotle, stocks memory.  Gone is Plato’s theory of the preexistence of the soul and memory as the deposit of knowledge of the Forms glimpsed in that preexistent state.

Ricoeur, in Memory, History, Forgetting, begins his consideration of the heritage of Greek reflections on memory with the following observation:

“Socratic philosophy bequeathed to us two rival and complementary topoi on this subject, one Platonic, the other Aristotelian.  The first, centered on the theme of the eikōn [image], speaks of the present representation of an absent thing; it argues implicitly for enclosing the problematic of memory within that of imagination.  The second, centered on the theme of the representation of a thing formerly perceived, acquired, or learned, argues for including the problematic of the image within that of remembering.”

As he goes on to note, from these two framings of the problematic of memory “we can never completely extricate ourselves.”

Reflecting for just a moment on the nature of our own memories it is not difficult to see why this might be the case.  If we remember our mother, for example, we may do so either by contemplating some idealized image of her in our mind’s eye or else by recollecting a moment from our shared past.  In both cases we may be said to be remembering our mother, but the memories differ along the Platonic/Aristotelian divide suggested by Ricoeur.  In the former case I remember her in a way that seeks her presence without reference to time past; in the latter, I remember her in a way that situates her chronologically in the past.

What we find as we pursue the artificial memory tradition through the medieval period into the Renaissance is a persistent distancing of memory from narrative and toward presence.  In its various manifestations it becomes an art seeking the presence of the divine, of virtue, or of esoteric knowledge mediated through images in a space that can be apprehended at a glance.

“One of the most striking manifestations of the Renaissance use of the art,” Yates explains, “is the Memory Theater of Giulio Camillo … based (so he believes) on archetypes of reality on which depend secondary images covering the whole realm of nature and of man.” Camillo, mostly forgotten in our age, was in his time a celebrity that attracted the attention of notable contemporaries including the King of France and Erasmus.  It is in fact, from the hand of Erasmus’ secretary that we have the most complete record of Camillo’s memory theater.

This manifestation of the artificial memory, however, also included Hermetic and Cabalistic elements.  Yates, in fact, describes Camillo’s lifetime work as an effort to the blend the Hermetic-Cabalist tradition founded by Pico della Mirandola with the classical art of memory.  Camillo also links these esoteric traditions to the recently revived currents of Neoplatonism so that his memory theater would “represent the eternal order of truth.”

Camillo’s theater was a physical object large enough for two people to enter into in order to see the drawn image of a theater used to organize the whole range of human knowledge. Gone from Camillo’s theater is the space that at least implied a certain temporality, or at least sequentiality as it was navigated.  Now the space itself is a fixed image that is immediately and simultaneously present to user.  Temporality is overthrown by presence.  Again Ricoeur:  “The revenge of the Platonic, and especially Neoplatonic, reminiscence over the Aristotelian psychology of memory and recollection is complete, but at the price of the transformation of reasoned speculation into mystagogy.”

Memory, Databases, Narrative

Where memory is conceived in Aristotelian fashion as principally defined by its reference to a past in time, it shares a natural affinity with narrative.  “Narrative is,” as Katherine Hayles has put it, “a temporal technology.” Where memory is divorced from temporality in Platonic fashion, narrative seems to fade from view.  To represent memories visually is to render them present, but it may also mean abstracting them from their place in the narratives we tell about our lives.  The artificial memory techniques, detached from temporality as they were, may be understood on the model of the database that, in Manovich’s analysis, is the “natural enemy of narrative.”

The architecture of the mental space in the artificial memory tradition functions similarly to an interface that allows for multiple arrangements of the images which are so many icons representing various types of data points.  Like a database, what the artificial memory facilitated was principally random access and retrieval.  As Manovich goes on to note, “a database can support narrative, but there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself that would foster its generation.”  Likewise with the artificial memory; it could support a narrative, but it does not necessarily generate one.

In his brief discussion of the artificial memory, Ricoeur forcefully makes a similar point:  “spatialization obliterates temporalization … the notion of place has chased away the mark of the past which had characterized memory since Aristotle’s De memoria et reminiscentia.  Memory no longer consists in recalling the past but in actualizing what has been learned and stored away in mental space.”

In response to Manovich, Hayles sought to articulate a more symbiotic relationship between narratives and databases:  “No longer singular, narratives remain the necessary others to database’s ontology, the perspectives that invest the formal logic of database operations with human meanings and that gesture toward the unknown hovering beyond the brink of what can be classified and enumerated.” Hayles offers an instructive reframing of the opposition between narrative and database.  However, drawing artificial memory into the database/narrative polarity suggests that memories stored in databases may not be seeking narratives at all.  While meaning can be secured by the deployment of narratives that bring order to the disorder of lived experience, the desire for meaning is not the only desire that memory answers to. Memory also desires presence.

Coming back to social networking sites, we might say then personal memories, of the sort archived by Facebook, yield presence rather than the sort of meaning that arises from narratives. Not unlike the mental constructs of the arts of memory, Facebook operates on the model of the database and the spatial montage. Like the artificial memory, it may sustain a narrative, but it does not necessarily generate one.  Facebook backgrounds the narrative coherence of memory grounded in past experience in favor of the immediacy of spatially and visually mediated presence. We do well, however, not to frame this opposition too starkly. The introduction of Facebook’s Timeline interface may be seen as a tilt in the direction of Aristotelian memory and narrative. Nonetheless, memory, when anchored to spatially arranged databases of images, more readily answers to the desire for the immediacy of presence rather than the temporally inflected logic of narrative.

It may be helpful to consider Facebook alongside the diary, another form of externalized memory. The material form of the diary encourages a narrative posture toward experience. Writing already requires the narrativizing of one’s experience and the diary’s form elicits the sequential ordering of these narratives and suggests an anticipation of closure. Visual databases of memory, whether mental, analog, or digital, may invite commentary and explication, but not a linear narrative of one’s experience.


Returning to the story of Simonides, we remember that the artificial memory tradition had its roots in the trauma of death. In the face of great loss we may very well seek the consolations of a narrative that attempts to meaningfully frame our experience. But we may also seek to recover the presence of what is now absent.

In “A Photograph,” the poet, Czeslaw Milosz, observed:

“Few tasks more difficult
Than to write a treatise
On a man who looks
At an old photograph.

Why he does it
Is incomprehensible
And his feelings
Cannot be explained.

Seemingly it’s simple:
She was his love.
But here precisely
Questions begin.”

Then, toward the end of the poem, Milosz writes,

“And, inconceivable,
He addressed her,
Perfectly certain
That she hears him:

‘O maiden of the Lord,
Promised to me,
With whom I was to have
At least twelve children,

‘Obtain for me the grace
Of your strong faith.
We living are too weak
Without your assistance.

You are for me now
The mystery of time
i.e., of a person
Changing and the same,

Who runs in the garden
Fragrant after the rain
With a ribbon in your hair
And lives in the beyond.

You see how I try
To reach with words
What matters most
And how I fail.

Though perhaps this moment
When you are so close
Is precisely your help
And an act of forgiveness.’”

There is something about the image, the photograph — remember Barthes’ mother — that evokes the consolations of memory as presence. Life consists of countless separations and losses; in such instances we may also seek similar consolation. We know we will be parted and we know the present is ephemeral, so we build our archives of memories to later avail ourselves of the presence they offer.

According to Ivan Illich, “What anthropologists distinguish as ‘cultures’ the historian of mental spaces might distinguish as different ‘memories.’” What historians of media have classified as oral, literate, print, and electronic cultures were distinguished largely along the lines of what could be remembered, how, and by whom. It would be presumptuous to say that the same will be true of digital culture, but it would be surprising if such were not the case. We do well then to consider how digital media shapes our remembering, both what it allows us to remember and what it encourages us to remember.

Conjuring Ghosts: Digital Technology and the Past

Late last month, I ran across a set of images created by Jo Teeuwisse superimposing scenes from World War II over images of those same places today. The effect has been universally described as haunting, and rightly so. The images also present a rather interesting form of augmented reality. If you’ve hung around this blog for awhile, you may have noticed that memory and place are two recurring themes. Naturally, these images caught my attention. Unfortunately, time constraints being what they are, I never did get around to writing about them.

Fortunately, Miranda Ward has. At Cyborgology, she has written a characteristically intelligent and well-crafted meditation on the images, “On Technology, Memory and Place.” She concludes on this note:

“So technology can do much to harness the power of place – to make memory increasingly social, to represent “the shared experience of bodies co-located in space” – and I think it should: I think this is part of the joy of it. But perhaps we also need to think about preserving the utterly private relationship with place – and what this preservation will look like in a “geo-optimized” world.”

Click through and read the whole.

While reading Ward’s piece, and since first seeing these images, a few related items came to mind.

Back in February, Jason Farman wrote a piece in The Atlantic that reflected on how mobile technology altered our experience of places. Farman discussed one app by the Museum of London that allowed users to see images from London’s past superimposed over the present scene in much the same manner as Teeuwisse’s photographs. Farman was optimistic about what mobile devices can do for our experience of places:

“While none of these practices may seem unique to our digital age – stories have been attached to place throughout history – the ability to connect innumerable narratives to a single site is something that other media haven’t been able to effectively accomplish.”

At the time, I wrote a post in response which leaned a good deal on Michel de Certeau’s reflections on walking the city (it’s a passage I’ve come back to again and again). De Certeau’s writing on this theme is especially pertinent to the photographs that inspired Ward’s essay. In fact, these photographs and the Museum of London app discussed by Farman might be seen as tools to materialize the invisible realities evocatively identified by de Certeau.

Here’s how I then summarized de Certeau on haunted places:

Places have a way of absorbing and bearing memories that they then relinquish, bidden or unbidden. The context of walking and moving about spaces leads de Certeau to describe memory as “a sort of anti-museum:  it is not localizable.”  Where museums gather pieces and artifacts in one location, our memories have dispersed themselves across the landscape, they colonize.  Here a memory by that tree, there a  memory in that house.  De Certeau develops a notion of a veiled remembered reality that lies beneath the visible experience of space.

Places are made up of “moving layers.”  We point, de Certeau says, here and there and say things like, “Here, there used to be a bakery” or “That’s where old lady Dupuis used to live.”  We point to a present place only to evoke an absent reality:  “the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences.”  Only part of what we point to is there physically; but we’re pointing as well to the invisible, to what can’t be seen by anyone else, which begins to hint at a certain loneliness that attends to memory.

Reality is already augmented.  It is freighted with our memories, it comes alive with distant echoes and fleeting images.

Digitally augmented reality functions analogously to what we might call the mentally augmented reality  that de Certeau invokes. Digital augmentation also reminds us that places are haunted by memories of what happened there, sometimes to very few, but often to countless many. The digital tools Farman describes bring to light the hauntedness of places. They unveil the ghosts that linger by this place and that.

This remains, as evidenced in Ward’s post, a very useful metaphor by which to think about technologies that allow us to conjure the ghosts of the past. As to the question that Ward comes back to on more than one occasion — So what? — I’m not entirely sure. In response to Farman’s essay, I offered up this alternative de Certeau-ian perspective:

Perhaps I am guilty, as Farman puts it, of “fetishizing certain ways of gaining depth.” But I am taken by  de Certeau’s conception of walking as a kind of enunciation that artfully actualizes a multitude of possibilities in much the same way that the act of speaking actualizes the countless possibilities latent in language. Like speaking, then, walking, that is inhabiting a space is a language with its own rhetoric. Like rhetoric proper, the art of being in a place depends upon an acute attentiveness to opportunities offered by the space and a deft, improvised actualization of those possibilities. It is this art of being in a place that constitutes a meaningful and memorable augmentation of reality.

What strikes me now about this conclusion is that it distinguished between an embodied interaction with a place and a strictly mental/visual interaction. These need not be mutually exclusive, of course. But perhaps it is worth noting that by there nature, apps and photographs that bring the past into the present forefront the visual, and the visual is only one way of knowing a place.

While I have been writing this, I have had next to this tab another with the text of W.H. Auden’s “Musée Des Beaux Arts.” This has been coincidental, but now it strikes me as serendipitous. The poem  goes like this:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or
just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the
torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything
turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

With this poem, Auden reflected (via Bruegel’s painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”) on how suffering often unfolded unnoticed, unremarked upon, and, we might now add, unremembered. The photographs with which we began have the effect of inverting this dynamic. Now we, the living, take note. We can see what then may have passed while someone was dully walking along. It is now we who are the unnoticed ones. The past is there present before our eyes and we can see it, but it is silent with respect to us. It now walks dully on as we make our way, looking, perhaps, to anchor our ephemeral present in its weightiness. But alas they are just ghosts, and the anchor does not hold.

The Architectural Legacy of Barcelona’s World’s Fairs

When world’s fairs close shop most of their buildings and structures are torn down and forgotten. This is as planned; most world’s fair architecture is designed to be temporary. Moreover, some world’s fair architecture was later destroyed by fire including London’s Crystal Palace and Chicago’s White City.  There are notable exceptions to this intended and unintended architectural ephemerality, of course. The Eiffel Tower is just the most famous instance of an enduring architectural legacy bequeathed to a city by a world’s fair. Seattle’s Space Needle would be another. We might also add a number of contemporary museums that are today housed in buildings first designed as world’s fair pavilions. Examples include the Queen’s Museum of Art in New York and The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Barcelona’s diverse architectural heritage which includes ancient Roman structures alongside bold modernist designs with medieval cathedrals between them also features a surprising number of prominent world’s fair contributions. A number of these are from the Exposición Universal de Barcelona held in 1888. But the most grand and impressive structures are gathered around the Plaça d’Espanya at the foot of Montjuïc and were built for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition.

While in Barcelona two weeks ago I had the opportunity to take in some of these public spaces. Below are a few shots I gathered with a couple of additions for perspective, both temporal and spatial. To begin with, here is a shot taken from atop a former bull fighting arena now turned into a stylish shopping center. The shot was taken with my iPod so the quality is a bit lacking, but it shows a good bit of the roundabout that is Plaça d’Espanya along with several of the structures built for the 1929 Exposition. These include the Venetian inspired towers, the St. Peter’s inspired colonnades, and the Spanish Renaissance inspired palace in the background. Also visible is the Montjuïc Communications Tower built for the 1992 Olympics.

This panoramic black and white, which clearly I did not take, shows the same area and more as it appeared in 1929.

Here is another look at the Venetian towers, this time from Montjuïc toward Plaça d’Espanya. As you can tell, most of these shots were taken on a rather cloudy day which is unfortunate.

The four columns were intended to represent the four red bars of the Catalonian flag. Because of this the originals were torn down by then Spanish President Primo de Rivera. The columns visible today were reconstructed in 2010.

Below is a shot of what was for the fair the Palau Nacional and which now houses the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

Once more looking out from the Museu Nacional toward Plaça d’Espanya. Visible to the right of the towers is the converted bull fighting arena.

Remarkably, alongside these buildings that hearken back to the architectural past there was also built one of the early twentieth century’s most famous specimens of modernism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s German Pavilion (today often referred to as the Barcelona Pavilion). As Paul Greenhalgh has put it referring to the German pavilion and the surrounding structures, “It is difficult to imagine these buildings being of the same century, and even more difficult to imagine them as part of the same event.”

Greenhalgh describes the juxtaposition as the “most dramatic example of contrast and competition between history and modernity at an exposition.” The Mies pavilion, he adds, “stunning in its opulent austerity, is an extraordinary essay on the potential of urban, domestic space to function as pure art.”

This first shot below is not my own, but taken from Wikipedia. It gives you a good look at the whole without any visitors present. Below are series of my own shots from inside the house. The original was torn down shortly after the fair in 1930. However, Spanish architects reconstructed the structure based on original plans and existing photographs between 1983 and 1986.

The pavilion also housed the sculpture below (seen from a distance above), Georg Kolbe’s Alba or Dawn. 

Finally, the fountains that line the avenue leading from Museu Nacional to Plaça d’Espanya including the massive fountain directly in front of the Museu Nacional, the Font màgica de Montjuïc, continue to put on a dazzling night time display as they were designed to do in 1929.