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Jörg Heiser on memes, memory and Errol Morris's Wormwood

What’s the relationship between collage and trauma? The literal meaning of the word ‘trauma’ is ‘wound’, which indicates a parallel between collage – defined as the bringing together of different elements – and an injury that needs binding or stitching in order to heal. This was something that the cubists and dadaists understood implicitly when they created collages in the wake of World War I. Yet, 100 years on, collage has become a benign classroom exercise and ubiquitous in the form of memes. (Strictly speaking, not all memes are collages, but many are.) Obviously, a lot of memes are simply entertaining one-liners. But there has also been a tsunami of alt-right propaganda in the form of collage memes – take, for example, the ones retweeted by Donald Trump, including the image of Hillary Clinton with piles of cash and a Star of David, and a person with a CNN logo for a head being hit by a train. In other words, these days collage either offers muffled comic relief or functions as a weaponized lie.

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Hannah Höch, Indian Dancer: From an Ethnographic Museum, 1930. Courtesy: Museum of Modern Art/ Scala Archives

The reason I’ve been thinking about the relationship between collage and trauma is because I can’t get Errol Morris’s six-part Netflix series Wormwood (2017) out of my head. It tells the bizarre and tragic story of Frank Olson, a biological warfare scientist working for the CIA. In 1953, he plunged to his death from the 13th-floor window of a New York hotel. Nine days earlier, he was covertly dosed with LSD, having become an unwitting test subject of the CIA’s Project MKUltra, a top-secret mind-control programme that began during the Korean War. While Wormwood mainly focuses on whether the biochemist committed suicide or was murdered, its central character is Olson’s son, Eric, who was nine when his father died. His life became one of constant struggle with, and investigation into, the mysterious circumstances surrounding his father’s demise. One major outcome of that struggle was what Eric calls the ‘collage method’. In the 1970s, he studied clinical psychology at Harvard and wrote his thesis on the subject. Collage could involve, say, getting survivors of a flood to paste together pictures in order to deal with their post-traumatic stress – a therapy of seeking sense and redemption not through words but images. On his website, Frankolsonproject.org, Eric writes: ‘From as far back as I can remember, the thought of my father’s death has been inseparable from the notions of montage and collage. There was never a single reason for that linkage. In the beginning, it probably centred on the idea of the shattering glass, the proliferating shards as he took flight. Or perhaps the key to it was the image of my father’s body, fractured and fragmented by the fall. It was a fantasy unsupported by perception. We were advised by the Defence Department not to see the body.’

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Errol Morris, Wormwood, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Netflix

We only catch glimpses of Eric’s collages in Wormwood as Morris adapts their aesthetic for his narrative. For example, as Eric recalls an encounter with Sidney Gottlieb, the head of Project MKUltra, he says: ‘The former Gottlieb, who used to be me, did some things that I’m not proud of – but I’m not him.’ The quote is followed by images of Gottlieb’s face and others cut vertically in half and paired with multiple halved faces; the images are granular and photographic and often formed from the pixellation of newspaper print. That is to say: Gottlieb’s denial takes the form of describing himself as the victim of a sort of post-traumatic identity crisis, with collage serving to illustrate this point.

Which brings us back to memes. One of the most fascinating aspects of Eric’s lifelong quest is that he makes his collages in a house filled with shelves stacked with decades of LIFE magazines – his main source material. It could be said that his analogue archive anticipated what Google image search and other digital tools would one day provide for meme makers. But it also makes clear that we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of physically cutting out images and pasting them together, something tangible that aids our ability to remember details so that we might discover some kind of sense – or a lack it. If memes are, in fact, collage as weaponized lies, perhaps we need to respond to them in the same way that Eric Olson did: put our energy into uncovering the truth, not only of words but of images.

This article appears in the print edition of the June - August 2018 issue, with the headline 'Scar Issue'.