Total Recall

On collective memory and personal experience

On Sunday 15 February at 20:44 GMT the much-loved British artist and TV personality, Tony Hart, died for the second time. Often accompanied by Morph, his plasticine sidekick, Hart was watched by impressionable children with an interest in art (including this writer) for almost 50 years. In fact, his first, actual, death was some six years earlier, on 18 January 2009.

According to the BBC, Hart’s second demise was the unwitting fault of one Dan Huntly, who, on that fateful February day, tweeted: ‘RIP Tony Hart. #tonyhart #hartbeat #morph.’ Apparently, it was his wife’s mistake: ‘My Mrs just told me she saw a post on Facebook and assumed it was today he died. I feel like a prick now haha!’ @DanSpangle tweeted later. Still, the initial missive somehow went viral and started trending in the UK: hundreds used Twitter to pay their respects with hashtags like #RIPTonyHart and #Hartbeat.

Momentary collective amnesia? The pratfalls of citizen journalism? How to understand it? A recent show curated by Nicolaus Schafhausen at Kunsthalle Wien, ‘The Future of Memory’, tried to give a technological explanation to this kind of phenomenon. Writing in the exhibition’s accompanying ebook, Schafhausen describes this kind of occurence as a symptom of the digital condition: ‘Whereas before our experiences were made up of what might be called “real” memories, i.e. memories of events and spaces we experienced personally,’ he writes, ‘now, we are being confronted more and more with the recall of experiences we have gained from virtual sources.’ Schafhausen claims that the rise of ‘virtual memory’ – digital storage, online communication platforms, the cloud – changes the way we remember. He quotes a 2012 piece in the Guardian by science communication lecturer Alice Bell, which refers to a 2011 study in the journal Science purporting to show that our memories worsen when we know information is stored digitally and is easily accessible. Instead of remembering facts, we remember how to find them. Our brains now seem to retain less but index more. It’s a phenomenon that the American social psychologist Daniel Wegner has termed ‘transactive memory’, the depositing of information into an external source for future access. (Bell tempers Schafhausen’s techo-awe by pointing out that, although aided by the increase of ‘virtual memory’, this is no new digital breakthrough: think about your bookshelf at home or scribbled reminders on scraps of paper or on the back of your hand.)

The fact that memory can be disconnected from immediate recall seems to explain Twitter’s collective amnesia when it came to the death of Hart – and also that confusing term ‘collective memory’. How can something as personal as memory be collective? What the term highlights, albeit fuzzily, is that, to some degree, we share memories of the same events, facts and images and today, thanks to Twitter and other platforms that rely on a constant flow of information, this recurs on a more global scale and more instantaneously than ever before. Yet, I’m sure I’m not the only person to have assumed I’ve viewed an exhibition when I’ve only seen images of it, or to have mistaken an old image online for a new one. Twitter and Instagram don’t care whether your post is new, old, true or false. Just that you post at all.

Our insatiable lust for endless information streams – despite their, at times, questionable veracity – recalls a line narrated by Adam Curtis in his 2015 film Bitter Lake: ‘Events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain.’ Curtis’s study of collective memory is a reminder of the historical and political narratives that underlie our under­standing of the recent past. He mirrors this ‘confusion and uncertainty’ by insisting on an anxious complexity in his use of images but soothes it with a seemingly cogent narrative: a delirious dreamscape of ostensibly newsworthy images overlaid with the reassuringly authoritative tones of a learned history teacher. Here, more so than in his previous films, music adds a third level of welcome complication. The film opens with a track by Burial. The pairing of Curtis with one of London’s most celebrated and mysterious post-dubstep producers may seem unlikely, but it’s strangely apt given that both consistently deal in the fraught complexities of contemporary collective memory, though Burial’s focus is firmly that of today’s London: of hazy, half-remembered nights out, night buses and nightmares.

In his 2012 book After Art, David Joselit writes: ‘What matters is not the production of new content but its retrieval in intelligible patterns through acts of reframing, capturing, reiterating and documenting. What counts, in other words, is how widely and easily images connect.’ For the stories, tweets or images that form our digitally deposited collective memory, retrieval and connectivity seem key. Yet, we need to remember the role of personal experience in the trade-off between wider accessibility and diminished recall. Despite the online channels and platforms that allow our lives to be shared instantly, it’s important to remind ourselves that every experience is still qualitatively different and unique. If images and stories evoke memories, what texture do those memories take on? How do our individual memories of the same experience feel? For those of us who look at art and think about the experience, it’s that feeling which makes art worth seeing and thinking about in the first place. It’s a point worth remembering.

Paul Teasdale is editor of frieze.com. He is based in London.

Issue 170

First published in Issue 170

April 2015

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