A main question for this project: How to preserve the immaterial?
As an undergrad student of art history and philosophy and as an intern at MoMA, I studied the preservation of video art. During my research, I realised that a lot of the video works we see in museums and galleries do not really exist materially anywhere: it is a digitised copy of the original tape or DVD, it is inconsistent what equipment it is being shown on, it is inconsistent what size of monitor or projection is used, and so forth.
This seemed to bother no one. But it bothered me a lot. How can the art world price and sell a video piece as if it was a painting or a sculpture, when it clearly is not? Painting and video have very different ontologies. Same for sculpture and video. At the most basic level, video is temporal and painting and sculpture is not.
After looking further into it, I realised that the few people who were actually dealing with these issues, were simply not radical enough. They were very practical about it (which is understandable, given that they all work in an institutional (/conservative) context). These practitioners were keeping track of conversions of the files, storing copies in different places, storing records of how the piece had been shown etc. Already back then, I thought that these people never really touched upon the root of the problem, which is: how to preserve something that is perceived as immaterial and ephemeral (such as, in this anecdote, video art).
I am writing this to introduce this issue that I have been dealing with for a while. This current project, the Major Studio 1 Final, is admittedly a bit “whimsical”, but nonetheless trying to deal with these issues: I want to find out how to preserve the memory of a particular place and a particular person.
In the project, I aim to highlight the connection between the immaterial (a person’s personal history), with the material (the natural landscapes of soil and dirt).
It is my belief that if we can conserve the concrete materiality of a place and a person, a lot of the abstract knowledge about the place and person, will be conserved as well.
How to preserve memories? Where does memory live, and how can we manifest memory in something solid, something that lasts? What will we leave behind for our great-great-great-grandchildren (other than trash)? How can we tell our stories, now – and then “forever”?
Memories – as intangible images, sentences and sensations – are traditionally saved as written texts, photographs, paintings, sculptures, films and so forth. My project asks: Is there a way to keep the memories alive using alternative methods?
I do not believe that memory only survives in traditional media. I believe that memory lives in everything. I believe that history is a living thing, and that it lives in our bodies, our landscapes, our buildings, our things.
This project not only explores, but actually has as a core premise, that memory (also) exists in a non-human and non-lingual place, such as the literal underground.
How does the landscape embody memory? What relation exists between the human history and geological history?
The meeting of scales in the landscape and the person. How does the two coexist? How do they influence each other?
Heidegger’s writings on the landscape, for instance in Building Dwelling Thinking, is a source of inspiration for me. How the fourfold of the sky, Earth, the mortals and the divinities are interrelated and interconnected, is a basis for my understanding of how we are in a place.
It is my experience that a lot of people still are under the reign of a Cartesian dualism – believing basically that “I” am something other than “my body”. Heidegger rejects this dualism and introduces a sophisticated holism, which I am inspired by.
Heidegger’s literal readings of metaphors is an approach that I am trying to adopt. In Building Dwelling Thinking, the sky is both the physical sky as our physical human limit, but also a constant reminder of eternity: the sky is both a metaphor for eternity as well as the literal endlessness of the universe behind the sky.
The dirt and the underground is the basis for our lives.
My project states that memory exists in the soil and dirt of a landscape. Not only metaphorically and abstractly, but also as a very concrete foundation for past lives: the land that our grandparents, great grandparents and great great grandparents cultivated and farmed, forming the basis of their lives. As descendants, our fortunes, the premise of our lives, are directly dependant upon the conditions that we inherited from our parents – which they, in turn, inherited from their parents, and so forth. If the soil was fat and good, the crop was easier to grow: the richness of the soil equalled the richness of the people cultivating the soil.
But also on another scale does the landscape shape people. The shape of the landscape and the quality of the soil impacts what types of fruits can grow, what types of small animals you can meet outdoors and what types of trees can grow.
The soil and dirt of the landscape in which a person grows up, has physical and metaphysical implications for our lives.
Geological layers of time
As we dig deeper and deeper into the ground, we go further and further back in time. This is well known. Just as it is well known that as we look up into the night sky, we are looking at the past. Some of the stars we see shining brightly on the dark night sky, are not shining anymore. You would be able to find both of these facts in a school book for 10-year olds, but still: it is completely mind boggling.
This project does not seek to “make people wonder” or “make people realise” something. This project is not dreaming. Instead, this project assumes that this everyday-knowledge is comprehended and appreciated by its users. When I take that as my departure point, the project will exist in a sort of parallel dimension to our everyday lives (what we tend to call critical or speculative design, and sometimes art).
Within the traditional design traditions, my project is probably closest to the critical design-realm. But I am critical toward the term “critical design”. Primarily I am critical because I find that most “normal” design is already “critical”. Most new design is critical toward existing design. If you choose to design a new screwdriver, it is because you find that there are problems with all the other existing screwdrivers – and you have a solution to it. You are critical towards the existing solutions, and therefore you create a new solution. But that is not called critical design.
I am in general skeptical about the term “critical design”, but I am especially skeptical toward it in this project.
The obvious reason to call my project a “critical design project” is that it is not serving an apparent or immediate need. It is basically not solving a problem per se. But I find this notion quite problematic. When designers identify problems, they basically believe that they understand something, and can solve something. I do not think I understand enough to solve anything (I can only solve very basic problems relating to myself and the closest people around me). This project does not try to solve anything or critique anything. This project is making something. The project is creating a new type of usage. It is creating something which could exist and possibly does exist in a parallel/alternative dimension.
As stated above, I am trying to actually produce something which could exist as a product. It will probably never be a product you will find in IKEA, but my project is trying to fit into a product-category, since it is a physical thing for a user.
Just as the project is close to the critical design-realm, it is also close to a more traditional visual arts-realm. The project can easily be perceived as a poetic meditation on memory and place. This would be reasonable to do. But I am curious if I can move the project to the outskirts of the artistic region and make it less poetic and more concrete. I try to make it “too much”, rather than delicate and artistic/poetic.
As the project is related to the ritual of burial, it is intrinsically connected with performance. Rituals are performances, and so this project is dealing with performance. It is important to note that the project is not a performance in itself. The project is an object – which will be used in a ritual. But the project is only the object.
Precedents and references
Fast, Omer: The Casting (2007) and Continuity (2012)
Omer Fast is a visual artist and film director who works with experimental narratives, experimental documentary and installations. I want to highlight the two films The Casting (2007) and Continuity (2012) for this project.
The Casting is an installation consisting of four screens. Two screens in one room, and two screens in another room. The soundtrack in both rooms are the same, and played in sync: an interview with a veteran soldier interviewed about a war experience and a love story. The narratives of the soldier’s two stories are seamlessly interwoven. No cuts are audible and it seems like one fluid narration, even though it is obviously two very different stories. On the two screens in the first room, we see a remaking of the soldier’s stories. The images on the screen are in accordance with what is being said in the soundtrack. We see war-scenarios in obviously staged reenactments, mixed with love-story scenarios in similar reenacted scenes, as well as staged interview-scenarios. What makes it even clearer that this is a fiction is that all images are staged still-images, meaning that the video shows people standing still, frozen, as if it was a still image. This is eerie and highly effective – very strange to watch. In the second room, the two screens show the actual interview of the veteran.
Continuity is a movie in a loop. The movie repeats the same type of scene over and over again. The different scenes repeat a similar story over and over again: An older couple is picking up a young soldier, returning from war, from a bus station. They hug and kiss him, as if they have not seen him in a long time. They return to their house, they have dinner and the young soldier tells stories from the war. As the stories are told, still figures reenacting the scenes appear physically in the dining room. Every night, something strange – and probably very bad – happens, so that the couple must pick up a new young soldier from the bus station the next morning again. As the couple drives to the bus station, strange visions physically manifest themselves in the quiet German forest: visions of desert war, bloody soldiers crawling, bloody limbs and exotic animals.
What is fascinating to me about these two films, are two things in particular.
First, I find that the reenactments of memories, created in both films as moving still-images, are good examples of how to deal with memories on film. The memories are obviously removed from the authenticity of the original situation, but yet they are created in flesh and blood. The memory is literally alive.
Secondly, the smoothness of the mix between fact and fiction, and between time and place. The narrative is seamless and smooth with an almost Hollywood-sense of dramaturgy, yet haunting, deeply strange and often disturbing.
Both films deal with the preservation of memory.
Francis Alys: When Faith Moves Mountains (2002)
Francis Alys’ famous piece When Faith Moves Mountains is a performance in which 500 volunteers moved a sand dune 10 centimeters using only shovels.
It is a simple gesture: a mass movement of people turns into a geological event. It is placing people in the landscape, and the people are affecting the landscape. A simple movement, but also dealing with the theme of man and landscape.
Heidegger, Martin: “Building Dwelling Thinking”
As stated in the domains-section (“Landscape”) of this paper, Heidegger’s writings in general about landscape and Man’s situation in the landscape, is influential for this project. I use “Building Dwelling Thinking” as an example here, because it is more approachable than most of Heidegger’s work.
Central to this project is a holistic approach, a sensorial approach and a notion of a deep connection between Man and Place. These themes stem almost directly from Heidegger’s writings.
Parikka, Jussi: Geology of Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2015)
Jussi Parikka’s book has had a big influence on this project. Raising awareness about the materiality of new technologies has been very important for me this semester in general. My project is not directly related to the technological or ecological issues that Parikka’s book primarily touches upon. But Parikka highlights the importance of materiality, the symbolism of materiality as well as how the human timescale relates to larger geological timescales. Those issues are deeply related to my project.
Plus, it is important as a designer today, and especially a designer working with new technologies, to be aware of how our work today is a part of a much larger scale than we are comfortable thinking about.