MoRM: A Collective Memory

The Museum of Random Memory v1.0

This post was created as my contribution to the Journal of Disruptive Media concerning the first edition of MoRM produced in Spring of 2016. MoRM was produced in 2016 and 2017 at DOKK1 in Aarhus Denmark. For more information on the project check out the official Future Making site.

A GOOD MEMORY

I consider myself to have a good memory. I can recall, in a dreamy way, my second birthday. But increasingly I find myself constructing memories more consciously, reviewing my notes, checking my calendar, flipping through the pictures on my phone. My memory is like a trail now, spread out across internet services and files and devices. Last week I uncovered a smartphone abandoned in the back of a drawer and realized it contained about a year of images, some things I wanted, some I wanted to delete but most just there along with a handful of accidental shots. The metaphor some might use is of opening a lost storage room but these are stranger: a storage room is filled with the deliberately placed, these photos are artifacts of things that I have no memory of. These are proof of the existence of empty rooms, the shoes I was wearing on a particular Tuesday, the lunch I ate in January of 2013. They are proof that I was alive and holding a device at a particular time. They are not: proof that I was paying attention, proof that the moment mattered, proof that anyone cares. In spite of this, the images are all presented with the same weight by the devices, the same resolution, the same quality, the same interface. It’s my own ability or inability to construct them into a narrative that gives them a weight.

A RECONSTRUCTED MEMORY

I was on my way to do this for this project – to review my records of the week and the events, to reconstruct what happened when we put together our museum – and then I decided to write blind instead, relying on what’s in my head alone. It’s annoying me, honestly. There’s a nagging feeling here. I am physically itching to reach for the folder that contains the images. I’m cheating, flipping through the handful of pictures we’ve posted to the shared doc where we are writing this text together. I’m trying not to read the other narratives there, but I’m skimming them anyway. My brain wants to make sense of what I remember, make an order to the chaos, make an agreement with my cohort.

This isn’t something new, this reconstruction of memory: it’s a fundamental thing that humans do when we build culture: we re-tell narratives again and again, reinforcing the parts that are weak, smoothing over the holes, filling in the gaps. When an event is particularly traumatic or joyful we retell it over and over again to anyone who will listen because this solidifies the truth, digs the record groove a little deeper, turns the experience into reportage and makes something ineffable into a foundation on which we can build. When we don’t do this, or avoid doing it, our brains might do it anyway, replaying the unbidden and forcing our pattern-matchers to match with or without our will.

FITNESS FOR COMMERCIAL PURPOSE

A weird incoherence has emerged: this old method of oral tradition, of collectively reliable but individually unreliable memory forming a truth when taken together, has taken form on the internet. In this version, the public is replaced with publics, and a thousand agoras exist: these are at once empowering and isolating. The notion is as old as humanity but with the following characteristics: 1. The public squares no longer require the commitment of moving through physical space. They are easier and faster to access, and nothing (including the very humanity of the speaker) can be assumed. 2. The internet promises a permanent record, more data than we want, more details, more metadata. We record everything and let god sort it out later, because in fact recording is easier than forgetting. Recording can be done without identity, but forgetting requires ownership: I must single out a memory, an artifact or an idea and erase it, that very one and not the others, while the technology, as the myth goes, is blind to meaning, simply collecting what it encounters without judgement, politics or care.

In the beginning the network was the agora, and the agora was problematic. A free space with no rules, we then relinquished ownership of the infrastructure to commercial interests in a circle: keeping a space clean and well lit costs money, funded by advertisers who want to reach the people, who will gather in clean well-lit spaces and accept the advertising as the cost of interchange. Once the novelty wears off (and it always does) what remains are the memories and the artifacts of the memories, and these are locked tight, forming the walls of the space. Here the systems demand memory because they are built of it: unbidden memory palaces, an ossification of history with or without our will.

But architecture always impacts its inhabitants and agoraphobia sets in. By shifting our social activities to commercial space, they take on a different quality: we struggle with the collapse of the signifiers between high and low culture. Our new myths are interlaced with pop-up ads and sponsored content, login boxes and sound effects. We incorporate cinematic and fictional vocabulary into our everyday lives: we adjust the lighting, apply color grading, add soundtracks. We get better at writing fanfiction about ourselves and our friends. We construct narratives deliberately and we subject them to metrics and we measure their impact and we adjust. This labor makes human life appear as disposable as a Hollywood blockbuster, underscored by a technology that whispers that the data is infinite, even while the weight of an event’s significance, recorded on our phone or not, remains as heavy as historic record.

TRUST FALL

The Museum of Random Memory was for me an exercise in ceremonial forgetting, made wonderful by the contrast of the formation of new memories from having recently just met my fellow museum staff. The genius of the project was in the selection of the team and the danger of doing things out of order: We designed and built a project before we knew each other, and we documented the project before we had designed a thing. The emphasis was therefore on creating a potential energy without fully knowing the consequence of the outcome. For the players of this particular game this required a special kind of trust, a feeling that whatever happened was the right thing, and whoever took on the role they played did it because that’s what they were there for.

This type of emergent behavior is rare and wonderful but not in itself surprising: given a small carefully selected group of individuals and a specific time frame, you can manufacture the ideal conditions of play. It doesn’t always run so smoothly, but what was more surprising was the degree to which we were able to expand the circle to include a random public. Our museum was nothing without the gifts of our visitors, who took our narrative and ran with it, both showing us what our museum could do and telling us what the museum was for.

PLEASE FORGET

I believe the importance of the museum emerged from a particular strategy of honoring the meaning of the objects in our collection over the infrastructure of the museum itself. Most physical museums and online social networks provide a rock-solid framework and the promise that they will always exist. They are machines for preservation. This is a useful fiction of course, but it does mean that the content such systems hold is de-emphasized in favor of the framework itself. The dominant, commercial agoras which occupy most of our social interactions ask for your most intimate and significant memories and then trivialize them in order to render them available for broader use. Such systems transform family photos into stock art, birthdays into calendar reminders and late night confessions into fodder for surveillance. Nothing that you actually care about matters much to the entities that hold culture in this way, and yet participants are also not permitted, by design, to export any of these memories: they are locked in the walls. By emphasizing a ritual of forgetting, by declaring our labor in service of the useless, we flipped the narrative.

Your photo of your vacation is one of a million vacations. It is valuable only as a drop in the ocean of data. Trivialized in this way, the image is stripped of meaning and free to be instrumentalized. In contrast, our framework was explicitly temporary, built of plastic bags and string and paper, intentionally destined for destruction. Our museum was worth nothing in a commercial sense, and what this did was leave room for the items in the collection to take their place as meaningful. Not any vacation photo, but this vacation photo, the one I wish to forget. Not any receipt, but this receipt, this memory of regret I no longer want to carry.

In an era where everything is archivable, we archive nothing. Photographs, texts, music, songs and ideas are free and plentiful and so disposable. At the same time we have opened archives up to audiences for which they were never intended: individual significance is erased in favor of a notion of the greater good. This tension between the dissolution of The Public while exposing the intimacies of smaller publics for broader consumption defines our age. Data is not data, it is someone’s memory, and to remain relevant it cannot be frozen or exposed so quickly: our memories must remain mutable, alive, erasable and fragile, potential fuel for the open and shut process that creates culture. Am I an unreliable narrator? Does this contain contradictions? Very well then.