I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Enigmatic Fascinations: Re-viewing Memory Texts

Since reading the “memory texts” Annette Kuhn published in Family Secrets (which I commented on a few days ago), I’ve been thinking about various work I’ve created that shares her concerns: photo collages, a home-movie compilation, an abandoned autobiography, a “postmodern scrapbook,” a computer graphics series based on my childhood diaries, video transformations of the computer graphics, and fictional pieces inspired by many of these texts. Spanning a time frame from high school to the present—earlier if the childhood diaries are counted—this work has been reserved mainly for private viewing, with little or no circulation in the public sphere. Packed in boxes (work that still exists) or stored in my memory banks (work that’s been lost), this largely undocumented material exerts a profound influence on how I approach both critical and creative projects today, as well as how I engage with new media.

Contributing to my personal archive, the memory texts I’ve created have themselves taken on the characteristics of family albums and memorabilia, resources that usually instigate the type of memory work Kuhn practices, rather than document its progress as mine have. These dynamics became clear to me while viewing a new DVD copy of “In the Beginning,” a two-minute compilation of 8mm home movies from my childhood that I made for an introductory film class many years ago. Little did I know then that the shots I spliced together with Scotch tape would someday be the only moving-image footage left from my youth. (Although probably rendered unviewable by the splicing technique I used, the reels of home movies from which I appropriated the found footage were eventually lost.) Fortunately, the original compilation I made, which was transferred to VHS several years ago, remained sturdy enough to survive another dub, this time to DVD.

In this format the class exercise captured my attention once again. I thought about the film while reading Kuhn’s book, which claims, “Anyone who has a family photograph that exerts an enigmatic fascination or arouses an inexplicable depth of emotion could find memory work rewarding” (7). With the four prompts described in this book as a rough guide (8), I decided to initiate some memory work of my own, starting with “In the Beginning.” I soon realized, however, that the case history I was constructing involved double readings at least, given the text’s elusive parameters. So when I considered the human subject(s) represented, the context of production, the context in which these kinds of images would have been made, and the text’s audiences over time, I contemplated scenes both from the early years of my life in the 1950s, of which I remember almost nothing, and from my undergraduate college years in the 1970s, which I do recall.

Arranged in loose chronological order, with some mixing back and forth, the film brings together fleeting images from the first six or seven years in the life of an American girl, the first-born child of young, working-class parents who never appear visibly in the montage. (Unidentified adults are evident now and then from the shoulders down.) I speak of the girl in the third person, as though the protagonist of this story, a silent film, has nothing to do with me, yet knowing she does. The assemblage includes only exterior shots, thus excluding from inspection family dramas that unfolded inside the home. The girl’s father took all the movies with his 8mm camera.

On TV I see a happy blue-eyed, blonde-haired toddler crawling on the lawn, taking her first steps, riding a merry-go-round, petting a dog, dodging waves on the beach. And then there’s a stunning three-year-old girl posing for the camera(man) with her newborn sister, a dark-haired child. A few years later, wearing a light winter jacket, the elder girl’s performing acrobatics on the slide in her backyard. One summer close in time—it could be earlier or later—she’s wearing a bathing suit and sliding into a plastic swimming pool; afterward, she turns and smiles at the camera, as though looking for approval. Many birthday parties are commemorated, probably the first six; they’re all staged in the backyard of the family’s modest house. For some reason, I’m drawn to two scenes in which the protagonist as a young girl performs. In one scene, maybe from her third birthday celebration, she’s running deliriously in circles amid friends. In the other scene, apparently from her fourth birthday party, she’s blowing out the candles on her birthday cake (five candles, with one for good luck); she and the friends who surround her are all wearing party hats. At another birthday party she’s pinning the tail on the donkey after being blindfolded and turned around. Later, she and her sister are twirling hula hoops, and so on.

Toward the end of the piece, unfamiliar footage appears—shots of mountains, a waterfall, a burning cabin, and a few clips from what looks like a ride at Disneyland. Maybe these latter shots represent the college student’s attempt to insert oblique commentary, to experiment with the potential of editing and the juxtaposition of images. To me now, the footage seems to be tacked on as an afterthought; the technique doesn’t work in an aesthetic or a critical sense, yet the images do hint at a story I wanted to tell but didn’t pull off. (I notice that I’ve slipped into first person.) Since most of “In the Beginning” highlights ordinary scenes from conventional home movies—a better title might have helped—I can understand why my film professor thought the piece was banal. After all, he didn’t design the assignment as an exercise in memory work; he wanted to challenge us creatively, and on that score I disappointed him, and myself.

To study how people developed as individuals and as members of society, an interest that informed my approach to “In the Beginning,” I switched my undergraduate major to psychology and put media studies, as well as creative explorations of any kind, on hold. I found, though, that my fascination with the media arts persisted, and my urge to experiment creatively—rather than as a social scientist–grew stronger over time. After many trials and errors, with several chance encounters thrown in, I found my way back to the media arts and to explorations of autobiographical narratives—other people’s and my own. From my current vantage point, the journey I took from that introductory film class to graduate studies years later makes perfect sense, as though I had planned the itinerary in advance, but as I’ve often said, I improvised most of the way, or so I thought. I wonder now whether on some level I could have known where I was going?

When I think about “In the Beginning” and other “memory texts” I’ve constructed over the years, including the examples mentioned earlier, I sense that these seemingly random and disparate projects, which I’ve felt compelled to create, somehow resonate with one another and if interlinked would tell a story I’ve overlooked, for all these projects, despite differences involving media, theoretical frameworks, and the circumstances under which they were produced, provide traces of ongoing performances I’ve been repeating and refining most of my adult life, usually in private. These performances have added continuity to an otherwise discontinuous life story. I imagine that the significance of these acts—variations of the memory work Kuhn describes—has more to do with the intellectual and creative processes that have been set in motion than with the apparent subject matter I’ve addressed. Hence I’m tempted to connect the dots, to interlink my disparate memory texts, and maybe discover an alternative personal history, a parallel narrative with strong emotional valence. Kuhn’s book helped me see the value of doing this. . . . As a postscript I’ll add that my rediscovery of “In the Beginning” occurred about two years after my father died, an event that has affected my reading of the film—and the cameraman—in subtle ways. I’m grateful to him for leaving behind remembrances of my childhood, traces of a past that pre-dates my memory.

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