The Half Life of Memory:
A Northern Gothic
“The Half-Life of Memory”
This work grew out of a previous ongoing series of photo-based images with text, entitled “(Arrogation) The full weight of reason”). That work considers ideas of the “constructed-ness” of our “History”. Those considerations led to an investigation into the idea of the “construction” of “Memory” itself, and other related ideas surrounding memory. The work originates from more than one locus, i.e. cultural, historical and personal memory
For millennia, national, cultural and familial/personal history was a function of the ability to construct narrative, manifest through oral expertise (though this is also a fragile medium, see page 3 “What was and might have been”). With the advent of written text and more recently photographic/film evidence, the ability to remember “should” be greatly enhanced. The merit of the results of our reliance on these technologies is in question in this work.
“The Half Life of Memory” investigates the process of this construction of memory, of the phenomena of the decay, reclamation or creation of memory, and the role of narrative in these processes. In considering the relationships between narratives conveyed through image and text, I am exploring the role that they, as catalyst or stimuli, play in the retention/reclamation of memory narratives.
I discovered in the early stages of this work that certain images in my archive (gathered over the last 30 years) unearthed memory of some explicit event from the recesses of my past. Initially I used those existing images that elicited the most potent memories. In many cases the images had no obvious relationship to the event remembered. The images were also chosen for their adherence to the trope of the “snapshot”. Juxtaposing the images with textual narratives of that remembered event results in a convergence, allowing new narratives to emerge. These sub-texts reflect an investigation of the nature of the society/culture of the time/place of those (myself included in some cases) who were viewing/judging/commenting on the events that form these memories.
The B&W work (subtitled “What Was and Might Have Been”) are the result of this process. The two earliest works, using existing images from my archive, deal with cultural/historical memory. The later images explore personal/familial memory.
The early Colour work (subtitled ” A Northern Gothic”), using existing images, began in the same mode. The later works appears to adhere to the same trope of the “snapshot” and offers the same opportunity for subtext. The creative process though demanded a much different approach. In some this work the text narrative came first. As these textually realized memories had no corresponding images in my archive, the images had to be created. Using a directorial process, (creating a mise en scene, which is then photographed) the convergence necessary for the piece is realized.
These text narratives are integral to all the work as they go hand in glove with the images, the work would be incomplete without it.
Though the works contain a degree of autobiographical veracity, they are really “creative non-fictions”. Composites of personal experience, story, rumour, conjecture, and imagination, that in reality makes up memory. So too the images are composites, in most cases utilizing 2 or more different images to build the final image. In effect the texts are as “true” as the image component of these works. To varying degrees these explorations have grown to reflect the cultural memory of my childhood, my family and the community that I grew up in. This becomes more pronounced in the later colour work.
All of the images were originally shot on film (35mm & 6x7cm). As with the earlier bodies of work, the images have been scanned and assembled and the text added digitally. The final black & white images were then output via laser light jet as a photograph. They are matted and framed and are from 15″x 24″ to 24″x36″ in size. The colour images are output via Epson inkjet printer using archival paper and inks. They are framed unmatted and are all circa 34″x54″.
Ken Jeannotte 2007
When memories are stirred by oral, textual or photographic evidence are we really remembering the events we think we are? As many of the images used in the early work have little or no apparent relationship to the memory engendered, it seems the subconscious sorts this evidence independent of the conscious stimulation. This reclamation impulse seems to be beyond our control. But what is a memory other than the ability to recite this narrative to ourselves. Are we really remembering the event or “just” a story of the event and can we ever know if it is the same narrative we told ourselves with the last telling? And if it is not, at what point, with subsequent remembering (retelling) does the decay set in? With time do we begin to lose our grasp of the original event and are we forced to create a subsequent iteration every time we remember? Perhaps like history, memory itself is in reality an unending construction depending on the power of narrative to bring it from the virtual to the corporal. So then, like some mental Mobius strip, memory is a function of narrative, at the same time, narrative is a function of memory.
“What was and might have been”
When I was a very young child, long before uninterrupted consecutive memory, an event happened that, as I grow older and farther removed from, seems to lose credibility even in my own mind. My grandfather and mother have passed on, my father now has no memory beyond a few fleeting minutes and my brother who was there has no memory of the event at all, making it hard to corroborate. Still, I am sure that it must have happened – but if it did indeed happen, am I remembering the event, or the stories told after the fact. I know the exact spot on the 320 acre farm where the incident took place and I have a crystal clear image in my mind’s eye; the bright sparkling fall afternoon air, the plow shears slicing the sod, the dry yellow stubble crunching and crackling as it turns under the moist black earth, and the warm oily smell of the droning tractor engine. This I remember. My grandfather driving the tractor and my older brother and I crouched behind on the steel tractor deck hanging on to the rusted fenders. At the end of the half-mile field, the plow lifted out of the ground as we approached the headland, my grandfather yelled at my brother to open the throttle. He eagerly obeyed and the tractor leapt foreword, my small hand slipped from the fender and I tumbled off the back, directly under the path of the plow. I remember the dry stubble stabbing into my back and the shiny steel shear above me, scraping down my right arm peeling a layer of skin, a thousand small red blood spots springing up as the plow rolled over me. I remember nothing else of the incident whatsoever; the severity of the wound, neither my state of mind, nor that of my parents when my grandfather returned to the house with an injured child, nothing. The wound must have been minor, I have no scar to show for such a potentially dangerous incident but it surely has had some psychic resonance as it is such a vivid memory and is probably the second longest memory that I hold. As I was so young when this happened I assume I was told of the event and now cannot be sure if I remember the event itself or a recounting of the event, Has it become an auto-narrative structure I have built over the intervening years, part of my own creation myth? Perhaps like history, memory itself is in reality a construction depending on the power of narrative to bring it from the virtual to the real.
There was a torment
There was a torment hovering like a halo of black thoughts that day after mass as he dug Stamping down the rain heavy grass where the two peeled logs and coil of rope waited soon to be erected now the boys were old enough. Their excitement a torn veil of little protection they slashed at the clouds of mosquitoes with poplar switches slapping bare legs above the chapped gumboot line knees red and welted He jammed the crowbar into the soft clay glaring into that dark earth as the neighbours picked their way up the muddy drive Their Sunday suits and shiny shoes announcing their intentions Never take a day off Their southern Baptist Bible drawl laughter not hiding their meaning Building a swing for the kids become work he spat not looking up pointin down the rutted road turning his back saying no more The boys smirking behind their hands watching them go leaving him alone
In This Corner (cornered)
He lay for a long time shadowed beneath the chokecherry bushes sinking into the clotting darkness flowing over him The dampness drawing out his body heat waiting for the light to fail before leaving this corner The grass still holding the print of his body wild strawberry stains crushed on his coat like the splattered red dots across the blouse she wore the last time he held her to him in his mind
We Gather our Loss
We return once more to this place at the edge of longing immersed in unspoken loss Thoughts rather left like the emptied suitcases in those rooms used only for sleeping Each one dreaming of waking without apprehension of what was and what might have been Playing out just below the surface of expression plain on our faces that what remains and what we cleave to is claimed as if by bequest by every one
Shadows Falling (far from the tree)
I used to like to be alone in that house crowded with other bodies I thought I could figure out the things that I did and didn't believe on my own that night on the way to the chicken coop as I took the lantern out to them to fool all two hundred into thinking the days were getting longer that night so cold the snow squeaking steps behind me I heard him following He said watch her I think she is at it again tell me if you know Then here he said handing me a five dollar bill all folded up small like a secret whispered I took it without looking at him turning away diminished in the darkness to finish his chores
The Truth (doesn’t matter if you believe it)
He told the girls he was riding the west line when he came upon them in the brush They came from across the river fording their horses to sit in our yard for that brief encounter shy in their saddles their small talk hopes for a gesture she never gave Boy crazy he said I can guess why I never heard the story from the horses mouth He knew I would never have believed it of her I knew her so well Sometimes I wonder though it wasn't the first time I caught him in a lie
A Divided World
The best fried chicken ever cooked by my mother always tasted better those lazy Sunday afternoons We ate it with her famous potato salad there on the sandy beach She refused to ride down the hairpin switchbacks walking with whoever was the youngest To the beach where Grant was swept away saving Theresa in that flash flood and not far upstream from where Arthur was lost at the mouth of Indian Creek when it was in flood We walked the banks all day searching and climbed out of the steep banked ox bows not two miles from where we had begun as the crow flies and he was never found Taken by the same chocolate brown river in which I learned to swim
The Queen of Hearts
And when she spoke she spoke of many things to him there on her lap at the grey Arborite table leaning back into her soft breasts the warm breath of her voice falling on the back of his neck reading the story about the rabbit and the girl who fell between the lines she looked up over his head he followed her gaze through the glass down the drive the truck stood still where she left them when George was pulled from his truck and thrown down back to her reading again feeling the soft breath falling off with his head she said and looking down he saw a hat fly into the air
Dreaming of Rainy
The last time I saw Rainy he was walking alone along that muddy road back to town I stopped and he pulled himself in We laughed to see each other been such a long time He said he was Red Cloud now Grimacing and glistened with rum sweat The pain as plain as the nose on his face Busted some ribs coming off that big buckskin out of the money again He spoke of the Minnonite girl from Flatrock Met her at the rodeo dance the night before and she would become his wife for a time And when he spoke of her he smiled that way we have when we know we are happier than we ever ought to be
Into Dark Water
Yesterday returning hesitating hand in front as if walking blind with eyes open peering around corners fearful down the hall an intruder on his own past danger in the mirrors fleeting photographs playing their old familial tricks The fog of minutia penetrated by silver station wagon crouching in his garage where he did his business on bad days hiding the newspapers in the wheel wells demanding over and over where are we again and again Is it far far today the generations that bouyed him drifting away like empty lifejackets as he sinks alone into that warm dark sea