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


“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

Considering memory

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.

K.J.  2004

There was a torment

There was a torment
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
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 
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
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 
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 
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
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
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  
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