MoRM and Future Memory

This post explores how the Museum of Random Memory was created and enacted by a group of artists, activists and academics who collaborated on investigating notions of material-, digital- and embodied memories at CounterPlay 2016.

by Mads M. Rehder & Kasper Ostrowski

 

Introduction

As part of a research project entitled ‘Creating Future Memories’ at Aarhus University a group of individuals blurring the boundaries between art, academics, and activism got together and participated in Counterplay 2016 at DOKK1. Without any prior knowledge of the group-composition or possible aims for the experimental workshop we lunged into a process of devising both an interactive exhibition and an installation which explored the ‘big data’ citizens regularly produce in their everyday lives and how this data might be archived, packaged, and recycled – or even forgotten, primarily within social media. We wanted to explore what our daily routines connected to social media and sorting our data meant for the way we shape our memories, and therefore the traces of future memories. In this chapter we follow the trajectory of the exhibition entitled ‘MoRM’ (Museum of Random Memories)[1].

Contemplating curating and future memories the concept of a museum for forgotten and/or random objects surfaced. Through a playful process which in many ways resembled devised theatre, being collaborative, script-free and improvisatory; The Museum of Random Memories was both envisioned, organized, realized, opened and documented on location. The concept played with a contrapuntal museums strategy, which included both a grand opening and a session of dis-preservation. Guests and “canvassed” participants were invited to share random ‘matters’ – a random idea, a random image from their smartphone or a random object they had on them. The different matters were voluntarily handed over to the ‘official collectors’. The accumulated conglomerate was then annotated, coupled with the memories and aestheticized in different ways. After our process of ‘curation’ the collection was displayed momentarily with the promise of being destroyed hours later. The temporality and the destruction of materials ran counter to the praxis of preserving cultural heritage associated with museums, placing the participants in a playful position of exhibiting and sharing, while simultaneously forgetting or letting go.

 

Curating in MoRM

Traditionally curating is a highly specialized line of museum work involving the care, accessioning, handling and exhibition of artworks. However, the notion has recently prevailed, not least within social media. Concerns about technical content curating “behind the curtain” of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and the like has been voiced. The notion has also been detached from the professional realm and included in everyday, mundane practices. When we are picking and choosing pictures to post online, or selecting feeds to ‘like’ or tag, we are said to be curating our lives. Departing from this expanded take on curating, we wanted to work with the idea of a museum that somehow played with both the curating process and the notions of control and relevant data. Originally, curating includes a selective process in which pieces of art are comprised into a coherent exhibition. In MoRM we invited the participants to partially curate their own contributions to the exhibition. Instead of focusing on the ideas, pictures and objects that usually gets displayed on social media, we wanted to focus on the mundane and often overlooked aspects of everyday life. And instead of archiving the material the way both museums and social media do, we created an exhibition which would only last a few hours after which the materials would be abandoned. However, we did not only want to destroy the contributions, we wanted to alternate them into different expressions in the process.

 

Process of participation and curating

The Museum was built around a participatory design. We wanted to engage people from the conference and visitors at DOKK1 in building the exhibition and curating the content of the exhibition. Equipped with rudimentary collector badges we sought out participants and asked for a random idea, a random photo or a random object.

No matter the contribution we asked for the associated context and/or stories related to their idea, photo or object. The random matters were treated in different ways. The ideas were annotated on a simple form we handed out. Later the forms were mounted on one big wall in the museum.

The photos and objects were collected in a separate process which was filmed. Most of the participants were asked to fill in a form, explaining what the object was and the stories or memories related to it, while other’s explanations were captured only on video.

We handed all the contributors an invitation to a typical grand opening of the exhibition, complete with sparkling wine and assorted snacks.

In the following two of MoRM’s activities will be investigated with curating as a frame of reference. First we take a look at the collection and processing of pictures ‘excavated’ from the participants’ smartphones. Then we turn our attention to the random objects they dug out of their bags, pockets, purses and the like.

The random pictures of everyday life

As part of what has been coined information foraging (Gazzaley & Rosen 2016) we all tend to shoot multiple ordinary pictures in our everyday lives. These mundane pictures might serve practical or momentarily emotional purposes or represent a passing curiosity. However, most of our everyday pictures are not shared in real life or on social media, but left to ‘wither’ in our ever-growing cloud of personal data.

In MoRM we were interested in collecting the random pictures which was only stored on phones and their attributed stories. The pictures and stories which were not posted, shared or told. We wanted to investigate the pictures and narratives deselected in the participants’ personal curating process. In other words, this subproject explored the experiences of everyday life which would not otherwise be deliberately archived for future purposes, like the future memories visible in online archives. We wanted to examine the pictures potentially left out of future memories. Equipped with a video camera we asked people to select a random picture on their phone and tell the story connected to that picture. Afterwards they mailed the pictures to us and filled out a form summarizing the stories they had told. In this way, we collected a multitude of random memories and stories from people’s everyday life. Stories which had not prior been shared or posted on social media but revealed personal and intimate details and perspective from their everyday life. We learned about favourite ice-cream, polish candy, favourite graffiti style, 3D printing, different types of juice and the best recipe for cookies, all from these random pictures. In this short video (1.20 min) we present one of the fascinating stories shared by a participant. She contemplates the narrative associated with a picture of butter, which she rediscovered on her phone, when approached by MoRM.

Apart from the photos, we also collected random objects, which the participants were willing to hand over to the museum. Naturally, the physical and analogue objects were in multiple ways different from the digital ones. For starters the participants naturally carried a smaller amount of analogue objects, compared to the number of digital photos. However, they also did share qualities, which made them relevant for MoRM. Similar to the pictures in the backcloth of their phones, we were able to retrieve mundane objects, which had become inconsequential for the participants, but not yet left behind or discarded. And as it was also the case with the pictures the participants were able to rediscover and share compelling stories attributed to the ‘unsensational’ objects that had otherwise dropped through the grit of their attention. In this manner the very tactile artifacts came to mirror or rephrase the process of making digital memories.

 

The random objects of everyday life

We often carry forgotten stories and memories about in our pockets, in our wallets or in our bags. Small objects that seem insignificant, but nonetheless still linger in our lives. Tickets, vouchers, receipts, napkins, plastic cutlery, leaflets, small coins and the like. Some are used items, which no longer serve any practical purpose, some are ‘tokens of memorandums’ reminding us of a movie we have seen or a book we have bought. Some have a pleasant story attached others less so. When we collected random objects from the backcloth of the contributors lives we asked both for things they had just forgotten about and things they would like to forget about. Amongst other things, we received a receipt reminding the participant about lost money and small cardboard picture pogs reminding another participant of a bad breakup, a napkin carried so long in a back pocket it had developed a visible denim structure, a plastic clip someone received from her mom, when started living on her own. Such practical items and mundane memories are rarely considered or included in our personal digital curating.

The objects went through a ‘Department of Dis-preservation’. In this part of MoRM the different objects were handed over to a printmaker and his small rudimentary workstation. Utilizing a handheld printing technique, he turned the inconsequential objects into subtractive monotypes called ‘Empirical Prints’. The prints were ‘tagged’ with the contributors’ short narratives and temporarily showcased in a tangled web mirroring the convoluted and confusing digital curating taking place in social media. The Empirical Prints served as aesthetic fabrications, which disrupted the observers’ utilisational gaze and forced him or her to reconcile the different versions of the objects. Visiting MoRM offered the participants an aesthetically surprising way of departing with the objects and narratives they had administered to us. This 2.10 min. video presents the collection of objects and the process of aesthetic dis-preservation.

The MoRM exhibition

In the process of collecting we made the participants think about the way they have memories connected to all their random pictures and objects in different ways than they had done prior to their engagement with our museum. But we also wanted to challenge their way of thinking about how they are creating and curating memories as a part of their daily practices.

In the exhibition the participants who had contributed with pictures and objects were confronted not only with their displayed objects and pictures, but also with the aestheticized versions of their contributions.

As it was the case with the objects, we also manipulated the context and presentation of the pictures collected. The pictures were both displayed on a large flatscreen without any context or story connected to them, and at the other end of the exhibition the video recordings from the gathering of the pictures was showed. The pictures became a part of a video and thus they became highlighted and put into a new context decided by us. The process of altering and re-contextualizing took place prior to the exhibition. Some of the recordings of participants’ explanations of their selected random pictures was edited into a short video. The pictures which was previously deselected and not categorized as suitable for being displayed on social media and the online archiving, now became just that in being a part of a video and now this book. They went from being stored in personal records and left to ‘wither’, to being archived as future memories.

The printing process and the video demonstrated how personal data, once handed over to others, can be translated and orchestrated in unpredictable ways. This point was also demonstrated through the physical composition of the exhibition which was intentionally disorganized both mirroring the randomness of the content and lack of control with its presentation. Pictures, objects and ideas were presented both on tables and hanging from a confusing array of criss-crossing strings. Playing with the concept of an actual museum, our curators served as official custodians within the few hours MoRM was open. However, in accordance with our contrapuntal strategy and our intentionally confusing display considered, they had little actual help to offer.

Museum of Random Memory - Exhibition

Grand opening

As it is customary at museums the opening of the exhibition was accompanied by a small reception. We did not include an opening speech, but offered guests sparkling wine and assorted snacks. Guests arrived. The participants would often come and visit the exhibition and seek out their own donation amongst a multitude of contributions. Most of the participants came with friends, and after talking briefly with our custodians and being showed around, they would linger at their own contribution to explain more about it and the process in which they had become a part of the museum. In this way the participants, took on the roles of voluntary guides or instant-custodians in the museum. While guiding their friends through the exhibition they would also engage with other participants who would share information about their contribution. The exchange rate of information was inspiring. Promptly the exhibition became surprisingly interactive. The roles of participants, curators, custodians, creators and visitors became entangled. Any potential control with the narratives shared in MoRM was quickly hijacked by the participating guests, while we (somewhat franticly) tried to record snippets of the lively activity. While both fulfilling our aspirations and catching us a bit off guard MoRM turned into a participatory and playfully interactive museum. While we got really positive feedback from the visitors who had been part of the initial collection process, we also learned, that those who had not were overwhelmed by the combination of elements and the disorganization which contradicting the notion of a museum. Some were puzzled by the convoluted process, others were not sure what to make of the contradictory strategy of a museum in which playfulness and serious attention to detail was intertwined. Some found the physical orchestration discouraging and inaccessible. Departing from the experiences outlined above we, will now discuss possible insights and learning outcome.

Discussion of curating, archiving and memory

In this workshop the random objects and pictures became elements in challenging notions of how and if we are curating our own life and the memory created in the ever-changing present.

With the transformation process related to the objects and pictures of everyday life we wanted to create a pastiche illuminating how algorithms or aestheticizing processes have the ability to disconnect ideas, objects and pictures from their original context and combine them in new collages transforming their expressions. When these elements are embedded in new contexts they are displaced from the creator’s realm and might undergo transformations not controlled by the initial creator. Both the printing process, the pictures displayed in the exhibition and the videos created reflected on the transformation-process that digital pictures posted on social media can undergo. The printing-process functioned as concrete and tactile comments to the digital and algorithmically processing of content on social media. At the same time other objects was displayed in unedited ways but disconnected from their context and labelled with short explanation by the curating team at the MoRM. In the video edited versions of the participants’ stories connected to their pictures similarly caused an alteration of the context and displayed them in ways that were outside the participant’s control. The same pictures were also displayed on another screen. Here they were displayed without any context in a looping slideshow. Compiling the images into a slideshow and showing them side by side made it evident that a common factor between them was the aesthetic character of being unedited and un-filtered. These pictures were stored on the participants’ own phones and were within their own control. However, once shared with us, they were added the potential to be re-contextualized and curated in other ways.

The term archive might lead our thoughts towards old, dusty and abandoned places with a dedicated archivist who controls and organize a collection. But in relation to the digital mediated life of the 21.th century archives are potentially something we all own, manage and control. We have archives on all our mobile technologies, and the practise of archiving or managing these archives is something which has become a part of our daily routines. All of the digital elements in such archives have memories connected to them. Consequentially, we are also managing our memories when we are selecting which emails, pictures, videos, sounds and documents we archive and which we delete.

When the participants were looking through photos stored it made them reopen their past as they were relating to old photos. The same way that the participants went through pockets searching for objects they could give the museum. Both physical acts were accompanied by a mental revisit with memories connected to these object and pictures. Inspired by the French philosopher of time Henry Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty has been exploring the phenomenon of time though a phenomenological perspective. A central argument by Merleau-Ponty was that we always perceive the present through the perspective of the past and the future. This also means that whenever we re-open memories we perceive them from the point of view of the actual present, and we also close the memories after this visit in an altered version, having been opened and looked at with a specific space/time perspective (Merleau-Ponty, 2005, p. 483).

When the participants were elaborating on the stories and context connected to their selected pictures in front of the camera they were at the same time reopening these memories and reshaping them. This means that a process of transformation in the individual’s perception of a memory is taking place whenever the memory is being brought to the fore. In making the museum and interacting with the participants we therefore made them alter their memories while they reopened them. This has the effect that the mundane pictures or objects of everyday life was given an extreme attention made the memories connected to them alter. The pictures and objects went from being something left in the bottom of a bag or in the phones camera roll, and these now became important and with the amount of attention given to them and in that process they were changed.

This process of change and alteration of the perception of the objects and pictures was spontaneous made explicit by the participants. They were both curious about our attention towards these random objects and began a reflection upon the effect these specific pictures and objects had had in their own life. They were ascribed meaning and purpose in elaborating on the context and stories connected to them. In the films we have tried to capture and display some of these transformative processes and moments, where these insignificant elements were forever changed in being giving the focused attention.

Memories are ascribed to all elements of the everyday life, not only those exhibited at museums or posted on social media. While we might not professionally curate our own life and memories we are always making unconscious decisions and selections, and the things we highlight in the present have the potential to be future memories. On the other hand, memories are shaped and reconfigured in a never-ending process and therefore future memories are never set in stone. The future is being shaped in the present based on both memories from the past and ideas about that future. What we wanted to explore in this interactive installation was that while we might not think about all the elements of our everyday life we ascribe meaning to we are picking out few when we are telling our stories based on memories, and these stories are always changing at the same time as the both the present, the future and the past are being changed. Engaging with our mobile technologies in managing our data as a part of our daily routines means that we are also shaping our memories, and moulding the trajectories of future memories.

Conclusion

MoRM was founded on exploration. Internally and externally. We wanted to play and improvise with academic rigor within a non-academic setting. And we wanted to engage random participants with explorations of forgotten objects and digital curating. MoRM was realized as a playful and participatory institution exhibiting random ideas, objects and pictures which were not initially thought of as objects to be displayed, archived or highlighted by their creators.  In retrospect the workshop was grounded in methods that value serendipity, accident, and not least improvisation which was based on the strong individual capabilities within our group. This promoted a dynamic of both exploration and trust; while exploration allowed us to follow multiple trajectories, trust functioned to help us bring something together in the end. By allowing other voices to take leadership; by allowing each strength to be expressed differently and variously throughout the two days; and by letting go, we ended up with a playful and engaging venture dubbed MoRM.

With the contrapuntal museum we ended up reinvigorating forgotten, random objects and pictures. In our everyday life we are constantly surrounded by a massive assembly of ‘unsensational’ objects and digital archives that drop through the grit of our attention. Such everyday artifacts gradually cease to astonish us and become invisible to us. In this project we dug into the participants’ archives and dragged out the ‘witherings’ of the everyday and made them take center-stage in our museum. We showcased the potentially rich narrative life hidden in random mundanities. With the help of the participants, we curated objects and pictures, which had been deemed unfit for personal curative practises and archived. By showcasing the objects and pictures in a museum, we made them re-appear and available for the visitors to rediscover and investigate the lost memories and narratives attached.

In the collective group we are is still trying to figure out how and where, we can develop the potential of a contrapuntal museum in different settings. In writing this article we have sparked an examination of the vast multitude of materials and ideas, encompassed in the concept. What the next MoRM will look like, is difficult to predict at this point. But we are looking very much forward to the next grand opening.

References

Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). The distracted mind: ancient brains in a high-tech world. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012). Phenomenology of Perception (D. A. Landes, Trans.). London and New York: Routledge.

Notes

[1] The people engaged with MoRM were: Dalida María Benfield, Andrew Sempere, Bente Larsen, Elizabeth Whitney, Christopher Bratton, Kasper Ostrowski and Mads M. Rehder. The workshop was hosted by Anette Markham as part of a research project entitled: ‘Creating Future Memories’ at Aarhus University. See more at: Museum of Random Memory and The disrupted Journal of Media Practice

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