Building a conceptual frame for MoRM

by Christopher Bratton & Dalida Maria Benfield

The Museum, a technology of other visibility.

Its form — an itinerant, ephemeral architecture

A foundation for an open, participatory process …  

… selecting, seeing, naming, deleting.

What’s left?

The anti-archive.

The up-front purpose is to playfully engage citizens to think about how they might like to better control how they contribute data as they walk around in Smart Cities. The behind-the-scenes purpose is to generate data and ideas about how municipalities, buildings, or institutions are currently collecting and archiving citizen data and how we can encourage citizen engagement in these discussions. We prompt citizens to think about everyday scraps of stuff they’d like to remember or forget to spark critical reflections about what is, or could be, relevant to the city. What do cities do with the data they collect on people? Where is it stored? How does the ‘stuff’ we produce as we move around in the city play into larger city histories? What playful alternatives might allow citizens to be more engaged as active participants in what counts as cultural memory? What future heritage might we create if we all paid closer attention to the traces of ourselves that might eventually become part of some larger pool of cultural memory?

This workshop extends the ideas developed last year in the Creating Future Memories workshop and exhibitions. This year’s MORM will be a second, remixed edition of the MORM exhibit held at CounterPlay 2016.

Image by Dalida Maria Benfield. We take a lot of verbal and visual notes during our Skype meetings, so these images reflect some of that ‘in progress’ sensemaking.

What should it look like, this iteration of MoRM in 2017?


Annette: We should build a tremendous arch. People entering the library walk through it and it speaks: “Hello, do you have a memory you would like to forget?” or “Is there something you would like to remember?” People could gravitate toward the red side or the blue side, and choose to remember or forget.

Chris: Arches are architecturally and ideologically overdetermined forms. What else could it be?   A cyclorama would provide multiple entry points with image activated screens. A more circular form allows for more natural, nonlinear movement, enter anyway, it pushes for circularity of movement. What kind of movement are we soliciting of people?

The Question of the Prompt

In the first iteration of the project, we approached potential participants with a brief description of the Museum, followed by the prompt, asking them to “Give us something useless”. This solicited many things, a laugh almost always, and then, diverse physical objects, from an empty pill card to a drawing, a recollection of a dream. There were also instances in which the political moment emerged in the participants’ choices and descriptions of their contribution. In some cases quite explicit references were made to un- and underemployment, racism, gender discrimination, and the ravages of drugs,  to name only a few.  This was, however, more contingent than anything else; not planned for; and when these things emerged, treated as just one more instance, no more and no less, of the unexamined flow of the everyday.

Now with the advantage of hindsight, this seems an obvious critical blindness. In fact, these moments, taken together, are perhaps the single most important thing that the earlier version of the project told us, namely that our everyday lives are shot through with questions of politics and history; and now perhaps we need to rethink the Museum’s purpose as providing the space for framing and reflection of each of our relative positions to these larger questions. Certainly, this is an inversion of the Museum as we know it, which typically normalizes and conceals these questions in the name of a greater social whole. We think that critical reflection — open-ended, dialogical, irreverent, playful, all or some or more of  these things — is particularly urgent given the ascendency of authoritarian movements, in the U.S. and elsewhere, and their common reliance on discourses that are both monological and magical, eschewing analysis and criticality.

We wanted to take a brief detour through a work, a film, that is exemplary in engaging its subject in just such an oppositional exercise, Chronicle of a Summer (1961), by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin. The premise of the movie is simple, a series of interviews in which the filmmakers ask people a single question: “Are you happy?” The people include Parisian students, both black and white, some facing the military draft in the Algerian war; an impoverished Italian immigrant; a would be actress. Rouch, one of the great experimenters in film and its relationship to ethnography, and his collaborator, Morin, a sociologist, encourage the interviewees to reflect on their lives and connect their experience to larger questions.  “Happiness”, in the work, becomes the marker for the enervated condition of the individual living in the long shadow of the Nazi occupation, collusion in the Holocaust, and most immediately for that period, France’s brutal colonial war in Algeria.

This all brings us to the performative question of the Museum, in particular the “prompt,” or how in the next version of the project we solicit from its participants a fuller representation of their lived experience — to better delineate the complex fields of politics, history and subjectivity. “Happiness” might not be the best way to enter the conversation, but with Chronicle of a Summer in mind, it may be worthwhile to think of some equally simple and unassuming approach to what can reveal the full scale of people’s present circumstance, and by doing so, the pervasive social conditions under which we collectively live. We think this also underscores the important role played by our temporary/permanent staff, the (un)curators, (de)conservators, and others who engaged with the participants and move them through the process — and hopefully, together discover an analysis.

How, then, to refine our prompt, our approach generally, and develop the role of Museum staff, all towards greater social inquiry and political discovery?

follow-up here by Annette Markham

This is part of a series of articles related to Creating Future Memories, an Aarhus University funded research project exploring speculative, future-oriented, and participatory methods for citizens to understand and better control the data being produced through and around the everyday use of digital media.

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