Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Memory Prosthetic: A Comparative Analysis

Every time one of Liverpool’s Citywatch employees situates him or herself in the control room to monitor the city’s 242 CCTV surveillance cameras, the information arrives on the screen nearly instantaneously, conveying a sense of real-time to the Citywatch employees.  The employee controls the direction of the cameras, using them for viewing and interacting with a geographic space the employee does not physically occupy.  For 31 days in 2004, the camera, in addition to its everyday city monitoring, records the artist Jill Magid at short intervals and in various locations throughout the city.  At times Magid stages her actions for the surveillance camera, aware that she is under the gaze of the remotely located employee, whom she always refers to as an Observer.  Because the Observer can only watch Magid within the parameters of the camera’s viewing capabilities, the relationship between perceived real-time image as subject, Observer, and specific geographic space is interdependent.  In a similar way but using a different medium, Jewish-American artist Shimon Attie collapses geographic space in his site-specific European installations between 1991 and 1996 collectively entitled Sites Unseen.  Attie projects archival photographs from Europe’s Jewish past during the Holocaust onto the present-day location.  Attie illuminates doorways, building walls, and sidewalks for two to three days at a time with photographs of Jewish life that flourished and occupied these spaces long ago.  Memories of forgotten identities often peer out at the viewer as both image and viewer conduct daily business in the same landscape space.  Similar to the CCTV camera that acts as the Observer’s gaze, mediating images and complicating human relationships to geographic spaces, the camera that produces the archival photographs as well as Attie’s projector act as similar mediums.  In doing so, Attie confuses time linearity, creating a space in which the past and the present collapse and merge into geographies of dual temporalities.  Through this process, both Attie and Magid create moments of memory and reflection in a transitional space located between dual times and geographies which both artists have manually constructed.[i]
For their artworks to function, Attie and Magid each rely on technology mediums they manipulate in different ways to mediate the types of information conveyed to the viewer.  As N. Katherine Hayles posits in her book, How We Became Posthuman, information must always be instantiated in some kind of body, whether organic or machine.  When information is accessed by a machine, the machine acts as a technological prosthetic for the human who uses and engages the machine and the information it either contains or relays.[ii]  Attie chooses specific remnants of a European Jewish past, retrieved from public archives, from the 1920’s and 1930’s held captive within the parameters of a photographic frame.[iii]  The images are re-contextualized by Attie when they are now projected into a contemporary landscape.  Although the images are merely two dimensional, some are often life-sized and projected in spaces so that steps or doorways support their corporeality.  At the corner of Grenadierstrasse and Schendelgasse in the Scheunenviertel district in Berlin, a book salesman appears prepared to offer a purchase, meeting the eyes of the viewer as he bends slightly over his table full of books (Figure 1).  In another example, a girl peers playfully over her shoulder at the viewer as if the viewer has interrupted the conversation she was having with her friend who also faces the viewer (Figure 2).  Even her small feet appear to be fully supported by the step she stands upon so that her presence as a city resident in the viewer’s space feels natural.  Attie’s medium is therefore a blend of photography, projection, and geographic space that results in a type of memory prostheses, the instantiated information retrieved from an archived past.  The information contained in the photographs, people and places from a past existence acts as a memory prosthetic for both temporalities: the past and the present.  The photographs are an extension of representation for the people and places depicted, but also re-contextualized through the projector as Attie’s instantiated medium to create new, living memories in the gaze of the viewer who sees and experiences the installations.[iv] 
Magid’s work also exhibits a complicated interdependence with the CCTV cameras as prosthetic viewing machines the Observers use to keep careful watch over Liverpool.  She intentionally wears a bright red coat so the Observers can find her more easily in crowds and often telephones them with her current location (Figure 3).  Some days she will only contact them in the evening, asking if they saw her.  Magid also writes highly personal letters to the Observers daily, drafted in the style of diary entries or, as has been suggested, love letters. Each of Magid’s letters is delivered to my email to accompany the link to the video surveillance tape from that day.  She always addresses the Observer as the familiar and intimate “you.”  When I read the letters myself I feel like I am intruding on private, irreplaceable memories where she even describes such events as her bath that day and her reflections on whether or not the camera can see through the window.  Magid uses the space of the letters to recall and explore her journey through the city as she writes at the end of each day and remembers how she felt and what she experienced specifically.  She always refers to the cameras as anthropomorphic extensions of the Observer.  In letter #4, she writes, “I walked in circles around your feet and your neck got stuck.  It was funny to see you following me.  You constantly moved to meet me,” (emphasis added).  Early on, she is clearly still slightly awkward under the gaze of the Observer, instantiated through the CCTV camera as a prosthetic extension of the Observer.  However, by letter #26, Magid alludes to a relationship between herself and the camera-as-Observer that has become intuitive: “It’s true, you looked at me. But you did not watch me. Not yet. Your body is there always. But your attention is there sometimes. I have learned to tell the difference.”  By day 26, Magid naturally accepts the CCTV camera as an extension of the Observer.
These prosthetic mediums that Attie and Magid engage, Attie’s archival photographs and projector, Magid’s CCTV cameras, each produce a specific resistance to time linearity.  Attie’s Sites Unseen is more easily read because he is projecting a memory medium, the archival photograph of former Jewish residents, onto a present day site.  The projections, however, occupy a transitional space between past and present, collapsing our concept of compartmentalized time by contextualizing images of the past in a specifically present space.[v] Attie re-contextualizes images in dual times and dual spaces.  The buildings, sidewalks, etc, necessarily change over time as natural decomposition and human presence (bringing in dust, replacing components of the spaces, causing wear through tread) dictates that the physical objects in the district when the archival photographs were taken are not the same objects upon which Attie projects the photographs.  Evolving this further, one of Attie’s pieces takes place in the Børsgraven Canal in Coppenhagen where Attie arranges nine light boxes with images of Jewish exiles in a long row, floating beneath the surface of the waterway (Figure 4).  In 1943 this water space was the passage of rescue for Danish Jews, marking it as a place of movement and journey.  The transience of these images in space and time is underscored; any direct constant between past and present linearity made even more ambiguous by the very nature of water as an ephemeral medium.[vi]     
Magid’s Evidence Locker presents the viewer with an understanding of time and space relationships that are similarly indefinite and constantly transitional.  Although the Observers film Magid in supposed real-time, the images the Observers see on their screens are not occurring simultaneously with Magid’s movements; there is always a lag so they are watching and interacting with Magid’s past self, but never her present, mirroring present-day patrons who are confronted with Attie’s photographs in their usual neighborhood spaces.[vii] The tapes can be accessed by any third-party witness who visits Magid’s website and submits an electronic-mail address.  Every hour for 31 hours a link to the tapes is sent to that address, which then becomes my prosthetic gateway to Magid’s tapes.  When I watch the tapes through this mediated information storehouse, my computer, I become an Observer, but at any time of my choosing and with no direct relationship to the original time the videos were recorded.  Unlike Attie’s projections, which are time-sensitive and only remain as long as he decides (typically a few days), Magid’s work occupies a constant space of transition between the past when the videos were recorded and any possible point in the present when a third-party witness retrieves them.  While watching the videos, the time and date are not included on the tape so one is never reminded that one is watching a past event, detailing an ambiguous distance between our time and the time the videos were recorded.  This is similar to Attie who has no precise dates for his archival photographs so that one can never pinpoint an exact time existence of the individuals relative to when Attie projects the photographs during the present.  They merely originate at some other time.  
In this way, both artists clearly rely on their work existing in transitional spaces that are neither past nor present; their relationships to specific points in time tenuous.  Importantly, this characterizes how the works can then function as spaces of identity and memory by highlighting the binary struggle in both works between ephemerality and permanence.  In Magid’s case, she designs two installations from the surveillance camera recordings and the letters she wrote to the Observers: Evidence Locker, for the Tate Modern in London, and Retrieval Room at FACT, a Liverpool-based art gallery.  Similar to Attie, Magid manipulates the concept of her piece through spaces of her control.  She requests the layout of the Tate be reconstructed like the actual CCTV room so that the work emphasizes the act of surveillance and the viewer’s sense of temporality (Figure 5).[viii] The room is small, dim, darkly painted; it gives the impression of privacy, enclosure.  The visitor can sit in a large, ergonomic desk chair, take notes on the small dark table directly in front of him or her, and carefully study the screen as Magid’s videos play.  The viewer can actively Observe during the surreal reproduction that relies on the viewer suspending any sense of present time, floating in transition by temporarily accepting participation in Magid’s anachronistic memory space. 
Magid’s FACT exhibit goes on to explore the concept of permanent memory, again parallel to Attie, because Magid displays the 31 letters she writes to the Observers as well as clips of the surveillance videos.  She stresses visibility in these two exhibits of her piece, but it is Magid’s visibility that the viewer senses as he or she sits anonymously in the desk chair.  In an interview, she even tells us, “This technology offers me a way to place myself, to become visible (and potentially permanent) within the city.”[ix] Attie, too, creates a space of visibility, (re)placing the individuals in the photographs back into public, geographic places they occupy as (self) representations.[x] Attie’s archival photographs are a more aggressive prompt to the viewer, however, due to the blatant discrepancy between past images and present sites.  Although his projections are temporary, they paradoxically continue as new archival photographs of the installations.[xi]  Through different technology mediums, Magid and the people in Attie’s photographs transcend their own human ephemerality, achieving a precariously balanced permanence in which their physical presences are absent but identities remain in a continuous visual field of existence through the installations.  
Magid’s journey through the city is individually centered on a single identity, hers, she is both the maker and the made.  In the 30th letter, she writes to the Observer, “I realized then, that before I had arrived, you simply had approved me. You let me come here blankly, with an ambiguous identity, and I got to make one myself.”[xii]  In this statement, Magid implies that the making of her self is something that will occur during her time in the city; in other words, her identity is strangely tied to the “eyes” of the Observers, and these eyes also provide a type of self-reflection as she watches her tapes after the 31 days.  On day #15 she states directly: “I am your subject.  I relate myself to the city by the way you frame me in it.”  Furthermore, on day #30 Magid becomes an actual subject of the Observer: she wears an earpiece and closes her eyes, listening as the Observer actually guides her steps through the city.  The Observer uses the CCTV cameras as the sole visual access to Magid, and each successive step emphasizes that her journey relies on the Observer’s “eyes.”  Attie, on the other hand, guides anonymous masses of viewers through a different type of journey: it is an other-oriented reflection in which Attie fills various spaces with forgotten identities that represent a more total past and collective Jewish identity.  The forgotten memories become new, living memories to each viewer who encounters them in the present and through the photographic cataloguing, but they are also very personal memories of Attie who is himself Jewish. 
Both artists prompt viewers to consider the relationship of individuals to a specific space, but this in itself is merely a reconstruction we can think of as amortal.  Magid reflects through the prosthetic gaze of the Observer, and Attie’s viewers are confronted with photographic projections of identities presented to the viewer now as if they still fill the same geographic spaces they once did.  The identities of Magid and the people in Attie’s photographs linger in time spaces that are neither past nor present, but in ambiguous transitions between past and present, physicality and memory, identity and anonymity.

[i] I hesitate, yet wonder to what extent I could discuss this concept in regard to Wole Soyinka’s “The Fourth Dimension” and Yoruban myth.  The Yoruban god, Ogun, occupies a type of transitional space between past and present, present and future.  In other words, Soyinka disregards the fourth dimension as we understand it in Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity in which the fourth dimension is defined by time in relation to space.  Instead, time exists in its own space, so the fourth dimension is a place of time existing simultaneously in transition.  For further reading, please see: Wole Soyinka, “Appendix: The Fourth Dimension” in Myth, Literature, and the African World.  (Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).  
[ii] N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatic (Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
[iii] James Young, At Memory’s Edge (New Haven : Yale University Press, 2000), 67.
[iv] Ibid., 66.
[v] Ibid., 62.
[vi] Ibid., 75-76.
[vii] The images cannot reach the camera and be transmitted to the viewer at the speed of light, so simultaneity is impossible.  See: David, Bohm, Special Theory of Relativity (London : Routledge, 1996).
[viii] “Interview with Geert Lovink,” accessed 3/16/201.
[ix] “Interview with Geert Lovink.”
[x] James Young, At Memory’s Edge, 70.
[xi] Ibid., 72.

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Figure 5


  1. Absolutely fascinating. I'm especially intrigued by your comments in the footnotes regarding Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Perhaps you will expand on this at some point in the future?

  2. Yes, stay tuned for my final essay of the semester. I will focus solely on Magid and expand both on the theoretical basis of the discussion as well as provide a much closer reading of her work.

  3. Is there a difference between moving and still camera in the readings of time? And the absence/presence of sound, does this affect memory?