Photography is a medium present in virtually all aspects of life, and it has a manifold relationship to memory and historical experience. It is an artistic medium in its own right with a complex history, but has always been intimately related to art history. Accumulations of photographic images into archives have a memory function, but in many cases the images have lost the link to the objects they represent and become photographic ruins. Photographs are records and as such they have an important memory function, but precisely as records they are intimately linked to amnesia. Records cannot be said to be memories, but images that prompt memories. In order to have such a function for us they have to be animated by our gaze. While records are a stable or fixed inscription, memory is a dynamic process that constantly edits and modulates itself.

There are many ways for photographic images to live after they’ve fulfilled their documentary or archival function. With the passing of time the link to the referent they record is gradually lost, and they become a visual surface that lends itself to multiple interpretations and operations. On another level photography as a mass medium, as theorists such as Siegfried Kracauer have observed, has an amnesiac aspect: “…the flood of photos sweeps away the damns of memory. … In the illustrated magazines people see the very world that the illustrated magazines prevent them from perceiving.” If we consider the memory function of photographic images as records, a different model of memory comes to mind. Thomas Elsaesser has argued that records, and machine memory, carry a resemblance to traumatic memory: “the computer is fated to repeat, mimetically re-activate ‘data’ and is haunted by the possibility of system failure or breakdown.” On the other hand, some trauma theorists speak of traumatic memory by using vocabulary that belongs to the field of photography. They compare trauma with an intrusion of the literal in the mind, and understand it as an indexical trace, a record that cannot be subjectively integrated and transformed into the meaningful narrative of a memory.

I will employ all three aspects of the photographic image in its relationship to memory function – the loss of referent, the amnesiac aspect of mass-media images, and the proximity between the traumatic and the record, to unpack questions related to the redefinition of image accumulations and archives in the works of artists, who by reanimating these, propose different models of memory and ways of historicizing. Many artists involve in their practices image collections that can be understood as archival, in order to create artworks with and on the surfaces of older photographic images. The photographic object becomes a second-level surface and acquires a new visibility. Such artistic approaches don’t fall into the category of archival art in the sense that they don’t attempt to fix the omissions of history, but create microhistories of media and modes of looking. They address the question of the temporal complexity of images related to obsolescence of media, and significantly history as both a cumulative and an entropic process. Such works invite us to look critically at our own processes of looking, the way image streams structure our daily experience, to contemplate our empathy with images, the nature of historical experience and amnesia.

to be continued…

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