Trauma, Recollection and The False Memory Archive

I don’t think that art should be comforting to see. When I’ve poured the worst times of my life into a project, I don’t want someone to look at it and think ‘that’s pretty’. I want them to have to look away. I want them to react. I want them to feel fucking uncomfortable.

I want them to feel like they need to walk away from the thing, but be unable to get that feeling out of their memory. I want to make a lasting impression, make them think even a little bit, even if they don’t want to think about it.

Do you remember the first nightmare you had as a kid? I do. I was maybe 4 years old, and I recall it clearly. More clearly than my most recent one, perhaps because it was the first experience of that kind of horror that I had. I don’t remember how I felt about it, other than it scared me to go to sleep for a little while afterwards.

We are shaped by traumatic experiences, horrors and fears. You don’t hear of people suffering from post-joy relaxation disorder do you? That’s ludicrous. We expect happiness, or at least satisfaction, and peace. That’s why anything other is a disturbance.

For a while, I had a semi-formed idea about an art installation piece, comprising of both found and original photography, sound and sensory manipulation. The central premise was to ‘implant’ false memories in the viewer, or at the very least, have them leave feeling unsettled, and unsure about whether what they had seen had truly triggered a memory of their own, or a memory of something they had seen, or heard, about. As I say, the whole idea was quite vague, and I never developed it any further largely because the moral and ethical implications bothered me.

Last year, I read this article about what is essentially a collection of false memories, and as well as being a far better realisation of the ideas which had been dancing through my own thoughts, it brought to mind something from my childhood, a memory which has been clear to me for my whole life, but which I have always wondered about. Now, having read about this project, I wonder even more – although curiously, now I also wonder if this project has had a further impact on my uncertainty.

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, in the car with my family on a camping trip. I remember it being dark, although whether it was actually night time, or whether it was just overcast, I couldn’t say. Sitting in the back of the car, I was on the right, my sister over the other side of my mother. As we approached the scene of an accident, my mother tried to turn my head away from the flashing lights in the central reservation. But when you draw a kids attention to something they shouldn’t see, they get curious. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of the body laid on the road, surrounded by paramedics. I don’t know if it was male or female, alive or dead, but nearly 25 years later, I still have that flash of image in my mind, clearer than some of my more recent memories. I have trouble picturing the face of, say, someone I dated five years ago. I couldn’t describe to you the last person I saw in the street. I have trouble even recalling every single thing I ate yesterday. But I could describe that glimpse in detail.

The thing is, now, I’m not even 100% sure it ever happened. Did I fall asleep in the car? Did I catch just a fleeting glimpse of something, and then my imagination over the years has filled in the rest? Maybe a combination of the above, it’s completely impossible to say now, but the fact remains that in my mind, this event happened, and I can describe it quite well. It’s the clarity which makes me suspicious. Memory is a curious, powerful, and yet oddly unreliable function. It’s hugely interesting, in part because it is so manipulable.

The website for the False Memory Archive is situated here, and the exhibition is touring in the UK during 2014.

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