The Memory Films

2019 / 2020 - Auto-Destructive Digital Media / Program

The lens of memory is a fractured and dispersing prism. Experiences, moments, feelings, smells, images are called forth and passed through the lens to our mind. In doing so, what arrives is not the thing – the moment, the feeling, the smell – but a strange approximation of that thing, shattered, filled with bias and judgement. In the same vein, the lens of cinema is one meant to capture reality. It does this only to a certain degree, however – flattening reality in a two-dimensional frame, translating it into film emulsion or digital numerical representation. Cinema is not memory, but our memories have taken on attributes of cinema. Time can be compressed through the lens of memory. It can be rewound, slowed, sped up. Yet, neither ourselves nor our cinema can reproduce an event in full detail.

The Memory Films are a series of films run through an algorithmic auto-destructive editing process. Utilizing Python, and specifically an editing suite called MoviePy, the process splices seconds of video over itself in preceding and succeeding keywords centered on memory and forgetting. The films themselves contain interviewed persons with questions centered on memory and remembering. A completed set of interviews is edited together as a “film”. The resulting assemblage of footage (which I ensure is the only copy of it in existence) is run through the auto-editor prior to each time it plays, simulating the computer “remembering” the footage. The algorithmic process combines with natural compression, degrading the footage and forcing corruption and video loss on each play through. Eventually, after hours of re-playing, the film is so far corrupted as to be a series of compressed loops -- fully degraded, completely lost, and unplayable.

Memory and decay are ever-tied. Neural connections spread across our brains, tethering this memory to that, this sensation to this. So too do these connections constantly change and shift, altering the familiar pathways to and from our experiences. We encode our memories as well, requiring an interpreting of the synaptic data to conjure forward. This holds true for our machines and our cameras as well. They encode our captured moments into data, able to be stored and replayed later. They layer data into 1’s and 0’s, parsing reality into a stream of numerical representation. Corruption here can take the form of misinterpreted data – code that entangles itself, called forth in the wrong formatting, codec failure, and data rot causing a glitched corruption of reality. Both organic and machine processes of corruption are inherently unpredictable. We can’t say when we will forget, nor can we predict data rot from future updates and advancements. The data today will not be the data tomorrow, and the layering of this data upon itself is unending. We are self-referential, the sum of a collection of experiences and our recall of them. Without memory we are unable to learn. Why then, are our systems of recall so flawed and prone to corruption? The Memory Films probe these questions via technology and cinema.


The Memory Films seek a further unifying between organic processes of memory recall and machine data storage and retrieval. Cinematic memory has become our default way to view the stories of our own lives. Time is mapped onto two-dimensional space, where it can be managed, analyzed, and manipulated more easily. Via the notion of flashback, we have embraced the flattening of the events of our lives. Thus, The Memory Films seek to tailor our cinema to decay at pace with our ability to recall. In doing so the program compresses the film, causing pixels to blur and shift. Colors become washed-out, layering over and bleeding into each other. Errant artifacts inject into the frames, popping in and out like ghosts. Eventually, after enough times through The Memory Films’ program, a film’s images begin to linger on screen, particularly in static areas, causing only the moments of motion to be recalled. Our recall of the event becomes lost with only vague colors and images to replace.

So much of our lives now center on curation of memory. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube -- we preserve moments in a timeline that helps us form our personal narrative history. It’s a form of collection, preservation, and curation of self. Our art too follows these processes. The Mona Lisa is photographed ad nauseam, though it is always the same. Films are introduced into the National Archives to be preserved, though they’ve been seen over and over. The Memory Films reject this effort. They are made to be ephemeral, and by their nature insist that they will be forgotten. They will loop over themselves on each successive screening until the resulting film captures only a few moments overwriting themselves. Further on, it will fully degrade and become unplayable as the lossy compression forces a full file corruption. 

Still, even as the films will decay, I acknowledge that their public screening opens a possibility that one could make efforts to preserve them. When screened, someone could easily record the film with their phone, preserving the events that transpired. We live in an age where we can document near everything surrounding us in some fashion. Doing so with The Memory Films however, would only prove the piece’s intention by producing a facsimile of the film – a copy of what it looked like prior to its destruction. And this is memory – this is all we, ourselves, can do. Moments pass and we can try to preserve them in some form, some removed format that maintains the timing, the color, the image in some way that will help us remember. 

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