Thursday, January 19, 2012

CultureLab - Remembering things that never happened

Tiffany O’Callaghan, CultureLab editor
(Image: Mood Board/Rex Features)

Despite knowing better, many of us cling to the notion that memory is a reliable record and trawling through it can be similar to flipping through an old photo album. But what about the memories - sometimes vivid in nature - of things that never were?
Examining the false stories that we can create for ourselves is the aim of a new initiative led by artist Alasdair Hopwood. As part of a residency at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit led by Chris French at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Hopwood aims to explore what false memories reveal about our sense of identity.
To do this, he has created the False Memory Archive, a collection of people’s fabricated recollections either jotted down after talks he has given or submitted online at the project’s website. At a discussion of the project at Goldsmiths this week, Hopwood recounted how he had hoped to get 50 submissions over the course of his year-long residency funded by the Wellcome Trust. A very low estimate, he soon learned: “We got 70 in the first week.”
Our appetite for understanding and improving memory is tremendous, and French is hopeful that the false memory project will raise awareness about the intricacies of remembering. “People have so many misconceptions about the way memory works,” he says. In part, that’s because memories are so infrequently challenged. The few times they are, he says, are in the courts, after anomalous claims - like seeing aliens or the Lochness monster - or, he adds with a wry smile, in romantic relationships.
For Hopwood, examining the ways we deceive ourselves through memory is perhaps a natural progression. He has worked with fellow artists as part of the WITH Collective on projects that expose and poke fun at the many ways we style our public selves. “Identity is not fixed,” he says. Instead, it shifts depending on the company we are in, and even the format of the interaction - be it social media or in person.
We’re extraordinarily preoccupied with sculpting our identities, as the glut of self-help books and pseudoscientific methods for personal development demonstrates. Through the WITH Collective, Hopwood has pushed this to the preposterous in a series of whimsical, biting and often hilarious “solutions” offering people alternate realities to claim as their own. In these fictitious scenarios, people can avail themselves of “traumaformer” for example, a “product” that conjures up a more traumatic past for the purchaser, or shift the blame to someone else with “scapegoad”. For the sexually curious but timid, there’s also “homoflexible”: “We perform your fantasies/fears for you, as you, so you don’t have to,” the site boasts.
These past projects have all been gleefully tongue in cheek, “cheerful antagonism” as Hopwood describes it. Yet these satirical takes on modern living have been cast in new light as his understanding of memory has grown, and with it his fascination for false memory in particular.  
Hopwood has already been intrigued by the detailed and often bizarre recollections pouring in, but he isn’t yet sure what will come of this project - whether the false memories should be left to speak for themselves, or if they will inspire works of visual art or a combination of both. “I don’t want to make a work that is overtly illustrative,” he says.
An accomplished satirist, whatever Hopwood makes of these misleading memories, the results should certainly be hard to forget.

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