There is a fantastic compendium of stories edited by Paul Auster called ‘True Tales of American Life’, compiled after a call-out by the author on American radio. Consisting of anecdotes and recollections loosely structured around themes of love, family, money and objects, the book articulates a desire to embed the contingency of memory in fixed words and objects. A theme that is developed in ‘Origination’, an ongoing project by sisters Katy and Rebecca Beinart on show at 198 Contemporary Arts & Learning in Brixton.
Roughly split into two segments, the exhibition presents the sisters’ journey to the salt pans harvested by their Grandfather in South Africa, and the subsequent residency at Brixton market where they traded salt brought back from South Africa for stories from the local community. In the rear gallery – but what oddly feels like the first part of the project – the sisters present large digital prints of the salt pans. The images contextualize the loosely configured installation of family heirlooms. A small projected video documents a performance of the sisters ‘hosting’ a dinner party on the salt pan for their deceased ancestors. Fighting the inhospitable weather conditions, the work transposes some of the themes of the exhibition, transferring personal anecdote into a public and poetic situation.
In the front gallery -and what seems like the second part of the exhibition- a more anthropological approach is adopted. Representing the culmination of the residency, in the room adjacent, donated objects are displayed on museological boards. The objects have been photographed and the negative film has been processed through an aurophone, a kind of ‘morse code’-style hole punch. The aurophone encrypts the recorded interviews of participants and translates it into an encoded musical signal. Scarred with holes and scratches, the negatives hang from the ceiling.
The work converges the disembodied (binary code and abstraction) with the bodily (analogue/artifact). There seems a constant oscillation in the exhibition between the physical and immaterial. This movement between weightless information and the physical traces of history evoke the transference of experiences into memory and language and our attempt to displace these experiences into objects.
One of the most popular Apps on the Iphone, the ‘Hipstamatic’, mimics the look and ‘unpredictability’ of analogue film. There is a curious perversity in the latest technology evoking antiquated processes, but this ‘retromania’ is a recurring motif in technological advancement, expressing a cultural anxiety about the fear of forgetting. In an era of consistent development in technological, ecological and architectural topologies the appropriation of analogue equipment is an attempt to immunize ourselves against a kind of redundancy. The wish to record and document is the expressive desire to create an umbilical link to history and strengthen our own genealogy. The virtual experience of memory and language seeks to embed itself in the physical membrane of documentation.
Throughout ‘Origination’, there is a constant desire to author our own position. A wish to determine our response to the world through our own history and to relay this within a public arena. The market is historically where communities contest value (bartering) and exchange stories and information. It is a place where a community can invest in their own identity on both a personal and public level. The use of salt is three-fold in this process. On one level salt acts as a universal metaphor(preservation),on another it acts as capital (salary come from the Latin salarium- referring to the money given to Roman soldiers to buy salt) as well as being embedded in the sisters own family history.
By trading salt for stories, ‘Origination’ attempts to weave personal narratives and disclosures into a public and collective discourse. Through the process of encryption the personal and figurative becomes public and abstract. Abstraction has become the aesthetic of collective projection. It is no coincidence that the contemporary approach to public memorials is largely non-figurative.
The exhibition both oxygenates the stories and – through the musical encoding – renders them mute; unattainable. When Alan Turing created a binary code that is widely credited with developing the operating system of the modern computer, he set in motion the dematerialization of large parts of our cultural landscape. The virtuality of our shared cultural space has engendered a collective anxiety, one that has sought a response in the ‘retromania’, described above. ‘Origination’ invites us to interrogate these anxieties. In an era of increasing homogeneity and ambient chatter, we increasingly need alternative proposals and the ability to narrate our own stories within a localized vernacular. It is through this narrative that we define our own context, and are able to create our own future.