How one moment led to two years of artistic investigation into the science and impact of memory
By Patricia Hallam on December 21st 2014
In August 2012 Petra Kubisova was rummaging around in the drawers of her mother’s living room in Slovakia.
"In the drawer, where the things that have no specific place end up, I found a clear, small plastic bag. In it there were a handful of photos."
This moment was the catalyst for an epiphany - the prompt for her graduation exhibition; a culmination of work that questioned both her own lack of childhood memory and also how it is that our minds isolate certain events to remain prominent over others.
She had never seen a framed photo in her house until the death of her Aunty.
"My first experience of photos in the domestic sphere was as the result of death in the family."
This little pouch was her only reference to the visual landscape of her childhood, and one particular image captivated her - a black and white photograph, in a badly kept condition; a young beautiful woman in her twenties with a little girl standing by her side. The woman looks into the distance, pensively, as if she is not entirely present.
"Seeing my mother and sister in that photo became an event in itself. It sparked an investigation: What was their relationship like? Were they close? What was my relationship with my mother like? Why don’t I remember it?"
Rhodopsin - Detail, Petra Kubisova
Our memories can often betray us, either embellished without thought, or forgotten entirely. For the last two years Kubisova has been conducting lengthy research on memory, especially on the role of forgetting. Key authors have been Fuss, Toop, Trower, Barthes, Forty, Batchen, Kracauer, Ricoeur, Freud, Whitehead, Borge, Yates, Warner and the works of Proust, Beckett and Kundera.
Though still focused on the photographic image, her practice at the RCA took a different path. She began to experiment with different forms, including video, installation and interventions.
"Memories can be activated by photographs, objects or through our senses… In utilizing darkness, the rest of our senses are heightened. I decided to combine sounds, photographs and strobe lighting in a dark space to reproduce a sort of “after-image” of an image, and an “echo” of sound."
Kubisova explains that the environment she creates allows images to be seen in fragments, and then to be imprinted on the photosensitive layer present in the retina of the eye (Rhodopsin). Only then does the image travel into the brain.
"In this situation, time plays a significant role. We only see the image for a split of a second. After that the eyes hold the picture for some time before it is erased by another flash."
Many situations and techniques were tested, using smells, objects, projections, lots of photographs, thousands of sounds, large/small spaces.
One of the most intriguing elements to us was how Kubisova applied those different techniques and disciplines; of photography, coding and sound design, to create a sort of false memory. This was a re-appropriation of the photograph she'd found - she created an environment where new memories of the image were perceived by the audience. She built an immersive installation in which the viewer was briefly debilitated by blindness - from the pitch black environment. She then re-introduced to us the visual element through strobe lighting, and sound too. The audience became disorientated and intrigued.
"Our memory is trying to capture any single moment, a fragment to hold on to and remember, but which ones actually make it into our brain and which ones don’t? The viewer, by entering the pitch-black space, activates (through sensors) various sets of surround sounds and flash strobes in different time sequences (with long breaks between the flashes)."
The installation surprised her. "Once it was installed", she says, "it had its own life".
Many different behaviors and responses were created once the audience became part of it. The audience activated the installation, and though she tested as many possibilities as audience reactions, she couldn't predict certain behaviors.
Collaboration was essential to the exhibition and Kubisova worked with Gonzalo Salcedo (Interactive design) and Dimitrios Coumados (Sound design), "...who were an incredible part of the process".
"I did start by learning the code of Arduino and sound mixing through the process. But I needed to focus on developing the idea conceptually so I invited Gonzalo and Dimitrios to collaborate and develop the technical part of the project.
The language of an artist can be very direct, ambiguous, witty, clever, upsetting, challenging and simple – all these ways are important. Artists translate something only they can see... It took me some time to realise how to translate the idea of the installation to the audience outside of the exhibition."
The same problem arose when it came to the documentation of her work. She recorded it as a video, which created black flickering and moving frames through the image. She took photographs and created an animation in post production, to try to get as close as possible to the experience, "which was indeed impossible".
Rhodopsin - Movement, Petra Kubisova - © Peter Mallet
We're inclined to agree with Kubisova when she says, "the only way to experience this piece, is to be present and immersed in it."
To keep up with Kubisova's newest works, and for the opportunity to be present at future exhibitions, check her website.
NB. The video included here is a reconstruction of the exhibition experience, it is not exhibition material or official documentation.