Tag Archives: documentation

Acts of Recording (Part II)

I write/draw, therefore I am.

It takes a certain human madness to record events the way we do.

Whether events of the physical world or events of the internal mind (one has active effects on the other of course), we madly, compulsively seek ways to pin these all down in some form or another. Transcripts, minutes, words, video, every angle dreamt up by the spatial and dimension-aware mind, and it will be attempted. The nature of these documentations are as disparate as their outcomes: sometimes transient like graffiti and popular music; sometimes permanent like architecture and novels, sometimes humble and private, other times attention-seeking and explosive. Egoism of varying gradients also colour these intentions.

I suspect that part of this is born from a distrust of the human memory. Memory not only fails us at times where we most have need for lessons from the past, but it is also fickle, biased, transformative and tirelessly reflexive. You’d think that having a digital memory, a repository of permanent data, would make us happier beings. But no – ’tis not so.

As Malcolm Turnbull touchingly reflects:

For all of human history until today, the natural order of things has been to forget. We have had to make an effort to remember – whether it is painting on the walls of a cave, writing a diary, transcribing the proceedings of a parliament.

And when we remember things we often transform them. We push unhappy memories aside and remember the happy ones.

Lucy and I lived together in Oxford for nearly a year. I have no doubt the weather was as regularly grey and gloomy in 1980 as it usually is. But my memory of Oxford with Lucy is only full of sunshine. And not just the blissful sunshine of young love. Almost all of the photographs we took and dutifully pasted in our album were taken on one, the only one, blue skied, sunshining day. When I think of our time in Oxford the images that come to mind are that handful of snapshots.

So now as it is so cheap and effortless to remember and we live more and more of our lives online, how can we forget? For millions of years the frailty of human memory has deleted recollections, but the digital brain that is the Internet never forgets.

You had forgotten being drunk and stupid at a party at university – so had everyone else by the way. But someone took some pictures, put them on Facebook, tagged you and now years later they are turned up in a search by your would-be employer.

Millions of people today converse with their friends online, on Facebook or similar sites, by email, by text message. They are creating a transcript of their lives. So how can they forget the cruel slights of the year before last – the human brain defaults to delete, the digital brain defaults to remember, forever.

How can we forgive, if we cannot forget?

And also:

We document so as to carve out a source of existential comfort that lasts longer than our short-lived selves, and to share and expand the space that we occupy in the world. Andy Warhol was drawn to the TV medium because the wider the reach of your persona, the bigger the space you (metaphysically) inhabit becomes.

Before media there used to be a physical limit on how much space one person could take up by themselves. People, I think, are the only things that know how to take up more space than the space they’re actually in, because with media you can sit back and still let yourself fill up space on records, in the movies, most exclusively on the telephone and least exclusively on television.

Is this documentation rational?

Meaning, does our recording of any and all events have any lasting use other than the immediate effect of existential and social gratification? As documentation-receivers simultaneously also, do we have the attention space to take in all of these multiplex, kaleidoscopic accounts of the here and now? What happens to the intensity and duration of attention given? What happens to the collective record of human history? Who gets to choose which voices get to be included, and is it possible to include all voices in this documentation? Does the maxim ‘history is written by the victors’ still hold? Who writes history?

This is the ultimate, humorous paradox of choice.

Other questions push their way forwards. Where will be future generations look to for comprehensive records of history? Newspapers, former journals of record do not tell the full tale of humanity, nor have they ever. But while the ability to record and document of ordinary citizens has always been, unlimited access to universal readership did not. We live in a time where everyone from a housewife in Japan to a teenager in rural Victoria to an unhappy businessman in the big city now has that.

So many questions will only come to be answered as the coming changes actually arrive. This will be organic; these changes will almost all be incidental and even accidental. For now though, I would suggest more concerted attempts to curate time-series summaries, reports, reviews, of the mediums on which we record and document on a daily basis. Mosaics combining photojournalism, tweets, moving coverage, static words on a page for a momentous, historical watershed event – such as for election day, natural disasters, bombings – or even a single day – are an ideal example.

If intentionally we undertake these for each humanity-changing event, it will not only make it easier for future generations to gain a holistic glimpse of any single event, but also gives us a chance, here and now, to be more inclusive of the sheer overwhelming diversity in human experiences than ever before.

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Of a Mediocre Photograph (Part I)

It is the last day of winter

and as I walk to the city library slipping from the glove of the Melbourne Writers Festival shaking off some final lingering thoughts, I pass the last bulky complex in a row of imposing buildings giving way to open space and a wide, symmetrical cascade of steps. Patterned multigrain bricks stretching up to the sloping plain at the top go escape my peripheral line. Pairs of people are sitting in various configurations at the top, conversing, hand-gesturing and sipping indistinguishable beverages.

I find this scene immensely pleasing to the eye and am unable to resist snapping a quick picture.

Scrolling through my photo gallery I am somewhat shocked to realise that I have tens – no – hundreds of similar photographs. Ordinary, you could even say meaningless, snapshots of landscapes, street crossings, the odd view from a cafe with empty cappuccino mug in the frame, and taken under atrocious lighting more often than not.

In other words these were flat, purely cross-sectional ‘documentations’ that did not draw on the complexity of the scene. They neither conveyed statements nor attempted character studies into any of the faceless strangers in the photographs. Why then did they exist, and in such multitudes?

Upon contemplation, I came to realise that this was not the intention of these amateurish records at all.

Imagine reaching the highest altitude level in Paris, offering up the most magnificent aerial view like a gift. You can substitute that for Mt Fuji, Niagara Falls, the observatory deck of Eureka Tower. What do you do? Let out a gasp/sigh, take it all in and realise you’ve been holding your breath involuntarily a few seconds later. Then – you’ll remove your camera from your belongings to snap off a few clicks, almost all of which you’ll look back on later and concede do not do the place justice, but probably won’t delete anyway. This too is involuntary.

It is never just about capturing the time or place – these random variables mean nothing when taken in isolation without our feelings imprinted across them. If it was just the superficial record of a particular breath-taking landscape or period that we were after, then we would as a matter of competitive disadvantage defer naturally to professionals with the award-winning pictures. Instead we continue to manufacture our own amateurish creations with an insatiable sort of hunger. It is of some vague human solace to us.

And what is that?

If you pressed me to explain, I would go back to the afternoon’s little discovery. I would probably say something about how the accidental combination of sunlight and my mood had registered some sort of a poignant response in me. My frame of mind at the time – which, wandering, free-ranging, and pleasantly buzzed from the unexpected liaison I’d just left, happened to be perfectly ready to accept such a simple visual delight  – something that surely would not ordinarily produce the same result, and completely out of the question had I been stressed, harried or in a rush.

Taking into account these preconditions of mind, place and time, seemingly necessary for such an involuntary stimulation of the senses and the newfound appreciation of my physical surroundings, of course means that the same photograph alone would be unable to evoke similar reactions (which I suspect are simply hormonal releases of pleasure) upon review. Yet still I take them by the hundreds, hoping vainly that such random documentation will allow for a few choice, perfect moments to live on, or more accurately, to be relived some time later at whim. Perhaps it is subconsciously pre-emptive: a misguided act of preservation to stockpile emotionally pleasurable stimuli if ever my reserves run low.

As I reflect a few hours and kilometres later, indeed I hope that looking upon this photograph on a future day will bring me back to this unique feeling, here and now, at the intersection of the time of day (4.50pm) and place (moderately crowded crossing at Swanston/Flinders Lane); that is, a moment of utter peace, being in touch with my surroundings, and the warm taste of promise that one cannot help sucking in from the almost-spring air.

Some exhibits from a dubious gallery

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