Memory, identity and place from the evanescent images of Tiago Casanova
Pedro Leão Neto
“What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (Published May 1st 1982 by Hill and Wang - first published 1980)
The project Teste À Capacidade Mnemónica Da Fotografia by Tiago Casanova, which won the BES Revelação 2012 award, is an intense artistic work in which memory, identity, and places are questioned throughout three different moments, each one corresponding to a specific exploration of the photographic medium that is being used and its relationship with the exercise of memory and its meaning.
We have, in a first moment, the projection of seven analog movie films bought by Tiago Casanova himself at a flea market in Barcelona, which report a family’s summer vacation in the coastal town of Javea (Alicante, Spain) in 1977. This projection is made by Tiago Casanova with the help of his grandfather projector, whose malfunctioning causes the film to overheat and eventually burn slightly. Thus the images, which were “adrift” inside 8 mm bobbins for years until they were found in a flea market, begin to slowly disappear, making all those memories fade in a rather romantic way. The analog projection is digitally recorded in order to allow its reproduction during the exhibition.
The second moment is composed of a set of photos from Tiago Casanova’s own personal archive, which are also damaged. Captured with a medium-size second-hand camera during a trip through the Portuguese and Mediterranean coast in 2011, these photos are ironically printed in high-quality paper and framed.
Lastly, in the third moment, Tiago Casanova builds new memories of his trips and personal experiences, questioning once again the ability of the photographic image as a mnemonic device that is capable of making us rebuild past events in the present, but now making use of instant photography to document his 2012 summer vacations with a Polaroid camera that belonged to his grandfather. The final object is presented as a photo album, referencing in this way the travel albums that were used in the past to catalogue archives and trip memories.
The quote by Roland Barthes, in the opening of this article, brings up a set of issues regarding photography and memory that seem to be paramount in Tiago Casanova’s project, allowing us to relate them with the concepts of identity and place. In this excerpt of his work, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Barthes tells us that the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially and by doing so it simultaneously touches two important matters: that of the limits of indexation of the photographic image and the memory process instigated by the photograph.
Tiago Casanova will, however, introduce in his artistic project a specific aspect linked to the images of photographs obtained from those devices and formats, which is the usage of damaged images, fragments of photographic images he uses as individual memory tools from several experiences and places—first through static, adulterate photograms, an outcome of the film overheating on the projector, and then with damaged photographs resultant from the light propagation in the interior of the camera and, lastly, with imperfect polaroid images caused by exterior temperature and humidity. We are therefore compelled to simultaneously question the unevenness of the human memory, the ability of devices and image support mediums to preserve those memories and, at last, to (re)think the importance of both kinds of photography as mnemonic devices of past situations and places: that of complete, technically perfect and immaculate images that “realistically” subscribe to the referent, and that of incomplete images, fragmented, more subjective, evanescent, and that do not adhere as realistically to the referent.
In terms of the ephemeral character of memory, its sheer fragility and chance of partially or totally disappearing, as well as its complexity, one has only to think on how the act of remembering always implies recovering, from the preserved memory, something that has already happened and therefore embodies a diffuse temporal structure. In fact, as Ana Hatherly asserts, in this complex process of recollecting there are always overlapping memories that nullify each other and the meaning is always a map representing the synthesis of several interweaved interpretations1.
It is through that extremely intricate and dynamic process of memory and experience that we keep on (re)creating our identity or loss of it, an existential process where, as Merleau-Ponty2 explains, the mind, the body and the space are all present. When people interact with the physical environment, they develop relationships and create links with spaces that have as result converting anonymous spaces into places: meaningful spaces to which people end up being attached and therefore contribute for the construction of their identities.
One must also denote that there were already several philosophers and authors who tried to answer the question “what is place?”3, something that has been hard to answer so far, since the meaning we can ascribe to place is tremendously rich and diverse, and there are a number of written documents that define it beyond space, location or landscape, transporting it to other universes besides that of architecture and geography: literature, philosophy and art—see, for instance, Jameson’s cartographic narratives or Foucault’s heterotopias, just to mention a few.
In addition to this, one can also establish connections between, on the one hand, identity and place: meaningful places, with which there is a certain familiarity and/or a sense of “being at home” and, on the other hand, between loss of identity, sense of disorientation or anxiety4, and what is fragmentary and/or a non-place experience5.
Well, the photographic image communicates not only the perceptions we can collect from those spaces, but also our emotions, being them feelings of kindness, disdain, or other psychological sensations: the set of experiences that are transferred from the physical space into the psychological and emotional one, transforming the photographic images into the medium through which we establish a certain understanding with those known or imaginary places. It seems to us therefore that there should be no doubts about the fact that the photographic image has always a certain influence on how we remember the past and of this being how our memories are inscribed with several images of events or past situations, even though all this may happen unclearly.
Coming back to the question about the importance of the fragmented image and its ability to make us remember past situations and environments, it seems that the work of Tiago Casanova significantly suggests that the most important things for triggering that remembering of the past is, as the title of the project indicates, the mnemonic capacity of the image to make us recall that situation, experience or place, and that depends more on the memory that already lives within us and not so much on the immaculate or total characteristics of the image in itself. This issue makes us remember something already explained by Rosalind Krauss6, which is that photography does not take action semiologically as an icon but rather as an index. That is to say, its referent is not immediately related, as a figure, to the shapes the photograph renders—thus the strength and ability of the “fragment” for making us remember past events—and what in fact happens is a physical contiguity between the meaning and its photographic signifier. Meaning that Tiago Casanova’s project does not truly allow us to see the Spanish family in the coastal town of Javea, or the spaces in the Portuguese and Mediterranean coast, or even his own family—photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially—but it is through them we receive the signs that allow us to build the fictional relational universe with those situations, places, and people.
Lastly, all these issues about the mnemonic capacity of the photographic image, the relationships between existential anxiety and the non-place and place, as well as the idea that the “fragment” can be a more powerful memory auxiliary than what it appears to us as complete or finished, also makes us remember what Wim Wenders7 said in the interview he gave to Quadrens in 1988, when talking about the city […] «I am convinced that the “fragmented” or the “broken” is better recorded on memory than the “complete”». Hence, it seems that the fragmented images of Tiago Casanova might be more capable of preserving the moments and intimate situations of the past by their subjectivity and evanescent, incomplete poetic.
It is quite interesting to mention that this trait of fragmented images in Tiago Casanova’s project draws his work near Umberto Eco’s8 concept of “openness” explained in his seminal book The Open Work by allowing diverse publics to fill what is lacking in those image “fragments” with their experiences and personal sensibilities. On the other hand, if it is true that Tiago Casanova’s project works significantly well with the photograph’s punctum, the fact that this was something accessible only to the personal universe of those who had had a past experience with the object or the person in the photographic image, as Barthes9 postulated, does not seem to be happening with this project. That is, Barthes’ punctum ceases to exist only in the particular universe of the person that experienced those situations, but it is widened to the others with the invitation that Tiago Casanova’s Teste à Capacidade Mnemónica da Fotografia makes to the public with to dialogue with his work, making people envision in the presented image “fragments” diverse fictional narratives arising from various personal universes.
1 «A memória é essa claridade fictícia das sobreposições que se anulam. O significado é essa espécie de mapa das interpretações que se cruzam como cicatrizes de sucessivas pancadas. Os nossos sentimentos. A intensidade do sentir é intolerável. Do sentir ao sentido do sentido ao significado: o que resta é impacto que substitui impacto - eis a invenção».
Ana Hatherly, in ‘A Cidade das Palavras’, Lisbon: Quetzal (1988); http://www.citador.pt/textos/o-significado-da-memoria-ana-hatherly
2 «Je ne suis pas dans l’espace et dans le temps, […] je suis à l’espace et au temps, mon corpos s’applique à eux et les embrasse» […] «Notre corps n’est pas seulement un espace expressif parmi tous les autres. Il est à l’origine de tous les autres, le mouvement même d’expression, ce qui projette au-dehors les significations en leur donnant un lieu».
Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris, Gallimard, 1945, p. 174, 183
3 The question, what is place? presents many difficulties. An examination of all the relevant facts seems to lead to different conclusions. Moreover, we have inherited nothing from previous thinkers, whether in the way of a statement of difficulties or of a solution.
Aristotle, Book IV, The Physics
4 […] «In anxiety one feels ‘uncanny’ [unheimlich]» […] Not-being-at-home must be conceived existentially and ontologically as the more primordial phenomenon».
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson) New York: Harper and Row, 1962
5 The decline and abandonment of urban areas, of their commercial, habitation, and industrial activities convert, generally speaking, these places into some kind of suburb, spaces of ruins, an architecture of wreckage that may be the result of overflowing spaces after a structure collapses, of skeletons of seized buildings or pieces of dispersed, abandoned lands. They are “non-places” – (Marc Augé), non-identitary and non-relational places that are also heterotopic places – (Michael Foucault) and because of that own great potential for being reinvented and work as generators of new dynamics. And so these areas can work as a support for countless art interventions to dialogue among each other and with a patrimony simultaneously built by edified spaces and in ruins, a program capable of projecting crucial political and cultural ideas for a new development and balance for the collective and for the creation and identification of another social and/or cultural identity.
Augé, M (1995), Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso.
“Des Espaces Autres” published by the French journal Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité in October, 1984, was the basis of a lecture given by Michel Foucault in March 1967. Although not reviewed for publication by the author and thus not part of the official corpus of his work, the manuscript was released into the public domain for an exhibition in Berlin shortly before Michel Foucault's death. Translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec.
6 Krauss, Rosalind, 1970: Note sur l’index, in Macula 5-6, pp. 165-175. Also in Krauss 1985.
7 Wenders, Wim; KOLLHOFF, Hans. La ciutat, una conversa, Quaderns, n.177, 1988. p. 63
8 Umberto Eco, Obra Aberta: forma e indeterminação nas poéticas contemporâneas. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2005.
9 As Roland Barthes explains in his book Camera Lucida, in which he develops the twin concepts of ‘punctum’ and ‘studium’: studium denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph; punctum denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (Published May 1st 1982 by Hill and Wang – first published in 1980).