Published in Performance, exhibition catalogue (St Prex: Wings, 20006), pp. 2-5.
We are accustomed, when thinking about memory, to move between questions of personal memory (which we do not always adequately understand as socially implicated) and the larger question of cultural memory, which we find physically exemplified by on the one hand ceremonies and rituals, and on the other by libraries, writing, archives and whatever technologies of storage – books, magnetic tape, computers, the internet – are current(1). Uriel Orlow’s investigations of these themes have taken him already to the Wiener Library (which began its life as the actions of a counter-propagandist, not as a memorial) to make interviews with those working there, to accompany video footage of every foot of its shelves. It has also taken him to the National Archives at Kew, where, in a collaborative work made with Ruth Maclennan, the camera adopted the point of view of a document on the automated track used to retrieve and distribute documents for historians and researchers.
Inevitably, there is traffic between our understanding of personal memory and our current understanding of cultural memory, archives, and their contemporary technologies. But leaving aside for a moment the controversy of whether a dynamic mental function such as memory can at all be helpfully understood via the metaphor of the brain as any kind of ‘store’ (this intuitively appealing idea is supported by few who have considered the problem), there are notable, but still relatively little observed and theorised aspects of how memory is transmitted and conserved. For memory is also inscribed corporeally, through repetition and performance. When getting on an escalator or moving walkway for the first time, children worriedly concentrate, stumble or jump; when the skill is mastered, they walk with unbroken stride over the division. The ease is learnt. Swimming, typing or texting – this last an ability most of us have only recently acquired – are only the most visible of the many things we have learnt to do so successfully that we often forget that we have, indeed learnt them. These habit memories, so little thought of, are revealed as vital when they are lost through stroke or mental impairment; and yet they may also survive when other cognitive functions do not, as languages spoken in childhood are often observed to return in extreme old age. Orlow himself became interested in these areas ‘through fascination with neurological research into brain-damaged musicians who despite being unable to remember anything or anyone (not even themselves) can still play music’ (Art Monthly 298, July-August 2006, p.13).
There is a reason why in films about musicians, directors cut between the actor seated, hands hidden at the keyboard (though looking ill at ease), and the disembodied hands of a real, unknown musician. Musicianship, where grace and precision in physical movement come together with reading as the way in which a piece of music is realised, interpreted and internalised, has naturally been a focus of interest in the study of memory. Maurice Halbwachs (in ‘La mémoire collective chez les musiciens’, Revue philosophique, mars-avril 1939) considered part of the problem in this way:
‘Let us now consider, once again, the musicians who play in an orchestra. They all have their eyes fixed on their scores, and in this way their thoughts, like their gestures, come together, because these can be regarded as so many copies from the same model. Let us suppose that they all possessed sufficient powers of recall, such that it was possible for them to play without looking at these pages covered with signs, or to no more than glance at them from time to time. The scores are there. But they could equally well not be present. If they are not present, nothing will alter, since the musicians’ thoughts accord, and the scores have no other part to play than to symbolize the concurrence of their thoughts . . . ‘
In Concert, made with two musicians from the Royal Academy of Music, London, does away with not only the score (internalised in both the memory and in the physical movements of playing), but the instruments. The first movement of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, op. 107, is performed by a cellist, and by a pianist. We do not see their faces, though we assume they see each other exactly as they would normally. They play to a recording they have themselves made, which is thus both a performance and a kind of score for the performance they are now making; and thus definitively more than an act of mime. Absorbed by the performance, we become almost unaware that no instruments are present. And then there is an unforgettable pause when the cellist rests both hands on her knees and the invisible cello, made so present by her gestures, disappears. In Concert is a speculative artwork, not a formal study of cognition. But artworks share with science the occasional need for thought-experiments, and this one presents evidence of a further development of Orlow’s work, that exceeds by far in effect and fascination what the initial premise suggests; not least by its social and mimetic implications and pleasures. The non-musician, seeing and hearing this work, is tempted to imitate, if only in a restrained way, some of the movements made by those who have learnt them so well.
(1) See Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember, Cambridge: CUP, 1989.