A picture is an image is a memory

Jan Winkelmann

“How’s it going, you dirty bastard?” is wormed out of him by the voice at the other end of the line, not noticing that all passers-by in his vicinity – taken aback by such an outburst of scatological language – looked somewhat consternated and no less irritated; of course they couldn’t have known that for years already the two had cultivated this exceptionally amicable – one could even say, loving – greeting. Joyfully he realised that in the very near future they would both be in the same city, and that, as a result, it was time to meet again for an escapade like those that sporadically took place during the past decade. They last met on the edge of an exhibition paying tribute to Andy Warhol, the Grandmaster of Reproduction, indeed, an exhibition without a single original by Warhol. Instead, there were only reproductions of reproductions of reproductions to be seen: Warhol is one of few artists whose pictures immediately go into one’s head, stick to one’s memory and are thus – as once aptly put by one of Warhol’s colleagues – “often just as good in catalogues as in real life.” However, there obviously still seems to be a difference between actual reality and media reality, i.e. reality as transmitted via the media. An ‘Old School’ approach, or rather a hackneyed quote? A friend recently told him that she watched – from the window of her hotel near the World Trade Center – United Flight 175 as it hit the South Tower. Although she only would have to have looked out of the window to experience reality ‘live’ in all its – hitherto inconceivably perverse – dimensions, her gaze remained transfixed on the shining surface of the TV screen; for here, in spite of their abstraction through transmission, the images somehow appeared more real than the reality occurring beyond the shining surface of the tinted hotel window. The pictures of September 11 – like innumerable other images – immediately became part of collective memory. But have you ever thought about what this oft-cited ‘collective memory’ actually is, i.e. might conceivably be? Let us consider the term more closely. It appears that this collective capacity to remember is primarily based on the power of pictures. Is it simply due to the immediacy of visual information that images are bound to be the basis of what we call a collective memory? Certainly, however acoustic and olfactory sensations are no less immediate, if indeed not more direct, yet they do not possess the power and capacity of images to function in terms of collective memory. This may also be due to the fact that sounds and smells are not equally suited for (worldwide) transportation (via the media). Of course, almost everyone knows the smell of freshly percolated coffee, yet one hardly conceives of the smell of fresh coffee as being part of collective memory. Which brings us to the notions of relevance and lastingness as significant definition criteria. Innately too banal, it is difficult to ascribe the smell of coffee to collective memory. Things are slightly different in the case of acoustic sensations in the form of music, although music might conceivably resemble a private form of memory within the context of collective memory. Or do you have the same memories as I do when you listen to “Sunny” by Boney M? I would claim that this is not the case, although the song itself is part of the collective memory at least of a specific segment of humanity. However, then again, for the majority of the world’s population, it is not. I wouldn’t declare that Boney M wasn’t played in Ulan Bator in the late 1970s. But I can also imagine that – in that place and at that time – a different song was at the top of the charts that was/is integral to the collective memory of the local population, in much the same way that Boney M is to my/our memory. Thus, according to geographical subdivisions, there seem to exist more than one collective memory, not only in the realm of music. For undoubtedly, a photo of the dead Uwe Barschel in the bathtub of a Geneva hotel will not necessarily conjure memories for people in Marrakech. Moreover – as illustrated by the afore-mentioned example – it seems that negative and thus emphatic events are readily recorded by collective memory; or are you able to vividly recollect pictures of Diana Spencer’s marriage to Prince Charles; of the way she looked innocent and shy, yet somehow happy? If, seeking a lowest common denominator to help define (whichever form of) collective memory, we were to agree on media communication, this would mean that a collective memory could plausibly only exist within and/or through, i.e. with the aid of, the mass media. This in turn leads to the conclusion that a collective memory could never have existed before the worldwide expansion of the mass media. “... by the way, I’m standing in front of Andy Warhol’s grave. It’s pretty banal, considering that it’s Andy Warhol’s grave. Anyway, see you soon.”

(Translated by Oliver Kossack)

This text is going to be published: Andreas Kaufmann: Images without Imagery“, Cat. Bunkier Sztuki, Krakau, 2003.

© 2003 Jan Winkelmann

German Version