Recently I was reading an article in the National Geographic about memory and was particularly interested in an explanation of how it works, i.e. the physical/chemical structure of a memory within the human brain. In layman’s terms, the brain is in a constant state of flux; neurons communicate with one another via a 1000 trillion synapses and a memory is a stored pattern of this communication. Every memory we have therefore is a pattern, the shape of a network, which ties in with the image I drew of a moment as being made up of numerous lines – pathways – knotted together, but always in flux, always being untied and retied with other paths to make new moments. Therefore, re-creating a memory (or a post-memory) in ‘artistic’ terms (string work) is, diagramatically how memory works in the human brain.
I have also been considering how my research into my family tree fits in with the projects I have been working on recently and over the past year or so. I made the following list of areas which have interested me:
My place in history (Holocaust, WW1)
My place in the spaces of history (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oxford)
My relationship with people in the past and their relationship with me
Old photographs of Oxford
Old photographs of victims found in Auschwitz / found photographs
Old family photographs (holiday snaps/distance)
Memorials (as aids to memory and post-memory)
Objects (as aids to memory and post-memory)
Landscape (past, present and future)
Perception of history/the past (Frog and Dinosaur)
Maps, fictional and factual
Moments as a combination of pathways
Windows and bicycles in old photographs
The family tree is a living document. There is a big difference between a list of names on a memorial and those in a family tree. It is a social document which reveals my relationship with people in the past as well as the sheer number of people to whom I am related today; people who are as anonymous to me as I am to them.
It is a document of my coming into being and a blueprint for my own existence. It’s an impossible document, both certain and utterly implausible at the same time, and its impossibility, the unlikely combination of encounters from the late eighteenth century through to the present, is illustrated when births are mapped on a map of the British Isles. Ancestors from Norfolk, Lincolnshire, South Wales, Sussex, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire all moved from villages to towns, from one part of the country to another, following pathways which eventually led to my being born in Oxford in 1971. Every action they made, every thought they had (which of course would influence their actions) had to be exactly as it was for me to be who I am; anything different, no matter how small or irrelevant, and I would not be me. The more one thinks about the combination of actions and thoughts, things that were said and things that weren’t said, things seen and those which went unnoticed, the more impossible existence becomes.
This means of course that it isn’t simply the thoughts and actions of our ancestors which had to be the same; the thoughts and actions of everyone they knew, or strangers they met or saw in the street had to be as they were, for nothing exists in isolation.
These – till recently – unknown, anonymous relatives are like the distant people in my old holiday snaps, people with whom I shared a space and who therefore, unwittingly affected the path I took in life. Making these anonymous people the subjects of the photograph, places me and my family into the distance and therefore allows me to experience what it means to be anonymous to other people; the fact is, there is no difference at all.
I am related to thousands of people I do not know, who are distant, yet our lives have been brought into being through common elements; a shared ancestry.
Looking at holiday snaps as things in themselves we can say that they are two things; they are examples of both a memory and a moment. Of course, it could be argued that they are memories of moments and therefore one the same thing; however memories of that moment (sitting on the beach) are only linked to the main subjects (my family) and not the rest of the people who shared, or made that moment. Referring back to the maps of memories and moments, these photographs and indeed every photograph taken are themselves both these maps in one; they are the image of someone’s memory (the photographer’s) and the image of a combination of paths at a given moment in time.
When looking at photographs taken in times before our birth, we become a part of the moment and somehow witness that moment. To view, for example a photograph of Oxford taken in 1907 is to participate in that moment and in the photographer’s memory. We can use conjecture to imagine the immediate future and the past, but of course this then becomes a fiction, a made up country like the places I would invent as a child; a case of the frog and the dinosaur, where fragments of the past (dinosaur DNA in the bodies of mosquitoes trapped in amber) are combined with our own imaginal thought (frog DNA) to create our new Dinosaur (our picture of History).
As I’ve said before, this Jurassic Park metaphor is interesting in that our own DNA is itself derived from our ancestors, some of whom would have participated in the moment of the photograph, after all, a moment is not restricted by space, a moment is not defined by a physical place, but a period of time covering all places. In the photograph shown, I can wonder what my Great-Grandmother was doing the moment the shutter was released.
To some extent, we have all participated in all time because we are the outcome of an immense combination of moments, each comprising incredibly intricate paths, thoughts, conversations etc. We were imminent or potential in every moment, and as every moment required for our coming into being came and went as it should, so our potential grew until we were born. Anything different, anywhere in the world and we might not be here.
The non-confining of moments to space is illustrated by the boundaries of a photograph. Events pictured in a photograph did not happen in isolation. An open window reveals other spaces of that moment, spaces such as those inhabited in that moment by my forebears. Open windows are evidence of lives being led, oblivious to the photograph being taken.
A parked bicycle at the side of the road is also evidence of this. The owner of that bicycle has left the picture, but not the moment; he is completely unaware of the image being taken, and through his absence in the image, his presence in the moment is somehow heightened.
When looking at photographs of the Holocaust, in particular of transports arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we must remember that these events did not happen in isolation. The moment did not exist solely behind the barbed wire fences or within the borders of the photograph, but across the entire world, and, as with my holiday snaps, reality is not that determined by the lens of the camera, it is not only a moment annexed by the chemical reactions which miraculously capture the image or solely the subject of a discriminating eye, but everything existing around it. Just as enlarging the distance of a photograph pushes the original subject into the distance (a subject made no less real because of it), so we can imagine the photographs taken at Auschwitz-Birkenau as being events in which my ancestors were simply the distance, in which they shared a moment in time; and it wouldn’t take a leap of the imagination to enlarge the distance of these images and make those who are distant, my ancestors, the subject.
Researching my family tree has heightened the sense of my participation in past events. Recalling Henri Bortoft’s book, ‘The Wholeness of Nature’ I thought about authentic wholes and how the whole is imminent in the parts. If we as individuals are the parts of the whole family tree then it might be said that the entire family tree, past, present and future is imminent in each and every one of us. I thought also of my work on the gesture of the apple tree in my garden and considered how much it shares with the gesture of individual existence.
Thinking about this and the idea of my ancestors being merely in the distance of the Holocaust, I thought about the gesture of the Holocaust, something which showed itself to me whilst watching Raul Hildberg in Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’, when he talked about a document detailing the journeys of death trains arriving and leaving Treblinka. The document was on the face of it a banal piece of bureaucracy, a timetable which, superficially, had all the significance of a timetable for trains taking tourists on holiday (it should be known that the same company which timetabled the trains for taking the Jews to the death camps, and which collected the fares they had to pay, was at the same time transporting people on their holidays, where they no doubt took photographs). Of course, these trains were taking, as I said, the Jews to their deaths. Therefore, when looking at photographs of trains at Birkenau, one mustn’t just see them as trains that have always been there within the confines of the image, just as the people being unloaded were never only victims. They were people who had lives before the war, brought in on trains, timetabled by bureaucrats from places all over Europe. With them they brought the banal objects of existence from which we can try and piece their lives together. But banal in this sense does not mean dull or boring, but rather normal in the face of what they were to experience.
Looking again at my map of where I came from, I get the sense of people not existing in isolation and also of moments not being confined to spaces or places; I understand with greater clarity, the sense of who these victims were; people just like me and my ancestors. And when researching, it is often the banal which is the most interesting, not as I said, the dull or boring, but what is normal in the face of History.