The Reconstruction of Memory in the Videos Granny’s Is by David Larcher and Art of Memory by Woody Vasulka

Sheeran Soliman

The act of remembering and forgetting is an honest, everyday human trait, so it is not surprising that memory, and all its inherent complexities should be employed as a tool in the hands of artists. Regarding the use of memory through the medium of video, culture author Marita Sturken comments; …video has increasingly become a medium in which issues of collective and individual memory are being examined. The politics of memory and identity, the elusiveness of personal memory, and the relationship of camera images to national and cultural memory have become topics explored by artists in video [1]. Two video artists, Woody Vasulka and David Larcher work extensively with themes surrounding memory in their respective works Art of Memory (1987) and Granny’s Is (1989-90). Vasulka approaches memory from a historical and political perspective, recasting world history and the post nuclear future, whereas Larcher approaches memory from a personal perspective, resurrecting the ghost of his late grandmother to create a transcendental tribute to her life. In both cases, memories are fragmented, scattered and disjointed in their presentation; triggered, forgotten, then recalled, and finally twisted to hold strange, physical shapes on the video screen. In the videos Art of Memory and Granny’s Is, the artists do not simply explore the territory of memory; they quite literally remap it. Both videos display a reconstruction of memory through multi-layered visual landscapes as well as a unique use of languages, be it written, oral or graphical in arrangement. In the end, the videos encourage a heightened state of awareness, lulling the viewer into a state of internalized contemplation and meditation regarding life and death.

Woody Vasulka’s video Art of Memory is a complex piece, layering beautiful, desert landscapes with old film footage and strange, electronically manipulated forms. A master of video manipulation, he deftly interweaves shapes, forms and a synthesized soundtrack to create a work devoted to the experimental possibilities of video. Divided by transitional wipes into seven sections or “songs” [2] as Vasulka calls them, the narrative evolves from the opening scene where a man throws stones and then photographs a great, gold winged creature, symbolic according to Vasulka of the “metaphysical world, which must share the burden of responsibility for the violence and cruelty of human nature” [3]. This winged Icarus [4] like creature appears in each chapter of the video, interwoven with fragmented images of war footage and memory based landscapes. Vasulka approaches memory from a historical and political perspective, moulding and recasting fragments of film footage from world historical events and most notably from the Oppenheimer nuclear era onto strange, video forms. Media artist, critic, and theorist John Conomos interprets the work “as a multi-faceted audio-visual memory text designed to remind us of the political and cultural events of our recent past” [5]. Vasulka was not so interested in memorializing the actual histories and events he alludes to in his video, explaining that, “the image is no longer truth-in-a-window. Truth is subordinate” since Vasulka’s explorations have more to do with his own “method and interpretation” [6]. As culture author Marita Sturken so aptly The Reconstruction of Memory proposes, “the images of history lose their individual meaning and become a tangle of memories swallowed by the electronically rendered desert landscape” [7].

Larcher’s Granny’s Is, also framed by the concept of reconstructed memory, is inspired by a small water colour, painted by Larcher’s late grandmother, in which she depicted the small room she had inhabited since 1943 [8]. After his grandmother’s death, Larcher reconstructs the room as it was in the watercolour [9], repurposing the setting along with the footage he had taken of past Christmases spent with his grandmother, to in effect, resurrect her image and the close relationship they once shared. The video becomes both a time capsule of the time they spent together and a stirring contemplation regarding aging, death and the reconstruction of disappearing memories. At the same time, the work is a “multi-layered collage that explores the possibilities of experimentation with the medium” [10], using anywhere from five to twenty layers of variously component analogue and digital (D1) video [11]. Larcher’s work approaches the personal perspective of memory, resurrecting the ghost of his late grandmother to create a transcendental tribute to her life. Concerning Granny Is, writer and curator Nicole Gingras comments:

Les impressions imprévisibles liées aux opérations de la mémoire ou se conjuguent les faux raccords spatio-temporels entre les souvenirs, la superposition de traces mnémoniques ou l’effacement progressif de ces images refaisant surface sont ici brillamment reproduites et surtout époques. [12]

Both videos represent the reconstruction of memory through multi-layered visual landscapes that the artists craft like master sculptors. In Vasulka’s Art of Memory (1987), the scenery is taken from the dry landscapes of the American Southwest [13]. The land seems surreal and timeless, as if pulled from a picture postcard with its wide open vistas, rocky cliffs and endless, multi-coloured skies. Composed of a desert backdrop, shaped video artefacts as Vasulka often refers to them [14], characters, and a complex assortment of intersecting, transitional screen wipes that divide the piece into chapters, the characteristic, multi-layered, visual landscapes of the video take shape. Regarding the emergence of these motifs, critic and author Raymond Bellour observes that they set up “a reversibility between nature and artifice, form/figure and background” [15]. According to Vasulka, both the title of the video and the principle of “putting thoughts into a landscape” originated from historian Frances Yates’s book The Art of Memory [16]. In the book, Yates speaks of Cicero, a Roman theorist and excellent orator who would often visualize his topics for lengthy addresses by mentally arranging them on temple columns so that he could “recall the points of his speech with a perfection that left his opponents defenseless” [17]. Similarly to Cicero’s use of temple columns to aid his memory when giving speeches, Vasulka reconstructs visualized landscapes based on recollections from his childhood of “newsreels of world conflict”, “memories of major conflicts of the 20th century, World War II primarily, but also the Russian revolution and the Spanish civil war” [18]. The extraordinary landscapes he constructs are clearly dreamlike in quality, as if pulled from Vasulka’s subconscious mind and inherent memories. In one particular scene from the second chapter, a shape appears, resembling a large, raised human leg, floating on a landscape of desert brush and endless, cloud filled skies. Countless, repeated frames of old, black and white Nazi war film footage flicker across the strange shape, stretched and moulded by Vasulka to form a peculiar kind of “video skin” over the object. The resulting visual landscape is breathtaking and alien, recalling Salvador Dali’s surrealist art, The Reconstruction of Memory particularly the beautiful sky and barren landscape of twisted human limbs from his 1936 painting Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War).

The construction of visual landscapes is also a critical element in David Larcher’s video Granny’s Is. The artist recreates his late grandmother’s room, patching images of her sitting in the chair, removing her stockings. As the film continues, her video image materializes in paintings on the wall, a second chair and a television set. At times, the video image fades in and out, suggesting the presence of a phantom or spirit, returning to inhabit this space once more. The room is both a time capsule and a memorial, a visual landscape that is the setting for a reunion with Larcher’s grandmother and a shelter from the loneliness the artist must have endured following her passing. Larcher experiments further with visual landscapes when he virtually renders a space by resizing, shaping and then moving five video screens to create a ceiling, floor and three walls of a room. Larcher’s work is described as an aesthetic process of building “layer on layer on layer until there’s a metaphysical space of light and image and sound, all happening at the same time” [19]. Larcher himself states, “It’s about making a collage utilizing space and structure; creating new structures, [and] pictorial environments within the screen” [20].

Reconstructions of memory are also apparent in the languages that Vasulka and Larcher use in their videos, whether presented in a style that is written, oral or graphical in their arrangements. In Art of Memory, Vasulka develops graphical shapes and forms that he then stretches “video skins” over top of, deriving a visual language through their representations. It is difficult to fathom the creative birth of these shapes; however, upon examining Vasulka’s shooting script, it is apparent that certain three dimensional forms such as the pyramidal shape seen in chapter five of the video or the U-shaped form seen in chapter seven were perhaps based on two dimensional, audio-acoustic waveforms. Residing on physical memory storage media such as audio tapes, waveforms are after all an important raw material that Vasulka utilized in his art. By closely watching the evolution of the three dimensional shapes side-by-side, as they were drawn on the shooting script by Vasulka, the viewer could surmise that the patterns created in their repeated curves form yet another layer of hidden language derived from memory. Perhaps, upon reconstructing these “waveforms” into an intelligible audio recording, another level of oral language might emerge? Vasulka also derives a visual language through the video’s complex use of transitional wipes, which orchestrate the movements of images across the screen like an operatic performance or “musical composition” [21]. The transitional wipes used between each chapter open and close like great eyes gazing out over the visual landscape. These transitions fracture the image landscapes into individual memory fragments. At the end of each chapter, an audible thud resonates across the darkened video landscape, as if a set of massive, steel doors have just been slammed shut. At other times, such as in chapter six of the video, transitional wipes move horizontally across the frames, appearing to tear through the fabric of the video screen itself, erasing old images and welcoming new visual landscapes in their wake. Marita Sturken comments:

In the structure of the tape, Vasulka is attempting to configure an electronic language that defies the legacy of cinematic codes. He uses complex wipes and fades to avoid the “cut,” which he considers to be a cinematic trope that is not inherently a part of the language of electronic imaging. [22]

Similarly, David Larcher utilizes different forms of language in his video Granny’s Is (1989-90). He makes use of different fonts, sizes, locations and languages in order to present text on the screen. Written language becomes a part of the visual landscape on several occasions. At one point the text is stretched to inhabit spherical video shapes and forms, and at other points, the text appears in the bottom centre subtitle area, and scrolling across the top of the screen. At times, the words translate the oral conversations between the speakers, and at other times, they contribute prose by Larcher or by French writer Marcel Proust [23]. Blending the written text with overlapping layers of oral conversations, Larcher weaves a complex landscape of language. Larcher deftly layers electronic shapes and forms onto his landscapes which function as another form of language. One particular, recurring shape is the sphere. Near the beginning of the video, Larcher positions his grandmother’s image in the shape, and she seems to sit, immune to her grandson’s calls and ramblings, trapped in the “other world” it represents. Later, the sphere, with her image still encased inside, travels around the screen. It is as if she is fighting to free herself of its bonds and reconnect with her grandson. The spherical objects utilized throughout the video seem to speak a graphical language of their own, perhaps representing a time capsule used to preserve memories or the fortune teller’s crystal ball, which was often used as a tool to contact the dead and communicate with spirits from the “other world.” With the words “End of Day Glass” written in electronic text across one particular sphere within the video, the viewer could surmise that this is indeed a crystal ball, built to hold the spirits of the deceased when they reach the “end of their days”.

Both Vasulka’s Art of Memory and David Larcher’s Granny’s Is encourage a heightened state of awareness, lulling the viewer into a state of internalized self-contemplation, and a meditation on life and death. In Vasulka’s work, the New Mexico desert provides spectacular vistas for the video, presenting far off landscapes that encourage contemplation of life in and of itself. In the opening scene of the video, the winged Icarus creature stands on a massive cliff, looking out over the impressive desert landscape before it, perhaps contemplating the future of human life on earth. As viewers watching all of this unfold before us, we are impelled to contemplate our own pasts and futures. Later, in chapter three of the video, we are presented with a distorted wireframe like image of Robert J. Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, as he recounts his famous words from the Hindu scriptures, “and now I have become Death, the destroyer of the worlds” [24]. The be-speckled, somewhat incredulous male character, who shares the scene with Oppenheimer’s image, presumably Vasulka’s alter ego [25], seems to solemnly contemplate the speech with a weightiness that mirrors our own reflections of these historic, dark words from our past histories. In effect, we are forced, as viewers “…to mentally go back over the terrifying space opened up by the metaphysical upheaval of modern war from World War I to the end of World War II, reabsorbed in the images of nuclear apocalypse” [26]. The viewer’s self-contemplation, in the face of such a scene is understandable. For, as Ballour suggests, “the spectators are led to a more active consciousness in order to maintain the visible coherence of everything they see” [27]. In fact, reflection appears to be encouraged by the artist, given that Art of Memory is over 36 minutes in length, an ample amount of time to lull the viewer into a mantra of conscious meditation. As the images flicker by on the video screen and the music numbs our senses, one finds the mind drifting to other places, contemplating the memories that have been triggered by the video. There is a similar intense sense of self contemplation throughout Larcher’s Granny Is, both crafted by the artist and as a direct consequence, experienced by the viewer. At varying points, we are presented with intimate close-ups of Larcher’s grandmother: her foot in a dainty shoe as she sits on a park bench, her crossed legs as she sits in her living room, and her slumbering, wrinkled face as she nods off in front of the television. Later, we see her dentures resting on a shelf with many other souvenirs; mementos from her life.

Throughout the close-ups, we are reminded of how time affects the mind, body and spirit and of what it is like to be old. Larcher presents these quiet moments of contemplation in order to remind us that we are all mortal. In the end, death, striking even his beloved grandmother, is an eventual foregone conclusion for everyone. He echoes these sentiments in the text he utilizes, writing “and that the year of my own spring time has passed. Sad and glacial like a relentless dream which brings to banqueting tables and satin beds…” [28]. The prose, taken from the novel Les Chants de Maldoror, written in 1869 by Comte de Lautréamont, a favourite book of the Surrealist movement, seems to speak of the dread in turning old, further echoing the author’s reflections regarding life and death. Media academic Sean Cubitt comments that Larcher’s video concerns the artist’s “place in a lineage that is, in the nature of things, dying” [29]. Cubitt goes on to state that the video is:

…about emotion, about the revelations the relationships bring to light concerning ourselves and the fluidity of the self, about the individuality which we inhabit and about the ways in which that individuality is itself made up of interactions and histories. [30]

It is interesting then, to contrast the videos Art of Memory by Woody Vasulka and Granny’s Is by David Larcher, particularly from the standpoint of reconstructed memory. Both artists experiment extensively with concepts of memory in their work, utilizing diverse approaches to remap and refashion their own recollections in the videos. Vasulka, in Art of Memory, approaches memory from a historical and political perspective, recasting world history and the post nuclear future, whereas Larcher in his video Granny’s Is, approaches memory from a personal perspective, resurrecting the spirit of his late grandmother to create a transcendental tribute to her life. Memory reconstructions are apparent in the design of multi-layered, visual landscapes, and in the variety of languages that the artists utilize, whether written, oral or graphical in arrangement. In the end, the videos encourage a heightened state of awareness, lulling the viewer into a state of internalized contemplation and meditation regarding life and death.  In asking that we engage with their work, Vasulka and Larcher expect us to neither accept their memories as fact nor fiction. Instead, they invite us to refashion our memories based on our own individual experiences. Marita Sturken sums up this idea when she states:

 …memory is not about retrieval as much as it is about retelling and reconstruction. It is about acknowledging the impossibility of knowing what really happened, and a search for a means of telling. This is memory within a post-modern context, not destroyed but different, memory that is often disguised as forgetting. [31]

1. Marita Sturken, “The Politics of Video Memory: Electronic Erasures and Inscriptions,” Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, ed. Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 2.
2. John Conomos, “The Art of Memory,” Photofile, ed. Robert Nery (Paddington: The Australian Center-for-Photography, 6.4, 1988/89), p. 4.
3. Gene Youngblood, “Art of Memory,” Steina and Woody Vasulka: January 25-March22,1992: Denver Art Museum (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 1992), p. 2.
4. Anne H. Hoy, “Art of Memory,” Video-Feature (New York: International Center of Photography, 1987), p. 2.
5. Conomos, p. 4.
6. Hoy, p. 2-3
7. Sturken, p. 3.
8. Nicole Gingras, “David Larcher: Les forces de l’invisible,” Parachute: revue d’art contemporain, ed. Chantal Pontbriand (Montreal: Éditions Parachute, 2002), p. 82-8.
9. Ibid.
10. Michael Maziere, “Passing Through the Image: British Video Art in the 1990’s,” Diverse Practices: A Critical Reader on British Video Art, ed. Julia Knight (Luton: The Arts Council of England and University of Luton Press, 1996), p. 345.
11. Stephen Littman, “Alchemy and the Digital Imaginary, by David Larcher,” Experimental Film and Video, ed. Jackie Hatfield (Eastleigh: John Libby Publishing, 2006), p. 217.
12. Gingras, p. 8.
13. Youngblood, p. 2.
14. Conomos, p. 5.
15. Raymond Bellour, “The Images of the World,” Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 152.
16. Youngblood, p. 2.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Littman, p. 219.
20. Ibid., p. 212.
21. Youngblood, p. 2.
22. Sturken, p. 3.
23. Gingras, p. 8.
24. Conomos, p. 5.
25. Bellour, p. 150.
26. Ibid., p. 151.
27. Ibid.
28. Comte de Lautréamont and Guy Wernham, Maldoror (Les Chants De Maldoror) (New York: New Directions, 1965).
29. Sean Cubitt, “Populism and Difficulty: Television and Video Art,” Diverse Practices: A Critical Reader on British Video Art. ed. Julia Knight (Luton: The Arts Council of England and the University of Luton Press, 1996), p. 310.
30. Ibid.
31. Sturken, p. 8.