The hypothesis of the imaginative consciousness is radically different from the hypothesis of a consciousness of the real. This means that the type of existence of the object of the image, as long as it is imagined, differs in nature from the type of existence of the object grasped as real.
—Jean-Paul Sartre, The Psychology of Imagination
While in residence at Visual Studies Workshop in May 2015, I began work on a new series titled (In)Voluntary Memory. Using other people’s words in conjunction with my photographic images, I am exploring the dilemma of divided historical loyalties. The art of collaboration, here, is not a bridge between divided historical loyalties. It is a meeting along a familiar path in an unfamiliar place. The familiar path is recognition; the unfamiliar place is cognition. For instance, when two people recognize each other, their visages cross gazes, and they think, “I know you” and “I see you”; they are noticing a familiar history in an unfamiliar face. As the new face is cognized, their own history is recognized.
In this process, I render the particulars of memory no longer necessarily poignant or relevant. I rewrite memory utilizing place (other people’s words and my images) to focus on the path (the feeling of the two in conjunction). The new placement inevitably acquires a history, and can soon become recognizable and familiar; it can even become a “real” memory.
The following is an excerpt from the letter I sent family and friends inviting them to collaborate on the project:
Enclosed you will find two images. One is from a memory that I hold of our past. Another is a random image that could have some link to our past or none at all. You may respond to one or both images. I would like you to share with me whatever memories arise from these images. They may relate to me, but they do not have to. The response can be in the form of a handwritten or typed letter. It can take any written form you choose (formal letter, free verse, poem). You may reply via email. I have enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope if you prefer to send your response via USPS.
As the replies trickled in, I discovered that most people chose to respond to the random image. I have decided that the shared memory acts as a trigger, leading to an unfolding of memories that are then attached to the random image. What is most intriguing to me is how vivid the recollections are, which reinforces my notion of acquired history. I received letters, a poem, and photographs, which were all displayed in pairs (originals with responses) in the project space at VSW. I ended up asking people who replied via email to send a handwritten letter to me, because in this form the letter became a visual object as well. I plan to produce a book of all the responses.
For this issue of Afterimage, my initial images have been paired with my colleague Ashwin Manthripragada’s poems. I was drawn to his research, which explores the definition of self and other. We found that our pieces easily wove together.
The following is an excerpt from our conversations surrounding the project.
Alysia Kaplan: I was thinking about borders. In my work I have explored the psychological effects of crossing a threshold. That can be a border of sorts.
Ashwin Manthripragada: I deal directly with borders in my work and teaching, often explicitly on a national scale, but implicitly on many, many other scales. Geopolitical borders, especially, because they feel pressing in worlds of hegemony. But also geological, personal, and psychological borders.
AK: Do you think we carry our borders with us?
AM: Yes, insofar as they are always crumbling and shedding.
AK: By pairing our work together, have we created new individual memories or a shared one?
AM: A shared one. This collaboration gathers our individualities together in a way that lays bare our already common paths. Our memory paths were already shared in so many ways, we just had different forms of them. How do you think our borders, if we carry them with us, are dealing with this new pairing? How are our borders understanding our ostensibly newly shared memory?
AK: Our borders, physical or psychological, inevitably influence our gaze and the way we process sound, image, and text. The new cognized form we have created is a direct reflection of our synthesis of these borders.
AM: When you read a poem, in some odd traditional sense of that term, do you ever see it as a photograph? Not only as an object to be physically photographed, but an object that gives rise to a photographic image in your mind’s eye?
AK: My immediate thought was yes, of course. Upon further reflection, I realize that although this is often the case, it is not always so. Certain words resonate with me. Random utterings, phrases, and headlines I encounter are as likely to form a secondary vision or visual story in my mind as a book of measured words does. I might as easily construct an image from a random street sign or from the label on a cereal box. We might assume poetics create internal images, as they are meant to conjure a moment. That moment is often realized as an emotional response that is guttural rather than visual. In some instances the visual is so complete as to leave no room for interpretation.
AM: What role does the fact or idea that we are human play in our memory?
AK: I imagine that depends on how much a person allows themselves to be conscious. I am not being flippant, but if one is not present in their surroundings, their memories (I imagine) are formed (and/or processed) in a much different way than those prone to analyzing and making tangential relationships in their daily movements. Your work deals with the philosophy of ambivalence and movement. Do you feel we imprint new memories on historical moments during our travels?
AM: Yes, I do. I think the word “imprint” is perfect. Like a double exposure. Exposure time, sensitivity to light, and paper quality (using an extended darkroom metaphor) can make the play of the double exposure very transfixing. Some moments can be more present in the final image than others.
Alysia Kaplan is an assistant professor of photography at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
Ashwin Manthripragada is an assistant professor of German area studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.