Code Red

"Code Red" (2003) is a short article by Christel Vesters about George Legrady's "Pockets Full of Memories".

Memory, the way we see it today, is a storage of codes that allow you to reconstruct information... But rather than making the storage of something in what one would call hard copy, or lifelike copy, you actually do the storage in a coded form... [that] is going to be reconstructed when you need to reactivate that information.
A. Damasio in: "The Memory as Living Archive", Information is Alive (2003)

In contemporary multimedia applications, an image is described by features, like the color or shape of an object. This is a many-to-one mapping and as a consequence, there is no one-to-one reverse mapping. A car can be red. But there a lot of other objects with a red color.
[source unknown]

George Legrady's interactive installation Pockets Full of Memories demonstrates some of the analogies between digital archives and the living archive par example: the human memory. It shows how the 'elements' of both the digital archive and memory can be re-assembled in different constellations when new input is implemented from the outside, and how by re-contextualising the element, its meaning may shift.

In his description of the way memory processes new impressions, Damasio explains how new information is stored in a coded form, and that it is this coded form that allows you to reconstruct that information in a later stage. Of course the coding system is not a digital one as for instance used in Legrady's installation - based on so called Kohonen Self-Organizing Maps1. But according to Damasio "The general principal of memorizing is that it always works in a coded or procedural form. It is the same thing in relation to a skill... you do not have facsimile storage of the things you have to do, but you have codings and commands that will allow you to do them."
Normally, when using the term coding and art in one sentence, you unavoidably end up talking semiotics: about the symbolic, the representational and the real, but neither Damasio nor Legrady explicitly introduce this dimension into their writing or work. Rather, in Pockets Full of Memories, part of the coding software seems to eliminate this dimension: the scanned objects are filled according to attributes and keywords. The attribute values and keywords are given by the exhibition visitor. They are transformed into numerical form that can serve as inputs. This input is then ordered into a 'self-organizing map' following the principle of similarity. Basically, items can be grouped according to shared formal features - red car, red dress - but, even if the visual qualities of an image are very similar, it may very well happen that two persons evaluate the item very differently based on their subjective point of view. In the first case the subjective value has become irrelevant and is thus eliminated. Before its entrance into the Pockets Full of Memories installation, each item belonged to a personal environment - someone's pocket - and was imbedded with a personal meaning, but within the coding process, each item is partly objectified and de-personalized. All the objects that are collected in the database have significant meanings for the persons who carry them around but when the scan of the object is added to the database, most of those meanings are lost.

In his interview with Arjen Mulder, Damasio demonstrates the functioning of codes by explaining the complex dynamic of our memory: "There are certain parts of the brain where you store what I call 'dispositions' - when I talked about codes I really meant dispositions. The information is there in the circuitry, and when, for example, you have a part of the visual cortex active, with say the perception of a landscape, that activity will send signals to a number of parts of the brain. Those parts of the brain that contain dispositions related to that particular perception do respond. So, the way you access memory is that anything that is in the mind, whether it is being perceived now or being recalled provokes activity in many parts of the brain. If one of those stores has anything to do with the image that is now in perception, then it responds. When it responds, it brings back other memories. It really is a matter of things being interconnected, and the network is so rich that when something happens in one point there are consequences at other points." So our collection of coded memories is constantly activated and is in constant flux: each new input may influence the parts that respond, but also changes the constellation old and new data are subsequently structured in. In the example of our stored and coded memory of a landscape of say for instance skyscrapers in a big US city, this image may be adjusted when seeing a skyscraper in an Asian city...

Pockets Full of Memories operates along a similar dynamic: via a website (www.pocketsfullofmemories.com) all objects can be assigned new keywords, comments can be added, and positions and relationships can be changed. The result is a flexible collection of data that is rearranged with every new item that is added to it. Objects that once belonged to and thereby were identifiable by through their owners, in their new context work to define other objects that the database connects with them. The digital representation of the objects becomes depersonalized and the experienced meaning of the objects changes.

Both Damasio's description of the dynamics of memory and Pockets Full of Memories' adaptation of these neurological principles into software applications and databases, demonstrate that flexibility and instability are qualities instead of problems of 'immaterial' information archives.


[1] The principle of the SOM was developed originally by academician Teuvo Kohonen. The inspiration for this innovation has stemmed from the numerous neurophysiological studies in which it was shown that in the cortex of the brain similar kinds of maps can be found. (http://www.mat.ucsb.edu/~g.legrady/glWeb/publications/publ_art/textpfom.html)

2003, Christel Vesters
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