From a 28 May 2013 interview at Lovely in Ukrainian Village. I bought a croissant to share, which Anthony did not eat. At the time this surprised me, though now I do not remember why.
What is the value of a physical record? Maybe it’s the certainty of the object and the comfort we take in its seeming irrefutability, a cultural fascination shared all over the world. People collect autographs, photographs, souvenirs and other memorabilia, for gifts, pleasure, and profit, and rarely do we ask ourselves why. It’s obvious: we want to remember.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says the palest ink is better than the sharpest memory. Our keepsakes often serve as physical links between the present and the past, tools to help us relive an otherwise ephemeral moment. But all objects are not created equal. Some, like inherited clothes or jewelry, have value even after their emotional core has unraveled. Others are only worth the memory they preserve.
Less recognized are those memories which, rather than being preserved, act as preservers.
Sometimes a memory is the only indication of a place or time with no physical record, no proof of actuality otherwise. This is what Anthony Stepter calls “an extinct entity,” what he explores by collecting memories, initiating conversations and listening to stories.
“Extinct Entities” refers to the post-existence of art spaces—those that “no longer exist,” but exist still, in memory. It’s contradictory. Chicago’s N.A.M.E. Gallery, for instance, closed in 1997 and though it does not exist in reality, its existence is historical fact. These spaces do not cease to be, but without something that connects them to the present, we lose their significance to that particular time and how we remember it.
I saw, but did not participate in, Anthony’s exhibition in the Visual Critical Studies show at Bridgeport’s Co-Prosperity Sphere. In an alcove separated from the adjacent main room by a hobbit-sized doorway, two chairs faced each other as if in their own conversation. People went into the space, sat and talked, or maybe read the old show flyers strung along the wall, clinging to clothespins.
Anthony remarked later upon the diversity of stories he heard. Some people had attended the shows on the flyers, others recited anecdotes about artists whose exhibitions they’d seen. He spoke to people who went to shows as children, and children whose parents told them about a show they’d seen when they were young, filling in the details as necessary.
Though he listened to each story, he had no control over which ones he recorded and which he did not; Anthony programmed his recording device to turn on and off sporadically, leaving what records of the event that do get documented up to chance. This simulation of memory—in particular, its fallibility—is the crux of the dialogue. We have limited control over which details we remember. Even this interview, which took place a month ago in a busy coffee shop, cannot be perfectly remembered or recorded by either my brain or my iPhone. I am writing this from memory, and though the singular event itself is part of history, it has a variety of incarnations that are no more or less correct than any other.
In course of our conversation, Anthony remarked on the tendency of museums to elevate physical objects to a place of significance for their association with either a historical figure or moment. Jane Addam’s Hull-House Museum, for example, has a chair from her office on display in the permanent exhibition. But, as Anthony observed, a chair is still just a chair. A better memorial to Jane Addams is continuing her legacy of open engagement through classes, historical tours, and public conversations like those organized today through the Hull-House for the community’s benefit.
There are questions to take away from both this record of our conversation and the larger reflection on memory. Namely, what remains when the “why” dissolves? What is existence after existence? How do we preserve the memories of the past in the present?
In Japanese, the bittersweet feeling for the transience of the present and its meaning can be summed into one concept: mono no aware, literally the pathos of things. As I am remembering this, I am looking out of the window. An orange leaf falls on a November evening when I am twenty-six years old, a leaf that will never fall again, a leaf that will continue to fall forever in my memory. As it is swept up by the wind, it means everything and nothing, a whole world in a sea of infinite worlds, a lost body.
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This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.