A fictional interview, by Tom Lee
It was in August this year that I first heard about the Gerald M. School for The Improved Reliving of Personal Memories. M. had been a favourite author of mine for a number of years, so when I discovered the school on an Internet search I was intrigued.
The ‘About’ section on the school’s website discusses the genesis of the idea. Apparently M. learnt of a design project (http://www.materialisingmemories.com/) aiming to create strategies to assist in the navigation of the vast amount of digital images that people take in order to capture a moment, but which can actually have an adverse effect on the experience of remembering, potentially making it less immersive, less vivid and less dynamic.
M. was so inspired by the idea that he vowed to give up writing books and retreat to country Victoria and begin to build a school. He purchased a deserted monastic site and started reading up on contemporary architecture. M.’s plan was to create a series of enclosed spaces in the open terrain where students would go to practice the art of remembering in a manner comparable to the narrators of his prose fiction.
I asked my boss whether she thought there was a story in this for the Manly Daily, and after some convincing I found myself heading south to visit and interview M. in his school. The account below is composed from my short (one week) stay at the school and an interview with M. that I conducted through a gauze partition in a structure remarkably reminiscent of a confession box.
Within the confines of the school M. makes himself scarce. He is presence is largely sonic. Students can plug themselves into a listening station at various points around the site to receive advice on the routines they should adopt in the reliving of their memories. After receiving such advice students then retreat into any one of a number of igloo-like structures made from what looks like translucent netting. The structures have two interiors. The first is what M. describes as the “gloaming-sphere”, which is always filled a hazy light reminiscent of dusk. When pressed about his reasoning for this M. suggested that in a sense, “all our memories take place within a kind of dusk”. The second interior is completely black and features a soft, grass-like floor prefect for lying down in.
During my short stay in the school, I discovered that M. was unhappy with certain connotations of the word ‘memory’. He suggested that memory and the imagination are best understood as part of the same process: there is no memory without the imagination and no imagination without memory.
“We are wrongheaded”, he said to me while walking through the outer interior of one the humpies, “in treating memory and imagination as distinct entities, even though for some abstract purposes it might make sense to distinguish them.”
He continued, “If it wasn’t so esoteric, I would have used the term ‘mental entities’ in place of ‘personal memories’ in the name of the school: The School for The Improved Reliving of Mental Entities. I might have also dropped the word ‘reliving’ and replaced it with ‘cultivation’ because students here aren’t simply reliving things; they are always training themselves to exist in the other places folded into their mental entities. But to some extent one needs adopt the vernacular of the era, at least this is what I’ve come to understand with the help of my publicist. We try to change the attitude of students once they are through the gates”.
One of the many simple routines for cultivating mental entities begins with the question: Have you ever lost a camera? The idea is that participants begin with images they have lost, or can’t otherwise access, but which still have a sense of cohesiveness and vivacity in their memory. I recalled various disposable cameras that I never got developed, and one camera that was stolen from me during my first trip overseas after finishing high school. Despite never having the chance to review these images in digital or printed form, I still had memories of what some of the photographs might have looked like, as though in the mere event of taking the photograph something was preserved, even though the material substrate for the photograph never manifested. The image was a row of leafless trees that bordered a series of grass sporting fields, the sky was grey, with brown, yellow and green being the other dominant colours. The atmosphere was moist and cold, and the mood adventurous, naïve, hopeful and melancholic.
M. told me that this was one of the more successful routines adopted by the school, and they had developed into a series of other practices, one of which involved a students taking a series of photos on an analogue camera and then devising an elaborate, virtual or material container for the camera. After putting the camera away in the virtual or material container the students then began a weeklong series of writing exercises devoted to the unseen images.
“Often the descriptions of the images are strikingly limited and vague,” said M., “Your image of leafless trees bordering a field is exemplary in this sense.”
“However”, M. continued, “the vagueness and simplicity doesn’t make the images any less important to the people who take, or rather, house them, as I prefer to say.”
In M.’s view photography and fiction writing both demand a different style of reasoning to what is commonly adopted.
“People often don’t think about why they are taking photos, at least not in the sense that I want them to. They don’t think about the lives their images will lead, what material or virtual structures might house or frame them. What we aim to teach our students is that before they take an image they have already imagined a system of interior spaces in which the image is centrally located. I suggest that they need to think of themselves as opening doors or lids or drawers in order to get to the image they are thinking about taking. ”
One student M. mentioned had wrapped a camera in ten rolls of masking tape, each cut to a length of ten centimetres. What’s the point? According to M., ideally the repeated physical activities of wrapping and sticking would have an effect on the relationship between the subject and the concealed images.
“With any luck there’s a feedback effect between the physical ritual and the memory of the image such that the image is preserved in a way that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible,” remarked M., “Wrapping the camera has a reciprocal effect on the way the image is regarded internally. These kinds of practices tend to be completely absent in digital archives or in the relatively arbitrary, chronological ordering systems into which we log our digital memories.”
The tabernacle is an excellent example of the kind of structures M. hopes his students are creating.
“The tabernacle has always been something of a ideal form for me. It’s a dwelling place for a divine presence. A mental entity is more or less a secular interpretation of a divine presence. Elsewhere I’ve hinted at mental entities being comparable to ‘soul mates’—forgetting the exclusively anthropocentric connotations of that term. You might even describe this school as a school of virtual tabernacle design for non-religious divinities. But my publicist would certainly advise me against that.”
The rest of this article will be made available at some stage in the near future on my blog or in a book…