spectral archive


Notes upon the mystic writing pad.

I’m starting to imagine that I’m putting together a kind of archive (the plural Weymouths suggesting a collection, a repetition, multiples), but it’s also reasonable to think that I may be taking one (or several) archives apart. Every history or collection or body of knowledge I come across in relation to Weymouth seems like fair game for re-thinking, re-framing or deconstruction. In Archive Fever, Derrida writes of typographic traces and the surface (substrate) upon which one writes (keeping records), the externalization of memory (hypomnesis) — ideas I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around since Rome. And the archiviolithic (a force that leaves no trace of itself behind — destruction of the archive).

And then —

“Archivable meaning is also and in advance codetermined by the structure that archives. It begins with the printer.”

Derrida writes of the “mystic pad” — an exterior, archival model of the psyche’s recording and memorization apparatus. He’s referring to the short essay “A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad” (PDF) (1925), where Freud outlines his theory: the erasable wax tablet as a perfect illustration of the tenuous link between perception and memory — a form of note-taking that is both unlimited and yet retains a permanent trace:

“None the less, I do not think it is too far-fetched to compare the celluloid and waxed paper cover with the system Pcpt.-Cs. (perception consciousness) and its protective shield, the wax slab with the unconscious behind them, and the appearance and disappearance of the writing with the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception.”

A beautiful idea in its simplicity and the richness that comes along with the metaphor (drawing, writing, erasure, forgetfulness, impressions on a skin). And I can’t help but try to conjure up Freud’s premonition, 85 years later, in the form of today’s pads:

“It is true, too, that, once the writing has been erased, the Mystic Pad cannot ‘reproduce’ it from within; it would be a mystic pad indeed if, like our memory, it could accomplish that.”

A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad

What if a book could be a mystic pad, just as Freud describes? Not a Kindle book (flickering-up and passing away), but a book printed on paper, or a series of 12 books on paper. Somehow, in the construction of the material at hand, in the design of the book(s), perception stays on the surface (the stimuli), but opens up (gives up space) for memory to come and go, associations and impressions. An unfixed, indefinite presentation of history…an archive of indeterminacy. I’m not sure what this looks like yet.

So much material, everywhere I look. From a map of Native American trails to the original 1642 deed between the Wampanoag and the English settlers to Frank Lloyd Wright’s recollection of Weymouth from the three years he spent there as a child, to the River Wey to the Weymouth curb to the Osmington White Horse of 1808. And Hal. Each hub implies an entire archive of memory — separate memoirs, histories, collections. Data to be grabbed (tweets, weather records, google images), photos to be taken (the Portland stone buildings of London and NYC).

I’m starting to see one goal forming, sooner rather than later: the creation of a score.



A chance-determined mythology.

Finding the archive. Or rather, how does one untangle the bits, the fragments scattered about, sometimes just laying at the side of the road. How does one assemble something of interest.

Is this mythology? In the broadest sense, a mythology is a story or collection of stories that originate in tradition. There must be a reason. In its acting out, the myth explains something. Maybe this is it, perhaps I’m poking around these locales looking for undiscovered connections, old tales fermenting with latent meaning, hoping to unlock something significant. More likely, it is my poking around itself that will create these stories, from nothing.

And so I find myself right now completely overwhelmed with this prospect of making twelve books. In a way, these books have no topic, and this is difficult. This is to be a project called Weymouths, about two towns on separate continents, each named Weymouth. But as I discover details, fragments that may or may not lead somewhere — it feels like I’m pulling on the ends of loose threads — each one will become another Weymouth. There will be more than two Weymouths; how many I’m not sure. There will be as many as I can claim and assemble into these books, and many more potentially, for those who find and keep my books.

One thought is that I will simply gather the stories for awhile. I’ll find the Weymouths as they’re revealed to me and index them. Rather than curate the evidence into the books, as a historian or travel guide would do, I’ll apply chance operations to select the stories and determine their importance, in a highly ritualized way. Stumbled-upon evidence yielding a chance-determined mythology of specificity and meaning. This feels right.


Spectral archive

For the next several months I’ll be focused on Weymouths, a 12-book project I’ve been commissioned to produce for the 2012 b-side arts festival in the UK. The work will be installed during the summer Olympics in Weymouth, a seaside town in Dorset, England, where the official sailing competitions will take place.

From the project proposal—

Weymouths explores memory, geography and cultural identity through site-specific books that draw upon the linked histories of Weymouth, Dorset (UK) and Weymouth, Massachusetts (USA). Created for the 2012 b-side Multimedia Arts Festival and installed on-site at festival locations, 12 publications will be released to visitors during the 13-day festival. Among the goals for Weymouths is to create moments for rich, page-by-page engagement in the environment for the ambulatory visitor—the printed book as a participatory art project.

The 12 volumes will be produced and presented as reliquaries of collective memory—bound containers holding text, color and imagery. Historical records, lists, archival imagery, on-site photography, tweets, interviews, maps, street names, Google Street View, Wikipedia and other raw source material will be assembled into open, thought-provoking narratives—real and imagined.

Beginning with the 104 citizens of Weymouth, Dorset (UK) who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1635 to found Weymouth, Massachusetts (USA), the 12 books will be a celebration of temporal connections, disconnects and other trans-geographic structures that continue to hover between the twin towns, as well as a chance to “re-see” cultural identity in real-time.

Each volume will be produced using a print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine (EBM). Limited editions of 20 (a total of 240 books) will be installed at various festival locations. Each day during the festival a new volume will be revealed and installed, beginning with Vol. #1 on July 30 and ending with Vol. #12 on August 10, 2012. The books will be free to anyone exploring Weymouth during the 13-day period; they will slowly disappear from the installation sites as they are discovered and enjoyed by their new owners. Weymouths will encourage a slow, alternative presentation of time and space for visitors as they explore.

Weymouths is part of an exploration that began with Venetian Suite and continued last year with Memory Palace and 273 Relics for John Cage. Each draws together ideas about memory, place and the image within the contained book form.

Someone recently described Memory Palace as a spectral archive, which I define as traces and histories, memories of or like a ghost, collected and contained. This articulation of my book works appeals to me. The spectral archive favors the forgotten and conjures a shapeless narrative, more liquid than linear. A book of associations, loaded with suggestion and unspecified meaning; a dream tool. A rumination machine. The spectral archive is crafted with specificity, but it’s experienced on the user’s own terms, creatively and without restriction.

I want to produce this work publicly, like I did in Rome. As I generate stuff, even fragments of ideas, I’ll post them here.