Memory tests of an event created by performers Joan Gale and Dan Lang, assisted by the audience and verified against video documentation.
Video vs. Memory vs. Memory was conceived by Marilyn Arsem and performed by Joan Gale and Dan Lang, with video production by Elliot Hoffman, assisted by Sarah Griffith, Leslie Evans and Bonnie Symansky. It was presented at Boston Film/Video Foundation, Boston, Massachusetts on March 7, 1981, and at the Helen Shlien Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts, on March 14 and 15, 1981.
Premise: Memory is deceptive.
Objective: To create a performance piece involving an audience, which would parallel their attempt to remember and recreate an event with that of the performers.
Preparation: An eight minute sequence was videotaped, in which the performers were given a set of objects and asked to create a sculpture. We specifically chose a task involving judgment and decision, and avoided role-playing, or a culmination that was confrontational or climactic.
Without viewing the tape or consulting each other, the performers each went home and wrote a detailed description of what they remembered having happened. Two days later, they met and worked out a compromise version of the event. So at that point, two days after the taping, we had three versions of the event: Joan’s, Dan’s and their compromise version.
1) Performance: Memory vs. Memory.
Joan’s version vs. Dan’s version was performed live. It was fragmented, as it moved from sections in which they agreed on the action, to alternate paths that contrasted their points of contention. In many parts of the action they were in agreement and repeated what they had done, but then they showed both versions where they had disagreed, reversing the action in order to come back to the point where their versions had branched.
2) Video: Video.
The performers left the room, and the audience watched the video of the original event.
3) Performance: Memory.
Joan and Dan returned, and performed live their compromise version, which was videotaped as they performed.
4) Video: Video vs. Video.
The performers again left the room, and the audience watched the compromise version that had just been videotaped next to the video of the original event and compromise version.
5) Performance with audience corrections: Memory vs. Memory vs. Memory.
The audience corrected Joan and Dan’s compromise version as they performed it again. Anyone could shout “Freeze – go backward – stop,” and instruct them as to how it really happened. The rest of the audience had to agree on the corrections, which Joan and Dan performed.
6) Performance: Memory.
Joan and Dan performed the audience-corrected version, which was videotaped as they performed.
7) Video: Video vs. Video vs. Video.
Again, Joan and Dan left the room, and the audience watched the three videotapes side-by-side simultaneously – the video of the original event, Joan and Dan’s compromise version, and the compromise version that was corrected by the audience.
Observations: As we had hoped, the audience became very animated and involved as they argued over what had really happened – just as Joan and Dan had as they worked out their compromise version. The audience transformed from sitting passively, eyes focused on the performers or monitors, to sitting forward, eyes focused on the performers as they directed them, to turning around and looking at and talking with other audience members. They had the added satisfaction of being able to prove they were right in the immediate showing of the videotapes.
An interesting reversal of expectations occurred. The taped sequence was longer and more complex than was originally planned. Both performers and audience initially thought they couldn’t remember anything. They then discovered that by working through it, with the objects, and especially with the help of others’ memories, it was possible to reconstruct the event.
In reconstructing the event, a selection process did go on that simplified it and shaped it. There was a tendency to have a performer speak in each audience member’s own words, i.e., what they had interpolated as having been said. This was true even for Joan and Dan, even though they had worked often together prior to this project.
Memory related issues were most complex for the performers. In a performance, they had to remember minor differences between versions, and then the immediate audience’s corrections. It was harder in successive performances to remember what they had remembered at the time they constructed their own versions, excluding newer memories of the event, as well as prior audiences’ memories.
In 1981 this work could not have been done without the support of Boston Film/Video Foundation and their commitment to making film and video equipment available to individual artists. Their Assistant Director Bob Raymond was instrumental in understanding the intent of the work and organizing and configuring the equipment needed to do it. BF/VF was one of the only arts organizations at that time that actually had not only multiple monitors, but also multiple playback decks and video cameras available for artists to use. We were also able to borrow that equipment for the subsequent performances of the work at the Helen Shlien Gallery.
It is easy to forget how rare artists’ access to that equipment really was in those early days of video.