As if it is still there waiting for me

An essay by Erik Martinson on Nadine Byrnes current solo exhibition at CPR²

The story of memory is a story of interiors. The rooms we inhabit—dwell in for long periods—often shape how we remember the events of our lives. Rooms contain us, and internally we contain them (1). They provide us unintended assistance by becoming mnemonics, bending themselves from mere shelter into our very own memory palaces. After all, dating from ancient times it has been said that memory palaces should be based “on real palaces and places” (2). Having the blueprint of a floor plan internalised saves on mental labour, leaving focus for recall and sifting of memories attributed to various virtual rooms. In addition to actively using this mnemonic device, the practice functions within us unconsciously. “The rooms we live in are collages, constructed conversations between the past and the present” (3). Through one site, two or more time periods exist simultaneously; a superimpositoin, multiple exposures.

The exhibition As if it is still there waiting for me at CPR2 by Nadine Byrne continues the artist’s focus on memory and mourning connected to physical sites, as well as processes of mapping the ephemeral, working through and with it in tactile methods. The site represented in this exhibition is the artist’s childhood home in Stockholm. Following the death of her mother, the apartment is captured in video recordings, empty on moving day, the camera meandering—seeking something. “A house changes after somebody has died: there is suddenly too much space” (4). This is further amplified when the home is vacated after the loss; it stands bereft of all things, only the markings, material wear on the space itself, remains. Yet it feels full. “Our vision of the house splits in two: we see it as we imagine it once was, and in its present state. The latter image is just a ghost of the former” (5). Yet maneuvering in the space we may still trip on a now non-existent rug, like we always did (6). Byrne’s raw video footage is transposed in the exhibition space, forming a new palimpsestic mapping. The projection becomes the focal point for the dispersed audio/visual essay that makes up the exhibition. Providing a temporal counterpart, audiocassettes recorded years before in the same family home by the artist’s father playback from a tape deck. A glass plate obscures a diagram of the home’s layout; a tapestry hangs, inscribed with text written by the artist, providing a thread of voice-over made tangible; a performance by Byrne further activates the materials present.

After experiencing prophetic dreams, J.W. Dunne wrote An Experiment with Time in 1927. Dunne hypothesized that we all dream of the future, only we seldom remember it (7). What if we could experience all times, at once? “Dunne had suggested that time is like a tape or film which may get twisted and tangled, so that we can catch glimpses of other times.” He would develop his theory of ‘serial time’ in his writing. As part of this project, Dunne extensively considered components of cognition and recall in the formation of memory. He differentiates between “true memory image” and “after impression” (8). The example given suggests staring at a “red lampshade” and shifting focus to the ceiling to see its “after impression” as “a patch of green, shaped in outline like the lampshade” (9). This ethereal and alternately coloured shape appears as if it’s on your eyes, moving its position as you move them, the background image behind it changing as if only a surface for projection. The experiment continues: “while actually watching this green patch ‘floating’ before you, you can observe a true memory image of the original impression of the lampshade” (10). After a short time the lamp-like floating shape will disappear, and you are left with “clear memory images of either red lampshade or green patch” (11). Both after impression and object-image are equally part of your memory. This experiment comes to mind when considering Nadine Byrne’s work surrounding her childhood home. In Staging (Home) a schematic diagram of the perimeter of the apartment is viewed on the wall through red-pink-toned coloured glass. There’s a gap between the image on the wall and the obscuring glass held in place by steel bolts. This gap, the air between paper and glass, feels as though it is filled with memory at various stages of decay. The coloured glass is the after-image, floating on your retina, slipping away into obscurity, and the schematic drawing is the object-image, the structure that once contained the moments that created those memories.

Through the process of developing the text for the performance 1987/2005/2022, Byrne created Script. A work of its own, this tapestry also serves as a constellation of artistic research and writing process. Smaller pieces of fabric create a patchwork of text (both singular words and paragraphs of prose), drawing/painting (portraiture and diagrammatic), and embroidery (words and illustrations). In two of the patches the same schematic diagram of the layout of Byrne’s childhood home acts as a frame to contain text, embroidery employed on the singular words “ruin” and “home” for emphasis. On another patch, the upper corner of a room from this home is embroidered, a convergence of fabric lines, and text beside it reads: “… the map is too difficult too read … and I end up going in circles.” This same corner is forensically examined in the video projection Tulegatan 2005, along with nearly every surface of the apartment. The whine of the video camera, along with the footsteps of the artist’s younger self and the creaks of the floorboards, are heard in the exhibition space. Yet another even younger self is heard on the crackle-infused audio recordings of Tulegatan 1987. These tapes recorded by Byrne’s father offer dispersed fragments of a family structure barely remembered, played back from an analog source and intermingling with the audio from Tulegatan 2005. In discussing the “sonic signature of hauntology” Mark Fisher writes: “Crackle makes us aware that we are listening to a time that is out of joint; it won’t allow us to fall into the illusion of presence” (12).

Time out of joint is an appropriate phrase for describing the nebulous presence of trauma. If memory recall is positioned as a glimpsing form of time travel, traumatic memory recall can make time out of joint for sustained periods. Survivors of trauma “struggle to feel that time has passed.” As Nicole M. Luongo writes “[w]e aren’t refined ‘travelers,’ so to mentally time travel becomes a convoluted process of discerning what is over, what is not, and who we’ve been throughout” (13). With trauma, the past hasn’t past; it hasn’t faded as other memories might. Three temporalities combine in Nadine Byrne’s performance 1987/2005/2022. First there’s 1987: the audiocassettes recorded by Byrne’s father in their family apartment, during an era of an unremembered intact family structure, are played back in fragments. Then there’s 2005: video footage captured on moving day, a move prompted by Byrne’s mother’s passing; the now empty apartment is traced by another former self. Lastly there’s 2022: a live reading of a newly written text, near 18 years on from those final moments in the apartment, and a further 18 years from those unremembered sounds emanating from the ausiocassettes. These dispersed elements are interrogated and temporarily reformulated into a cohesive whole during Byrne’s performance. Three eras and innumerable moments are layered on top of each other, felt together. Further to Dunne’s ideas on time and memory, and Luongo’s positioning of trauma as conduit for time travel, Karen Barad’s writing on Quantum Field Theory (QFT) destabilizes our being within time and space. “According to quantum physics… a given particle can be in a state of superposition. To be in a state of superposition between two positions, for example, is not to be here or there, or even simply here and there: rather, it is to be indeterminately here-there… (14). In addition to considering time travel a cognitive act through memory and trauma, it is also a bodily act as memory and trauma can be physically inscribed (15). Thinking along with Luongo and Barad, it’s possible to consider the self in a state of ‘here/ there-ness’ between selves, times and places. Byrne’s performance 1987/2005/2022 is a lived reality and simultaneous ‘building/decaying/excavating’ of a ‘home/no-longer-home’ and a ‘family/re-constituted- family’ following the ‘past-ness/present-ness’ of loss.