The following describes an interview via email between Prof. Merckelbach and A.R. Hopwood about his False Memory Archive
- How did you get this idea for a False Memory Archive?
For a number of years I worked under the guise of a fictional self-help organisation called WITH (withyou.co.uk). The company claimed to create Life Enhancement Solutions for clients by creating fictional evidence of life events that they hadn’t actually experienced. The project moved across a number of different sites including online, performance, film and gallery and it explored a territory somewhere between satire, comedy and conceptual art. As the work evolved I became aware of research into False Memory that turned the satire of WITH into something more queasy and uncomfortable. Here was an art project claiming (from a blurry parafictional position) that they could make you believe in an alternative version of your past by creating fake evidence for you, while false Memory researchers in the real world were doing exactly that! Creating false memories in the lab to see how susceptible we are to suggestion and misinformation. I thought that was pretty fascinating, so I struck up a relationship with psychologist Prof. Chris French from Goldsmiths who then invited me to do a residency at his Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. The False Memory Archive grew from there – firstly as a participatory archive where I asked the public to submit a false or ‘non-believed’ memory and then into a series of new art works which have been touring the UK and now internationally since 2013.
2. What was – in your view – the most spectacular contribution of lay people to the archive? I was impressed – a little bit shocked to be frank – by the example of the guy who had this false memory of his girlfriend’s sister dying in the chair of a dentist. Didn’t you talk to your girlfriend, dude, I was thinking.
I tend to be drawn to the everyday memories. I often hear myself referring to a submission where the contributor remembered seeing his father in a play when he was young. He could remember the theatre, who they were with, the details of the seating… Years later when he was reciting the memory as a young adult at a family gathering, it soon became clear that the memory was false – he wasn’t even born at the time.
3. Any instances of people who tried to retract their submissions to the false memory archive? I mean people who wrote to you saying that they found out that their memory was real after all? (“dear mr Hopwood, I talked with my other sister and learned that when I visited New York as a child with my parents, we did run into Elton John/Ringo Star/Whoever”). Suppose you would receive such cancellation, would you trust it?
It’s not happened yet.. most are submitted anonymously so perhaps there isn’t the need to.
4. Suppose the new US ambassador in the Netherlands – mr Hoekstra – would offer to open the exhibition at Schunck, because he takes the bottom line of the archive to be that there is no such thing as a true memory or fact and that the world is full of Trumpian alternatives……would you accept such offer?
What do you think?! I’d still be polite in declining though..
The current political climate undoubtedly makes research into False Memory more relevant and it calls into question some rather complacent relativist positions that still pre-occupy some echelons of academia and the art world. That said, even in light of Trump et al artists can still work effectively with fiction and narrative – sometimes as a humorous and rhetorical device and sometimes as a tool that can tell us the truth about the nature of subjectivity.
I hope the FMA encourages the audience to critically reflect on their own past and to understand some of the implications of distorted memories in a legal, political and therapeutic context. The False Memory Archive is also not about trying to persuade the viewer that ‘everything they know is wrong’ or that all of our autobiographical memories are fundamentally flawed. In fact our memories of past events are pretty extraordinary – they may be just a gist of a past event but this gist is usually enough to help us reflect meaningfully on our past in order to help us negotiate the everyday. I like the idea that our memories are so closely linked with our imaginations and that other peoples recollections and stories intersect with our own. It’s almost as if our memories are an intuitive act of negotiation and collaboration. Amanda Barnier from Macquarie University has explored this idea in some beautiful experiments with elderly couples that show how they’re much better at co-remembering than individual remembering. Barnier has described it as a kind of memory scaffold that has built between them from years of intimacy. Our ability to remember a storified version of our past seems to be uniquely human and I don’t think research into False Memory should be thought of as an attack on this fundamental point.
It does though of course often reveal the darker edges of this sensibility where misinformation and suggestion can be used as a powerful tool to manipulate the stories we tell ourselves and this is where the research intersects with how we formulate our beliefs. This should have implications for how we approach and understand information in the digital age – once you know about the idiosyncrasies of Memory and the problematic edges of emotional reasoning then your hopefully more equipped to think critically about what you encounter in that space.
5. Do you think that in, say, a year or two, you’ll have me-too like contributions to the archive? I mean women who say that they put a me-too-accusation on a shitty-men-list and then found out that they were mistaken? https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/moira-donegan-i-started-the-media-men-list.html
Thanks for another easy question Harald! This is a really difficult territory because so much of the metoo campaign is brilliant and well intentioned. But it’s too important to get wrong and there are considerable risks, which I think are best laid out by my favourite feminist Carol Tavris. https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/me-too-cognitive-dissonance/ If the history of memory research tells us anything it’s that autobiographical memory is prone to distortion, so an understanding of this seems crucial for any campaign that is dealing primarily with historic memories. A considered look at the Innocence Project (brilliantly portrayed by artist Taryn Simon http://tarynsimon.com/works/innocents/#1 ), an insistence on due process and a clear definition of what constitutes unreasonable behaviour can only embolden what is a really important campaign.
6. Your archive does not only contain false memories that people from the public contributed but also basic materials that psychologists used in their research on false memories. What is your favorite study/experiment in the false memory research domain?
I still love Elizabeth Loftus’ Lost in Mall study. There’s something so tangible and familiar about the fiction – it seems to tap effortlessly into our deepest childhood fears.. it seems so easy to imagine the reality of being lost as a child.
7. So, why is it that people have false memories? What function do they have?
I’m not an evolutionary psychologist so I can only speculate. Can you imagine though how dull we’d be if every story we told about our past experiences was exactly right? We’d have no comedy, no literature, no art. Our ability to embellish and narrativise the everyday is a constant throughout human history and we have to cherish this unique capacity – perhaps though we just need to be more aware of when it can become a problem. When the stories and fictions implicate others or worse become a system of governance you have to worry a bit right?
8. And why do we need art to educate us about false memories? What is the unique contribution of art? Isn’t the science of memory enough?
We may not need art to educate the public about false memories at all and it’s likely that there are much more effective forums than the gallery to communicate the research. As an artist I continue to be fascinated and enthusiastic about the research (and its implications) so for the time being I still want to make work about it. There’s also something quite challenging for an art audience as research into False Memory often runs counter to some art college received wisdoms about the nature of memory. I like that challenge but I want it to be conciliatory instead of antagonistic.
At the heart of False Memory research is I think a call to critical thinking – my sense is that more robust educational structures around what constitutes critical thinking in the digital age would have a more profound effect than the lone voice of an artist.
9. What about the With.-projects? Are there really people contacting you because they want to acquire a fictitious trauma, lover, or child?
No – viewers seem to understand that it’s a fiction and some are occasionally willing to get in on the act and play along for fun. It’s important that there’s a double take but there’s no desire to ‘do it for real’. WITH is a fictional construct that is intended to allow the audience enough space to critically reflect on the absurdist speculations therein.
10. Do you yourself have a prominent false memory? Would you like to share it?
Yes – I thought I’d written my responses to this interview ages ago but turns out I didn’t! Hope you can still get it published.