On Memory : Bernadette Mayer with Phillip Griffith
In July 1971, poet Bernadette Mayer set out to complete what she called an “emotional science project” by setting a set of constraints for herself: to shoot one roll of Kodachrome film on a 35mm camera each day of the month while simultaneously keeping a set of journals. The photo and sound installation that resulted, entitled Memory (1971-72), has long occupied a cult status in Mayer’s wider oeuvre. This September in New York, CANADA re-installed Memory to its original specifications and with its original snapshot prints for the first time since its 1972 opening at Holly Solomon’s 98 Greene Street loft in SoHo. The installation’s diversity of stylized images, selfies, and out of focus snapshots remind us that in the Instagram-era, we’re still looking backward at an obsession with photographs that has existed since their inception.
A brief history of Memory: In its first appearance at 98 Greene Street (Gordon Matta-Clark helped with the installation), the installation comprised a grid of 1,116 3×5” snapshots on one wall of the gallery and a six-hour audiotaped narration played on speakers. In May 1973, a related work by Mayer, remembering (n.d.), appeared as part of c.7500, an exhibit of conceptual art organized by Lucy Lippard as one of her Numbers exhibits. (The show included only the work of women artists, displaying pieces by Alice Aycock, Nancy Holt, Hanne Darboven, Adrian Piper, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Martha Wilson, and others. The show was, according to Lippard, “an exasperated reply to those who say there are no women making architecture”). Mayer later published a book edition of Memory in 1975. However, this edition relegated only eight of the original photographs to its cover and included a recomposed text different from the audiotaped narration. A 2016 installation of the work at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago reprinted the photographs at a slightly larger size and included the audiotaped narration, but provided it on an iPad for visitors to use with headphones instead of on speakers in the open exhibition space.
After Memory, Mayer abandoned her place in the visual and conceptual art world for her prolific and legendary work as a poet. Her most recent books include a reissue of The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (Nightboat/SplitLevel Texts, 2017), Works and Days (New Directions, 2016), and an anthology of her early books, Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words (Station Hill Press, 2015). The week before the opening of Memory at CANADA, Mayer spoke to the Rail’s Phillip Griffith about photography, collaboration, and conceptual art and poetry.
Bernadette Mayer, Memory, 1972. Courtesy of Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, San Diego
Phillip Griffith (Rail): I’ve seen the slides and listened to the audiotapes from Memory in your papers in the UC San Diego archives. So I’ve experienced the work in pieces and am excited to see what it will be like in its installation.
Mayer: You know, I read something that I must have said in the past–that if you were surrounded by my memories and my voice saying what I did that you might actually become me.
Rail: In some strange way, I think that might happen. What do you think about that idea now?
Mayer: I find it a surprising thing for me to have said. Because I was much younger then, and now I think I’m less likely to expect anybody to want to be me. It was more fun to be me then than right now.
Rail: Is the installation then like a time machine? Is it you then and not you now?
Mayer: What interests me about Memory now is the way that if the words are in the air, and if the photographs are surrounding you, that it all exists—but that it doesn’t exist like an object anywhere. It exists in space. Can you picture?
Rail: Yes, and only knowing it through its materials—the separate slides and through your later book—the idea of it then becoming immaterial seems really exciting.
Mayer: Yeah, it is. It’s an exciting concept.
Rail: Originally Memory was funded by Holly Solomon for the 98 Greene Street loft. How did you meet Holly Solomon?
Mayer: I met Holly at a party and strangely enough—I don’t know where I got the nerve—I said to her, “Would you pay for the development of this film for me?” And I explained the whole project to her and she said, “Sure.” I mean, is that going to happen forever? So I had a great relationship with Holly, and I got to hang out with her and took her picture, which is in the work. And Memory was her first show at 98 Greene Street. So I guess she was looking around for something to be inspired by.
Rail: Between 1967 and 1969, you also co-published the art journal 0 to 9 with Vito Acconci, which included many artists and texts that have become important to the history of conceptual art. I’m wondering about the personal relationships behind it. 0 to 9 included work by Adrian Piper, as well as by your sister Rosemary, and they were friends. Did you spend much time with Piper?
Mayer: Oh, yeah, we used to hang out all the time. I was at a restaurant once with Adrian called the Odessa, which I don’t think really exists anymore but it was in the East Village. We ordered pierogies, and she said, “They use so much butter in these pierogies!” [Laughs] I used to hang out with Adrian a lot, but she was friendlier with my sister.
Rail: In one of Piper’s texts from the early 1970s, she writes about your poetry as a “space-filling poetry” that resolves a tension between media and content in conceptual art—poetry that can occupy the entire page and leave it in a sense. Can you locate some kind of influence on your writing in her work or the work of other conceptual artists?
Mayer: Well, I would say I was intrigued by the relationship between whatever is called conceptual art and poetry. I mean, what poetry is not conceptual? So, we have poetry being conceptual art to begin with. But the thing that interests me most was that there was nothing to sell in conceptual art. You couldn’t sell anything. And really the equivalent in poetry would be the way a poem is framed by white space on a page. So we wanted to get away from all those things. And don’t ask me why, but with 0 to 9 it seemed appropriate to us to look at the poetry of the American Indians. We published a lot of Seneca Indian and Eskimo Indian work. And it made absolute sense then, but I really couldn’t explain it.
Rail: I know Hannah Weiner, the “clairvoyant poet” who saw or hallucinated words and messages in space around her and whose work also appeared in the journal, was interested in the political situation of the American Indian Movement. Would those politics have been on your radar?
Mayer: I don’t think so. I think that was a whole separate issue.
Rail: I want to go back to this idea of someone becoming you in some kind of memory transference. When you were making the project, did you think of Memory as collaborative with your reader or viewer?
Mayer: Oh, interesting idea. It’s the first time I ever thought of that, of Memory as collaborative. I mean it’s not collaborative, but now that you mention it, I do see that.
Rail: One reason I ask is that you appear in some of the photos, so you were not the photographer at all times throughout the month.
Mayer: Well, I had and still do have a not very exact view of the way things are done.
Mayer: Meaning somebody else could be the photographer for a second. I’m just the one who makes sure that you take a whole roll of film in one day.
Rail: Would you pass the camera around amongst your friends in that case?
Mayer: No, no. We weren’t passing the camera around. Mostly it was when I wanted to take a photograph that I myself couldn’t take—I would ask somebody else to do it. But it wasn’t like, your turn with the camera. That would be interesting, though that’s a whole other experiment that would be for a whole other purpose.
Rail: You've often collaborated with other writers. What interests you in working or writing collaboratively? What do you hope to get out of the collaborative encounter?
Mayer: Collaborations can be the best. The other person or people might do or say anything far beyond one’s own thoughts, memories, or imaginings, you know. It’s like being more than oneself—good practice for states of consciousness we aren’t familiar with.
Rail: To go back to the photographs, what was your relationship to photography before this project? Did you grow up enjoying taking photos?
Mayer: No, I was living with a guy, Ed Bowes, who made movies. With his help I got a really good camera and started taking pictures with regular 35 mm film. And since I could take the pictures, I decided I would do this project.
Rail: And Ed Bowes appears in the text and in the photos of Memory. The book edition of Memory includes a photograph of you on its cover. Your earlier book Moving also had a photographic portrait of you on its cover. Your friend, Hannah Weiner, also included her own portrait on the cover of her Clairvoyant Journal around the same time. Were you making any specific statement by including photographs of yourself on these covers?
Mayer: I don’t know anything about Hannah in relation to photography. But I just took it for granted as an extension of my ability to do things, that I could take pictures.
Rail: You’ve recently published the book Helens of Troy, which includes photographs of the women named Helen living in Troy, NY. How do you still use or think about photography in your writing practice?
Mayer: Well, it’s a problem for me because I don’t like digital cameras. So I think what I have to do is find someone who will develop 35 mm film for me and go back to a regular camera. I was talking to Gerard Malanga about this and he said he doesn’t like digital cameras either. One of the problems with those cameras is that they let a lot of light in, so the light is very unpredictable when you photograph. For those of us who have learned to assess the light, and to know what the light is doing to the film, they’re useless. I did use the digital cameras for the pictures of the Helens. Though, I don’t know what the answer to your question is until I get situated with a decent camera again.
Rail: Does the Helens of Troy project, then, have a different relationship to documentation than the Kodachrome photographs in Memory?
Mayer: Well, I don’t think the Helens photos are very interesting. I shouldn’t say that, right?
Rail: Well, interesting/not-interesting can be its own conceptual gambit. It seems obvious that color was something you were thinking about with Memory—the role of color in these images.
Mayer: Yeah, I definitely was. I was a neophyte in terms of learning about photography, and I was simultaneously involved in making videotapes and making films because Ed was working for the Berkshire Theatre Company. He was working on a play by Terrence McNally that had movies in it. So he made the movies for those, and I was working as his assistant. And then we were also unrelatedly making videotapes at the time. So there were a lot of visual thoughts in my head.
Rail: What were those videotapes like?
Mayer: Ed and I bought a videotape apparatus, the huge kind you carried on your back. We’d photograph everything; we were learning how to use it. Eventually we would be chasing poets around various houses until they would speak. One day we invited a lot of poets to read, and we taped them. To the dismay of many, we erased these videos, for lack of means to buy more tapes.
Rail: Another formal question I have about Memory takes me back to comments you made in a classroom visit to the Naropa Institute in 1978. In a discussion there, you said, “I can never think of a line as being anything that exists except on a page.” In writing the book Memory after the installation, you seem to have translated a visual line to the literary line of the page. Has your thinking about lines in space changed since 1978?
Mayer: Well, once I had a dream that I was inside Hannah Weiner’s head, and I woke up and there were words or sentences written on my walls in the same way she had visions of words. I was scared, and I said to myself, if when I leave this room these words are not gone, I don’t know what I’ll do. So I left the room, I came back, the words were still there. I left the room again and came back, and they were gone. Can you imagine the prison that that would be? [laughs]
Rail: That’s an incredible story.
Mayer: Yes, it’s scary though.
Rail: To wake up and see words the way someone else does, in the way Hannah Weiner did, makes me think of that replication of experience or memory that you proposed as the result of Memory when you were younger. In discussing your collaborative book Utopia, you have called Utopia a form, in and of itself. Is Memory another similar kind of form?
Mayer: Do you think it should be? Do you think it can be? After I did it, years went by, and I thought, it’s odd that nobody else has done it. So maybe it’s not a form. Maybe it’s just something to do?
Rail: I think of it, too, as a kind of apparatus in itself, almost like a camera or memory-camera obscura. Though I like the idea that it might just be something to do.
Mayer: Right, to pass the time? [laughs]
Rail: And then it becomes not only a way to pass the time, but to time travel in a way?
Mayer: Yes, to time travel, but maybe you don’t get anywhere. [laughs]
PHILLIP GRIFFITH is a writer, editor, and scholar living in New York City.