Loss and return: Exploring collective memory in an Irish family archive
1950 - 1966 through installation art practice.


This enquiry has its origins in a childhood immersed in family stories, myths, home movies, photographs, furniture and even love letters that informed our family narrative, as an Irish emigrant family living in England from 1950 - 1966. In 2003 I discovered my father’s 8mm camera and started making short experimental films and as a consequence became curious about the collection of the home movie footage he had made of those early years. Circa 2005 my mother passed on to me some 29 letters she had held in safe keeping for over fifty years. These are my father’s letters written to her during the early days of his emigration 1950-1952 – her return letters were lost.

Responding to social and cultural anthropologist, Ajun Appadurai’s remark that, ‘it is not the archive but ‘what we do with it’ that really counts’ (Appadurai, A., 2013, p.2), I revisit this material to investigate one family’s memory and explore its complex weave of interconnected personal and public memories that I believe can reconnect to a wider public in an art context. I take a ‘ground up’ approach and use oral history techniques to gather together a range of narratives in many formats, such as, autobiographical, biographical and documentary to investigate how different perspectives alter our perception of what is being said and the idea that family stories and memories are more
collective than we may think. However, rather than simply responding to the family’s ‘real’ events and experiences I also invent imaginary sites that I believe can expand further the search for a re-engagement with the past.

Drawing on existing theoretical discourses on memory and the archive and deploying art practice my research project asks a series of interrelated questions, such as, whose memory do we encounter in ‘the family archive? What time frame do we encounter in a family archive, what kind of spaces are represented and who has agency? How do truth and fiction intertwine in these accounts and what are the links between autobiographical, biographical and social or collective memory?

However, returning to the terrain of my family’s past is a difficult task when reframed by recent theories on both memory and archival practice. ‘The family archive’ is a site of many contested voices and opinions from different perspectives and a family record is also a social construction that combines as much fiction as it does truth (Hirsch, M.,1999). Furthermore, ‘the family archive ’ is more than a material memory trace it also represents a complex weave of both conscious and unconscious fragmentary feelings, anxieties, longings and desires emerging from the sensory world of the everyday (Derrida, J., 1996). Moreover, ‘the family archive’, as with any archive, is not a
seamless whole but rather a partial, fragmentary selection (Foucault, M., 1969), where silence, hesitation, gaps and omissions are hidden in its layers.

Generally, we access the past in three main ways, that is, through history, memory and the archive, but, as historian, Keith Jenkins notes in Re-thinking History (1991), we should now really be referring to history as ‘our histories’ (Jenkins, 1991, p.3). Moreover, the 20th century has seen notable shifts in how we connect to the past such as the decline in traditional and universally shared heritage and this has had a direct bearing on the increasing need to return to the past, not as a communal sharing of common history but rather as a focus on personal and national identity (Lowenthal, D., 1986) Memory is linked to history, but whereas history is ‘the official’ written version of what happened, memory offers an individual interpretation of events which often takes many forms, for example: spoken; sound; written and material traces. Unlike history or memory, many contend that the archive is the foundation from which history is written and as such presents a crucial and influential encounter with the past (Derrida, J., 1998). It relies on the existence and collection of a series of organised documents and artefacts that create history and therefore mediate the past.

One of my core concerns was to ensure that the family’s intimate and individual experience remained central to the project while finding ways to trace the specific to the universal and its links to social and cultural memory. I chose a methodology that combines: art practice; ethnography and through the artworks I set out to re-narrate the past from many diverse perspectives. Anthropologist, Clifford Geertz coined the term ‘Interpretative Ethnography’ as a method to present life in a contextual way and make it possible for others who are outside the immediate frame of reference to access meaning (Geertz, C., 1977).

Drawing on this approach I turn the lens on my own family and, deploying installation art practices, such as, appropriation, film collage and the process of combining sound, moving image and objects together in an immersive space (Bishop, C., 2006) create an interactive, immersive, imaginary encounter with ‘the family archive’ for a public exhibition. Furthermore, oral history method enables me to put the texture and uniqueness of the narrators in the centre of the story with an emphasis not on factual accounts but rather on the interpretation of events (Thompson, P. E., 2000).

The enquiry limits its scope to an intrinsic study of my own family that spans a specific period from 1950s to the mid 1960s and encompasses an emigrant journey between two countries, Ireland and England. Chapter one introduces the theoretical framework of the research project, which consists of two main trajectories, namely, the function of memory and memory’s relationship to the archive. I begin by introducing the work of Philosopher Henri Bergson who, with his publication ‘Memory his and Matter” (1896), introduces for the first time a metaphysical approach to memory outlined in concept of ‘of two forms of memory’, namely ‘pure memory’ and habitual or mechanical memory. Bergson shifts the study of memory away from a purely physical or psychological terrain, linked to survival, and into a perception of memory with social and even spiritual dimensions. This lays the groundwork for the conceptualisation of a collective or social memory which Maurice Halbwachs – a former student of Bergson – contends is passed on from generation to generation through traditions, rituals, customs and gestures.

Halbwachs’ hypothesis was to radically transform how we think about memory as a collective, social and cultural phenomenon (Halbwachs, M., [1950] 1992). Halbwachs’ sociological approach to memory was very influential. For example, the anthropologist, Paul Connerton has made several in depth studies on the relationship between ‘the performative body and memory’ and ‘memory and forgetting’ (Connerton, P., 1989, 2010, 2011). Memory and forgetting are often seen as separate and contrasting activities but as Czech writer, Milan Kundera remarks… ‘Forgetting is not the negative of remembering it is a form of remembering’ (Kundera, M., 1999, p.198).

Developing a framework to re-engage with the family’s past through the archive, the second section explores the unique relationship between the archive and memory. I examine several key philosophers s who rethink the archive and its meaning. Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever ([1995] 1998) suggests a radical re-reading of the theory of the archive according to what Freud saw as the indissociable presence of the death drive in the necessarily repetitive act of recollection, suppression and anxiety. Michel Foucault takes another perspective on the archive by approaching it as a structure that is implemented by the state in order to monitor and regulate both the inward and outward lives of citizens ([1969] 2002a). Both Derrida and Foucault agree that texts from the past
rather than being ‘truth’ documents should be viewed as constructed and influenced according arrange of outside forces, such as, the unconscious (Derrida, J., 1998) and dominant voices of a particular period (Foucault, M., 2002a). Furthermore, they argue, that the archive’s appearance of an uninterrupted, seamless whole, often at the expense of omitting or even deliberately erasing other points of view.

My research project is situated in these recent reconsiderations of the archive, such as Foucault’s view of it as a tool of fundamental organisation and an instrument of surveillance (Foucault 2002a) or Derrida’s presentation of it as an hallucinatory and abstract site haunted by the unconscious forces of ‘Thanatos’ (Derrida 1998). Informed but not circumscribed by these ideas on the archive and memory, I set out to explore how concepts such as the instability and unreliability of memory, the dominance of a single authoritative viewpoint, the archive as ‘truth document’ and the idea of
considering the archive as a discursive, fluid site are present in ‘the family archive’.

Chapter Two explains the choice of combined, integrated methodologies with a focus on the ‘up close and personal’ that includes: oral histories, installation art practice and ethnographic practices. I draw on Annette Kuhn’s extensive writings on the topic of familial memory (Kuhn, A., 2002; 2006), and in particular her ‘memory method’, where Kuhn argues that a crucial factor in engaging with family recollection is its role in reforming individual identity, which then further problematises wider social and cultural contexts.

Chapter Three contextualises the enquiry in relation to its core discipline of contemporary art by analysing works by three artists. This also allows me the opportunity to point to my specific contribution to the field. It is now well established that in recent years art practice has moved from a focus on aesthetics and quality to an interest in social, cultural and political issues or as Hal Foster notes, from ‘intrinsic forms’ to ‘discursive problems’ with many contemporary artists’ projects gradually becoming more interdisciplinary (Forster, H., 1996). The intervention in the past in general, memory and the archive is part of this ‘gesture of alternative knowledge or counter-memory’, which often harbours the possibility of the utopian (Foster, H., 1996).