Mixed Memories by David Bate

This text is written to go alongside Maria Ahmed’s work Slips and Burns (2023). It is not intended to determine what the work means or govern other interpretations of it. It merely offers itself as another type of work alongside of it, of writing that aims to resonate with Maria’s work, its rhizomes, with the ‘slips and burns’ of digital culture, the slippages and turns of cultural memory that inform it and our wider relation to images that attract us.

In the abundance of images today we can find the same restless homelessness of the mobile societies that produced them. Yet we all find ourselves attracted to particular images. If we live in the twilight hour of long-settled societies we can nevertheless still find a home or be ‘at home’ in images. The question is which one(s)? How do these choices relate to the kaleidoscope images of social existence and a timely sense of ‘being in the world’?

If the image that sustains us is said to come from outside, it is one that we also internalize as our home. In the first instance the prototype for such an image is the gaze of our mothers, other carers and their surrogates. We find under this gaze, ideally, a benign space that offers us some solitude, some security, and a place to take risks within its territory and limits. It is well known that ‘family photography’ has often sought to construct the image of this space, the family album as the space of ‘the family’, imagined as a place of certainty, a safety of ‘community’, even when it sometimes shown to be not. And even if we feel at the outset an ambivalence towards this space of the family, it is a place that we all leave behind as we mobilize our independent lives: from one place to another, from one geography to another and one topography to another. In these new spaces and places encountered from youth onwards, the old certainty of the mother’s gaze, however received, still remains but it is re-positioned in numerous shifting ways. Firstly, from within the family matrix of social relations, it is figured and re-figured inside family photographs, which becomes its ‘official’ visible archive, and then secondly, as these are recombined within the complex and mobile memories of later life.

How do these images of our familial pasts within the psychical and social topologies of later life affect our present and future? How do the complex memories of these images of the past help to understand the present? How do they affect our individual and collective present? How does the artistic process action of re-working them turn them into re-presenting the past differently, which of course includes refiguring how we see the chronological past of the present?

In Maria Ahmed’s work, for instance she takes archive images that were produced in Finland before Maria herself was born and then subjects them to processes of fragmentation and destruction, damage and re-combination. These ambivalent procedures both conceal and reveal new aspects of these images repositioning them within different temporalities as they are digitally recombined with other images. Collage as a technique works to bring together different images, to mix and multiply meanings without ever really unifying them back into some kind of singularity. Different image components are combined, mixed and multiplied into an unmaking of linear time. Even the colours and social palates of the past and the present are fused, confused together into new mixed multiple formations. The creative reworking of images makes new spatial mappings that are inter-locational and multi-generational. They work to create and form new associative contexts, new communities of image that resembles a process identified with the reworkings of memory.

In Marianne Hirsch’s 1997 book Family Frames and subsequent writings, she has elaborated the centrality of photography to what she calls ‘postmemory’. Postmemory is a term used to describe the intergenerational effect of memory as it is transmitted and activated through a complex of family images, stories and narratives. Hirsch focuses on second-generation children of Holocaust survivors for her case-study, but she argues that the concept of postmemory has a wider relevance for family histories, drama, trauma, and other related experiences. Her focus on postmemory examines the way second-generation children actively imagine and invest themselves in narratives that took place before their own time:

‘Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated.’ (Hirsch, Family Frames, p 22.)

The shaping of intergenerational thinking by the past is here not so much ‘inherited’ as it is actively translated and imagined into the experience and history of the later generation: ‘Postmemory is a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through imaginative investment and creation.’ (Hirsch,Family Frames, p 22.)

The ‘imaginative investment’ and creative impulse directed towards previous generations and their stories are activated and mobilized, she suggests, partly via archival photographic images. These images are creatively woven into a new fabric where these images take up a new place and meaning in the lives of the later generation. In this way the past is renewed – in what might be called ‘origin fantasies’ - into the present to appear in new revised ways, and explains some of the curious re-workings of it in relation to memory. Hirsch’s argument about postmemory thus presents in a new way and in a different social framework the important role of fantasy as it is discussed in psychoanalysis. (See John Fletcher, Freud and the Scene of Trauma, Fordham, University Press, 2013) Subjective fantasy overlays memory. The things that have been heard, felt and seen as remembered are creatively reworked, ‘embellished’ and overlaid by subjective fantasy. The fantasy offers itself as both a protection (as a defense against memories - as in the highly idealised versions of family albums) and yet also, in contradiction, as a way to excite memories. Family archive images function ambivalently in this dual economy. In this way fantasy is itself a hybrid formulation, exactly as in the construction of postmemory that Hirsch proposes, as made clearly visible in the outcome of traumatic experiences. Postmemory as a concept has the virtue of not being burdened with the derogative history that the term ‘fantasy’ has endured: as a flight from reality. Postmemory thus suggests a more dialectical relation to the memory images of the subject than the concept of fantasy (as conceived in psychoanalysis) even though they have much in common.

Memory images are themselves like a liquid collage: fluid and mobile with overlapping images that merge and blend into each other, sometimes disrupting an initial coherent image, destroying, disturbing or simply rearranging its affective sensibility. Images of the past are subject to a process of decomposition and recombination, transforming the temporal and chronological relations to the past. Yet these disturbances simultaneously create new alliances and affects, in a new ‘liquidity’ of meanings as new temporal spaces, or rather, are invested with new multi-temporalities in the same space. In all this, it has to be said there is something driving it. The activity of postmemory aims at the reconstruction of the past for today, for some sense in the present, it is the work of the drive, of reiteration. Not repetition, but reiteration and re-vision.

The work of Maria’s gaze here offers some insight into this active imaginative sensibility. Archival images and their frames of reference are rendered restless, in constant flux, situated in a matrix of connections and disconnections, emancipated in their digital fury. We can see the revelations and resistances, we are shown the work censoring and resignification, we can see the work of postmemory in action. Presented as a panoramic matrix this is what the work presents, the seeing of memories as a scene.

@David Bate, 2023 not to be used without author’s permission


David Bate,                  ‘The Archival Dream’, Photography After Postmodernism, Routledge, 2023.

John Fletcher,             Freud and the Scene of Trauma, New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Marianne Hirsch,        Family Frames: Photograph Narrative and Postmemory, London: Harvard University Press, 1997.