Memorial to the ephemeral

Posted on Thursday, September 18th, 02008 by Stuart Candy
link Categories: Long Term Art   chat 0 Comments

In a post entitled “Temporary Becomes Permanent“, Kevin Kelly recently shared his thoughts at this blog on how fragments of culture that start out with a limited life expectancy can survive to become embedded much more deeply. The example he had in mind was the wartime graffito “Kilroy Was Here” which has now unobtrusively, yet unmistakeably, been etched in stone at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

A somewhat different instance of this temporary-to-permanent transition is found in the installation “Grand Gestures” by the Toronto-based 640 480 Video Collective.

Grand Gestures (02007) installation by 640 480
Images via Torontoist

The artists’ website explains this part of the Grand Gestures project:

The public component consists of ten ‘memorial’ style plaques interspersed along Queen West… Each bronze plaque will contain a partial transcription of a personal video that has been created on Queen St., which 640 480 sourced from By memorializing these banal and inconsequential videos with such markers of public remembrance, 640 480 draws our attention to the fleeting nature of video.

Torontoist adds:

640 480 takes its name from the original 4:3 aspect ratio of video screens, and the group has an obvious affinity for the rapidly disappearing magnetic tape format. Memorial lapel ribbons made from videotape were also part of the grand Gestures installation, and taped copies of the videos are to be converted into an artificial diamond, signifying the preservation of memories from an increasingly obsolete format into an everlasting state.

So the intention seems to have been to pay tribute to a disappearing medium, magnetic videotape; a sentiment which resonates with the Long Now’s concern for the preservation of languages as well as the cultural record generally. However, the plaque installation also stands, more robustly I think, as a broader comment on the selectiveness of historical memory. By sitting in marked contrast to the parade of history’s conventional notables usually given the bronze-plaque treatment (to wit: stateman X spent an evening in this building; general so-and-so took a meal here; a certain poet was inspired to write about this view; etc), otherwise trivial and unremarked moments of everyday life are anointed as worthy of remembrance. Certain slices of the “temporary” are suddenly, and quite arbitrarily, rendered “permanent”. All of which refocuses the attention in a curious way, as the hierarchy of significance in human affairs is briefly turned upside down.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Even with elements of lives memorialised in so (relatively) permanent a medium as bronze, things can happen to drop them right back into obscurity.

Where one of the 640 480 plaques used to be
Image from alexanderthematt‘s Flickr photostream, via Torontoist

(Thanks Jake!)

  • This makes me consider the preservation of a culture’s “mood” as important as the creation of stoic, marble statues. Our culture has “slices of life” that are manifestations of the changing generations that grow up within it – which become largely forgotten outside the writings of the time. More importantly, what fascinates me about 640 480 is that it’s brought this into the real, concrete world. Very cool stuff.

  • False Data

    It raises a deep question: what is our purpose in preserving and archiving the present? If we assume the future will form its own view of us, then in the process of selecting what we preserve, are we trying to assert some sort of control over that view? If so, with what motivation? Are we trying to give the future the best possible chance at an unbiased view of the present, so people then can learn from our mistakes? Are we dressing up in our Sunday finest and trying to look pretty for a historical snapshot? Or are we simply trying to achieve immortality by leaving a mark, a stone Kilroy was Here to sit alongside the great monuments of the ancient world?

    Stewart Brand’s essay emphasizes the purpose of focusing our own minds on long term thinking. Instinctively, that feels like an admirable goal. On the other hand, given the increasing rate of change in society, it could be that our instincts are misplaced: investing in the future involves real costs in the present, and the more volatile that future becomes, the less certain we can be that our decedents will be able to reap the benefits of our sacrifice. As that volatility increases, eventually we reach the point where the best we can do is stay nimble and select whichever course of action burns the fewest bridges. However, I think he’s right that an increased emphasis on long term thinking is necessary, because the consequences of a mistake today are much greater than they were in the past, so for a given amount of uncertainty about the future, the proper amount of energy we should put into thinking through our decisions has also increased.

    But everything involves tradeoffs. If our motivation is increasing long term thinking, that might not be compatible with preserving an unvarnished view of the present. You could give a pretty good view of daily life in September 2008 by archiving the Twitter stream, for instance, and leaving it to some future digital archeologist’s grad students to sift through the layers of tweets just like today’s archeologists sift the earth. But blindly archiving the whole Twitter stream might not increase long term thinking because it doesn’t involve the selection process; just like in moving, nothing gets you thinking about the past, present and future like deciding what to keep and what goes to Goodwill.

  • Sally

    Off-topic: I assume someone is going to post an entry about this:

    John Taylor has invented a “time eater” clock that depicts the erratic and limited nature of one’s personal experience of time. I’d love to get a Long Now perspective on the mechanics, philosophy, and aesthetics of the piece! Stephen Hawking introduced the clock, but the article doesn’t say anything about his remarks.

  • This reminds me of the Tibetan Buddhist conception of prayer flags being more permanent than the mountains behind them. The prayers last forever but the mountains dissolve.

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