Post-internet Mnemotechnics

Text: Riikka Stewen 24.3.2017
Image: Tiina Palmu

While Helsinki awaits the opening of ARS17: Hello World!, the ninth edition of the traditional contemporary art Ars exhibitions since 1961, and its theme “digital revolution” – how digital networks and platforms have changed the ways we communicate and experience our daily lives globally – media artist Tiina Palmu (b. 1984) shows work which questions the chronologies and geographies of communication and digital revolutions.

In Rasskaztšitsa, a film lasting about ten minutes, the artist recounts a story about a Moldovian pig she has heard of in Helsinki and memorized word for word in Russian which is a language she does not know. On the screen, the artist herself appears between two elderly Moldovian people, a man on her right and a woman on her left, in a half-figure composition reminiscent of early 15th-century Italian paintings transitioning from icon to narrative. The film is shot in black and white in a straight documentary style, with a stationary camera, and apparently not edited at all. At one moment, the camera even shakes dangerously as if it were about to take off in a gust of wind. Nevertheless, the artist goes on with her story, undeterred. Her phone rings twice: she looks at it and puts it away.

As I entered the gallery, the story was about mid-way, and I found myself completely taken by the odd setting of the narrative. I was simply mesmerized by the strange-sounding story in quaint Russian. What was going on? With my very rudimentary Russian I could recognize a word here and there but could not quite comprehend what was going on. Was it an exercise in simultaneous translation, or a personal story? Who was the story-teller and who were the listeners?

When the film ended, the dark screen opposite it lit up for a minute or two and the story could be read both in Finnish and in English – the film itself has no subtitles except for the few words spoken in Russian by the two Moldovian listeners. I found out that it was a story about 17 pigs, a mother pig and her 16 piglets, told to the artist by a Moldovian woman and narrating a chain of events which had taken place sixty years earlier in a small Moldovian village.

Like characters in Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451, or François Truffaut’s film of the same title, the artist has made herself into a living breathing container for a story. Instead of a work by a Homer, Sappho, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, she has memorized a story about what happened when a young Moldovian couple with baby twins bought a pig for Christmas sixty years ago. It turned out that the pig was pregnant and gave birth to 16 piglets, but as she only had 12 nipples, four piglets were left to struggle for their lives. The woman then decided to feed them with her own milk, and, in order to recognize the four piglets in danger of starvation, she marked their foreheads with red lipstick.

Using the idea of roads and journeying as mnemotechnical supports the artist memorized the woman’s story and then travelled to Moldova, to the very same village where the 16 piglets were born to a single mother, and retold the story to whoever was willing to listen to her.

Because the artist herself does not really understand the Russian version of the story she has memorized, she gives an impression of a strange hybrid between a Google translate robot – eerily reminiscent of enhanced or on-line virtual characters – and a real-life story-teller embodying the experience of the narrated events. Walter Benjamin, as we remember, thought that story-telling was a way to communicate experiences to other people, and that it required living through those experiences virtually in one’s own bodily being.

By apparently separating the diegetic act of narration from an understanding of the events portrayed in the story and transforming the artist into a medium in a very literal sense, Tiina Palmu’s work thematizes the interface between the virtual and the real. Instead of dichotomies, the work highlights the porosity of the interface between mind and body, between material reality and virtuality, and proposes that our bodies still matter, that they are not yet only virtual, not completely on-line even if their avatars may be. In the 1990’s, the French philosopher Paul Virilio predicted that the cyberspace – i.e. the Internet – would become what he called the accident of our bodies. Perhaps, the accident has turned out to be more drawn out and less spectacular than Virilio thought.

The work foregrounds the physical, corporeal element of memory, and as it links memory and story-telling, it gives rise to the question of what the relevance of memory is at the current moment when “everything” is available to you on your mobile screen, literally at the tip of your fingertips with just a few clicks, and when the narcissism inducing programming of search engine algorithms makes it practically impossible to gain access to information which differs from your personal confirmation bias.

Narratives are by necessity linked to memories and histories: they are profoundly political at the same time. In fact, even the brain’s neuronal networks are physically altered by stories we tell and listen to. Stories, of course, are still everywhere, but they are most often stories created by corporations and bureaucracies, stories which the philosopher Jacques Rancière would define as fictions which aim only at preserving the political status quo or, at the most, giving you the illusion that when you buy a product you get a certain kind of life. Paradoxically, by narrativizing memories and histories, different futures may be created. Tiina Palmu, the story-teller, knows that it does matter what kind of stories are told and memorized.

Tiina Palmu
Hippolyte, Gallery of the Photographic Artists’ Association,
Helsinki, 3.-26.3.2017

updated 25.3.