Bernadette Mayer’s month of July 1971 spans six hours of recorded audio, 36 feet of wall space, over 300 pages of journal entries, and over 1,100 photographs. Together, these differentials comprise a project she titled Memory. Originally exhibited at the 98 Greene Street gallery (photographs plus a recording of Mayer reading her journal), then in a condensed form in Mayer’s apartment, Memory wasn’t seen or heard again for over 40 years: in 2016 at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago and 2017 at Canada Gallery in New York. A text-only version, long out of print, appeared in 1975 from North Atlantic Books. This year’s publication of Memory by Siglio Press, which includes the full text and sequence of images, plus a link to Mayer’s narration of the text, is the most comprehensive iteration of the work to date. “How many days will it take to tell the time,” Mayer wonders on July 11. One possible answer: 17,885 days—49 years—and counting. Another: “Everyday, I’m saying there are no days” (July 13).
Though it straddles poetry and conceptual art, Memory might be better characterized as a work of textual endurance art, the performance of which is its own archiving. What Mayer endures in Memory is the daily recording of her consciousness. (July 30: “When you are a woman you make a great record….”) The constraint she sets for herself is simple, in theory: each day for a month she shoots one roll of 35 mm film and writes in a journal. Afterwards, she develops the film and reworks her text based on the images. But the month in question is a busy one, involving constant trips between Manhattan and western Massachusetts to work on a film project with her boyfriend Ed, with occasional visits to her ailing grandfather in Queens. Through text and image, Mayer intends to record everything that passes through her mind, allowing the reader-viewer not merely to observe a representation of her consciousness, but to actually inhabit it as it existed in July 1971. She endures Memory in order “to lull you then into now being for a while into being me” (July 25).
But “everything” is a tricky thing to record, as Mayer notes in her preface to the new edition:
It’s astonishing to me that there is so much in Memory, yet so much is left out: emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light, storytelling, walking, and voyaging to name a few. I thought by using both sound and image, I could include everything, but so far, that is not so.
This is not necessarily an admission of failure. The act of recording is by nature an act of exclusion: to write down one thought is to not write down all others; to take a picture of a pile of sand is to not take a picture of everything that isn’t that pile of sand. (July 9: “I must have no respect for nothingness to photograph these scenes….”) We’re able to inhabit Mayer’s Memory mind because her consciousness during that month is the recording of her consciousness, defined as much by what it includes as by what it leaves out.
Is Mayer’s process in Memory—recording, reviewing, reworking—also the process of memory? Does memory also double over and dub over the past to create something new in the present? Perhaps. For Mayer, remembering is just one component of memory, or at least of Memory: “how I do memory: I make a design writing this & later I make something this time out of remembering but later out of not remembering or doing it backwards including hallucinations & all liquid clear distillations of what is it?” (July 10). Memory is a multidimensional design made of overlapping layers of recording, remembering, not remembering, hallucinating. Maybe memory is too. On July 5, Mayer describes the phenomenon of the negative afterimage: if you stare at a red square on a white wall for twenty seconds, then remove it, you’ll see a green square in its place. (“You leave it out you forget to see red.”) If a memory is a green square disintegrating on a white wall, created in part by the “leaving out” or “forgetting” of an essential aspect of its referent, then Memory is a projection of Mayer’s green squares of July 1971 onto various walls across space and time: the gallery wall, the page, the minds of those tracing the recording of her mind.
As I made my way through Memory at Canada Gallery, I remembered Hollis Frampton’s short film (nostalgia), also from 1971, which consists of audio descriptions of photographs burning on a hot plate. As each image from Frampton’s past turns to ash, the voiceover comments on the following image before it appears. The narration anticipates an image offscreen while the image onscreen recalls the previous narration; the viewer hears the future while seeing the past. This happens in the gallery form of Memory too, but it’s just one of several possible sensory splits: you might be hearing the July 8 narration while looking at the July 7 photos, or vice versa, or you might not know whether what you’re hearing comes before or after what you’re seeing. It all depends on where you stand and when you stand there. So too do those fortuitous moments when narration and image align. I remember approaching a date on the gallery wall just as Mayer said that date and began describing in order the images I was seeing, only to digress into another narrative territory, which inspired me to wander off to another date farther away, or to stand still and focus on one image, I don’t remember.
The book form denies the possibility of such temporal disjunctures and spatial synchronicities. Instead, it gives us more time to spend with Mayer’s words. We can, for instance, read the phrase “double exposures, live memory” on July 20, then “memory the double negative” on July 21, and think about how memory might function as both double exposure and double negative. A memory can appear as a conflation of experiences (“double exposure: the house is a tree”) or an overlapping of past and present (Proust once described déjà vu as seeing something “doubled in time as one sometimes sees double in space”). It can also appear as a vision neither immobile like a photo nor mobile like a film, but something in between, something not not moving, a phantom square on a wall. (“A reversal of the action of the verb not moving, moving & a removal or release from the state expressed by the noun immobility, mobility: memory the double negative.”) Memory abounds with such flashes of phenomenology that burst out of grocery lists, descriptions of dreams, transcriptions of conversations, New York street scenes.
Memory isn’t an attempt to reconstruct the past so much as imprint in ink and on film the process of constructing it: “what can a diary be not a reconstruction, something put in, use the time, pass it, stain it…” (July 13). A diary stains time, bleeds past into present and present into past. With Memory, Mayer is concerned less with remembering her month of July 1971 than with creating a framework within which others can re-member it, spread out inside her photographed, written, and spoken living and reliving of it. “I have no way of remembering a day,” she writes on July 3, the day in 2020 I’m writing this.
Daniel Lupo a writer and translator based in Queens. Their writing has appeared in Bone & Ink Press, Arcturus (Chicago Review of Books), Apricity Press, and elsewhere. Their translation of Arthur’s Whims, a novel by Hervé Guibert, is forthcoming from Spurl Editions.