In Search of Meaning: Memory Becomes UsPatricia Moss-Vreeland
I address this space like it is an artery, a branch—a part of the larger body we inhabit, spanning both inward and outward physically and metaphorically, relating memory to each of us and to the spaces we dwell. I titled my exhibition, In Search of Meaning: Memory Becomes Us. The first part, In Search of Meaning, relates to how we as humans, without being aware of this, are in daily search of meaning in our own ways, guided by our brain, our learning organ. The second part, Memory Becomes Us, refers to the subjective part of memory. Our memories are unique to us, and become the stories we tell over time, often guiding us in our own search of meaning. These change daily in the reconstruction of memory.
My drawings, paintings, prints, artist books, poetry and videos use metaphor and act as visual responses to what memory is and how it functions. They reside in concert with the interlacing of science texts, connecting the personal to the universal. My installation moves through ideas in art and science research as a parallel universe, manifested through a series of conversations I had with Dr. Dasa Zeithamova, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of Oregon, exploring the function of the human brain to find meaning, the different ways of knowing and self-expression, and the importance of stepping out of our silos and forming relationships. The presentation of texts and spoken word suggests the ways that language and memory are intertwined.
The social impact of memory is represented with newer works. What connections can be made in how we feel and want to remember a place that represents home, work, habitats, and community? How do our individual and shared memories shape our identity?
Memory is a universal human process but is also deeply subjective and personal. This is exciting for me because it means that when we examine memory, there’s the potential to understand our own individual experience more fully, to see who we are – and at the same time find points of connection with others.
Art is the meeting place - science is the partnership
The Artist and the Scientist
Since 1999, I have been exploring memory through art and science in a variety of exhibitions and projects. In 2017, I reached out to Dr. Dasa Zeithamova, professor of cognitive neuroscience, University of Oregon, curious about her research on memory and learning, one of my interests. I was thrilled she invited me to her lab, and we began a year long relationship talking. I knew that stepping outside of our individual silos where we live and work from my previous collaborations, crossing over and having conversations, had many benefits. Art can stretch our boundaries, and so can conversations.
I was not sure what to reply when I got the first email from Patricia. I am a scientist and do not always understand art. But my curiosity was pricked by the parallels between art and science that Patricia highlighted in her email. She also noted her interest in the creative nature of memory, an aspect of memory that I am interested in and study in my lab, but that few people associate with memory. Her idea to reach beyond our usually isolated universes was compelling to me. All she asked for in the email was to have a conversation together. We have been talking and trying to understand each other’s universe ever since.
Memory and Meaning
During my conversations with Dr. Dasa Zeithamova, one science fact kept growing in importance to me: the purpose of the human brain is to “see” meaning, and how that affects our memories. When I was planning on the content and design of my exhibition, I found myself responding to this, and decided for it to become the central arc, in which all my artworks and categories of work I am involved in about memory, could find connection, and new “meaning”. I felt that part of what made our conversations so stimulating, I could reference, and asked Dasa to respond to each group of artworks, with the science.
I love how Patricia’s work alludes to the subjective nature of memory, how we remember the meaning of our experiences, shaped by our values and existing knowledge. You may remember what you see, but what you see depends on the meaning you assigned to it, which in turn depends on your memory, goals, and language.
Art is interpretative. I ascribe meanings to my work, but am aware there are unknown interpretations from each viewer, and this is one of the things I love about art. It makes connections with people without my being there, that can become a new memory and meaning for each viewer.
Memory and Place
In 1999, I created an interactive station called Memory and Place for my exhibition Memory–Connections Matter, that contained a painting of the sun looming over a landscape with water. It turned out to have a tremendous connection for viewers, where people left many responses, often references to the concept of home. Home seems to hold so many of our memories. In my evolving work over the years, I think about memory as it relates to the environment and our individual and shared place within this. Memory and Place evolved to become a deeper look at “place” that goes beyond our powerful memories of childhood home, to our impact on the land, water, and environment, and see its social impact.
Place, or spatial context, plays a key role in organizing memories. Coming back to a familiar place after a long delay often brings back memories we thought were forgotten. Events that happen in the same place often get connected in memory, even if they happen years apart. Moving from one place to another, we often wrap up one memory and begin another one, even if only minutes separate them. Organizing memories by place is useful because different information is relevant, depending on where you are: at home, at work, in a store, in another city.
Everything in nature is in flux, of constant growth, decay, and regeneration. Fascinated by a decayed tree stump with new growth and a tree forming an arch, I began drawing. These remnants of what was once whole reflect upon nature’s process of how things break down over time, and what manages to stay alive and take new form. I find this parallel to the processes embedded in the making of memory. I contrast these natural remnants with human impact on place through images of logging, pipelines, petrochemical and nuclear energy that have dangerous toxic effects to air, water, and climate that are often hidden away from our sight. Drawing a contrast to monuments of nature to the man-made monuments of energy consumption impacts where we live, disrupts animal’s habitats, and depletes land and resources for farming. I explore ideas about the many interconnections that crisscross our sense of place, shape what we remember, and how we see meaning.
MEMORY AND MEANING
Memory, Patterns, and Repetition
Patterns involve the use of repetition. The patterns I made take on many layered meanings within my exhibition. I refer to how the brain assembles patterns of incoming information, and how it’s used in the construction of memory. Memory forms patterns from our sensory connections and from our experiences. I reference different kinds of patterns found in nature, geometry, and from my imagination.
One thing that fascinates me about pattern is the seemingly infinite variables there are, by only changing one color or one shape, the pattern evolves and changes. As an artist I thought about the power of observation and pattern making, and eventually found out how relevant pattern making is to the making of memories. I like the repetition that pattern describes, along with its compatible variability. I find this a wonderful metaphor for the making of memory.
Memory benefits from repetition. Revisiting the same concepts allows us to retrieve what we already know from memory and update it with new information, creating a stronger and more refined memory in the process.
Our lives are like the patterns that we see repeated across Patricia’s work. The same patterns, the same daily and life events, repeat over and over with slight variations. Memory connects those events to help us extract common patterns, completing partial patterns based on prior experience. Memory also helps us to keep similar things separate, emphasizing what is unique for each experience. Remarkably, the hippocampus, key memory structure of the brain, is responsible for both pattern completion and pattern separation.
When the same event repeats unchanged, it elicits smaller and smaller responses in the brain. But when events vary slightly across repetitions, the brain keeps paying attention, figuring out what is common and what is unique across repetitions. This works even if nothing changes in the external world but instead you learn something new in between repetitions. The same events are now seen in a new light eliciting once again strong brain responses.
Memory is a Connection
A Parallel Universe
While learning about neuroscience for Memory-Connections Matter twenty years ago, I pictured a “Parallel Universe”, what I felt about the relationship between art and science, and between the internal landscape of our mind and external landscapes in which we perceive and navigate. I ended up naming some of my prints and an exhibition with this title later. Through my conversations with Dasa, it illuminated the value of process over time, inherent in both art and science. I began to see similar patterns show themselves in our different disciplines. I learned more about science as a language, in contrast with my poetry. How we built the ways in which we worked together, embracing the unknown, an essential part of both our practices. I am appreciative for Dasa’s creativity and interest in our conversations. I have a new friend and colleague to share ideas, curiosities, and creativity, in the unraveling of memory, learning, and meaning.
I am fascinated by the connections that Patricia helped me see. Between art and science. Between her work and mine. We both are fascinated by memory and neuroscience, even though coming from very different perspectives. Although Patricia can create a beautiful piece of visual art while I cannot, I study creative aspects of memory and do scientific research, which is creative in nature. Mistakes and failures are inevitable, but eventually inspire new ideas in both science and art. Last but not least, we both like to share the fruit of our work with others and are interested in perspectives of other people to enrich ours. When we talk, Patricia often wraps up a thought with “you know what I mean.” Sometimes I do, sometimes I do not. We really live in parallel universes. But I keep listening. And I am grateful for the opportunity to reach a new audience through those conversations and becoming a part of Patricia’s work and life.
"I have collaborated with the Monell Chemical Senses Center since 2014 on several projects. This project came about when I wanted to include a sensory element to her exhibition, and smell and taste are the primary senses related to memory. I worked with the Monell Center to create this and for it to be interactive."
Existing concepts affect Perception
You never see the world as it really is. The knowledge you have, the concepts you formed, guide your attention to what you think is important and let you ignore what you think is not.
This ability to shape perception by conceptual knowledge is often handy. For example, when cooking, it is good to see yellow and red tomatoes as similar to each other but different from yellow and red apples.
In the laboratory, when people learn that a set of faces belong to two groups, they start seeing those from the same group as similar and those from different groups as different, even though the faces themselves do not differ in similarity. Can you think of a flip side?
Our concepts of race, gender, age, or nationality may bias our perception and hide how similar people really are.
Memory and our Senses
Twenty years ago, while researching memory I thought of Marcel Proust, the French novelist. He wrote about the Madeleine, a small teacake he remembered from his childhood that became his literary creation connecting taste and smell to recollection. He placed this cookie in our collective consciousness, and he developed themes of involuntary memory for the first time in literature—that successive takes on sensations awaken unconscious memory.
I think our culture imposes an order on experience that is really limiting, that stops us from exploring the ways in which our ideas and perceptions and sensations in the past and present are all woven together. My visual compositions reflect on the passing of signals in our brain’s neuronal pathways, which I see as a sensory observatory—interpretative and suggestive.
Memory and perception are intertwined. We remember the sights, sounds, touches, tastes and smells we experienced. And unique sensory cues can often remind us of past events. The smell of a particular dish or a flower can be one of the most potent retrieval cues, bringing memories thought to be long forgotten. This is because memory regions and olfactory (smell) regions are located close together, one of the older centers in the brain.
Although memory and perception are closely connected, you remember the meaning of what you see, hear, or smell rather than making an exact copy of your experience in memory. And because the meaning depends on a combination of your prior knowledge, your experiences, and your memories, it is unique to you. Thus, you remember what you see but what you see depends on your memory.
Look around the gallery for more examples of this relationship.
What will you remember from today? Will others in the gallery remember the same?
Memory is a Connection
How do we remember events from our lives? The individual event elements, the who, what, and where, are represented at different places across the brain. When we form a memory, the disparate elements become connected through the hippocampus, a memory structure in the brain. Next time, when you pass the gallery, it may wake up a memory in the hippocampus. The hippocampus will then reactivate other connected elements across the brain. You experience it as remembering.
Because many elements—people, places, or things—overlap across experiences, you are often reminded of a prior memory while forming a new one. That way, events and elements that happened at different times become connected in your mind. Connecting memories may not be ideal for eyewitness testimony, but it is the key for building knowledge, inferring new information, and forming narratives of our lives.
Just like people make connections when they do things together, neurons that are active together start growing connections. That is the basis of all learning and memory.
Memory is formed by making a connection. In all my works in this exhibition, I create various “connections” to be made visually first. Then to illuminate through visual metaphor, the conceptual and scientific ideas. Whether it’s a print using nature, or a drawing or painting, with figure, some abstract, sometimes all combined, it all works like a woven tapestry. Separate threads, shapes, colors, textures, and texts, pulling together for making deeper connections. I find art can take us beyond ourselves, and then within to a forgotten past, place, thoughts, and feelings not remembered—from there, a new pathway emerges, and new connections made.
Memory is Creative
“We never actually see things how they are, only on the background of what we already know, and who we think we are.” This sentence is an example of the creative nature of memory. Patricia thought that is what I said. But I only said the first two parts, which evoked a thought in Patricia. My words then connected with Patricia’s idea to form a new memory. All of us create such memories that combine real elements of events with the knowledge, thoughts and feelings that were evoked at the time. And any time we remember something, we update the memory a little bit, too. That’s why the fish always gets bigger and bigger with every re-telling of the story.
I have found the ways in which we remember involves creativity. We become creators and co-creators of stories through memory that tell about our personal histories and rituals. I discovered the rearranging of ideas, finding variation within a sequence, placing them in new relationships to each other, is what the creativity of memory is all about. I use metaphor to weave art and science together. Metaphors can stretch the way we can see and understand something that is complex or hard to describe. Through metaphor, I find that I come closer to an understanding of the largely interpreted realm of the brain, and the ways in which we can use our imagination, to find connection and construct memory. The branching—the entangled networks, the interlocking pathways of our own making—portray a creative energy at play.
MEMORY, GENDER, AND IDENTITY
MEMORY, GENDER, AND IDENTITY
I have grown to engage multiple viewpoints and focus on inclusivity, while looking at the intersections between gender, and our social, political, and cultural systems. I knew women had been present and active in services and places but so many remained anonymous, so I decided to explore and honor women in a series of works where women are the water carriers, the seamstresses, the workers, all lining up to serve, to protest, and to organize. How do our individual and publicly shared memories shape our identity?
Memory and Emotion
My memory growing up and not finding women written into history affected me emotionally. I questioned one’s place in making memories, and wanted to know about women who came before me. My mother died when I was becoming an adult, changing the meaning of memory as I knew it, adding my personal loss to my search for identity. As a prelude to exploring memory across art and science, I was involved through art with memory and history. During a three-year span, I worked on the design and art for the Memorial Room, Holocaust Museum Houston. I listened to memories from survivors and responses from museum visitors, and was left with the question, why did individuals remember and respond to the past and to life so differently? The residual emotions left a powerful imprint that altered my ideas and artwork. I decided to embark with questions about the science, to find out about the relationship between memory and emotion.
Emotional events seem cemented in memory. But emotion does not just make stronger memories, it makes different memories. Central and emotionally charged elements are remembered vividly, but peripheral details become even fuzzier than usual. One reason is that the attention is guided to a threat, leaving little room for anything else. Another reason is that emotional memories are stored in amygdala that helps us remember feelings rather than the hippocampus that helps us connect.
Memories that share elements connect in our mind. But emotional memories are less willing to connect with other memories. That perhaps helped the survivors to prevent the gruesome memories from the past to emotionally contaminate all future experiences. In the laboratory, memories that contained angry faces were not likely linked with related neutral memories–unless participants were required to consider both memories at the same time. Perhaps some survivors are unable to experience the here and now, to live in the current moment, without memories resurfacing. The emotion then colors every new experience, making it impossible to move on and find new joys.
Memory and Place
Memory and Meaning
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