Matt’s interdisciplinary practice utilises objects, archival material, printmaking, sound and CGI in a continuous examination of memory and cognitive narratology. His practice explores poetic associations and shared language between processes of neurological and geological transformation; anchored by the idea that memory is the fourth dimension of the landscape. This has necessitated an investigation into the ways we utilise memory as the ‘medium of experience’; not only as a tool for exploring the past but a crucial component in forming our identities – a lens through we which we read our way into the present, and respond. This lens is forever exposed to erosion, and central to understanding the ways in which we mediate loss.
Matt graduated from University of the Arts, London with a distinction in MA Visual Arts: Fine Art Digital in 2020, and was the recipient of the South Kiosk Award 2020. He is a qualified teacher, and is currently Digital Engagement Producer for 87 Gallery.
‘Flood Story’ is an active journey, beginning in a personal place revisiting the loss of my grandfather to brain cancer; crossing appointments at archives in-person; scouring online databases for found footage; fossil and contact sound hunting on the coast; animating 3D scans from my first soft toy and personal possessions from long ago; conversations with family, neurobiologists and earth science curators; developing typefaces from my childhood handwriting; and digitizing molds from stones and stencils.
Stepping Twice Into the Same River
‘Everything changes but change itself. Everything flows and nothing remains the same... You cannot step twice into the same river.’ – Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BC)
On my studio wall hangs a classroom chart produced by Esso in the 1970s, titled ‘600 Million Years of Earth History’. The chart illustrates fossils arranged according to their occurrence in geological history, and where they can most typically be found in the UK. Starting from the [then] most recent preceding epoch, the Pleistocene. Then receding back into the depths of time through the Mesozoic – in which a blossoming of sunken plant and mollusc forms still find their way to the surface and edges of the soft East Yorkshire clay, rich in the glacial deposits carried by floods across the North Sea from Scandinavia during the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago; to the Palaeozoic, and the Pre-Cambrian. In this descent, evidence of life gradually disappears so that by the Pre-Cambrian, the spaces in the chart that contain corals, antlers and familiar vertebrate bones from the recent past, are empty at the ends of the diagram, waiting for whatever comes next, which came before. These are the fragments to be clawed from the cliffs; by water, or by hand; like the memory palace - a spatial grid, representing a great flux of shape-shifting form and function in a fundamentally borderless landscape of ruin and renewal - both threatened and sustained by concepts of time, as fragile as ink and as delicate as dementia.
The chart can be read top to bottom, the most recent period of life to the most primitive, or from the smallest glitches of activity, to the proliferation of form and painful consciousness, and back again into absence. The roots of life are at the end of the chart, but they could equally be at the beginning. My Nanna, as she battled Parkinson’s disease, fought to hold on to the memory she had written in stories of her family working the crumbling farmland of the Holderness coast, told me never to forget my roots. Towards the end of her life, she would also ask whenever I visited her, “when can I go home?”. Both our individual and collective roots stretch across the unconscious subterranean archive in the burning climate beneath our feet; and across consciousness, like the lens which fogs and clears resting on the surface of our waking reality. This is the strata of memory.
The impenetrably rich and complex biological engine of human memory has, for centuries, invited speculation, and metaphor, yet resisted systematic exposition. While memory as a practice of mediation inevitably permeates individual and cultural consciousness and ontological navigation, it is only since the Industrial Revolution that we have begun to unravel the relationships between relevant neurobiological structures – cascades of delicate networks, and the actions that propel our behaviours. Concepts of memory as the Aristotelian storehouse of wax tablets - an archive of perceptions stamped into a precarious material by ‘the scribe of the soul’ - have been overwritten with discoveries of how information is transmitted between areas of the brain in neurons communicating with one another, across nano-microscopic synaptic gaps.
Through the analogy of human memory as a succession of registrations of material, subject to rearrangement, to suppression, and to recovery; Sigmund Freud, in the 1890s, formed a metaphor that would endure. This is the idea of psychoanalysis as archaeology – excavation from layers of sedimentary information - placing found material into context, and by extension, memory as reconstruction. This concept took hold in psychoanalytic discourse, with figures such as Frederic Bartlett in the 1930s reaching the conclusion that memory endlessly reconstructs past events imaginatively, and that remembering is not solely “the re-excitation of innumerable fired, lifeless and fragmentary traces.” (Sacks, 2017). In the reconstructive and imaginative agency of the mind, we forever traverse and inter-weave spaces of personal memory with responses to mediated history, and cultural transmissions – the invisible archive both encoding and reigniting at light speed, in constellations of neuronal exchange. In the spatial relationship between depth and surface in the analogy of the stratified earth, we are all geologists, all writers and storytellers. Just as geo-archaeological study forms a cumulative story of earth history, and that which appears frozen, lifeless, or lost, we form narrative sequences from both the personal episodic memories that we remember and those we can barely grasp – these are the memories we tend to pursue, or fixate us perhaps the most.
Today, the paradox that whilst everything is lost and nothing remains, everything remains, refracting between fingerprints smudged on glass screens, as we find ourselves caught in the continuous flow of a visual-textual ‘present’. This is described by writer Katerina Diamantaki (2013) as a deceptive hyper-awareness, catalysed by an unrelenting virtual feed, which brings us at once closer to and further from intimate inspection of our environment, and which runs tense against the grain of our vulnerable analogue bodies. This can however promote reconstruction; undermining the linear chronologies we have succumbed to as being ‘the way things work’ in order to complete a socially accepted cycle of beginning to retirement, in a fractured world –wandering in the space between the form we last remembered and the story we will tell next. The wooden beams that pinned together the settlements of our mesolithic ancestors, that swell and break at the back of the bog-man, form the sunken land bridge encrusted in iron-red nails and broken by corals torn by trawlers, on the bed of the North Sea, awaiting the disposable face mask. The girl in the photograph on the beach leaning against the rocks and the floorboards of another home fallen from the cliffs, splintered in the bolder clay, enmeshed in the ruins of another flood defence is now the girl in the amber-lit office space presenting the photograph in an envelope, by appointment, with nobody around.
Twenty years has passed since my grandfather died, and I am still fixated by the change I saw in him, grasping at those fading events in the spatial grid of a lifetime – this event, not novel, surprising or unusual in itself for any person to endure, catalysed an intense anxiety I still battle with. I remember being nine years old, watching a film at the cinema with my mum, devoured by the thought racing through my mind that the headache I had must be a tumour. This was another unfixed memory from the stratigraphy of my subconscious, that comes back to me on the surface of things by a practical questioning of geo-archaeological language, but underpinned by something much less academic - what I’ve come to understand as a continuous search for identity, as spoken from the past.
When I visit Mappleton; walk the fields of Holderness, scroll my way down Sunk Island road on Google Earth, and find the place where grandad broke down and fell against the car at the allotments… the coal shed at my great-uncle’s house, now black pixelated spaces split by dull prisms of red green and blue, or read my way across the clifftops and beneath the fields in local geologist and collector Thomas Sheppard’s meticulous ‘Geological Rambles’ of the early 1900s, where there were chalk pits and shards of bronze age beakers in ritual burials before the landfills… the maps of towns lost to erosion and retreat, the Facebook user that told me about his uncles having pushed the last of their home over the clifftop and burning it on the beach… this is where I most remember, and reconstruct something new of my ancestry and their environment. It becomes clear that memory is, as author Janet Fitch described, the “fourth dimension to any landscape” (Wappler, 2009), which reverberates through time, and the illusory movement of progress manifest in the deafening post-natural drift - a plastic-choked Anthropocene.
Loss, and displacement, are deeply embedded calls to action. Memory: object, inference, meaning, with time becomes unfixed: unfixed memories in a sea of reconstruction, biting at the clay in lashes and unearthing lost traces turned to stone from sedimentation and compression back – forward - into a new consciousness, and another identity, to be assigned a precarious new meaning. Flood defences cannot be built without the knowledge that they will collapse, but they serve as an important symbol of a fight against the sea, which the newspapers describe as ‘cruel’, to slow the rate of change down to a timeframe that enables reflection: deep time; story; lifetime. Just as my investigation of memory is broad and often contrary or troublesome, reflection, which is often where those unfixed events that stay with us meet and adjoin in unexpected but powerful ways, poetic and practical, is not by any means easy to process in the precious little time we have. Surely, however, the creative process, which is not something that some have and some do not (an inherent faculty of our beings), and which through my work in education I continue to see politically suppressed beneath what is most convenient to measure in data systems - is essential in promoting curiosity and opening up spaces for real transformation in the way we move forward, to find ways of mediating environmental and collective concerns, starting with the smallest of shared experiences.
The ridges of broken ammonites lie around children building sand-castles by the shore. Buckets and spades that will be thrown back into the corners of sheds and garages; these are the geologist’s tools that will one day make their way out from the river to the suffocated sea, but will never lose their plastic shape: our eternal narrative framework, the vulnerable spatial grid of memory, that underpins our condition. The bucket and spade; the flash drive; the cloud; the inescapable pursuit of protection, against loss and decay in a resistant material, is still material; like every container. Memory exists outside of the container, outside of the borders of time delineated by the archive, the database, or by the changing shape of our fractured territories, and very rarely within. I’ve discovered that to revisit the territory of childhood, or to contextualise the consequences of transformation experienced in the past by another through the visiting of material I was aware of but had never seen, in the hyper-aware present as an adult; is forever an attempt to step twice into the same river. However, just as the fossil record is defined by the interpretation of the material which is missing and incomplete, the spaces in-between become the story: the navigation of the missing is embodied in our own reconstructive cognitive power, and a continuous mining for material, for the most part unconscious and unspoken, at the core of what it is to know and understand the vulnerability of the landscape around us. This – the ambiguity between remembering and forgetting, the incomplete, loss, pushes us forward through so many questions of purpose, enabling reflection and critical response to new physical and digital languages in a world rapidly changing shape. I’ve found over the past few years that in these reflective spaces for reconstruction, using physical material and digital traces, sharing conversations on loss and fixation, informs choices, and stories emerge. In all of this we come to find that, as historian Abby Smith Rumsey (2016) describes, “Memory is not about the past. It is about the future.”
• Diamantaki, K. (2013). Memory and History in the age of digital media. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/35773104/
• Rumsey, A. S. (2016) When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
• Sacks, O. (2017) The River of Consciousness. London: Picador.
• Wappler, M. (2009) Suffering from writerly guilt? Janet Fitch has some ideas… Available at: https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/04/suffering-from-writerly-guilt-read-on.html