To Remember and Forget

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This class is offered at NYU ITP on Fall of 2014.

What happens in our brain when we remember and when we forget something? How is our sense of memory transforming living with computational technology in daily life? How do we rely on the mobile devices to assist our short term memory and to create permanent storage?

Memory has always been interest to artists and scientists. Writers such as Marcel Proust and Walter Benjamin explored memory mechanism through narrative and metaphor. Freud, originally trained as a neurologist, developed foundation for modern psychoanalysis.

Neuroplasticity means brain’s ability to change and adapat as a result of experience. Placticity in synapses is the core mechanism that enable human memory. We become conscious by remembering things past and anticipating things to come.

Revolutionary developments in computer science and neuroscience around the 1960s occurred simultaneously. Recognition of Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence, and sometimes its misunderstanding, continues to inspire the notions of thinking and feeling machines in popular culture. Progress in neuroscience and understanding of human memory had less apparent effect in the realm of art and culture until recently.

This class is an artistic exploration of the connection between neural plasticity and computability. Each class will begin with a lecture on memory and technical inventions, as well as history of disciplines and work of art and literature. The class will explore low level and high level approach to plasticity and computability through reading and demonstration. In class activity will include group discussion and student presentation.

Over seven weeks period, students will create two prototypes accompanied by short writing about human memory and technology, first one will be a system to help them remember and the second one will be a device to help them forget. Students are expected to bring in their skills in programming and physical computing to realize their projects.

 

Week 1 Memory and storage

What is memory? How is memory shaped by technical reproduction and visual representation? Why is archive important and how can it be reanimated?

Reading

  • Sigmund Freud, Notes upon the Mystic Writing Pad (1925)

Reference

  • Jacques Derrida, Archive desire: A Freudian Impression (University of Chicago Press,1998)
  • Jacques Derrida, Freud and the scene of writing, Writing and Difference (Routledge, 2001)
  • Esther Leslie, trans., Walter Benjamin’s Archive (Verso, 2007)
  • Walter Benjamin, Illuniations (New york: Schocken books, 1969)
  • Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Belknap Press, 2006)

Student output: Create a unique archiving system for their participation in the class.

Week 2 Plasticity and computability

What are the various ways of understanding memory in psychological, neurological and artistic approach? What is synapse and how does it work? What is working memory and why is attention so important? What is computability in machine? What is the fundamental logic of computation? The concept of plasticity and computability will be explored throughout the semester in following lectures and different approaches.

Reading

Selected chapters from

  • Joseph LeDoux, Synaptic self: How are brains become who we are (London: Penguin Books, 2002)
  • Eric R. Kandel, In search of memory (W.W. Norton, 2006)

Reference

  • Wendy Hui-kyung Chun, Programmed vision: Software and memory (The MIT Press,2011)

Student output: Students will present their ideas for a system to help them remember an event or specific memory. The project may take any form as long as it has an aspect of computation and participation.

Week 3 Affect and emotion

How do we fall in love? What is the difference between romantic love and euphoric states? What is the difference between emotions, feelings and affects? What now, if machines can feel? Artists have taken these question as an aesthetic exploration. For example, Melanie Gilligan’s video art that question the boundary between affects and currency, and Brody Condon’s participatory performance that reverse participation and spectatorship through game mechanics.

  • Joseph LeDoux, Jacek Debiec, and Henry Moss, The self: from soul to brain (2002)
  • Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki, The neural basis of romantic love (NeuroReport 11:3829- 3834)
  • Melanie Gilligan, Affects and Exchange (Fillip, Intangible economies, 2011)
  • Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do With Our Brain? (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009, trans. Sebastian Rand).

Student output: Students will present their first assignment. Their project may be presented in forms of video documentation and live performance.

Week 4 Taste and smell

For Proust, taste of madeleine with tea brought back flood of memory from childhood and powerful joy of remembrance through innvoluntary memory. In our daily activities related to taste, such as cooking, smelling and eating, we are constantly reminded of past as we create new memory. What’s happening now that the artificial flavoring industry have mastered engineering of taste as instigator of memory? Artists such as Conflict Kitchen, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jonathan Cohrs use taste as the medium for social and aesthetic confrontation.

  • Marcel Proust, In search of lost time, Swann’s way (1913): Excerpts provided
  • Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Belknap Press, 2006)

Student output: The class will have a picnic and students will tell a story about the memories related to the food they prepared.

Week 5 Presence, objects and space

What makes human memory different from that of animal or object? How do we feel comfort or fear in presence and memory of another person? How are human memory altered by the presence of inanimate objects and space? We will look at few memorabilia and monument as examples.

  • Jonathan Crary, 24/7 Late capitalism and the ends of sleep (Verso,2014)
  • Alva Noë, Varieties of presence (Harvard University Press, 2012)
  • Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000)

Student output: Students will present their ideas for device to help forget an event or a specific memory.

Week 6 Cybernetic dream

How did the history of few disciplines; Cognitive Science, Human Compute Interaction and Art and Technology circa 1960’s appropriated and sometimes misused concepts of signal, feedback and entropy?

  • Vannevar Bush, As we may think (The Atlantic, 1945)
  • Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings, (Da Capo Press, March 22, 1988)
  • Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise (Standford University Press, 2010)

Student output: Students will create memory circuits on breadboard during the class.

Week 7 Technical objects

What is Gilbert Simondon’s concept of tools and instruments? And why is his thoughts on technical objects, automation and open machine relevant to human memory now?

  • Gilbert Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (Méot, 1958; second ed. Paris: Aubier, 1989). – English translation provided by the lecturer

Student output: Student presentation of device to help forget an event or specific memory.

Reflection on the course and final discussion.