Essay for a multimedia project I developed at The New School. This project was awarded Outstanding Exploration of the Poetics of Memory and exhibited as an installation in the 2016 Mixed Messages showcase @ School of Media Studies 🙂
Haikus Without Prescription: “reconstructing an essence” from the web into print
Haikus Sin Récipe (“Haikus Without Prescription”) is my cousin Luis Felipe’s blog. He began sharing his poetry in it in 2008, and worked on it with some regularity for two years, until his sudden death in November 2010. It contains 163 text entries, mostly poetry, in Spanish, English, and Spanglish (there’s lots of that).
My cousin’s blog is one of the few things that reminds me of his time on Earth, even though it is only one island of content in the Internet. His personality is all over it: painfully honest but also elusive, and full of humor, irony, and self-deprecation. Not many of his posts were diary-like entries, but his poems were usually autobiographical and written as responses to certain events of his life. A bulk of them (from the first year of the blog, to be precise) were poems and stories written over the course of several years and which he uploaded in batches when he first opened the blog. Certain themes repeat themselves throughout, like the sudden death of his mother when he was 15 years old, his drug use, his relationship with his father, his flirtation with a queer identity, but also names of friends, girlfriends, and literary and musical references.
I followed the blog since he started it, and every time I return to it I am left with a better, or richer, or different understanding of myself and my relation with him. It is as though our relationship did not end as his words remain to be reflected upon and interacted with. It makes me think about the flexible quality of language, and the intimate connection between language and feeling. It reminds me that we are never the same each time we revisit one same place, or one same thing; that as we change, so can the signification of a text that is always fixed. Above all, it reminds me that memory is dynamic and changing, in such a way that my interactions with the content of the blog actually enrich my memory of my cousin even though he is not present.
Archiving Digital Memory
Could I trust Blogspot to keep the blog safe? Could I allow an unknown company to have full administration of what, to me, is a fragile bridge between life and death?
It is common knowledge that by sharing content across social networks we are playing by a set of rules that include certain limitations of our privacy. Participating in this environment and being weary of these things makes me, personally, feel like online life is very much in the present tense. I don’t necessarily think about my information beyond the foreseeable future –what is happening to it today, who has access to it, who is selling or buying it, etc. But I also agree to participating in a space of which I don’t know the expiration date. I can only assume that one day my information will disappear, but I don’t know when that will be. I don’t know when, or if, Haikus Sin Récipe will be deleted from Blogspot.
Many services promise to store our information safely, but these are by no means infallible promises. In “Designing for Digital Archives”, Yahoo! Principal Research Scientist Elizabeth Churchill argues:
Some see (this problem) as a commercial opportunity. GYMA (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL) are exploring the business of archiving, backup, and storage, and services; others, like Seagate’s Mirra Personal Server, Apple’s .Mac account, EMC’s Mozy promise storage and a “data cloud” where our stuff will be safe … forever. Or until we fail to pay the subscription fee. Or until they have business or technical problems. Or, as happened to one of our own interactions columnists, some malicious miscreant masquerades as you and in a click of a button or two, deletes all your precious material. Under most terms of service agreements, users have no recourse and companies have no obligation to restore the “lost” material even if backups exist.
A different side of the issue of control extends beyond our very existence. Certain platforms offer options to guarantee that our online presence lives on after our physical death, or that being “permanent” online becomes easier. For instance, aside from ‘memorializing’ the profiles of deceased relatives -which basically turns them into a sort of post-mortem Fan Page- Facebook allows users to designate a ‘legacy contact’ that will have certain administrative capacities in their profiles after they die, like post information about their funerals, accept friend requests, update profile and cover photos, and download posts and photographs. Google allows users to choose if they want their data deleted after a certain amount of months of inactivity, or they can request their data to be sent to trusted contacts. It also allows relatives to request data of the deceased, or ask that it be deleted entirely. These measures prove that the people behind these platforms are thinking more about the death of their users, but again: It is too easy to forget that servers are physical, and, as any physical object, they too can be overcome by damages and “death”.
Servers, devices, and books all have expiration dates, foreseeable or not. I did not undertake this project under the illusion that by printing my cousin’s poems I would make them eternal. But I feel that it is not necessary to justify my decision of archiving my cousin’s blog in a format that I could directly control, manipulate, and safeguard much better than a company that doesn’t know or particularly care about the content. The issue of format was particularly relevant to this decision as well because, as studies like Churchill’s have shown, people are less likely to revisit memories if they are trapped inside of an electronic device.
Visibility and Intimacy
I wanted to bring the texts out of the web. I needed to be able to make hard copies and reproduce them, and I wanted the audience, which is my close family, to have access to this content in their own time. My audience consisted of males and females between 15 and 70 years old.
The purpose of the project conditioned the format: I could have chosen to digitally archive the website itself, but that would not have changed anything essential about the experience of accessing the texts. A book, on the other hand, as a physical object, can give way to the ritual of reading alone or aloud, individually or in groups, and to undistracted browsing, without the need to rely on a device. In “A future-proof past: Designing for remembering experiences”, Elise van den Hoven argues that tangible objects are more visible than collections inside digital technologies that, when off, are opaque, black, and not readily accessible:
Not so long ago, when you would visit family and friends, photo albums would be lying around in their living rooms. Strategically placed, these albums were ready to be picked up and used for whoever showed any interest in the often carefully categorised collections. Because these, usually colourful, decorated albums were present and visible, people visiting would notice and could decide to bring them up in conversation. Nowadays, most photo collections are digital, uncategorised and accumulating on laptops, cameras and mobile phones, devices that typically show a black screen when not activated and have a generic exterior, not providing any clues about the materials stored inside. With the advent of digital media (or external representations in the broadest sense) a lot has changed in what cues people’s memories in everyday life. This example shows that guests are less likely to prompt stories when digital photos are invisible to them, but the same holds for the owners and creators of the media, they are not reminded of their photos either. Digital media, consisting of bits and bytes, are just not as visible and present as physical or tangible media are. Visibility is just one example of why the physical world is important for contemporary remembering practices, which often involve digital media.
Luis Felipe’s blog, which is as an archive in itself, is already confined to the digital. When thinking of how to memorialize him through his content, I considered that by presenting it in book form I could prompt a more intimate interaction with it. It was also fundamental to consider the audience at this point: I knew for a fact that the elderly people in my family can only stand being on the computer for so long, and it doesn’t help that the country where they live, Venezuela, has one of the slowest Internet connections in the world.
Questions / Challenges
I had to reflect on the implications of taking the content from the blog and exposing it through a new medium: Was it respectful? Would Luis Felipe have wanted that? My assumption was that since he exposed the texts in a public website and shared the link to it extensively, I would not be doing anything he had not done himself. On the other hand, in order to make the final product as reader-friendly as possible, I did not want to include all of the contents of the blog. I also had to decide to what extent the book should be a visual or structural translation of the blog, or neither. Therefore, I faced the issues of curation and fidelity to the original source.
Methodology: Subjectivity and Emotion
Within the objectives and limitations of my project, it was impractical to include all the contents of the blog in the final ‘product’. In order not to compromise my desire to archive all of the texts, I ‘solved’ the issue by creating two separate copies of the material: one that included all of the entries of the blog -the archive-, which is in my external hard drive and my computer at this time, and the book of poetry -the collection. The latter is the subject of this essay. The selection process for the book involved identifying thematic clusters and choosing the content I believed was most representative of each. I also chose to include more entries that spoke about my cousin’s inner world than those that were dedicated to particular individuals. Emotion was a compass for me in this process: I picked the ones that I thought would be more amusing, funny, or touching for me and for my family.
Should the book look like the blog? In the beginning I was in favor of seeking an aesthetic that would be close to that of the blog, since it would reflect my cousin’s choices. However, during the design process I wondered if one medium really needed to replicate the other to get the same message across. Also, attempting to give the book a blog-like layout could ultimately distract from the content. In the end it felt like the most sensible choice to embrace the translation and adapt the content with simplicity and clarity.
The translation from web to print implied losing the interactive aspect of the blog, a telling part of it in its own way. The comments section is where Luis Felipe’s monologue became a dialogue, intrigues were created, and losses (including, posthumously, his own) were mourned. I was very torn between including the comments in the book somehow or not. Using the words of others without their permission was not something I felt comfortable doing.
Designing the Book
I designed the collection to be very simple and very clean, limited to the texts and their dates. My editorial and aesthetic choices at the moment of designing the book were made purely out of instinct and personal taste. It was quite challenging to complete a project within an academic setting in which I had no other framework than myself and my relation to the content. However, as the intended use had determined the format, approachability did influence some aesthetic decisions; for instance, I tried to overcome any possible barrier of taboo or literary distance between the reader and the content by hand-binding the booklet, using craft paper, and hand-writing an introduction.
Performing the Memory
Luis Felipe’s blog was a window into his mind as mediated by prose poetry. There is very little actual life-logging in it, so the experience of reading it is perhaps characterized by a certain aesthetic distance that is characteristic of literature. In his entries he is very much an author, or an actor, immersed in a world of musical and literary references, name-dropping, and casual mentions of personal experiences, that very rarely breaks the “wall” that separates him from the audience. In order to overcome the distance that I perceived from the texts, I decided to performs to them in a video companion piece for the book. This video includes images of me navigating the blog, and a recording of the hand-binding process. The sound is my voice, reading one of the last poems Luis Felipe wrote: ‘Words for Fallen Friends’, an elegy for a friend who had fallen victim to urban violence in Caracas in 2010. The possibility of somehow incorporating performance to this project felt like a constant urge throughout its conception; in the end, the video worked not only as a tool for contextualization but as a personal catharsis.
The final version of the book contains only a selection of poems by Luis Felipe and is subject to be revised and re-made in the future using different texts. It does not reference a particular historical event or site, but instead groups together fragments of his creative output -which poses the possibility of reconstructing some sort of essence of the author, his personality, or his character. In that sense, it functions also as a memory probe that can trigger unique processes of memorialization of individual experiences that other members of the family may not be aware of. There is also no single ideal use for it: from the moment I distributed copies in December 2015, it has taken a life of its own and is being used (or ignored) in unforeseeable ways. What is certain is that its journey from the digital to print proved to be a stimulating personal negotiation of empathy, ethics, and aesthetics. I extend to the readers an invitation to reflect upon the digital identities of themselves or their loved ones, and consider what would be lost in the translation from web to print -and what would remain.
Churchill, Elizabeth and Ubois, Jeff. “Designing for Digital Archives,” interactions Vol. 15(2) (2008): 10-13, accessed December 5, 2015, DOI: 10.1145/1340961.1340964.
“Submit a request regarding a deceased user’s account,” Google Accounts Support, accessed December 10, 2015, https://support.google.com/accounts/contact/deceased
Linshi, Jack, “Here’s What Happens to Your Facebook Account After You Die,” TIME, February 12, 2015. http://time.com/3706807/facebook-death-legacy
Tuerk, Andreas, “Plan your digital afterlife with Inactive Account Manager,” Google Public Policy Blog, April 11, 2013. http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2013/04/plan-your-digital-afterlife-with.html
van den Hoven, Elise, “A future-proof past: Designing for remembering experiences,” Memory Studies Vol. 7(3) (2014): 370-384, accessed December 5, 2015, DOI: 10.1177/1750698014530625
Images from the installation at The New School (2016)