New Exhibit: “Insufficient Memories” (Brown University)

Collage of text message materials used in "Insufficient Memories," an exhibit at Brown University.

Last fall, a group of graduate students in Brown’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage (specifically, Maggie Unverzagt Goddard, Julia Renaud, and Sophie Don) started Tiny Exhibits, a series of two-week installations designed for a small (or, uh, “tiny”) exhibit case in the Nightingale-Brown House. It’s been a fun initiative that has provided students in and around our Public Humanities program opportunities to stage some compelling curatorial projects.

In March 2019, Tiny Exhibits played host to “Insufficient Memories,” a collaboration between myself, Kristen Iemma, Will James, and Andrea Ledesma. Here’s our curatorial statement:

Insufficient Memories is an interrogation of the relationship between memory and materiality. Through an exploration of storage constraints in the cell phone (the most ubiquitous of contemporary digital technologies), we seek to illuminate the tensions between the digital and the corporeal. What happens to memory when “memory” is rendered physical? How do metaphors and mechanisms of storage mediate our lives? What stories of twenty-first century life lie beneath our collections of apps, unread notifications, and file names? We seek to create and investigate the portraits we create through the media we screenshot, redact, retouch, share, yet ultimately delete.

Given the frequency with which I’m at the Center and my previous experiences on collaborative projects, I primarily served as the Project Manager of our collaboration: setting project benchmarks and deadlines, organizing meetings via Skype, etc. The project’s approach to ideas of memory and materiality was a true collaborative effort; our curatorial team was assembled because each of us had independently submitted exhibit proposals on this general theme (!), so it made sense to join forces. One of my favorite parts of the experience was just talking with Kristen, Will, and Andrea about our various experiences with devices and materials: our attempts to organize and make sense of our messy digital autobiographies, our ideas of order and disorder, our reflections on previous devices and forms of storage. I also really liked decontextualizing and printing out snippets of text message conversations, and I’d like to think more about that particular corpus and potential creative uses of it.

Through the exhibit design process, we talked about how it might be fun to have a more interactive component to “Insufficient Memories.” Given that I’d been working with Twine in my “Digital Storytelling” class this semester, I pitched the idea of making a playful companion piece that viewers of the exhibit could access and play on their smart phones (the Center has reliable free wifi for Brown and non-Brown visitors). You can check that game out here. This project was my first work in Twine that made it off my desktop and beyond the speculative / drafting stage, and I’m already planning another game with this fun tool for interactive digital storytelling.

It had been a while since I’d collaborated on curating a physical exhibit (at Northeastern, I worked with the amazing student-led Scout team on an Our Marathon exhibit) and it was fun to work in this sort of space again on a tiny-er scale.

Questions, comments? Feel free to email me at james_mcgrath@brown.edu, or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

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