Creating Wild Memory Radio The importance of memories to creativity

Cover image for the Creating Wild Memory Radio story depicting a snapshot of the Wild Memory Radio microsite experience as well as the logo.
WordsSeb Emina
ArtworkDALL-E and WeTransfer Studio

For Wild Memory Radio, WePresent collaborated with Seb Emina to collect together an online exhibition of memories, told to us by over 30 leading artistic, creative and cultural figures. In the project, the audience is invited to listen to contributors including Gilbert & George, Laurie Anderson, Rick Owens and Lisa Taddeo as they recall a specific place in the world where they had a formative experience that impacted their work in some way. Here, Emina writes about the making of the project, and why, in the modern world, the concept of memory is so pertinent.

“I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deep-rooted; places that might be points of reference, of departure, of origin,” wrote Georges Perec, in an essay dated “Paris 1973-1974”.

It is now possible to listen to “Wild Memory Radio”, an internet radio station that operates like a museum. I mean this in the sense that you can’t switch it on and leave it playing, but rather you wander between the displays, lingering on those that interest you, taking whatever inspiration they offer. Also, you can look as well as listen. The exhibits are memories: memories about places. I collected them at source—namely, the minds of artists—midway through 2021, a time when travel was difficult at best, and the notion of a “sense of place” had become unusually poignant. Would it be possible to travel via the portal of another’s memory? It was interesting to try.

Usually I collected these memories through what you could describe as an interview, albeit an interview consisting of just one question. Perhaps it was thanks to this focus that the conversations often took on an almost therapeutic character. The author Caleb Azumah Nelson told me a story of heading out to sea on a paddle board off the Spanish coast only to emerge from a “strange dream”, unable to see the shore and with no sense of the way back. After the panic subsided, he recalled:

“This moment of real peace… One of the first times that I had really and truly, like, felt alone, but not in a way that was I was fearful of that. I just kind of felt like I was really facing myself.”

Some memories relate quite directly to the artists’ work, others to a more private locale. Laurie Anderson recalls sitting in the kitchen of an Amish family, somewhere in the Midwest, for two weeks. Warren Ellis remembers the rubbish dump, in the Australian city of Ballarat, where he found the abandoned accordion that would spark off his musical career. Nadya Tolokonnikova from Pussy Riot tells the story of an attempt to shoot a music video at Lenfilm Studios in Saint Petersburg only to have the power shut down by hostile security forces:

”We were all freezing in that building. We didn’t have any electricity, but we loved each other.”

AI-generated images based on excerpts from Laurie Anderson, Warren Ellis and Nadya Tolokonnikova's contributions to Wild Memory Radio.

You might think that a request such as, “tell me about a place that has been important to you” would elicit a lot of spectacle, that we’d learn about mountain summits, concert stages, remote ruins. In fact most of the answers found magnificence in the mundane. They were about normal places that had, as time passed, accrued nostalgic personal significance. The artist Ryan Gander talks about how his path to becoming an artist was related to a youthful act of domestic reimagining:

“I guess it was my studio but it wasn’t of course, it was just a garage full of junk. And when I think about myself in that garage, the idealized version of reality, the romanticized version of me sitting there, pretending to be an artist, is almost like a television comedy program. Because the actuality of it isn't my idealized view or memory of it. The actuality of it is there’s probably some nerdy spotty kid sitting on a plastic box surrounded by gardening tools and mechanical bits off a car with David Bowie playing, smoking a rollie, imagining that they were an artist. And I really like that disparity between fiction and reality, or the imagined and the projected.”

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As we considered how one would listen to these recordings, the world opened up again. People regained the ability to move easily between places, countries or continents. The collection became intriguing in a different way, the memories having often been recounted with such precision you could, in theory, travel to the locations in question and listen to them in situ. Hence, the project is “wild” not only because that word carries the implication of place but because it suggests a memory might escape its owner and be found by others. If I enter the exact same field in suburban Toronto as Leanne Shapton once did while listening to her reminiscence of it, will I then acquire a (lesser but still valid) claim on that reminiscence?

“My dad gave us fluorescent tubing rods for fluorescent lights and he said, ‘go out into the field now.’ And we went out into the field holding these fluorescent tubes and they lit up, and… I have no idea how my dad knew this would happen. But they lit up like lightsabers.”

AI-generated images based on excerpts from Johny Pitts, Leanne Shapton and Devendra Banhart's contributions to Wild Memory Radio.

Sometime during the creation of “Wild Memory Radio” I heard about and then tried a new image creation tool called Dall-E. It was fascinating, I found, less for the sort of elaborate prompts many were sharing (“cubist painting of Beyoncé skiing through Coventry”) but for what it did when urged to produce something generic: “shop”, “car”, or “hat.” The results seemed to show a kind of definition through species memory, and were just precise enough to be recognisably the thing in question but, beyond that, eerily vague. They had the texture of the objects in a dream. We created a platform that tries to harness this quality, reprising certain phrases from the anecdotes recounted, glimpses of a machine interpretation.

Memory, of course, is also “specific yet vague”, precise in certain details but elsewhere prone to unreliability. The author and photographer Johny Pitts, who grew up in Sheffield, acknowledges as much while describing a Tokyo shopping center in which he spent time as a child:

“These summer strolls, through this leisure complex that was scored by cicadas and smooth jazz muzak, contained some of the happiest memories of my life. But then when I researched this era of Japanese history, the consumerism and the greed that Japan still hasn’t really recovered from—and in a way, it was a system that Japan was benefiting from that was crushing my hometown back in England—everything started to assume a kind of darkness.”

As the platform approached completion, perceptions of artificial intelligence shifted from glee at this impossibly powerful toy, to something close to existential dread. If nothing else, this surely spelled the end of the human artist, the end of the possibility of making a living through art. And yet...the recordings that comprise “Wild Memory Radio” encapsulate two things that AI does not, and may never, possess: (1) authentic personal memories, and (2) an existence outside of the network.

In my dreams, I am never holding my phone. In my memories, I am always somewhere. Even if I’m remembering a mental activity, such as reading a book or having a conversation, it comes with fragments of sensory data attached: the smell of a room, the light on a ceiling, the softness of the swivel chair on which I am receiving the email. I am embodied, I am situated, I am in a place. That said, if I return there, it won’t be exactly like I remember it, so does it even exist at all? As Devendra Banhart observes, as he recalls the health food stores he’d visit in Caracas as a child, our relationship with the places whose memory nourishes us is not simple but complex, bittersweet:

“They were all called, you know, ‘The Unicorn’ or ‘The Wizard’. That’s where I try to return to, in my favorite music. What is that ‘mom’s health food store’ feeling of my childhood? This is, like, deep nostalgia. I've been thinking a lot about the word ‘nostalgia’. You know, it means homesickness in Greek. You know, this longing. This sadness for home. You will never get back to that place. So we just try to find it anywhere else.”

Wild Memory Radio is a collaboration between WePresent by WeTransfer and Seb Emina.