Cultural Amnesia

Lesions in the Landscape

This is a Wellcome Trust funded project about amnesia and broken cultural memory. The work operates at the art/ science/ medicine interface. The project uses Sensecam, a small camera worn round the neck, which automatically takes photos, in reaction to sensory triggers. It has been found that when Claire, who is a project participant with severe amnesia due to a brain lesion, looks at Sensecam photos, she can sometimes experience floods of remembering, despite being no longer able to form new memories or recognise faces, at all. A major exhibition by artist, Shona Illingworth, is a key component of the work.

Amnesia Museum Exhibit by Issie MacPhail: 'How Space Hides Time'

Shona Illingworth's exhibition from this work opened at FACT in September 2015. I have an exhibit in The Amnesia Museum, which forms part of this touring exhibition. Its' title is 'How Space Hides Time: GPS Journeys in the St Kilda Archipelago'. The piece consists of 8 photo strips of fragments of specific GPS tracked journeys, by people working in St Kilda. The aim is to re-inscribe the presence of people working there, since life in the present is very much erased by the focus on St Kilda as historical site and biosecure, environmental lab. National Trust for Scotland (NTS) have 3 full-time seasonal staff on St Kilda, April till October, each year. This team are augmented by NTS work parties and scientific teams, particularly staff from The Soya Sheep Project. That project has been running for 30 years and explores population dynamics and evolution in a (relatively) closed system - the biosecure island of Hirte. St Kilda is also within the EG D701 Danger Area Complex, The MOD Hebrides Range. This is part of the rocket testing and tracking complex and the EG D701 designation enables the maintenance of what is called, 'sanitised airspace', for that purpose. This kind of work is mainly carried out by sub-contractors, working 'a month on/ a month off', all year round. My GPS tracks were created with or by the 'Lesions' project film and sound team and NTS staff.

Conceptually, my work explores the anthropologist, Tim Ingold's, contention that 'everything is a parliament of lines'. He proposes that embodied and emplaced practices of dwelling involve circuits and tangles - that to know a place, you must go round in circles. The GPS tracks of the journeys in St Kilda bear this out. It is noticeable, that as people know the place better, their routes becomes more, not less, circuitous. (Ingold 2007, p5; 2011, pp90-91) The aesthetic inspiration for the GPS Journey fragments came from two sources. In the form I chose, I was thinking of the strips of photos which Photo Booths spit out: photos used to assert and anchor identity through their use in library cards, bus passes, passports and Driving Licences. My other influence is the work of the Scottish map maker and translator, John Ogilby. His road atlas of England and Wales, Britannia (1675) was the first known road atlas and was a monumental work. In it he uses strip maps, instead of the kind of fuller maps we might expect today. These beautiful drawings, which seem to describe routes which are fairly close to a straight line, hint at the sensory corridors encountered while journeying (Fleet, Wilkes and Withers 2011, pp203-207; Pink 2010).

The project team

The core team are neuropsychologist, Professor Martin Conway, neuropsychologist, Dr Catherine Loveday and artist, Shona Illingworth. Professor Jill Bennett, Dean of Experimental Arts at University of New South Wales (UNSW), is writing a book about the work, and staff at UNSW have produced a virtual reality 'Amnesia Atlas', around this work. The Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT), in Liverpool, also partner in this work.

Dr Issie MacPhail assisted Shona with preliminary fieldwork in 2012 in St Kilda, to concept test this work. She is listed as an 'Advisor on the production of historical knowledge and contemporary and historical representations of the Highlands and Highlanders', in The Wellcome Trust application. Issie has provided key sources and literature for the development of the art installation, undertaken fieldwork in St Kilda with the film team in 2014 and 2015, been recorded for the work, provided props for the film work and provided a Working paper, titled 'Beyond Euclidian Convenience: Notes on the Paper Artifice of St Kilda', on which Shona has drawn, for her creative practice. Issie tracked the work of the film and sound team, using ethnographic field methods, from 2012 to 2015. Her material includes a substantial photographic record and GPS tracking. She is contributing to the project book, due for publication in 2016 - Liverpool University Press and FACT.

Project funders and partners:

Project Materials and downloads:

  • A copy of my 'How Space Hides Time' exhibit, currently touring (2015- 2016) as part of The Amnesia Museum, is on display in the Centre for Health Science, Inverness.

UNSW Galleries, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
1 March - 4 June 2016
Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Gallery, Outer Hebrides, Scotland
June - July 2016
CGP London and Dilston Grove, London
2 October - 6th November 2016

Amnesia Forums - a series on interdisciplinary forums taking place across the UK- September 2013 - September 2016
Amnesia Lab - an international symposium and exhibition, UNSW Galleries, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia - 20 September to 8 November, 2015
Whitechapel Gallery, London - a two day international symposium, 8th and 9th October 2016

Lesions in the Landscape (working title). Fully illustrated hardback book on the project published by FACT and Liverpool University Press, 2016. Issie MacPhail will have a chapter in this book.
A further book by Jill Bennett on the project will be published by Bloomsbury for their Thinking in the World, series. 2016

Project Website / Links Related to Project

Amnesia Fora and Fieldwork 

Current Exhibition 18th Sept - 22nd Nov 2015 - FACT website

The Amnesia Museum (same dates)

Amnesia Forum, FACT, 18th September: Issie MacPhail was a panellist

Invited by FACT and UNSW to attend - Arts and Health Futures Event - DEMENTIA 2018: A Festival Of Radical Ideas And Actions: Stakeholder Day, FACT, Sat 7th Nov 2015.
Partners include, the National Museums, Liverpool, NHS Choices, BBC TV, Alzheimer's Society, The Trebus Project, King's College, Liverpool John Moores, in the UK; and University of New South Wales' National Institute for Experimental Arts, National Facility for Human Robot Interaction, and the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing - as well as their corporate and philanthropic partners. The Festival will be an arts led interdisciplinary exploration of our relationship to brain aging, memory and perception, as seen through the lens of dementia.