Pointing at what isn’t there

This piece of writing accompanies The Present is a Point Just Passed
at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, Greenwich (curated by Lizzie Hughes).
The exhibition is open from Thursday 7th June to Wednesday 11th July 2012.

Pointing at what isn’t there

What if your passage through the world today was the only enduring evidence of what happened here? Would you change your route? Would you tread more purposefully, or more softly? Would you look up more often? Would you leave any breadcrumbs along the way?

I look for patterns in an infinite system of discrete events. As collectors, do we begin to restore the order of our measured universe, or do we endlessly accumulate a miscellany of stuff and nonsense? A catalogue may be more comprehensive than a memory, but is it any more true?

It’s there, just peeping out from behind the clock tower, in the black and white photograph of Church Farm in the 1960s (the one with the blurry figure standing on the roof of the dairy, which Carole thinks is probably her father).

They say we are awash with data. We keep it in pools. Data that is open flows in streams, but the data that we hide away festers in stagnant pools, becomes unconsumable, a story (or many stories) left untold. Can we ever step twice into the same data pool? Do we change it by casting our own reflection on the surface, just by looking?

We can weave stories from our data, like knitting fog, or leave it to drip through our fingers.

Was it there when I fell off my bicycle on Hart Street? I still have the scar. I know the exact spot. I remember the dip in the pavement, the green bicycle, the gravel that ended up in my knee, the torn trousers, but not that…

I try to pinpoint the moment when things changed – the fork in the path. But it’s like splitting photons. I am ill-equipped. But some things I am sure of.

I know that I slept soundly on the night of Wednesday 9th March 2011. I have a graph to prove it. A single flat line amongst months of turbulence, the peaks and troughs of many restless nights, recorded by a smartphone app. The data knows I finally slept that night, but it does not know why.

I know that it snowed on my seventh birthday, in the last days of April. This is beyond doubt, because I remember it. This year our local newspaper decreed it to be the first snowy April for 
so-many years, but I knew that the numbers didn’t add up. All my life I have been the girl who had snow for her seventh birthday. I’m not about to stop now.

It’s there on the wall of the dental surgery, where I ended up after losing half a tooth on my most recent birthday. I’m no longer seven years old, and I’ve been away a long time. But it’s there, sharing a photograph with White Hart Drive, which was still fields when I was a child. This suggests a date much later than I had presumed.

I know that there was a heavy storm on Jina’s journey from Boulogne to Paris. She saw magnificent lightning from the window of the train. I know this because she sent a postcard from Paris on 27th April 1909 to Mrs Kirley of County End, Lees, Oldham. “It seems years since I left”, she said. But the data doesn’t tell us when, or if, she returned home.

It was here when Cherry moved to Newsome in 1978. We talked about it on the way home from the allotment.

I know that there was torrential rain during the Armistice Day silence in 1982. I know the cloud formations at 6am Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on 2nd February 2009. I know there were 19,126 planes in the sky over North America at 4.01pm Eastern Standard Time on 20th March 2005. I know where a particular gesture was made on Friday 9th May 1969. X marks the spot. 
I know what the California Earthquake of 18th April 1906 looks like, as recorded by smoke and pendulums – a fine wire inscribing a record of the earth’s motion onto a smoked glass plate.

I know that the first public exhibition of a Foucault’s pendulum (demonstrating the rotation of the earth) was in February 1851 in the Paris Observatory, 3 months before the Great Exhibition.

I know the acoustic shape of a particular person’s footsteps vibrating through a particular spiral staircase in a particular room on a particular day, perhaps in 1996. Again, the data is incomplete.

It should be there in my memory, but it isn’t. Long gone, yet not so long. Some of the bricks could be propping up a shelf in a nearby cellar, or be built into someone’s foundations, stepped over obliviously every day.

Does summer fall neatly either side of the solstice, the day when the sun stands still, or does it arrive on a day of its choosing, with the first smell of the elder blossom? The meteorologists say neither.

Our data has many moments. Today we measure earthquakes with the moment magnitude scale. Subatomic particles have magnetic moments, tiny magnetic fields generated by a particle’s spin. A mathematical moment is a way of measuring the shape of a set of points. The moment is also now.

Where did its shadow fall? Did it stretch as far as my mother’s house. Was it there towering over us when we walked up the garden path in the snow on my seventh birthday? Where was I when it fell?

Runners may be separated by a fraction of a second, yet the first man over the line knows in that instant that he has won the race. It is certain, quantifiable. Even before he breaks his stride. So how is it that we cannot even recall the year of momentous events? How is it that everyone knew the story of Joseph Beuys and the vanishing blackboard, but no-one could place it accurately in time?

Without the data, the story retains its weight. But data is smoke without the storytellers. So we must make our own records. Begin our explorations. Unearth the data. Stitch together a story from the fragments of each moment. We must look for the evidence (deliberate or accidental) and seek out the anomalies within it – and the gaps between it. That’s where the stories are.

Was there a day in 1909 when no-one sent a postcard from Paris?

Are the pencil marks still there in the margins of Four Quartets in the UCL Library?

Astronomers in search of the oldest galaxies in our universe are looking for light sources that disappear (or “drop out”) when recorded at a specific wavelength – they must look for what isn’t there in order to find out what has been here all along.

Why do galaxies huddle together across space and time? Why do we?

One day the chimney at Newsome Mill wasn’t there any more. We have lost the moment when it fell. Was it cloudy that day? Who felt the earth tremor as it hit the ground? Did anyone look up (or down) or make a gesture? Was there a thoughtful silence? Did anyone send a postcard or press record? Was there a smell of elder blossom in the air?

Maybe there is data out there somewhere, a pool of knowledge that can flow into the gaps and somehow make it all add up. The dark matter of memory.

Look away from the universe for a second then turn back. What’s missing?

(The moment has passed.)


Diane Sims {72prufrocks}

25th May 2012, 11.40pm & 27th May 2012, 11.11pm British Summer Time
(Greenwich Mean Time +1hr)

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4 Responses to Pointing at what isn’t there

  1. Pingback: Pointing at what isn’t there | weeklyblogclub

  2. Simply, hauntingly beautiful.

  3. Pingback: Taxidermy, ears and a new scientist | weeklyblogclub

  4. Pingback: Pointing at what isn’t there | Martin John Callanan (notes)

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