Memory Observatory
SXSW, Austin, Texas 2016

I fused the beauty of dreaming and the reality of life into a single blissful color.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

In a world where technology often isolates us and digital images disappear faster than our recollection of the original events, the Memory Observatory develops a counter-flow that regenerates memories while bridging the gap between us, as social beings. It serves as a platform of collective consciousness across space and time.

There are so many popular references to shared memories and access to other people’s consciousness that it has pretty much become an expected cultural and cognitive reality. Movies like Total Recall, Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind have popularized the idea that not only can memories be localized within the brain, but that they can be shared and viewed by others. MIT neuroscientists Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu have proved that this is the case by being able to pinpoint specific memories within the brain, thus confirming what is often predicted in fiction long before science catches up. A good example of this is space travel, which was first written about in Roman times in a book called ‘True Stories,’ predating the moon landing by some 1,800 years. However, the lags between fiction and reality nowadays are very much shorter and so the idea of sharing memories in a full sensorial spectrum seems within our grasp.

The Memory Observatory is really just a way of accelerating predicted reality into a tangible form. In this case the subject matter is shared consciousness.

The use of imagery to extend memory dates back over thousands of years, but it was George Eastman who turned frozen memories into living ones by developing the idea of the snapshot. This was conceived of as a window, not into a formal idea of a moment, such as in the case of a bust or a portrait, but rather a real, lived instant with its lasting and yet spontaneous emotional imprint combined with the social dynamic of the moment.

Eastman was so influenced by emotive nuances that he even called the company he founded after his favorite letter: ‘K’, which famously became the household word ‘Kodak.’ He liked the letter -K-, a voiceless palatal stop, so much that he used two of them in his company name. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but this double ‘k’ coincides with the word ‘kiki’ of the bouba / kiki effect, which was discovered by psychologist Wolfgang Köhler in the 1920’s, and used to show the relationship between the sound of speech and the shape of objects. This effect was recently popularized by the renowned neuroscientist Professor V. Ramachandran of the Center for Brain and Cognition, who is primarily known for his research in Synesthesia. Synesthesia is an involuntary association between two or more sense modalities, such as seeing a color when you hear a sound. This condition, which only certain people live with, reflects how the mind works before neuronal pruning begins to divide up the thinking processes of most non-synesthetes.

In the Memory Observatory, we reverse engineer a synesthetic process to heighten the emotional state of visitors, combining sounds, color and smell. In so doing we create a state of enhanced consciousness, which forms the perfect environment for absorbing a sharable memory.

The memory is not only augmented through non-visual sensory means, but the image itself is multiplied into a -K-aleidoscopic array, creating a lattice of visual stimulation touched upon by Huxley’s idea of ‘Mind at Large,* in which an augmented state of consciousness can be s(t)imulated and shared with others. The symmetries imparted by a kaleidoscope, in this case that you are actually inside, reflect the natural way in which our minds parse the reality around us, as well as how the structural bilateral symmetry of the visual system works. Pattern recognition is second nature to the mind and hence helps turn a random impression into one that can easily be digested and stored in the neural array to create a lasting memory.

The Memory Observatory is not just a recollection playback machine to engage with others, but rather a laboratory to explore the permutations of a condensed and shared reality in space and time. As J.G.Ballard wrote in ‘The Crystal World’ : ‘Just as a super-saturated solution will discharge itself into a crystalline mass, so the super-saturation of matter in our continuum leads to its appearance in a parallel spatial matrix.’

The project is not merely inter-active but rather inner-active: it is its own genre. It is not passive like most art, culture or entertainment: it is highly active. Neither is it participatory and yet reactive like gaming: it is participatory AND generative.

The structure and induction.

Two structures are joined by a passageway. They have fractal patterns carved into them as they taper upwards. The smaller of the two is called the Reflection Room. Similar in name to my installation called the Reflection Room as part of the Hypnotic Show performance at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany, and similar also in the sense that the word ‘Reflection’ is about looking inwards rather than the presence of mirrors.

Inside, an ‘Experience Guide’ discusses with a visitor about memories, about past experiences and also whether that guest has any image that s/he would like to share.

The Experience Guide makes note of the emotional feelings related to this memory, and according to a specially developed synesthetic wheel, a cascade of color, musical notes and smells are gathered in preparation.

The guest then goes through a narrow passageway until s/he reaches the larger of the two spaces: the Memory Observatory in which the visitor is immersed into a heightened vision of his/her own memory. Other guests are there too to experience this memory, and after a while their own memories are integrated into the kaleidoscopic array.

Emotions are linked to specific colors, smells and sounds according to a synesthetic wheel developed for the Memory Observatory. This wheel has been generated through research in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, olfactory and sound design theory.

The original experience or ‘meaningful moment’ is frozen as a snapshot within the photo library of the visitor until the moment it is brought back alive and augmented within the Memory Observatory. The aspect of sharing one’s memory with others through enhanced sensory cues is the focus of the exploratory aspect of this installation

Memories are formed, triggered and replayed through the sense centers in the brain, this is why we are using the sense of smell, hearing and sight to bring these memories back alive to their fullest extent and beyond.
The olfactive triggers employed in the Memory Observatory are composed by perfumers Christopher Gordon and Stephen Dowthwaite of The Perfumer's Studio in Los Angeles. They are created using sensory memory as a touchstone and are designed to evoke deep emotional and psychological states.

Yellow/Joy = Lemon, Mandarin, Lemongrass, Freshly cut herbs
Light green/Trust = Lily-of-the-valley, Damp earth, Bergamot, Fresh water
Dark green/Fear = Heavy green foliage, Spruce, Moss, Juniper
Light blue/Surprise = Transparent jasmine, Magnolia, Kodachrome Citrus*, Soft florals — *Includes Eastman Sustane
Purple/Sadness = Iris, Orchid, Gladiola, Heavy white florals
Pink/Disgust = Orange blossom, Raspberry, Narcissus, Rockrose
Red/Anger = Cinnamon, Clove, Pepper, Cardamom, Cypress
Beige/Interest = Cedarwood, Benzoin, Hay, Tobacco
Summer's day = Bergamot, Fresh cut grass, Field flowers, Lilac, Cinnamon
Beach = Ozone, Water, Seaweed, Coastal citrus, Amber, Driftwood
Gathering indoors = Pipe tobacco, Spices, Cherry, Sandalwood, Tonka bean, White musk
Home = Vanilla orchid, Cocoa butter, Stone fruit, Light floral
City outdoors = Asphalt, Wet Concrete, Skin, Foliage, Steel, Smoke
Unknown space = Elusive floral, Ozone, White musk

The sound is designed by Julia Owen in real time and corresponds to emotion-based theories developed in the world of sound composition in film.
Thanks to Alba G. Corral for programming. Special thanks to Saskia Wilson-Brown for olfactory guidance, Jiayi, Shih-wen Young and Kevin Lin for initial help and brainstorming. Thanks to Mike Bayer and his team of fabricators in Austin who did an incredible job through thick and thin.
Thanks also to the sponsors, Kodak, the team at Special Guest and Junior as well as Mitch Kirsch who enabled this project to happen. Thanks to Jasper and Yi-Ping for holding the space.