Bernadette Mayer’s “Memory” as an “Everyday-Life Project”


Bernadette Mayer, Memory (cover, 1975 book version)

For the past six weeks, Bernadette Mayer’s important early multimedia work Memory has been on display at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago (the exhibition closes on April 27).  In conjunction with the exhibit, the Poetry Foundation hosted an artist’s talk with Mayer herself last week and posted a good discussion of the work by Lucy Biederman.  As if to underscore the recent surge of overdue attention to her work, a new poem of Mayer’s was selected by Matthew Zapruder to appear in today’s New York Times Magazine.

The exhibition of Mayer’s Memory is a big deal for fans of Mayer, contemporary poetry, and conceptual art: this now-legendary mixed-media installation has not been shown in its entirety since its original appearance in a New York gallery in 1972.

Over the past four-plus decades, Mayer’s experimentalism has taken many forms, but probably the most important part of her legacy has been her tireless creation of rule-determined, procedural, conceptual works like Memory.  To create this work, Mayer relied on self-assigned parameters and rules: she decided to take a roll of film every day for the entire month of July 1971, and recorded 7 hours of corresponding narration. The work was exhibited in a gallery, and was also later published in book form, and was thus simultaneously a long poem, a performance piece, an art exhibit, and an archive of daily life.

In Attention Equals Life, my forthcoming book on contemporary poetry’s fascination with the everyday — which has a chapter devoted to Bernadette Mayer — I refer to such works as “everyday-life projects.”  By this, I mean a whole range of rule-bound, performative, artificial experiments that call for the individual undertaking the project to engage in certain activities, usually for a set amount of time, with the goal of channelling attention to some aspects of everyday experience.  The conditions and parameters of the project are usually predetermined, and the project itself an experiential process – an embodied performance of some sort – rather than simply an aesthetic object or product.  The results of the project are also usually recorded, documented, and circulated in some way.

In some ways, Memory is a quintessential “everyday-life project” of the sort I discuss throughout my book.  “It’s a diary of one month,” Mayer later explained.  “I wrote incessant notes and made drawings about everything that happened every day.  I wrote down as much as I could without interrupting my life.  It was the month of July, 1971.  I had chosen the month at random without knowing what I would be doing during that month, because I didn’t want to choose a time to do this experiment that would be particularly loaded, or particularly interesting or dull.”

One of the first of her many exhaustive projects of documentation, Memory is an explicitly time-based and procedural work that she called an “emotional science project.” As she described the work (in Studying Hunger):

MEMORY was 1200 color snapshots, 3 x 5, processed by Kodak plus 7 hours of taped narration. I had shot one roll of 35-mm color film every day for the month of July, 1971. The pictures were mounted side by side in row after row along a long wall, each line to be read from left to right, 36 feet by 4 feet. All the images made each day were included, in sequence, along with a 31-part tape, which took the pictures as points of focus, one by one & as taking-off points for digression, filling in the spaces between.

As Liz Kotz has pointed out in her excellent discussion of Memory and conceptual art, here is how Mayer described the project, in a card included in the original exhibition:

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Mayer recalls that Memory “was exhibited as a multimedia work in a gallery that was interested in “trying to do kind of new things at that point in time.  Conceptual art I suppose is what it’s called.”  As she envisioned it, the audience “could follow the whole month by walking along with the pictures, and spend eight hours in the gallery.”

Following on the heels of Memory, Mayer would go on to devise many such everyday-life projects, including her book The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters (in which she used the nine months of pregnancy as the formal constraint for a book of unsent letters arranged in nine sections that track the pregnancy’s progress) or her recent book The Helens of Troy, NY (in which she tracked down every woman named Helen in the city of Troy, New York, and took photographs and wrote poems about each one).

Given Mayer’s fascination with creating such projects, it is not surprising that once she had children in the mid-1970s, she quickly took the tools and tactics she had been using in Memory and other works and adapted them for the purposes of rendering daily life
as a mother as exhaustively and fully as possible. This goal came to fruition
in Midwinter Day (1982), generally considered to be one of her most significant and
influential works, which is the result of another deliberate, constraint- and time- based project — a kind of “real- time” experiment written about, and during the course of, a single day.

If you’re interested, stay tuned for the appearance of my book next month: it will feature an extensive discussion of Mayer, conceptualism, gender, and motherhood.  In the meantime, if you’re in or near Chicago, don’t miss out on seeing Mayer’s Memory in person!


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