The Poetry Project

Be Strong Bernadette: On Memory

Shiv Kotecha

About halfway into Bernadette Mayer’s Memory—the book that resulted from the month-long photography and diary project she conducted in July 1971, for which, each day, she shot one roll of 35-millimeter slide film, recounted her day from memory onto tape, and kept a journal cataloging her thoughts and feelings as she looked back at the 1,116 photos she was producing over the course of the month—Mayer starts to lose her bearings. She panics: the photos she took during the first week of the experiment—

— of “the main thing … a white sink” with which her entry for July 1 begins;

— of her boyfriend Ed Bowes, the filmmaker, and his long hair;

— of a sign that reads “The Opportunity Shop”;

— of herself, in red, playing pool;

— of the sky before and after the sun disappears;

— of wet clothes drying;

— of another photograph of a piano;

— of darkness

—have just arrived from their developer in fresh stacks, ready for her to “recreate … reargue reascend reassemble … reassert … reassess reassign reassimilate … reassume … reattach … reattack reattempt reawaken rebind rebloom … reboil rebuild & … rebury” the past perfect they contain into the project’s present. Until this point, Mayer has been able to write, and take pictures, and record herself talking about the day’s events with the suspension of disbelief that, in a later interview, she attributes to “good scientists,”1 who are not “prepared to recognize anything and just wait to see what happens.” However, the arrival of these photographs inaugurates a host of new concerns—

— such as the concept of prediction, as she writes on July 16, when she says, “the concept of prediction”;

— and the inability to correctly report what she sees in the photos, writing on July 20 about the difference between “the relation of conceived time to intuited time … what’d I say baby what’d I see? & when you see that will you laugh at me”;

— and her fear that she won’t be able to keep up, that she might already be working on a project of failure; note the “fear” encountered at the end of July 25, which punctuates the rest of the book like an irregular heartbeat;

— as on July 26: “already started the fear to finish memory”;

— or July 29: “that fear has to do with communication & as a finish to memory I learn one thing, that the fear’s already started”;

— or July 29 again: “am I giving up or just beginning to have the fear to see it right”

—all of which characterize the feedback loop remembering imposes on writing, a loop that overwhelms Mayer, bringing her at once too close and too far from the just-past. The panic makes Mayer want to give up. She looks at the pictures, hoping to see what they cannot remember. And it changes her language: “Had I quit yet?” asks Mayer at the start and again at the end of July 17; then again, “nobody notices but I quit,” on July 22. Her addled psychic state at this point of her “emotional science project” is not my interpretation, but what Mayer herself repeatedly describes feeling in the latter half of the book (“I get worse & worse,” June 24; “I’m going crazy,” June 29); as well as in Studying Hunger, the book she writes just after it (“a subsequent emotional catching up”); and in later interviews (“I had a total breakdown,” Artforum, 2020).

Reading the latter half of Memory, one gets an acute sense of Mayer’s panic, and of the trap of looking to document what she sees for the remainder of the month. However, one also learns to understand the ways Mayer extinguishes her panic, and the potentially dire consequences of pausing in the middle of a project about looking to evaluate it in the present. She returns to her pictures not as a reflection on an in-progress work of art, but as something to be objectively described. As she reflects later, in a July 1989 workshop at Naropa:

I was never trying to take beautiful photographs necessarily, I was always trying to … take photographs in the sense of what you’re really seeing, you know, not trying to isolate objects and say, put them in the center of the frame, you know, and say, “here’s a beautiful Styrofoam cup,” you know, surrounded by grass (that would be fun!) but to just to take them just to reflect what actual vision is, you know, and not, not romanticize, you know, it or certainly not the writing either but not romanticize the visual … that’s more than you could note in a moment, you know, if you were sitting with a notebook … you don’t always see all these things when you’re looking with your eyes.2

. . .

In the months preceding July 1971, Mayer, who had left New York to live and write in seclusion in a house she rented in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, ran out of money and returned to New York, where she began teaching workshops at the Poetry Project. One night, she ended up at a dinner party with “gold-plated silverware” hosted by Holly Solomon, the art dealer and patron who was known to foot the bill to support adventurous, boundary-pushing art projects larger institutions ignored, such as Splitting (1974), the New Jersey residence that Gordon Matta-Clark severed with a literal handsaw. Mayer approached Solomon with the idea to produce her time-constrained installation on memory’s flux, which Solomon funded and exhibited at her SoHo Gallery at 98 Greene Street in February 1972.

In Solomon’s gallery, the photographs comprising Memory were installed in a tight grid format with each day’s 36 exposures lined horizontally, so that you might move like a carriage across a typewriter’s page, from one side of the gallery to the other, to see, or “read,” any one day of July’s thirty-one, then return to the other side of the room to start the next. The thick strip of visuals was installed flush with the ground floor (“like a child,” remembered Mayer), measuring 4 feet high and 36 feet across. Speaking to The World, Mayer recalls how the psychology and neurology books she was reading at the time of the installation led to her arrangement of the photographs, which replicate the oxymoronic and ouroboros-like panic of information and distance Mayer herself describes feeling during the month of their production:

[I wanted] to make the pictures as long as the wall space as I possibly could. They were chronological, but when you peripherally associated to one picture you were far away from space in time (except horizontally) as you could be, like memory.

Since their initial showing, the visual and textual components of Memory have been installed, archived, enlarged, abbreviated, digitized, and revivified in various formats. In 1972, Mayer hung the photos in her loft on Grand Street for friends or strangers to view by appointment. At around the same time, she prepared an abridged version of the project—with a selection of the photos displayed inside a three-ring binder and titled Remembering—to be included as part of the writer and curator Lucy Lippard’s landmark exhibition of works by female conceptual artists, c. 7,500, which traveled to various institutions in the US and the UK between 1973-1974.3 It wasn’t until 1975 that North Atlantic Press published the text of Memory—which Mayer would add and revise substantially after the exhibition—in the form of a book, printed in an unknown run, and including only a select few images, reproduced as a monochrome cut-up, and used as the book’s cover. Thus, Memory dispersed itself, remaining out of circulation until 2002, when the poet and scholar Craig Dworkin made scans of Memory’s 1975 edition, along with a retyped “reading version” of the text, available as a PDF through the Eclipse archive. The photos from the original exhibition were not seen publicly until 2016, when the Poetry Foundation in Chicago restaged the show with slightly larger reprints of each photo, alongside iPads and headphones with which visitors could listen to Mayer’s six-hour narration. The show returned to New York’s CANADA Gallery in 2017, where all of Mayer’s original prints were displayed in a strip that ran at eye-level, alongside the amplified recording.

It was not until 2020, on Siglio Press’s reprinting of Memory, that Mayer’s 1975 text and the swath of color photographs taken five years prior—

— of snoozing boyfriends;

— of grass;

— of cheeseburgers;

— of reflections;

— and of fireworks

—would appear, for the first time, together. Here, some of the images appear as double spreads and as full-page bleeds next to the text, so the “noisy technicolor” texture of any isolated “pretty picture of memory” may be read alongside Mayer’s description of what she herself saw, days after she pulled her eye away from the viewfinder to take it. “Sometimes memory is just noise,” she writes, literalizing what she’s looking at, and without fear, trying to communicate. Others appear in tables of nine, approximating the grid installation, and moreover, to better capture the slight movements of Mayer’s hand, directed by her mind’s eye, that would determine what went into one picture, and how long she may have waited before snapping the next, as on July 30—

— where Mayer looks up to shoot a lamp;

— then, her shadowy face under its flare;

— then another lamp, from far;

— and from below;

— then, having turned 90 degrees, again the lamp;

— then turning again but with the shutter held down, so that the one lamp above, in the image, becomes two lamps and the trace of a poet, turning, beneath them.

Pages of Mayer’s written text punctuate the photographs, to approximate the disorientation of the senses that her original pairing of image with spoken text occasioned (“I can hear it in my head as you begin to repeat...let’s go back to that tree”).

. . .

There’s a beautiful moment at the end of a 1974 interview published in The World, in which Mayer rebuffs Dick Miller who has just described how reading a “successful piece of writing,” regardless of its form “causes the mind to think.” Her retort is: “It’s almost impossible … for [writing on the page] to cause the mind to think.” This moment appears toward the end of their conversation, after Mayer has already spoken at length about her then three published manuscripts (Ceremony Latin, Story, and Moving); on editing the short-lived mimeograph magazine 0 to 9 with Vito Acconci; on the function that teaching workshops at the Project has in relation to her practice (“Every function”); on the difference between bad scientists (“who adapt language to make it mean something it doesn’t mean”) and good ones (“who can suspend their disbelief and not be prepared to recognize anything and just wait and see what happens”); on what Miller keeps referring to as “success” or possible failure of her projects (“No. I don’t think there are any failures in that sense in relation to my work for myself”); and on Memory. It’s this last project Mayer then refers to in her response to Miller’s aside about the metaphysical effects that printed pages have on his mind, as if to further clarify the relational complex—too far, too close—that he may have felt while reading her writing:

[It’s] mainly concerned with the possibility of a total symbiosis: to really push people into a corner where we’d meet. And to see what would aappen [sic] with that. And in fact that has worked. And that has worked in such a terrifying way that I’m almost afraid to continue doing it.

Mayer that she “did Memory” to see if writing and remembering, which Gertrude Stein claimed could not be simultaneous, “could be done or in what their failure would consist”—the language, or poetry, that is produced when the physical instantiations of memory are leveraged against its psychical mechanism. When, in other words, the “impossible project” of “real remembering” becomes an occasion, not for a sanctimonious lyricizing of the past, but an opportunity to include fear, and panic, and doubt, and the profusion of more impossible-to-answer-correctly questions; self-reflexively writing through memory’s ricochet, to eke herself out of the feedback loop of “fear” that the future of “remembering” will always threaten.


  1. Bernadette Mayer, interview by Barry Alpert and Dick Miller, The World, 29 (1974).
  3. In a lecture given at Naropa, Mayer recounts the publishing opportunities that were made available for Memory at the time: “Praeger publishers said that they wanted to publish [Memory] as a book with all the photographs in it. And I said, ’Amazing’, you know, ’what a great thing’. And this agent for them said, ’Can I come to your house and discuss this with you?’, and I said ’Fine’. And he came, and he said, ’If you’ll make love with me, I’ll get the book published!’”

#272 – Spring 2023