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Bernadette Mayer, detalle de la instalación Memory (Memoria), en la Galería 98 Greene Street Loft, Nueva York, febrero de 1972.
Why Memory Matters. Notes on Bernadette Mayer’s Work

As we approach nearly fifty years’ hindsight on the emergence of “conceptual art” practices, many aspects of this legacy continue to be unsettled and in play. While certain academic orthodoxies about conceptual art and so-called “photo-conceptualism” tend to dominate critical discourse—continually pushing the same names, ideas and critical models into the foreground—any number of more aberrant or unusual projects might point us toward some of the untapped or unrealized potentials of this moment. In addition, these anomalous approaches might help reopen our understanding of canonical works as well.

I want to consider a nearly forgotten project: In February 1972, the poet Bernadette Mayer presented a New York gallery show called Memory at the 98 Greene Street Loft, an alternative art and performance space run by the gallerist Holly Solomon. Mayer was the co-editor with Vito Acconci of the celebrated mimeographed magazine 0 TO 9, which published six issues from 1967 to 1969; at the time, Acconci was also her brother in law, as he was married to her younger sister Rosemary Mayer. Although not well known in today’s art world—especially internationally—Bernadette Mayer was a key figure in the emergence of an interdisciplinary performance, art and poetry scene in New York in the late 1960s, and her poetic and prose experiments of the 1970s are foundational for many present day practitioners of “language poetry” and “conceptual writing” in the US. The project Memory inherently straddles practices of writing and visual art, and it also can be understood as a kind of performance; curiously, Mayer initially proposed it as possibly a slide projection piece. [1]

Using 36-exposure rolls of 35-mm color slide film, Mayer shot 36 images a day for the entire month of July 1971. For the gallery exhibition, small prints were mounted in a large horizontal grid, accompanied by a series of audiotapes of Mayer reading from her journals and notes recounting each day.

As Mayer described the project, in a handwritten card mounted in the exhibition:

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Bernadette Mayer, nota manuscrita para la exposición Memory (Memoria) en la Galería 98 Greene Street Loft, Nueva York, febrero de 1972.

Memory: This is a series of snapshots in lines or rows reading left to right: one month: July 1st – 31st: 36 pictures per day: morning to night of each day.
The tape in 31 parts uses the pictures as points of focus, one by one, + as taking-off points for digression, filling in the spaces between.
Tape follows pictures from the 1st to the 1,116th.
It is 6 hours long.

Except for one substantial review in the Village Voice, the show seems not to have received much critical coverage, and we have few detailed accounts of it other than those that Mayer has given at various points in her life. The project is mostly known in the poetry world through the impact of Mayer’s 1976 book Memory, which compiles revised and reworked versions of the text in 188 pages of dense nearly unbroken text; sadly, except for black and white reproductions of a handful of photographs on the cover, the book version is without images. [2] The original 35mm slides are held in Mayer’s papers at the University of California San Diego, and there are also a handful of installation photographs, although unfortunately these are not very detailed. Despite its extraordinary resonance for our present, the work is little known in the artworld, and Mayer’s name doesn’t even appear in the indexes of most publications on conceptual art (and even in accounts of 0 TO 9, it is not infrequently misspelled as “Meyer”).

My aim here is precisely not to assimilate Memory into conventional art history narratives, but to explore how it straddles and disrupts things that we think we know. It is a process piece that became a gallery show and later a book, and it is a work that inseparably occurred in three distinct media—photographs, audiotape and written word—as well as the space of the gallery. It is also—in a way that feels enormously relevant to our present—an exploration of the relation of subjective experience to a recording apparatus, yet that sidesteps the kinds of self-dramatization that animate so much recent work.

The original project—to shoot a roll of film a day, and then install it as a grid on a gallery wall—adheres to by-then established models of process-based and conceptual photography, where a set of procedures generate a set of photographs or other documents. Even producing a series of images through a pre-set time structure is a frequent device of the period—for example, Jan Dibbets’ The Shortest Day At My House in Amsterdam (1970), of 80 color prints shot at 10 minute intervals from dawn to dusk, or Eleanor Antin’s Carving: A traditional Sculpture (1972), in which a grid of 148 black and white photographs documents the artist’s 10-pound weight loss over 37 days. [3]

Yet as soon we look at Mayer’s images, we immediately find ourselves in a different territory—one that appears explicitly personal and autobiographical, fraught with memory and subjectivity. The color is lush, and the look and feel hews closer to the diary films of Jonas Mekas—e.g. his landmark 1969 five-part work Walden: Diaries Notes and Sketches—or even to the early color photographs of Jack Pierson—e.g. his 1990 artist’s book Angel Youth—than to models of conceptual photography. [4] Yet unlike the overt markers of subjectivity and personal style in Mekas’s work—the handheld camera, abrupt editing and improvisatory energy, further overlaid with evocative sound and music—the quasi-systematic aspect of Mayer’s project—36 photos a day, every day—has the effect of abstracting the images and foregrounding their generic quality: they are from her life, but they could be almost anyone’s. [5] As David E. James perceptively notes of Mekas’s work, the film diary almost inherently privileges authorship and affirms the priority of autobiography, framing it as a process of self-discovery or self-creation. [6] Whereas the very intensity of surface detail in Mayer’s Memory paradoxically atomizes personal experience into an endless flow of pictures and recited recollections; its authorship is distributed among various functions that don’t necessarily cohere into a single self. [7]

The 1116 individual photographs were small prints, about 3 x 5 inches each, and hung in a large grid about four feet high and forty feet long. [8] Installation shots reveal that the photographs were mounted on the gallery wall with small triangular corner mounts resembling those one would use in a photo album. Taken as a whole, the visual field comprises a vast gridded block of color photos, periodically interrupted by handwritten cards announcing the day of the month, e.g. “eight” or “thirteen.” Just as its images are suspended in an irresolvable tension between personal affect and neutral system, its presentation straddles monumental scale and minute detail.

While from a distance the pictures form a mural-like display in which grid and pattern predominate, up close, endless details draw viewers into a much more intimate space and temporality where the sensuous textures of someone else’s life inevitably trigger memories of our own. Everything is specific, and yet also, in its way, generic, selections from a world of experiences and appearances that somehow feel familiar: faces, landscapes, office buildings, cars, a bottle of Pepsi, a bare light bulb over a table, food in the refrigerator, an asphalt highway, a hotel room, a street sign, seascapes, trees, beds, rooftops, laundry drying on fire escapes, and an occasional sunset. We don’t know who these people are, but we gradually become acquainted with most of them as recurring “characters”; along the way we encounter periodic shots of Mayer, presumably taken by her boyfriend, the filmmaker Ed Bowes.

Starting on July 1, the sequence begins with the photograph of a white sink that would be printed on the cover of the book version of Memory. After two very dark shots looking out city windows that are nearly monochromes, the fourth image is one that Mayer has taken in a mirror, of herself holding the camera, some sort of Canon. She is 26, with straight dark hair and intense dark eyes that are almost entirely hidden in shadows. A gritty New York City parking lot, filled with the clumsy shapes of 1960s American cars, is followed by a young man with long dark hair, Mayer’s boyfriend, wearing a green and white striped tee shirt, leaning against a rack of film editing equipment. Then, in a view out the window, onto Broadway just north of New York’s Times Square, the colorful marquee of the Circus Cinema announces “A new erotic experience: CLIMAX. The title says it all,” while to the right, a billboard advertises “Coronot VSQ Brandy … Kind taste and …” above lanes of traffic. In the next shot, a dark-haired young woman (Mayer) lounges in a front-tied midriff top, pensively reading, back lit by the window, amidst film editing equipment. On the cluttered window ledge behind her, a small photo of a porn star by a pool, her artificial blonde hair tied in an orange ribbon, perches next to a tape dispenser and office supplies.

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Bernadette Mayer, detalle de la instalación Memory (Memoria), en la Galería 98 Greene Street Loft, Nueva York, febrero de 1972.

More than anything, the opening sequence establishes a sense of place, of New York in the early 1970s, of a work-room or studio overlooking Times Square (at the time, a seedy area full of porn theaters) late in the afternoon. Because the snapshots are mounted in the order they were taken, they preserve a loose temporal order that follows the rhythms of days and nights. Road trips lead to bars and bathroom, and a yellow clapboard home in the countryside, friends hanging out in cars, parking lots and shop windows—certain moments strongly echo Walker Evans—a bush of brilliant red roses, a white cat hiding in overgrown grass.

The photographs are technically erratic—often dark or cluttered, color-shifted (too blue or too red), out of focus and under- or over-exposed, and occasionally all but unreadable as images—all the “mistakes” of amateur photography that will soon become codified as a period look or style. The immense profusion of images prevents any one single image or selection from providing anything like a “punctum” or key. While there is a certain principle of non-selectivity at work—Mayer certainly isn’t editing from the flow to find the “good” images—the impulses behind the shots are human, not strictly machinic. And while the Modernist grid typically enforces a sense of simultaneity, with an all-over field that represses narrative or development, Mayer perversely adopts the photogrid as a textual structure, something to potentially be read in sequence, left to right like writing. Of course, the mounted images permit both simultaneous and sequential viewing, and in fact create a structure in which one continually interrupts the other.

Needless to say, in their look and feel, Mayer’s photographs could not be further from the resolutely “banal” black and white snapshots that we usually associate with conceptual art. Their frequent nighttime lighting and dim interiors at times bring them closer to Nan Goldin’s early work, though without the cloying stagey feel. Images resonant with narrative and personal history are followed by fire hydrants and parking lots—not the carefully chosen “architectural banal” of Ed Ruscha, just the parking lots that surround everyday life in almost any city or town. A series of decrepit Manhattan rooftops with their early-twentieth century water towers and scaffolding gives way to hippie domesticity and a mini photo-essay on the construction of the World Trade Center towers far downtown, and debris viewed through a chain link fence.

It is all too easy to imagine a present-day artist selecting out the “poetic” moments from such scenes, making tableaux of artfully arranged trash to strategically reference Arte Povera or site-based art. Mayer’s hippy profusion of randomness breathes in a way that the claustrophobic pictures of more recent so-called “post-conceptual” practice cannot. In his emphasis on the staged and the pictorial, Jeff Wall—among many others—draws exactly all the wrong lessons from the “conceptual” re-engagement with depiction. [9] If one classic reading of conceptual photography understood 1960s projects as entailing a practice of “deskilling” that not only supplants pictorial artistry and artistic subjectivity but reduces photographic images to “a mere randomly accumulated set of indexical traces,” in Benjamin Buchloh’s influential account [10], it is perhaps as a reaction against all that such frameworks repress that Wall and others would employ “conceptual photography” as a model for renovated pictorial practices that seemingly reintroduce the most traditional notions of authorship, iconography and pictorial style. While as Buchloh argues, “random sampling and aleatory choice from an infinity of possible objects” were essential conceptual strategies [11], as mobilized in Mayer’s project, for instance, these aesthetic strategies potentially reopen images to different registers of the personal, the subjective and the historical. To read the gridded photographic matrices of Sol LeWitt’s books PhotoGrids (1976) and Autobiography (1980) as rendering “a life … transformed into a taxonomic system,” as Rosalind Krauss does, is both true and untrue, for it is in the seeming suppression of the personal by the rigid taxonomic system that it resurfaces so palpably and with so much feeling. [12] In such works, the regularity of the grid does not enforce similarity; instead, it allows all the jagged edges, strange disruptions and idiosyncratic details to be seen.

Throughout Memory, Mayer submits “personal” or autobiographical material to a strange positivism: in attempting to record all the details of everyday life, everything occupies the same continuous plane. If the color snapshots document the surface of everyday life—what the world looked like in the summer of 1971, in a certain world, on the east coast of the US—the text likewise recounts this continually unfolding surface: what we did, what we saw, what we ate, movies we saw, trips, shopping, commercial products and signage, road directions, advertising slogans, etc. Mayer’s voice on the tape is flat and monotonous, almost droning. Everything is presented on the same level: car trips, shopping trips, dreams, conversations, “Jay and I talked about” … The “narrative,” if it can be described as such, registers continual shifts of place and context, different levels of discourse, but without any overt markings that establish these shifts or transitions; as result, it produces a mode of continual transition and displacement. Language requires degrees of subordination and integration to produce a larger narrative—a shopping list, after all, is not exactly a story: “South view, south on Route 8, North Adams, Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Skating Rink, looks like a church, bear right onto Church Street, past General Cable Company, railroad to stop sign … Ed’s going to the bathroom at the Red Lion Inn.” And, defying expectations of introspection or self-reflection, Mayer doesn’t overtly talk about herself or what she feels. Even when she does talk about feelings, they are just one more thing to record: “Hate doors you can’t push open with your feet. Hate self, feel crummy, lost, ridiculous.”

Conceptualized in the spring of 1971 and presented in February 1972, Memory occurs just as the earlier, drier, more strictly self-reflexive phase of conceptual art was giving way to work that more overtly employed narrative, personal content, and social and historical content. We might compare it with Yvonne Rainer’s c. 1970-1972 slide performance and films, which departed from an earlier “minimalist” aesthetic to increasingly integrate texts, music and taped voices, pulling all sorts of diary-like notes, found source materials, and commentary into loose narrative structures.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mayer’s initial proposal to Holly Solomon describes the project as like a film, “a sort of film diary of still pictures”: “This is an idea for a photograph project that I’ve been thinking about for some time & I’ve just recently thought could be converted into an interesting show at the loft when you reopen next year. The project is to take 36 pictures (color slides) – one roll of film – every day, to make a sort of film diary of still pictures but with the added idea of forcing my self to do this, to do it for one month. The purpose of it is to see how the idea of what you photograph would change & to amass a large no. of pictures (about a thousand) with their own (unpredictable) continuity.” [13]

This recourse to the syncretic nature of film as a medium—potentially comprising image, sound, text and temporality—opens the door to formal possibilities that were precluded in more orthodox conceptual approaches. But Memory was also an installation, a work that took place in the physical space of the gallery, which viewers navigated to read and examine the images, and in time—a very precise kind of time, of extended duration, that we associate with, for example, Andy Warhol’s films and the marathon performances of La Monte Young’s compositions or the famous readings of Gertrude Stein’s novel The Making of Americans that would literally go on all night. All create bodily and perceptual experiences of immersion that potentially disrupts boundaries between subject and object.

In a 1978 talk on Memory, after a student asks her about the gesture of occupying a such a large space, and such a large span of someone’s time and attention, Mayer responds: “I was very interested in that whole idea, I did it for that reason … I was still trying to get myself away from the printed book, and I was trying to figure out a way: like, what is that space? Where is the … where should the reader be, actually? Could I put him somewhere else? Could I put him in front of some pictures with it having my words in his ears, instead of … behind the book, and could I still get that person to be a real reader, you know, in some way? And then could I get them to really actually, I was fascinated with the idea, Could I get them to be me? Which I guess I shouldn’t even admit to, but it always seemed like, a lot of art was doing that same thing at that point in time.” [14]

Although Mayer participated in a few group shows, she did not pursue a career as a visual artist; in fact, she actively abandoned it to instead integrate the lessons of Memory into a writing practice. As a result, the 1972 gallery show becomes recorded as a provocative detour in an important poet’s career, and is nearly erased from the art historical record or becomes assimilated into a trajectory of far less interesting types of “narrative” photography. Mayer notes, “Then after I did that show I was supposed to become an artist, and not a writer. Like I was, suddenly people were saying, like, you should have a show in this gallery and that gallery, and I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to be a writer. But now all these artists are doing similar kinds of works, they call it now ‘narrative art’ or ‘story art,’ and it’s all offshoots of conceptual art…. If you go into a gallery now, you’ll see a lot of photographs on the wall. But not so much really barraging, in that sense … pictures with little stories written underneath them, but a little bit more precious in a way, each object. You have to have something to sell as an artist. Like, nobody wanted to buy Memory. There was nothing to sell.” [15]

For Mayer paradoxically, the result of Memory—and its obsessive recording of the self—was a near dissolution of self. As she recalls in a 2007 conversation with the poet Charles Bernstein, “In Memory I was trying to get into, like, record every smallest detail of life, to see how far I could go. But unfortunately in Memory, writing Memory involved keeping a diary every day, and taking 36 pictures a day, and after I finished doing it, and recording all of it, I mean, transcribing all of it, I totally went insane.” [16] While this could seem a mere personal anecdote, it is telling that Mayer narrates the production not as a process of self-discovery or self-construction, but one of dispersion and unraveling. Of course, the process of recording that she alludes to here is primarily that of writing, and rewriting, that occurred over multiple stages—the dream journals and notes she made in July of 1971; the responses to the photographs and journals that she recorded sometime that Fall; and then the subsequent transcription and intensive reworking of those materials that she undertook to produce the text of the book Memory. To make that book, she treated her typed texts in an almost filmic way, by literally cutting and pasting strips, one after another, to intercut and stagger different strands into new unexpected continuities that continually reverberate backwards and forwards in the act of reading. Mayer in effect integrates her work with photography and audio-recording into an expanded practice of writing in which language functions as the endless plastic material that can perpetually be re-sequenced and recombined.

[1In her initial proposal to Solomon, Mayer states, “As a show, my thought was that the pictures could be shown as slides (less expensive) in conjunction with a written work, or, better, made into 4x5 color snapshots & hung, in series, on the walls”; one-page typed proposal, undated (presumably spring 1971), Mayer Papers, UCSD. It has been presented as a slide projection on a few occasions, including a partial reconstruction at the National Poetry Foundation conference on “The Poetry of the 1970s” in June 2008.

[2Bernadette Mayer, Memory. Plainfield, VT: North Atlantic Books, 1976. The book, which has long been out of print, is available as a PDF on Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse website:

[3Dibbets’ approach was far more systematic and precise; as he recounts in a recent discussion, “the idea was to photograph every ten minutes, so that you saw the full range in a mathematical order of light coming in and fading away again,” so that the sequence begins with a black photograph, and ends with a black photograph:

[4Of course, the fact that so much conceptual photography has such a characteristic visual style—black and white, deadpan, intentionally “artless”—foregrounds its specific rhetorical functions, reproducing the “look” or information or the supposedly neutral recording apparatus. By the late 1960s, to work in black and white was already becoming a period gesture—referencing press photography or a history of reproduced images—at a time when family and tourist snapshots were increasingly made in color.

[5Mekas is also all-too-aware of the historicity and even celebrity of his subjects; recurrent inter-titles introduce far more specific narrative information, and by Reel 6 of Walden, we are hanging out with Yoko Ono and John Lennon performing their 1969 Bed-In in Montréal.

[6David E. James, “Film Diary/Diary Film: Practice and Product in Walden,” in To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground, David E. James, ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992: pp.145-179.

[7Although we presume that Mayer herself took most of the pictures, Bowes clearly shot quite a few, and possibly other friends did as well.

[8This is according to Mayer’s own accounts, which vary somewhat, and are clearly not always entirely accurate about details (e.g. she variously recounts that the tape played the entire seven or eight hours that the gallery was open, when documentation suggests that the show was open six hours a day, Friday, February 4: 6pm – midnight, and February 5-10, 1-7pm.

[9In his 1995 essay, “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography on, or as, Conceptual Art” (published in Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995), Wall’s almost obsessive focus on what he terms “the art-concept of photojournalism” helps clarify the stakes of certain conceptual strategies that imitate the appearance of utilitarian genres to operate in another field entirely; yet Wall’s complete lack of interest in the indeterminate areas between “art” and various vernacular practices reveals that his investment lies entirely in positioning him practices vis-à-vis established artistic languages—thus he reads even relatively banal performance-documentation as operating “by means of a new kind of mise-en-scene,” one that moves toward “a completely designed pictorial method” (Wall, p. 254).

[10For example, in Benjamin Buchloh’s account, “Photography in the hands of these artists—post-Warhol and post-Ruscha—becomes a mere randomly accumulated set of indexical traces of images, objects, contexts, behaviors or interactions,” that potentially register various social processes or conditions. See “1968b: Conceptual art,” in Hal Foster, et al., Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, Vol. 2: 1945 to the Present. Thames & Hudson, 2004, p. 532.

[11Benjamin Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter, 1990), p. 121.

[12Rosalind Krauss, “The LeWitt Matrix,” in Sol LeWitt – Structures 1962-1993, The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1993, p. 25. Given their very structural similarity, the differences between Mayer’s project and LeWitt’s are quite telling. As Krauss carefully details of Autobiography, “The work consists, for more than a hundred pages, of photographs that present every square inch, every nook and cranny, every detail of the loft in New York where LeWitt then worked and lived. Or rather, this inventory is given as a sequence of nine-part grids, with nine perfectly square images made available per page, each image held in place by thick regulating bands of white, locked within a continuous and relentlessly unfolding geometrical field. As the account of this life-space proceeds … these objects are gradually overtaken by the matrix that holds them in place, the grid that fixes and flattens them, the method that skewers them like some many specimens on the pins of so many categorical spaces” (ibid). In Mayer’s installation, the white spaces between frames precisely do not function as a regulating matrix that isolates and overpowers the individual pictures; instead, they operate more like the interstitial spaces between film frames that permit different possible continuities and discontinuities. While I didn’t spot any of Mayer’s books on LeWitt’s shelves, a copy of her friend Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journal (Angel Hair Press, 1978) is featured prominently in one shot, and LeWitt may well have seen Mayer’s 1972 exhibition; his book Autobiography could be understood be understood as a complex response to it.

[13Bernadette Mayer, one-page typed proposal, undated (presumably spring 1971), Mayer Papers, UCSD.

[14Bernadette Mayer, recorded excerpt of 1978 class discussion of Memory, available at:

[15Bernadette Mayer, recorded excerpt of 1978 class discussion of Memory, available at :

[16Mayer in “Close Listening” conversation with Charles Bernstein,” September 13, 2007, available online at:


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