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Duke University Arts

Malleable Memory in the Music Building

Nov 24, 2010

Malleable Memory in the Music Building

Early in the afternoon this past Monday, Duke senior Sarah Goetz and a few friends were in the lobby of the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building, pulling on the strands hanging out of a tangled pile of paper and string on a low table. It was time to install Goetz's new sculpture, Encyclopedia Americana: Burma - Cathay.

It was also time for the opening reception, which had a low-key feel that seemed just right for the Thanksgiving-week lull. Plates of crackers and cheese and cookies were laid out on a table in back and apple juice was poured. People chatted and munched. A couple of us circulated with our cameras. Downstairs, wires were run from a laptop to a pair of speakers, and soon an electronic soundscape filtered up through the opening in the floor.

As the title indicates, Goetz's piece is made from the pages of an encyclopedia, which have been sewn into shape and strung together. It's a web of cultural memories, the first installment of The Malleable Material of Memory, Goetz's Graduation with Distinction project for Visual Studies. Her faculty advisor is William Noland. The project emerged from her interest in "our attempts to create stability out of our ephemeral experiences of memory."

We make architectures out of our externalized memories: complex structures of history with building blocks made from scribbled notes on napkins, personal collections, official archives, and bookmarked URLs. We rely on these objects of memory to make judgments about the past and decisions about the future. We trust them, though they can be as susceptible to manipulation as our neurological memories. The installation Encyclopedia Americana: Burma - Cathay is an experiment to discover what spaces of memory might emerge when a reliable resource distorts.

Goetz realized after attending a concert in the Biddle lobby that the open shaft above the fountain was an ideal place to install her piece. Give the location, some music was called for. With the help of Music Department chair Jane Hawkins, Goetz connected with Kristina Warren, a senior music major. Warren assembled a composition from recorded and processed sound. As she describes it, it delves into "those 'Eureka!' moments when a concept whooshes into understanding, and the abstraction of words and sounds into a long line of meaning different from that of the words and sounds themselves." The "whoosh" was originally a car passing by, recorded from the side of highway 15-501.

The music was just for the installation and opening, but the sculpture will be hanging in Biddle for several months. Go see it before it's just a memory.

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