Packet Switching Grief

126 Gallery invited me to contribute an essay to the catalogue Unset in Stone in October 2019. My father passed away suddenly at that time and the following is what emerged.

By EL Putnam

I said good bye to my father over a WhatsApp video call not too long ago. He was connected to a ventilator and they were about to pronounce him deceased in a US hospital, as I sat in my home in Ireland over 3000 miles away. It all happened so suddenly; I was unable to get a flight in time to be there in person. The shock of the trauma is still raw as I write this—I haven’t yet fully accepted that it has happened. We had chatted regularly over WhatsApp before that day. Weekly, we would communicate through glitched video and broken sound (the poor internet connection and mobile reception where I live in the country made the formal parameters of technology apparent through their breakdown), sharing the ins-and-outs of our daily lives. These once magical tools of communication, now commonplace, have enabled us to develop a closeness despite our geographic distance. I never thought I would have to share such an intimate moment—a final goodbye—over a digital platform. I limited the postings of my father’s passing on social media. However, shortly after his death, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw an extended family member had posted about it. She also linked an article from a local newspaper. I was caught off guard reading about these significant moments, so close to my lived experience, from such an objective perspective. The thoughts shared in the piece were warm and kind, alluding to a legacy that exceeds what I knew of him. To me, he was dad; to his patients he was a healer who would take the time to practice care in a manner that is becoming too rare in today’s medical environment; to his hiking buddies an ambitious outdoorsman who knew the importance of training and caution, and as an Eagle Scout, always came prepared; to his fellow firefighters, he was the humble man who loved to cook and talk about his grandkids. I met many of these people at his wake and funeral, but I am becoming increasingly aware of the impact he had on others as more comments and stories are shared online, with websites and social media pages become memorials to his passing.

“Eight hours west sat a man alone on a beach mourning an inexplicable loss. He could only think of his loss in little packets of grief at a time, because the whole thing was too great to be borne.” Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Packet switching is a process of network transmission where data is broken down into chunks or packets for more efficient transfer. Originally, it was developed as part of ARPANET, the precursor for the World Wide Web, during the Cold War in order to decentralise transmission of data and avoid dedicated lines that could function as vulnerable targets to enemy attacks. In addition to being the structural and material form of the present-day Internet, enabling the social media memorials described above, packet switching also functions as an appropriate metaphor for externalisation and sharing of memories, extreme emotions like grief, and trauma.French Philosopher Bernard Stiegler studies the externalisation of memory through technology, with technology being defined in a broad scope as an instrument or tool that acts as a prosthesis for humans. That is, technology includes the computers, digital gadgets, and telecommunications networks that have become vital to twenty first century interactions, but also applies to the non-digital objects that are used to enhance human ability, such as writing, photography, tools and instruments, including those used in artistic production. In other words, art produced through, with, and as technology functions as the externalisation of memories, including thoughts and gestures that can be communicated to others without the originator present. All art, to some extent, is the externalisation of someone’s memories; sent adrift for the perception and reception of others. Aesthetic experience, therefore, becomes an opportunity for shared being through processes of transmission and uptake. Meaning is not guaranteed and may change over time, as interpretation varies depending on perception and reception. However, the externalisation of memories through art as technology defies the limits of corporeal mortality, as memories are no longer restricted to the finite parameters of biological function. Monuments and memorials enable life, in all its complexities, to continue after death, and not just in our minds, but as memories that are made concrete through technological fabrication.

Monuments and memorials have certain connotations when it comes to the carrying of memory, with monuments typically being used to celebrate or recall a certain achievement or major historic event, while memorials are used to publically share a loss. Both craft a narrative history through their construction, which is then shared with others and continues to develop and alter over time. For instance, the erection of Civil War monuments, marking the victories and heroes of the failed Confederacy in the southern United States, during the Jim Crow era of segregation, sparked protests in the Twenty-First century. People called for their removal, pointing out the (white-washed) Romanticisation of racism in American history at the heart of such commemorations. These monuments not only frame history but shape public space through the presentation of skewed and selective memories, promoting racist ideologies that highlight particular histories over others—in a mediation of the past through the present, and towards the future. The point I am attempting to address here is not whether it is right or wrong to remove these monuments, but to highlight the poignancy certain works of public art have in forming understandings of history as externalised memories, and like all narratives, are in process, unfinished, and always capable of refinement to incorporate those who have been silenced through their telling.Other forms of commemoration are meant to function as reminders of events in order to avoid their recurrence. Throughout Germany, little golden bricks can be found in the sidewalks. Each Stolperstein, or “Stumbling stone,” contains the name of a victim of the Nazi regime’s Holocaust. Situated discreetly on the ground, in isolation, these small brass markers identify a particular individual. Collectively these bricks form an incomplete network. The degree of trauma faced by these victims exceeds comprehension, with the decentralised memorial offering a strong formal diffraction of their experiences. The network form of the Stolpersteine is analogous to the packet switching network of the Internet; where grief is not consolidated, but dispersed in a ubiquitous fashion through our surroundings.

My father introduced me to photography when I was just a teenager. He gave me his Nikon 35 mm camera, instructing me on how to adjust the shutter speed, aperture, and interpret the light meter readings. He lent me a tripod that I used to take pictures of flowers in our garden. After these negatives were developed, he selected a few photographs that he then enlarged and framed, hanging them in our house. Before this, I never thought of myself as an artist or capable of creative activity. However, that is where I began what became a life-long journey into the arts and ultimately, my career. After his death, I found myself in our basement, digging through photographs. He was not in many of them, as he tended to be the one behind the camera. One is an outtake from some photographs my dad took of mom when she was pregnant with me. The mix of light rays from the sun flare with the flowers obscure her features, but I find the slippage of her pregnant body into abstraction to be breath-taking. This photograph was mixed in with various albums photographs he had taken over the years; glances into nature that attempt to stabilise the beautiful happenings that surround us. I found his laptop and scrolled through his more recent images. I noticed that his technique has matured over the years. He has gone from more representative compositions to taking more creative risks through abstract intersections of light. I realised that the beginnings of this style were already present almost forty years ago in that photograph of my mother.

As I spent time in upstate New York with family, I found myself turning to the camera. I continue to take solace behind the lens as I photograph the minor details around me. These photographs are images I would have liked to show my dad as I try to replicate his style of shooting. I aim to capture the world through his lens using an imperfect gesture of mimesis. I have been posting these images on Instagram, though I do not reveal their significance, leaving them open to interpretation. Those close to me and my father recognise, however, that I am creating my own memorial on social media for him.

“The magic of an image is in how it arrests the rules of time, interrupting decay, refuting death’s obliteration. In each of these images is a testament to what death cannot consume, a gesture against annihilation.” Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media.

José van Dijck describes how photographs shot on a phone can be compared to postcards, where images with few words attached serve as a means of connecting ourselves to others. The experience of scrolling through these images on social media platforms like Instagram is ephemeral. However, social media images do not just disappear. They remain stored on massive databases that become distributed photographic networks. The boxes of photographs in the basement are now dispersed through binary code, into our shared web of communications. Media theorist and curator Laura U. Marks points out how in digital art “a point can unfold to reveal an entire universe.” Within each digital image on social media that we perceive, there is information in the form of code that serves as an interface to the infinite. As such, we are all entangled through our images—our externalised memories and their associated emotions.Massive emotions such as grief, especially grief emerging from trauma, can be challenging to narrate, with trauma, as art theorist Jill Bennett indicates, being “classically defined as beyond the scope of language and representation.” Thus, artworks that emerge from such loss cannot be merely communicated, but are shared through affective transactions, engaging others with these experiences without necessarily disclosing them. Grief is shared through systems of packet switching as memories (and at times data) move from node to node, intertwining us in a web of shared affect and emotion, whether through stone monuments, brass Stolpersteine, or digital photographs.

Thank you for sharing this weight with me.