Fictional Scenarios: Whose Experience Is This?

March 13, 2013

To continue with the series of articles, we chose an essay from Maeve Mulrennan, written for the publication of the exhibition ‘Letters from the Field’ in August 2012. The article raises questions related to the discussions we are having in the residency the last weeks.  

Fictional Scenarios: Whose Experience Is This?

by Maeve Mulrennan  

The human ability to create a fictional scenario is necessary in order for progress. Creative innovation drives us forward and aids criticality. Fiction is not necessarily separate from truth: one cannot be without the other. Fiction is not a lie: it is a creative and critical expression of what could be or could have been.

Ciaran Walsh’s work, Two Scripts for a Museum takes a scientific paper on amnesia as its starting point. The paper outlines how people suffering from amnesia related to a specific part of the brain (the hippocampus) are unable to imagine fictional scenarios. When examining these scripts it becomes apparent that the gaps and pauses in the text are extremely important. The viewer, imagining the script being acted, recognises these pauses as a void. The ability to create a fictional scenario is what changes who we are now into what we could be. If alternative ways of living cannot be imagined by anyone, or only by a select few, what will happen to us? The case studies that Walsh is looking at suggest that it is a lack of memory that affects the ability to imagine future scenarios. Recognition of our past is necessary to imagine a future. This contrasts with studies on three and four-year olds where it was easier for them to imagine fictional scenarios than real beliefs:

                          Young children may find reasoning about fictional mental states that contrast with reality easier than reasoning about epistemic mental states that conflict with reality.1

A three year old does not have a bank of memory to draw from when forming a fictional scenario. The ability to imagine is ingrained into the human condition at an early age. However a three year old with no past is not the same as an adult who is aware that they have had a past but have lost it.

Is it possible then that people who feel that their history and / or culture have been taken away from them feel the same way as a person with amnesia? Can they imagine a future when they know that their past is now a void?

For people with amnesia due to a damaged hippocampus, a lack of the past is indicative of a lack of future and understanding of the human condition. Could one’s future depend on someone else’s past? It is said that memory is a life long film-reel that can be rewound to specific moments when prompted. When large segments are spliced out, what comes next can be confusing. Hannah Arendt discusses the repercussions of this:

                         We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion – quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lost – would mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence. For memory and depth are the same, or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.2

Ruth Le Gear is strongly attracted to the scientific method behind natural phenomena, as well as the more intuitive process of understanding these phenomena including homeopathy. These methodologies are polar opposites but her practice operates on the premise that crucial connections are involved in perception and a unified experience is created from differences.

Le Gear’s new video piece presents the viewer with a lost civilisation. She utilises fictions surrounding Lemuria and Atlantis and recontextualises them in contemporary Berlin. It was a widely held nineteenth century belief that these two islands were real but lost places. After this belief was proved false, it entered the realm of fiction. These fictions gave reasons for their downfall: they became lost because a mistake was made, something went wrong. Lost cities recur in utopian literature, for instance with Thomas More, William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gillman and many others, demonstrating a necessary human need to explore fictional scenarios in order to understand more about the self.

If mistakes are made, are we lost forever? Who decides what our mistakes are? Why do we decide to accept this?

Lindsay Lawson’s work removes scenes from the plot-based narrative model of the Hollywood film and creates an infinitesimal loop where light, absence and repetitive action create new meaning for these scenes. The work questions authority by appropriating copyrighted material. By appropriating somebody else’s fictional scenario, it may be possible to create new meaning and understanding. By viewing a scene repeatedly through several layers of disassociation from the authorised version or scenario there is room for the audience to explore and to create their own, linking the scenes to personal or cultural memory.

The position of the artist as author also raises questions: Lawson’s artwork is a one-off film print on 16mm – this is in direct contrast to the digital shared film that she works from. By appropriating both content and method, the artist is creating a fictional scenario relating to authorship. The internet acts as a constantly shifting and expanding cultural memory archive, a mass of authorised and unauthorised content. History is no longer a clear, selective narrative in a book written by an authorised ‘expert’. With search engines and a conglomeration of information, each with different authority, impact and potency, history is now an ever-evolving network of ideas to be shared and consumed.

Who is the author of our imagined future? In 1975 JG Ballard addressed this:

                         We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass merchandising, advertising,  politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.3

If an artist is inventing a reality that opposes capitalist fictions, can reality be copyrighted?  

1 Jacqueline D. Woolley “Young Children’s Understanding of Fictional Versus Epistemic Mental Representations: Imagination and Belief” Child Development, Vol.66, No.4, (August 1995), 1011 -1021 Blackwell Publishing 31/7/12.

2 Hannah Arendt p94 Between Past and Future: Six exercises in political thought, Viking Press NY 1961.

3 JG Ballard Introduction to Crash (French Edition) 1974.    

Two Scripts For a Museum Ongoing artistic research into medical testing by the Institute of Neurology (University College London) and the School of Psychology (Cardiff University) of the apparent inability of patients suffering from hippocampal amnesia to imagine new experiences and construct fictional scenarios. The scripts represent real interviews.  

Node Center 2012 Book-62 3

Ciaran Walsh He Cried in a Whisper at Some Image, at Some Vision (II)

2012 inkjet print on photographic paper 37 x 50 cm  

Patient 5

Interviewer: Imagine that you are standing in the main hall of a museum containing many exhibits

Patient 05: [Pause]

There’s not a lot as it happens.

Interviewer: So what does it look like in your imagined scene?

Patient 05: Well, there’s big doors. The openings would be high, so the doors would be very big with brass handles, the ceiling would be made of glass, so there’s plenty of light coming through. Huge room, exit on either side of the room, there’s a pathway and map through the centre and on either side there’d be the exhibits.


I don’t know what they are

[Pause] there’d be people


To be honest there’s not a lot coming

Interviewer: Do you hear anything or smell anything?

Patient 05: No, it’s not very real. It’s just not happening. My imagination isn’t… well, I’m not imagining it, let’s put it that way. Normally you can picture it can’t you? I’m not picturing anything at the moment.

Interviewer: So are you seeing anything at all?

Patient 05: No  

Ciar.n Walsh  

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