All memory has to be reimagined. For we have in our memories micro-films that can only be read if they are lighted by the bright light of the imagination.
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics Of Space
Something weird happens when we try to recreate cultural artifacts from memory: the result has less to do with the artifact, and more to do with us.
Here’s type designer Erik Spiekermann on what he does when he finds a typeface that he really likes that would work for his clients, “but it’s already used by somebody else, or it’s too old, or I can’t afford to buy it or it would be a ripoff.”
I look at it for a long time, I draw it, I sketch over it, then I put it away. And the next day I sit down and draw it from memory. And then it’s different. I read a novel and I rewrite it the next day in my own language… [In that way I’m] influenced by it, but it’s not a copy. I think that’s pretty much how everybody works. Everybody is influenced by somebody else. You sit down to write a tune and you have all the other tunes in your life in your head.
When Dirty Projectors’ frontman Dave Longstreth was helping his parents move out of his childhood home, he found the cassette case for Black Flag’s Damaged, but the tape was missing. So, he decided to rerecord the songs from memory — those songs became the music on Rise Above.
“I had to completely inhabit my early adolescence, the time when I used to listen to Damaged,” Longstreth has said. “[I was] trying to access the memory crystals stored from when I loved it back in middle school.”
The beauty of Rise Above is that Longstreth used his memory of the original Black Flag songs as a starting point to create “new” songs. “I wanted to see if I could make this album…not as an album of covers or an homage per se, but as an original creative act.” It was his imagination that made them great.
Ivan Brunetti has a drawing exercise in Cartooning where he has his students doodle cartoon characters quickly, from memory:
When drawing characters quickly, from memory, one can be quite inaccurate, almost as if one is inventing new characters, and these “mistakes” can serve as the basis for new character designs. This lets the students see their own styles more clearly. A page full of these doodles can help the student discern certain qualities that are consistent within their set of drawings. These qualities are a clue as to what makes one’s particular “visual handwriting” different or unique, and these should be embraced by the student.
I love this idea: we can actively use our imperfect memory to lead us to discover our own thing.
Note: I self-plagiarized (HA!) this post from a 2008 blog post that pretty much led to my ideas behind Steal Like An Artist. (Spiekermann quote via via)