Do Humans Dream In Negative Strips?

DHDNS is a catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition of the same title held at the Center for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne in May 1998, based on key aspects of the film Blade Runner (and related film texts) dealing with the interaction of memory and photographic technology.
© May 1998, Felix Deftereos


Roy: Time enough. Did you get your precious photos?

Leon: There was someone there. (shaking head)

Roy: Men? ....Police ....Men?

- Conversation between replicants Roy Batty and Leon Kowalski in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner


According to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (based upon Philip K Dick's 'Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep'?) in 2019 AD the Tyrell Corporation driven by the motto 'More human than human' develop androids or replicants that are in every way equal to if not superior to human beings. Their secret is implanting the replicants with generic memories, drawn from human subjects (including Corporation Director Tyrell's own niece. Tangible evidence is provided to the replicants in the form of photographs. These fabricated photographs supplement their implanted memories. The consequence is replicants who believe that they are human, complete with memories, who rely on photographs as tangible, objective evidence of their being.

It is rather ironic that the replicants in Blade Runner are supplemented with fragments of reality that are themselves a fabrication. Isn't that however the very nature of the medium? The nature of the photograph/time based image as it exists in the world is a complex one, whether it is comprehended as an invention of a parallel reality that makes the past immediate (Sontag), an authenticating medium (Barthes) or in the case of time based media an illusory 'dream' reality (Allen). Its very existence augments and shapes experience, however rather than providing transparent access to a referent, photomedia fabricates reality that is accessible only at a remove.

The accessibility of reality through representation is qualified further by a subjects suspension of disbelief. Belief in the authority of representation can be inconsistent with knowledge based on the subjects direct experience of the world. What overrides this understanding are our emotional responses to representation. Writing about the experience of cinema, Richard Allen argues that this circuit breaker is an empathetic or a 'projective illusion.' This illusion is analogous to a dream state of wish fulfillment where rather than images being assumed to be transparent conveyers of being, we allow them to become subject to our projective desires.

Mace: These are used emotions, it's time to trade them in. Memories are made to fade Lenny, they're designed that way for a reason.

- Mace trashing Lenny Nero's addiction to memory 'clips' technology in Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days.

In Strange Days, our protagonist Lenny Nero who pushes and is addicted to 'clips' technology negotiates the mean streets of LA in a state of dreams and memories. These dreams are constituted of the desires of his past. Nero is addicted to a desire proffered him by an illusory time based state of technological recall. 'Clips' are the medium that provide him access to a channel of desire triggered memories, augmented by a devise that plays back the totality of specific experiences in transparent 'real time.'

Dreams are animate consciousness, composed of images and thoughts that seemingly exist within real time. They are themselves mirrors of realities, experienced and prescribed by individual subjects. Their trigger is desire. Much the same as a camera's button is pressed to capture a coveted moment, the thought patterns of dreams illuminate and restructure a fabricated terrain of experienced. Dreams contextualise emotion. As both permutations and a consequence of desire, dreams are meanings internally projected, and in another sense projected externally upon the world, but removed from it.

In Blade Runner the replicant Leon is dangerously obsessed by his collection of photographs, photographs of seemingly mundane things such as his fellow replicants lounging at their apartment. Leon's desire for his photographs seems illogical in the sense that he fully knows that he is a replicant, and therefore is not using the photographs as proof of his 'authenticity', but simply as a 'cushion' for his emotions. As Tyrell explains in a conversation with Deckard 'We started to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all they are emotionally inexperienced with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we give them a past we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions and subsequently we can control them better'. Leon's obsession with photographs that either he took himself or that were provided him are tentatively explained by Deckard who, despite a certain cynicism, states 'Leons pictures had to be as phony as Rachel's' comes to the conclusion that maybe even replicants needed (desired?) memories (interestingly here equated directly with photographs) to continue being, 'Maybe they (the other replicants) were like Rachel. They needed memories.'


Jane: How do you fit all that shit in your head anyway? Must have been pretty good at memorizing huh?

Johnny: Implant web wired, I had to dump a chunk of long term memory.

Jane you had to dump a chunk of what?

Johnny: My childhood.

Jane: Your childhood! Really? All of it? You can't remember a thing?

Johnny: Maybe there are some residual traces. Every now and then there is something, but I can never hold on to it.

- From Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic, based on the story by William Gibson.

In Johnny Mnemonic, Johnny is a mercenary, a man of little empathy and little time for others. He forsakes emotional entanglements for secular renumeration. But he wasn't always like this. His job description specified the removal of his long term memories. Once his memories are restored, he is able to locate himself within a history and realise for the first time his own disturbing humanity.

A memory is literally remembered, as disparate fragments of data residing in various parts of the mind create replications not duplications of an original experience. This process is one of interpretation rather than reproduction, and as an interpretation, it is a reformulation, a reconstructed version of an experience. As a result of this process the perpetuation of memory owes more to the last recall event than to an authentic defining moment. A memory is therefore an animate replication of a replication ad infinitum, we remember what we remembered of what we remembered etc. A memory is therefore as different from and as similar to an initial moment as from other occasions of prompted recall. It is the product of a continuous genesis, and therefore subject to the contingencies of a precarious ontology.

Memories are therefore impressions made precarious by the fact that they are the product of an animate process of replication. A photograph on the other hand is defined by the singular ontology of its mechanical genesis, but is it also therefore a transparent replication of the authentic defining moment? What is certain is the reliance of the one upon the other. Memories contextualize images, (just as dreams contextualize emotions) and images contextualize our experience of memory.

But what triggers reminiscence? Memory recall is rarely conscious or sequential, memories often being triggered by sensual association with objects and entities existing in the world. Technology has not only become the mirror of desire through which memories are prompted, but also through this aspect the medium for making memories tangible. As such they are intimately linked to the shaping of experience and the configuration of the subject.


Is extra factual memory that convincing? Quail asked...

'Don't think of it that way,' McClane said severely. You're not accepting second best. The actual memory, with all its vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions - that's second best.'

From Philip K. Dick's We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, 1966

As material culture, photographs offer evidence of and continuity with the past. Like postcards from a past these texts augment and transcend time by seeming to stand as independent authorities of a 'reality'. Utilised in this way they can cushion a subjects mortal realizations through an immortality of presence. They are consulted as proof of often subjective facts such as that we are loved, that we were young (and on that gelatin surface remain eternally so). At other junctures , photographs offer the seized presence of physically absent contemporaries, 'a presence' as Crimp states '-of the being there necessitated by...the absence that we know to be the condition of representation' . Reality framed by the lens is contracted into the individuals gaze, the individual's desires. The ephemeral is made tangible and subsequently privileged as a defining moment when it is however simply domesticated time and space.

Images may shape time even invent it, but time is also their context, time frames our understanding of them. The photograph provides transport in both directions from the seemingly emphatic present moment of its being taken (which instantly becomes the past, forward to a future when it is next consulted, (thus the strange experience of photographs filed away and seldom seen which seem to differ with each staggered viewing).

Bergson's reading of memory as 'virtual coexistence' argues that the past could never be constituted if it did not coexist within the present. This 'coexistence' could be a description of the nature of photomedia. If 'the whole of the our past is played restarts, repeats itself, at the same time' then photomedia (which is coeval with the present but which makes the past immediate), if not actual memory, plays a large part in our experience of it.


Detective: Do you own a video camera?

Rene: No, Fred hates them.

Fred : I like to remember things my own way.

Detective: What do you mean by that?

Fred: How I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened.

- From David Lynch's Lost Highway

In David Lynch's Lost Highway, the main character Fred finds himself in a world of flux where reality and fantasy intersect. In this Bergsonian world of 'virtual coexistence' his identity and the reality that he takes as fixed is suddenly blurred into one of multiple identities and dimensions. Even the photographs lie. In a world of acceleration and exponential flux, memories are made redundant and the subject orphan.

Is it the case late in the 20thC that from the most intimate snapshot to the excesses of cinema that we are reflected and our subjectivity configured? Indeed it can be argued that our generic memories are to an extent 'implanted'. As Claire Sponsler explains 'The sensations and experiences unique to one human being....what would seem to define that person are transformed and projected via technology...In this world one's own experiences are no longer just one's own and offer no mechanism for self determination or self definition.

People consciously and subconsciously orchestrate then imitate their photographs. It is a synechdochial relationship where fabricated fragments representing nothing themselves stand for an indisputable reality, a subjective projection of self. Blade Runner's often used example of the replicant Rachel is a case in point. Rachel is implanted with the memories of a 'real' little girl, and understands these memories as her own. These memories are bolstered by fabricated photographs which she naively uses as evidence of herself. When faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the following loss of her presumed identity causes Rachel to descend into a chaotic self doubt until she emerges by mirroring herself in the archaic photos of women in Deckard's apartment. Through imitation, Rachel does not finally resolve the question of herself but begins to accede to the possibilities of who she may become. Without memories (or personal photos) she can trust, her vulnerability in the face of rival imagery is evidenced and yet as Ierardi comments 'She is facing a symbol of her own manufactured nature whenever she picks up a photograph.'

Click. A moment sanitised and embalmed on film, whatever else we see, or feel exists not within the tangible image of an embodied vision, but within our intangible selves. In this lies the fiction of authority, of authentication, the lie that is brought forward by a desire to become, to identify. It is the lie of dreams, it is the lie of subjectivity. It is the lie, albeit necessary lie within and of the self.


'It is not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre.'

- Maxim Gorky on Lumieres 'moving photography' in The Kingdom of Shadows, 1896

Ironically, photographs prove the replicants inevitable undoing as Deckard, the Blade Runner uses the replicant Leon's discarded photographs to track them down and retire them. What provided the replicants with a tolerable existence also in effect took it away from them.

'Photography is memory...(memories) are no longer Proustian madeleines, but photographs' states Guiliana Bruno. Perhaps so. If for a moment we hold photographs as simply an adjunct to memory and both memory and photomedia as the progeny of desire can we take it one step further and cite photographic prints as analogous to consciousness, and the undeveloped negative a subconscious dream state of possibilities, of suspended narration awaiting awakening to form?

Are film negatives analogous to the subconscious? Perhaps in a playful sense,we may regard that not everything experienced is developed. Some images or thoughts are intentionally 'misplaced', suppressed, suffer internal censorship or are subject to other prevailing emotional responses. Memories rarely if ever coincide with a 'reality' How could they?

For Proust however, obsessed as he was with the past and memory, the photograph was both liberator and apostate. Like Proust our own ambivalence may be tempered by the fact that though we lose more than a generation every time the film rolls or the camera snaps, we gain qualified access to a fragment of irredeemable time. In this redeemed space, the reality grasped may be analogous to a dream state of desires, a projected illusion, and sometimes it may be that only in dreams do we find ways of negotiating the world.

Perhaps the final words should be left to Blade Runner's Roy Batty, a replicant who it seems unlike Leon never indulged in photographs. His cynicism however is tempered by a final raging acceptance of his own individuality , and mortality. Upon approaching the moment of his retirement, he succumbs to the recounting of what he holds as his actual memories....

'All those moments

will be lost in time

like tears...

in the rain'...

Felix Deftereos © May 1998
CCP, Melbourne