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Artificial Memory?

Kendall R. Phillips



This brief essay examines the impact new technologies, like augmented reality and
AI creations, are impacting public memory. While there are many concerns about
the erosion of authenticity, some artists are using new technologies to create a
more diverse, robust, and optimistic version of the memory landscape.

Memory Connection has long served as a valuable point of connection in
discussions of memory. In the past, this occasional online periodical has served
to connect scholars working in diverse fields, like Art, Rhetoric, Design, History,
and Anthropology. In other ways, Memory Connection has served as an important
link between scholars working in diverse national contexts, connecting scholars
from New Zealand to those working in the United States, the United Kingdom,
and now, Argentina.

In this brief essay, I want to think a bit about a more conceptual connection.
How can we think about the intersections of memory, trauma, and technology?
I have been doing a good deal of thinking about memory and technology over
the past few years, especially the way new technologies are shifting the way
we retain and display our past. It might prove useful to briefly rehearse some of
that earlier writing. Connah Podmore and I examined the rhetoric of the
exhibition, “The Scale of Our War,” which commemorated the campaign at
Gallipoli in Te Papa Tongarewa, The National Museum of New Zealand.¹

The exhibition had been designed by Sir Richard Taylor, the artist behind WETA
Studios and some of the incredible special effects seen in movies ranging from
The Lord of the Rings to District Nine. In our analysis, we worried about the
way the exhibition employed the rhetorical frame of cinema, with larger than
life hyper-realistic sculptures attracting most of the attention and commentary.
Our concern was not for the popularity of these spectacular displays but the
way the spectacle might distract from the harsh realities of the First World War.
What happens, we asked, when the traumas of the past, like wars, are recast
within more modern narrative and stylistic rhetorics?

On a somewhat similar note, in a more recent essay, I considered the
increasingly ubiquitous use of digital technologies to restore, refurbish, and
replace aspects of our archive.² I focused here on Taylor’s compatriot in
filmmaking, Sir Peter Jackson. Jackson’s groundbreaking documentary,
They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), utilized extensive digital work to restore aged
and fragmented footage from the First World War. Jackson’s technicians added
color, erased scratches, filled gaps, smoothed motion, and even filled in blurry or
missing elements. Additionally, the production added voiceovers from an archive
of oral histories as well as other sound effects, like marching and tanks and
bugles. Jackson used similar wizardry in his recovery of hours of footage leftover
from the Beatles documentary, Let It Be (1969). In Jackson’s presentation of the
footage, a three-part miniseries entitled Get Back (2021), which included almost
8 hours of footage, the footage is again fixed and filtered. Similar work was done
on the sound, a process using artificial intelligence to ‘de-mix’ the audio originally
combined on a single track. Through this technology, otherwise inaudible
conversations were extracted from the audio reel by a machine that distinguishes
the voice from the guitar and the drum. For me, these technological miracles
posed serious questions about the way we relate to archival materials, and I added
into the mix the minor controversy caused by Morgan Neville’s documentary,

RoadRunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. In the recounting of the life and
tragic suicide of the celebrity chef, Neville used artificial intelligence to
transform a written note, in which Bourdain questions his reasons for living,
into a spoken statement in a voice remarkably like Bourdain’s. Unwitting
audience members would, undoubtedly, have imagined this was something
Bourdain had uttered into a camera, but it was not. Reflecting on these and
other recent examples of digital engagement with archival materials, I worried
that these new technologies might erase the distance and accuracy of archival
materials. I wondered what might happen to those archives not of sufficient
contemporary interest to enjoy such technological refurbishment. I also worried
about the line, however tenuous, between the archived and the imagined.

In the remainder of this brief essay, I want to revisit my recent anxieties. I do
this not to dismiss them nor to reflect on why I’m so filled with worries about the
future of memory. Rather, I am returning to these recent concerns with a more
optimistic spirit, one informed, or perhaps better enchanted, by the way artists are
using similar technology to expand our sense of memory and monuments. I want
to complicate my own nascent critique of digital technologies by observing more
engaging and hopeful uses of the technology. I pursue this somewhat internal
dialogue by revisiting each of my three primary concerns: the danger of spectacles,
the forgotten archives, and blurring of memory and the imaginary.

At the heart of my reconsideration is the work of Idris Brewster and his
colleagues in the Kinfolk arts collaborative.³ The collaboration began in 2017
during protests against a statue to Christopher Columbus in New York City’s
Columbia Circle. As part of their campaign to have the statue removed, Brewster
and his team developed an augmented reality app allowing others to use their
phones to see an image of the Columbus statue replaced by a giant colorful statue
of Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian General who liberated the country from
colonizers. While the Columbus statue was not replaced or recontextualized,
the Kinfolk collaborative continued exploring and expanding their technological
interventions into augmented reality.⁴ Using essentially the same technology
as that used in Pokémon GO, the collective began reimagining the monument
as a more fluid, virtual object. They crafted an immersive installation at
the Tribeca Film Festival that allowed users to engage with hidden histories of
Black citizens of New York City. Beyond their own use of the technology,
Kinfolk has begun rolling out the app for wider use so that anyone can use the
scanning and imaging technology to transform the monument landscape and
craft virtual monuments anywhere.⁵

In considering this fascinating digital intervention into monumental space,
I do not intend to embrace an overly optimistic tone as a counterbalance to
my earlier pessimism. Rather, I want to put this use of digital technology into
conversation with other, arguably more commercial, uses of the digitized archive
in order to provide a more balanced view of how technology is transforming our
relationship to public memory.

Dangerous or Whimsical

While the towering figures in Richard Taylor’s “The Scale of Our War”
raised concerns for me, Kinfolk’s even more towering figure of revolutionary
Toussaint Louverture fills me with a sense of hope. (see images here: https://www. The notion of spectacle has long
been a complicated one in western culture. Plato was concerned about the
reliance on the phenomenal and more recently Guy Debord raised questions
about the “society of spectacle” as eroding the authentic and turning human life
into a commodity.⁶ The memorials crafted in Kinfolk’s augmented reality could
certainly been seen in this light as they also emphasize the virtual and
the augmentation of the material world. And yet, by embracing the artificiality
of their constructions, Kinfolk’s virtual memorial may work to undermine the
power of the seemingly “authentic” Columbus Statue. When superimposed over
the stark grey statue of Columbus, the whimsical image of the brightly colored
and cartoonish figure of Louverture reminds us of the broader absurdity of the
monumental and injects a more whimsical note. While whimsy may seem an odd
tone when addressing past traumas like the colonization of the Americas, it is,
perhaps, only through the comic frame that a future can be found, at least a future
not filled with dread and rage.⁷

Forgotten or Engaged

One concern about the digitization of archives revolves around whose archives are
selected for refurbishment and distribution? The prospect of neglected archives
sliding further into obscurity while the more celebrated and financed aspects of
the past achieve continued circulation and attention remains prominent. Kinfolk’s
approach to this danger has been to loose their technology into the world so
that anyone with a smart phone, which is an increasingly high percentage of the
global population, has a chance to rewrite the monumental landscape. The power
of their augmented reality app allows anyone to scan an existing monument and
then replace it, virtually, with a design of their own choosing. Other users can
then access these virtual monuments to see the layers of history and memory not
concretized by dominant culture. Brewster notes about the project, ““If we want
an equitable future, we need to have our collective consciousness include the
stories of those folks who have been sort of purposely erased from the canon of
American history.”⁸ By democratizing the virtual memory landscape, projects like
Kinfolk’s may allow a more engaged process of public memorialization.

Remembered or Imagined

It is perhaps best to end with a tension surrounding our conception of memory
that dates back at least to Plato. The capacity to remember is, for Plato, the same
as the capacity to imagine. Both memories and the imagined are images conjured
by the psyche. The only distinction to be found is that memories are images
conjured to fill the impression left by past events where the imagined image is
free of such constraints. Plato’s concern that memory might slip too far towards
the free and undisciplined practice of imagining helped set the stage for various
Greek and Roman practices of disciplining the memory.⁹ Projects like those
by Kinfolk ask us to reconsider this Greek tradition and, instead, consider the
prospects of a memorial practice that is less concerned with discipline and more
open to multivocality and whimsy.

As I conclude this essay, I confess to remaining torn between the tragic and
comic frame when considering the new virtual and augmented world of memory
and monuments. On the one hand, I continue to be concerned about the way
new technologies allow powerful organizations to privilege some memories over
others. I am reminded here of the way Monument Lab defines monuments as
a “statement of power and presence.”¹⁰ On the other hand, when these same
technologies circulate among a wider spectrum of populations, they seem to hold
the prospect for a more diverse, chaotic, and fluid monumental world. Perhaps it is
time for us to abandon the Greco-Roman desire to discipline memory and, instead,
embrace its dynamic cacophony.


1. Phillips, Kendall R., and Connah Podmore. “The scale of our memory: Spectacle in
the commemoration of Gallipoli.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 50.1 (2020): 35-52.
2. Phillips, Kendall. “What Happens When We Smooth Out the Rough Edges of the
Past?.” Journal of Media Ethics 37.4 (2022): 298-299.
3. Kinfolk website,
4. “Activists Protest Confederate Monuments with Virtual Black History Memorials,”
Southern Poverty Law Center,
5. “How Kinfolk is Reclaiming Black History with AR,” Hyperbae, July 4, 2023, https://
6. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Cambridge,
MA: Unredacted Word, 2021.
7. I’m thinking here of Kenneth Burke’s suggestion that the human symbolic tends
to drift into either comic or tragic frame. See, Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes toward
History: With a New Afterword. Univ of California Press, 1984.
8. Chow, Andrew. “This App Could Change How Kids Learn about Historical Heroes,”
Time (21 November 2022),
9. Kendall R. Phillips, “The Failure of Memory: Reflections on Rhetoric and Public
Remembrance,” Western Journal of Communication 74, no. 2 (2010): 208-223.
10. Monument Lab, “National Monument Audit,”

Biographical Note

Kendall R. Phillips, Ph.D. is Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies
at Syracuse University. His work focuses on rhetoric, public memory, and popular
culture. He has published several books including, Global Memoryscapes:
Contesting Remembrance in a Transnational Age (with Reyes, 2011) and Framing
Public Memory (2004).