Grief, loss and memory
Memoglobe – speculative design for a remembrance tool
Empathize & Define
I learned this about grief in our Western society – when I once took a depression assessment test, one question is whether I have been recently bereaved. If you say yes, it means you are likely not depressed. You are grieving. Sometimes, when you suffer through grief, you go through a temporary sudden depressive state. It is understandable why you do not want to eat, sleep, cry or feel empty when you grieve. But the distinction between grief and depression in that depressive state assessment seems practical and straightforward, albeit reductive.
Death is a part of life and the only thing that is certain in life, apart from taxes, as the saying goes. And it is still hard to cope with, especially during a crisis like a global pandemic.
I created a map of my reflections and feelings about the last year and a half living in unprecedented times.
However, in my journey through this module, I do not want to focus on the recent pandemic. I come from Poland. We used to visit concentration and camps sites during school trips as children, and death from years ago was all over the land where I grew up. So many graves stand there on the edges of the forests. Right now, we have the technology to attempt to recover the remains and test them and give back the nameless people their identities.
But in many cases, it is too late to recover anything. The world has moved on. Sometimes, if I visit my relatives, I walk past an old house that a Jewish family built before they died in the Holocaust. I still go to cemeteries and graveyards where my ancestors are buried and take care of their tombstones, although I never met them.
The thoughts of ancestral memory are close to my interests as I do genealogical research for friends in my spare time. During my research, I found concepts of how family histories affect living people.
One of the research papers I read was from Dr Rachel Yehuda, who researched the effects of stress and trauma on the children of Holocaust survivors and of pregnant women who survived the 9/11 attacks. She found connections between traumatic life experiences of one generation can transmit biologically to the next generations. Today many more practitioners of psychotherapy look at examples of intergenerational history and family trauma during treatments. An emerging path of inquiry is exploring how historical and cultural traumas affect survivors’ offspring for generations to come. We cannot yet predict the full effects the pandemic will have on the health and resilience of our descendants as well.
Of course, there are different kinds of grief and loss, not only due to a bereavement. In certain places, nostalgia and longing for lost things are cultural concepts, for example, suadade or anemoia. However, together with that yearning comes the attitude that terrible things happen to teach us to appreciate the good.
I wanted to look at examples of how we commemorate our dead. Because it is impossible to describe the practices of every culture, I focused specifically on methods preserving the three-dimensional features of the deceased person, such as statues and death masks.
These practices have existed since antiquity and still see modern practitioners such as Neri Oxman, who created a 3D printed Lazarus mask that combines both the facial features of a person and includes a container for their last breath.
“[…] using spatial mapping algorithms that generate coloured internal strands enveloped by transparent curved volumes. Rather than memorializing the dead, these masks are designed with an emphasis on cultural heritage, reimagining the potential utility through high-end technologies such as high-resolution material modelling, multi-material 3D printing, and synthetic biology. The material composition is designated by the airflow and distribution of this breath. The design is data-driven, digitally generated, and additively manufactured; the design team thus wanted to express the contemporary technological spirit in their version of these ancient artefacts.”
There is something that photographs cannot express; I thought while looking at these three-dimensional examples of commemorating the death, especially the Lazarus mask, that captures something so fleeting as the last breath of a dying person. I understand why people used to take commemorative photographs with the dead and why some still take photos of the deceased in open caskets. We want to preserve the memory.
Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.Arthur C Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
The veneration of the dead
In many cultures, people believe that one’s ancestors’ spirits can influence the fate of the living. It is usually a practice derived out of love and reverence for the deceased family members.
Death ends a life, not a relationship.Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie.
I was more interested in how people try to remember their loved ones rather than religious and cultural practices. That is why I read Tuesdays with Morrie, a non-fiction memoir about meetings between Mitch Albom and his former university professor Morrie Schwartz. Morrie was nearing the end of his life, and in discussions with Albom, they talked about important things in life. The book is a legacy of Schwartz’s opinions about life, and Albom’s book became an object that represented the connection he had to his former teacher.
How can connections between people be represented through objects and products that can aid memory? Can things hold memories?
Also, through personal associations, things gain subjective meaning. The memories we have of objects influence sentimentality and affection for the inanimate.
This thinking leads me to the concept of panpsychism – the idea that inanimate objects have consciousness. According to Francesco Patrizi, things can have a mind or a mind-like quality.
Moving on from the empathizing and defining stage, I decided to focus on the idea of an object that helps preserve people’s memory and ancestral memory.
I started by thinking about visual representations of ancestral connections between people in our culture, such as family trees, heirlooms, coats of arms, etc. I also thought about pictures of loved ones we keep and symbols of connections such as wedding bands.
When working on ancestral memory, I mapped connections between families from a small community, and the intertwining family trees reminded me of playground monkey bars.
They are geometrical in design, with straight lines, with many branches. I first had an idea of making playground monkey bars, but I quickly started to look at the family tree shape as a symbolic representation. How can these familial connections be preserved for people to look at in the form of an object?
I thought about using glass spheres because of their transparency. Glass is a suitable container for preserving things. I thought about paperweights.
I looked at the possibility of placing the representations of community connections in a glass sphere and other ways of trapping and preserving memories. Still, I thought that the details of these connections would be too small to read. Also, would it be understandable to others or only look like random geometrical patterns?
Looking at glass spheres made me remember crystal balls used to predict the future in certain cultures. At the same time, the idea of preserving a remembrance of the past in a glass or similar raisin led me to look at images of insects preserved in amber.
The idea of balls and memory was also well expressed by snow globes.
I wondered whether the object that people already associate with remembering a place or an experience could be applied to preserve memory about the dead. I drew an image of a snowglobe with a magnifying glass that would magnify the geometrical patterns of a family tree and make it more legible.
But I also looked at other examples of objects that could be placed inside snow globes.
Snow globes these days are primarily mass-produced and tacky pieces of plastic. Could they become a dignified object of remembrance? Could they become bespoke objects passed down through families like photo albums? Where would their place be?
Considering these questions moved the snow globe idea quickly into a place of speculating on remembering our dead in the future.
What would be on our mantelpiece in 2090 instead of family photographs?
Futuristic visions of capturing people’s images are not only limited to video and photography. A popular trope in science fiction and futuristic films are holograms.
Unfortunately, my knowledge of holograms is insufficient to create a small scale working snow globe prototype. Still, I found that various media such as gases (smoke), water, and LED fast-moving lamps can help create holograms.
In my speculative design, Memoglobe, I propose a snow globe filled with opaque gas that would create a 3D bust of a deceased person using gas sensors and projection beams technology.
Notes from the sketch: As technological progress helps with creating even smaller electronic components in the future, it could be possible to produce an even smaller globe. However, Memoglobe would also fulfil a function of decoration. Details displayed in the globe should be of sufficient size for a viewer to see the projected images with detailed features.
As I am unfamiliar with techniques used to create holograms, I looked at the work of people who have already explored the topic. In his work, Juan Leonardo Martinez-Hurtado (2012) explored the chemical and biological aspects of creating gas-sensitive holographic sensors. I propose that components currently found in a smartphone will become even smaller in the future, allowing for combining electronics with sensors and light beam emitters and could fit in in an object of a snow globe.
In terms of affordances, snow globes present an example of learned user behaviour. According to William Gaver (1981), when previous experience is needed to understand an object’s properties, affordances of that object are described as hidden. With traditional snow globes containing suspended particles, it seems rather apparent that shaking the thing would create an effect. At the same time, in our culture, we associate glass objects with fragility. Most people learn early on about the use and purpose of snow globes, so to a person raised in the Western culture, the properties on one can seem obvious.
I wanted that function of a snowglobe to remain a feature of Memoglobe.
With a gyro sensor, when the object is shaken, the action activates the beams of light, and a holographic shape of a loved one is created in the opaque swirling gas.
The 3D form of the hologram inside the ball that I propose derives from the practice of creating busts and death masks known since antiquity. Similarly, the concept of a crystal ball was also present around the first century CE. Pliny the Elder described the use of crystal balls by soothsayers and named them “crystallum orbis” (later written in Medieval Latin by scribes as orbuculum). These objects still exist in the 21st century.
I looked at alternative designs for the object, but when the sphere was replaced by other shapes, it looked like a hotel lamp.
Memoglobe should be made with durable components, such as toughened or laminated glass or another appropriate shatter-resistant glass. It should have rounded corners without sharp edges. I propose that the base is made out of wood. In the future, we might not produce things out of wood out of concern for the environment or in the case of living in space. The wooden base would add value to the Memoglobe as an object that is meant to last for generations and be passed down. I imagine that new 3D models of family and friends who passed could be added to a memory card or uploaded wirelessly to an internal memory card.
My initial 3D designs in 3Ds Max and a different base design below
Upon shaking, the holographic image displayed in the globe would play a short animated sequence that captures the deceased person’s upper torso and facial expressions. Adding sound recordings and 3D holograms with sound would also be possible as the sound of someone’s voice or smile are important things we notice and love.
At some point, I considered whether Memoglobe could be potentially a vessel-like device that everyone can fill with things they consider worth preserving about themselves through private online profiles. Upon the death of a person, authorized family and friends could access the stored data and download it onto their Memoglobes. I know of speculative fiction that propose people will be able to upload their consciousness onto the cloud or into a new body, organic or robotic. I did not want to speculate about the future of human existence, however. Rather, I wanted to explore how we might want to capture the memory of loved ones or how we might want to be remembered by future generations.
Nowadays, there are cameras and recordings of us and that wealth of data my generation will leave behind for the future ones. Even with video and sound recordings and photography being a part of our lives, I imagine Memoglobe as a tool allowing us a glimpse into the past and have a function of a shared memory object that a family keeps and passes down.
I did not have a chance to test the design as I only presented a speculative idea for a future approach to keeping memory. However, I created situational sketches and visualizations for Memoglobe, as shown below.