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Kerry Tribe Talks Emotion and Memory in “H.M.”

By Nicole Wong

The University Art Gallery hosted a roundtable discussion of Kerry Tribe’s experimental film, “H.M.,” covering topics such as memory and trauma, in the Claire Trevor School’s Winifred Smith Hall last Thursday night. Tribe was among the panelists, others including Juli Carson, the curator, and professor of neurobiology, James McGaugh. (Yes, that McGaugh.)

People don’t often think of art and neurobiology in the same context, but Tribe’s film on amnesiac Henry Molaison, known as Patient H.M., combines the two in a very thought-provoking way.

“I’ve always been interested in questions about memory and consciousness and in trying to find ways to make the media of moving imagery, [like] film, video, address those questions,” said Tribe.

“Memory,” Carson stated. “is at that place where art and science intersect.”

The discussion delved into the scientific side of things first, with McGaugh talking about his research on memory over the years. One especially eye-opening point he makes is that adrenaline, during memory processing, can make that particular memory stronger. In other words, if we are excited about something or become emotionally attached to it, we are more likely to recall that memory.

For H.M., he wasn’t able to develop this long-term memory because the parts of his brain that processed memory, the hippocampus and the amygdala, were surgically removed to cure his epilepsy. Another consequence was loss of episodic memory, meaning he couldn’t re-experience past memories in his mind.

Since H.M.’s working memory started from scratch every 20 seconds, Tribe wanted to give the viewer that same feeling, which she calls a “cognitive dissonance.”  The screen is split in two with the right side playing 20 seconds slower than the left. This constantly reminds the viewer of what has happened and creates a sort of uneasiness. Something about what we’re witnessing is off, but it’s hard to put a finger on it.

Kerry Tribe is an artist interested in the intersection between memory, consciousness, art and science; in “H.M.”, she “addresses these questions” with a captivating visual representation of amnesia. Photo courtesy of Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

Tribe makes certain artistic decisions to create a holistic experience for her audience. As the images change, what sounds like the click of a shutter is actually H.M.’s walker. Narrative of H.M.’s complicated surgical procedure is contrasted with animated clips. During the film, when H.M. is asked about his mother, a still of Nancy Reagan, who Tribe describes as a “maternal figure for the country at the time,” appears.

It’s an absolutely mesmerizing experience. When the film is over and fades to black for the last time, audience members slowly wake up from their trance.

Additionally, while trying to cause the viewer to see the world as H.M. sees it, Tribe also seems to employ the idea McGaugh first discusses of using emotion to help with memory. In between footage of H.M., images of famous historical events are scattered throughout the video. A fire hose spraying  high school students during the 1963 Birmingham movement, the Kent State shooting, man landing on the moon and the Berlin Wall are. some of the glimpses of triumph and despair that flash on the screen for only a second before disappearing.

As you absorb all of these disparate images, you soon become aware of  the film’s subjectivity. No two people are going to have the same experience during a screening.

Some people might connect more with the Kent State image, while others might gravitate to an image of the Women’s Liberation March. On the other hand, some viewers may not even recognize a few or any of the photographs and this emotional connection makes “H.M.” truly memorable.

Tribe states, “It was important to me to feel like we were seeing this individual’s experience in a much larger historical context where iconic things happen and they move on and history marches on and he’s kind of stuck where he is.”