Out: American Memory Project at Mass Art

"Ghost Dance," by American Memory Project

William Morrison, Skinny Puppy collaborator and co-creator of American Memory Project, is standing in the darkened Pozen Center explaining the muddled pedigree of his video piece "Artifacts." He lists the ingredients: heavily tweaked loops of the sneering racist poem “Raggedy Man” draped over a percussion skeleton of pops and hisses culled from wax-cylinder recordings, all set against clips of Nosferatu, Iraq oil fires, and Al Jolson in blackface. He pauses. “Was that confusing enough for you?”

Confusion is a big part of the premise of AMP (the headliner for the debut of the “Dark Arts” lecture and performance series at MassArt). Here’s the gist: following some far-off future Apocalypse, a group of Internet spelunkers discover the Library of Congress’s American Memory archives and cobble together surreal mosaics. Which is pretty much what Morrison is doing himself (minus the End Days part), plumbing the depths of the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” page and for his collage fodder. The results are striking -- even if you don't know the backstory, these hallucinatory videos and the chugging, pistoning soundtracks that accompany them are apt to grab you by the short hairs. When I saw AMP open for ohGr's Devils in My Details tour at the Paradise back in December, I wasn't sure what the hell I had just watched, but I knew I wanted more.

The video “Ghost Dance” introduces us to one of the stylistic hallmarks of AMP: taking still photographs and fleshing them out into kinetic forms with 3-D modeling software. In this case, the photos getting the pop-out treatment are the works of Edward Curtis, who was sent by J.P. Morgan to document the Plains Indians when their cultural heritage was getting plowed under by Manifest Destiny. Another stunner is "Time Don't Steal," which stars the scratchy testimonials of Alice Gaston, a former slave who describes her masters ("I didn't find no fault") and the the days leading up to her emancipation. "There was something really magical about her voice," Morrison said, and he brought it to life by filming an actress against a green screen and juxtaposing her with snapshots of ghost towns. It's a set-up that, in the wrong hands, could be painfully cheesy, but the effect is poignant.

Morrison closes the night with this proclamation: “We’re rewriting history our way.” And he exhorts you to do the same, since all AMP material is being released under a Creative Commons license for your tinkering pleasure. “I have no idea what’s going to happen with American Memory Project,” he says. “So I’m just along for the ride.” Join him at

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