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A Magazine for Sheffield

Memory Dance

Two local archive programmes on Sheffield Live! TV, hosted by Memory Dance, aim to trigger cross-generational memories of our city.

Memory dance weston park

Memory Dance x Local History Society - Episode 1, Parks and Leisure (Weston Park, 1970s).

Local archivist Alex Wilson works with a range of independent film and music culture documentary footage produced in the latter part of the last century, often focussed on Sheffield and South Yorkshire.

How we understand this film footage, some of which Alex is currently broadcasting on Sheffield Live! TV, will depend partly on our age, class, gender, race or experience. This is material that any of us might have seen in short clips in documentaries. Films in which we may feel we have appeared or in which we may find family members. Films that relate a history of a particular locality, trade or time, but that speak to a general sense of place. Films onto which we can map ourselves or our absence. Films that make us laugh at innocence or perhaps in discomfort – at a past, or at the representation of that past.

The approach of Alex’s Memory Dance project is in part inspired by a film made of Malcolm Pointon's journey through 11 years of Alzheimer’s alongside his wife Barbara. Pointon was an innovator in electronic music from the 1960s onwards, working with tape, synthesizer and keys to produce what he called 'music machines'. Alex tells me:

"It's a beautiful and heartbreaking film. It's here buried away on YouTube. I'd like to show it on Sheff Live but would have to pay for licensing.

"When I worked on the [associated] LP release [of Pointon’s music], I worked closely with Barbara, Malcolm's widow (transferring tapes and photos), and completely immersed myself in learning more about Alzheimer's and specifically music and memory.

"Their story touched me profoundly. The launch night for Memory Dance was nearly four years ago. Barbara couldn't make it that night, so her son came. She was ill. I found out a few weeks ago that she died this year of Alzheimer's related complications. Such cruelty. She was a wonderful woman and campaigner."

The Memory Dance project has continued to develop, balancing archival and contemporary music production and performance, and there have been a series of live events combining the two, some of them delivered in collaboration with No Bounds Festival. Recently, archive film has been broadcast on Sheffield Live! TV under two banners: Local History Society and After Hours.

Alex is aware of the power of the material, both as nostalgia and as an entertaining visual experience. His personal ambition remains marked by his knowledge of forgetting:

"I think where the strength in engagement sits today is twofold. With the Local History Society programming, hopefully we can provide a safe platform on traditional media for those of a certain demographic to engage with nostalgia and memory; familiar Sheffield places and scenes can be comforting to those with dementia. This particular aspect is inspired by sending my 97-year-old Gran some old VHS (copied onto DVD) of Hull history during lockdown. She takes great solace and fun in those films.

"Likewise, while the After Hours weirder late-night stuff may be less explicitly linked to Alzheimer's, I think I try to suffuse the language that surrounds the events and marketing (memory loss, decay, vulnerable media, places, history) to at least raise awareness a bit among younger people who might be scoping out old films and VHS for the first time. Perhaps in future we can run more curated, targeted events in this area with kids and schools."

Memory dance rivelin valley lido

Memory Dance x Local History Society - Episode 1, Parks and Leisure (Rivelin Valley, 1960s).

The club events where Alex integrated archival footage with music and dance are little documented, as perhaps fits their emergent character. The material overall asks a significant question, always perhaps the most pertinent: What is missing?

I asked Alex about that, wondering what the apparently endless capacity for ‘auto documentary’ today might not capture, where and what a filmmaker today might document, and how the future archivist might sift through this seemingly unending archive-in-progress:

"As an archivist by trade, digital preservation is a drum I bang on when working with arts and heritage organisations, but sadly in the chaos of getting things done in the now, it's often the last thing to be considered. A majority of people think 'digital' will last forever! It is always changing, and those digital formats so commonplace now may not be readable in 5 to 10 years. Sifting through hard drives is often more challenging than popping in a 30-year-old U-matic tape. So access to the 2000s digital era, rather than being easier, may prove to be trickier.

"As for our own A/V 'archives', we place so much faith in Facebook, Google and Instagram being around forever, and that is troubling. While those platforms offer an instant 'memory recall' – through ‘time hops’, etc – it is actually the algorithm's interpretation of your memory that I find fascinating and disconcerting.

"Capturing memory to analogue videotape or photograph was also fraught with danger, based on the materiality of tape or photo, but at least there was a certain sense of ownership. Our collective memory is now pushed into massive data farms in Texas, and can be used, re-used, abused, exploited by algorithms. Or lost entirely. Memory lost on broken 404 pages.

"Maybe that will be quite fun in a creative sense, with all the exciting ways in which we can (and will be able to) display digital data and images. But also mad – and worrying."

Learn more

Memory Dance’s Local History Society show runs on Sheffield Live TV! on Wednesdays, 7-8pm, with new episodes every fortnight. After Hours runs every Saturday, midnight-2am.

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