Whitehot Magazine

Taylor Smith: Logging Fractured Memory

American Archive #14 with Boombox, oil, enamel & recycled computer floppy disks on cradled panel, 26 x 35 in.

By VICTOR SLEDGE May 10, 2024 

“Are these debit cards?” It’s a question multimedia artist Taylor Smith once received from a child viewing her work. It was a reasonable question.  

Her work isn’t actually made from debit cards, but the materials she uses are equally as rigid and techy. Even past that, in the same way debit cards are slowly being pushed out by advancements in tap-to-pay systems, the materials Smith uses were pushed out decades ago, first by CDs, then flash drives, and now the cloud. 

Smith creates paintings using floppy disks as her canvas. Of course, using a technology that became obsolete over 20 years ago, the sense of memory people have with these disks can completely change depending on their age. As an artist whose work revolves around questions of memory, that’s a part of the mystique. The fact that her work may be the first time some viewers have ever seen a floppy disk before, or the first time they’ve thought about them in decades, is a plus.

“They’re visually interesting enough that even if you don’t have experience using one decades ago, you can still visually appreciate them,” Smith says.  

The innate visual interest floppy disks hold is exactly what drew Smith to this work to begin with in the early 2000s when she ran across an old box of her own in a closet. 

 “I thought, I’m never going to use these again,” she says. “But I didn't want to simply throw them out. So I thought I could create a painting over these and turn them into something completely new.”

Antiquity v1.0

With limited colors, almost completely uniform shapes, sizes and designs, it may be difficult to imagine what kind of art a cold, hard floppy disk can inspire. “A 3.5 inch floppy disk is still intriguing enough and not too glossy and soulless that it still has some interest in and of itself,” she says.

These floppy disks, even as static as they may seem, still have an external individuality that Smith appreciates and preserves when she works. After all, these disks had a life before they made it to her. On the one hand, maybe they were only used to file tax returns or to save an English 101 term paper. But on the other hand, maybe they were used to hold the memories from a loved one’s wedding or the birth of a child.

Since the disks aren’t recyclable, they have a second life waiting for someone like Smith to purchase them from a plant where one would send unused keyboards or a desktop mouse. The floppy disks can and do exist for a full adult life before they even make it to Smith’s studio. 

To avoid the chance of eventually running out of them, the disks can wait for years at her studio before they become a part of one of her pieces. 

“I probably have over 20,000 in my studio right now that are just waiting for me to get to them,” she says. 

That means, at some point, each of those 20,000 floppy disks will be painted to create a collective panel for a piece. And that’s where you start to feel how Smith’s method pulls the individuality out of every floppy disk she touches.

As an artist who has respect and reverence for memory in her work, Smith is interested in the lives she can see written on the disks. She intentionally allows the different labels and notes she finds on the disks to become a part of the work.  

“You can see through the painting and see all the old information on the disks like people’s handwritten marks and software labels. I don’t want to cover that up. I position them so that the most visually interesting labels and colors are showing through and not painted over,” she explains.  

That method is only the first way you see Smith’s work cradle these memories. 

Ziggy Stardust v2.0

When she first started making pieces out of the disks, they became more than just a fractured puzzle of a canvas. What was inside of them started to have a voice in the work as well. Their stored data brings another layer of life to the experience viewing her work that makes whoever first owned a given floppy disk a part of the piece as well. 

“It’s this collaboration between someone who put this data on this disk 25, 35 years ago and me. But we don’t know each other. It’s completely anonymous,” she says.  

Out of respect for these memories and privacy, Smith doesn’t look to see what’s on the disks. Whatever they store is immortalized in her paintings. 

“I have never wanted to open a single one. I don’t look at any of them. I want to keep the data private,” she explains. “I feel like I am entrusted with all this privacy, and I’m trying to be a good shepherd. It’s like a time capsule. It’s almost mysterious.” 

For Smith, outside of honoring the principle of privacy, keeping the information anonymous is also about limiting the noise she hears in her process.“If you can hear the hum of what’s inside, so many voices and pieces of data talking to each other, it could become a very cacophonous type of art,” she says. It’s a thoughtful decision in her process, too, because of how it allows her to focus on the meaning behind her work.  

While audiences may see these colors and quirky materials calling back to this collective memory of figures like Marilyn Monroe or David Bowie, Smith sees an exploration of her own journey with memory.  

Smith’s mother passed away after battling Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and her father is now living with Alzheimer’s and struggles to even recognize Smith at times. 

“We’ve been dealing with that for maybe 10 years, and I started trying to make a throughline between my family’s situations and what I put onto a panel or canvas,” she explains. “Every time I look at a finished piece, I think about my family. I’m putting my parent’s medical condition onto a canvas.” 

Western Myths #01

You understand that more in her work when you realize, yes, she is preserving the spirit of these memories but the memories she’s preserving have also been discarded in a recycling plant and rendered unreadable through her paintings. A closer look at Smith’s work reveals that she’s logging fractured memory as she grapples with the toll of her father’s and late mother’s conditions. 

“What’s outside doesn’t always reflect what’s on the inside. Inside, I’m speaking more to what’s corrupt, what’s lost,” she says. 

It’s a singularly painful and jarring experience to watch your parents lose the memories they’ve created with you, and it’s an experience that would be grueling to explain over and over to every viewer that confronts Smith’s work. So, it’s not that Smith shies away from giving light to that aspect of her work, but it’s not a part of it that she naturally jumps to share. 

“I don’t always go into all the heaviness and depth. I keep a lot of this for me. Not that I would mind if anybody knew, but it’s not something that I start with,” she says. “What I want is for somebody to think about memory, how it's shaped, how it can become obsolete but also put together again.” 

Through Smith’s work, you find an artist that has given weight to an almost weightless piece of forgotten technology. With layers of memory and data, you find an artist who has turned her exploration of a family disease into pieces that celebrate and interrogate what’s lost and what’s kept. And at the end of it all, you realize that the work is a collaboration of personal and collective memory that speaks to us all at once, but separately as well. 

If you’d like to learn more about Smith and her work, you can visit her website at www.abstractmodern.com and follow her on Instagram @taylorsmithstudio  WM

Victor Sledge

Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia.  He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic. 

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