Memory Recall

On Saturday I attended Spaces of Memory, an afternoon symposium at the Royal Academy Schools.

Iain Borden introduced the afternoon by explaining Lefebvre’s theory of space as a social construct, and suggesting that memory is one way we bring the spatial together; different temporalities and spaces combine with different types of recall to form different mental representations of space.

Greg Dart’s paper on Regency London outlined the point in London’s history where almost as the physical past was being destroyed, people began to see an urgent need to record and preserve this past. As the new monuments of Regent Street were built, the poor were moved on to St Martin’s Lane and then to St Giles. Artists began recording the beggars, who represented the genius loci of the London streets.

Fiona Anderson described David Wojnarowicz’s Pier 34 photographs and projects in New York in the 1970s and 80s, which again sought to capture a moment of change; an illegal society on the fringes, occupying a space in its twilight years, one which later became a memorial to those dying of HIV. (The next day, I saw Gordon Matta-Clarks photographs of vacant lots in New York at the Barbican. I viewed them through this nostalgic vision of a New York City once empty, open and decaying, now lost through its filled-in ness.)

Yat Ming Loo’s work on post-colonial spaces of memory called into question the politics of memory. In post-independence Malaysia, differing versions of new identities were posited by different groups, each seeking its own spatial representations to answer the question of how reconstructing history fitted into their rewritten text of the city. He asked therefore how migrant communities are able to trace memory, where by the act of departure, passing through, they are no longer active in the construction of place; suggesting that an active (and political) role in the continuous making of place is necessary in order for memory to be physically represented.

Artists Will Montgomery, Inez de Coo and Blue Firth and architect Asif Khan presented works which sought to work with the stuff of memory, and daydream. But as someone raised in the discussion, if memory is personal and subjective, how can we seek to represent or portray a collective memory, or tap into one? Who are we, as artists and architects, really speaking for, when we seek to represent memory, and whose memory do we seek to represent?

If we accept that representations of collective memory are always framed through the personal and subjective, we can also acknowledge that these have the power to challenge and question existing orders, so that the moment of change, when memory is manufactured, becomes a catalyst to exploring competing, contested claims for site and place. This is perhaps where the work of artists, designers and architects can hold its own; while these manufactured memories can never be ‘true’ any more than memory itself can represent ‘truth’ or reality, they can offer a space for discourse, and a re-examination of the present.

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