Machines of Translation

Making the stories we have collected into work for the exhibition, I become interested in technologies for recording, translating and constructing stories, after reading an article in Cabinet magazine. (

Which explores the history of Charles Babbages’ Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, the precursor to the computer. Curiously enough, the machine I am constructing to process the stories creates something very similar to the punch cards used in early Information Technology:

Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies offers another possibility for constructing stories, through the use of Tarot cards. The symbology of the cards combined creates a multitude of stories. The process we’ve used to translate personal histories has involved selecting an object for each person’s story, photographing it onto film and then passing this film through the translation machine (the Aurophone).

Each story becomes an image, overlaid with a pattern of dots.

These could be seen as a pack of cards, a series of symbols to shuffle and rearrange, whilst the market is perhaps a contemporary version of the Castle of Crossed Destinies. The work’s title is Confabulation, which reflects the combining of real and imagined objects of memory and possibilities of constructing narratives from this archive of absences.

Once the films are processed, punched and passed through the machine, the sound is recorded and combined with the animated positives of the films. I am reminded of scratch film experiments like those by Hy Hirsh:

and I wonder how this could combine with a modern day take on punch cards,

GNU plots, to create a moving image of plotted data based on narratives of places. Could these random patterings reveal something of the uniqueness of a point of crossing of paths?

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Market Stall Residency

I spent the previous three weeks ‘in residence’ on a market stall in Brixton, offering passers-by “Memory Preservation Salts” which came from a salt pan in the Western Cape region of South Africa, the exact location where my great-grandfather had once harvested salt to sell in his general store nearby. Whilst the importance of history, and a fascination with place and memory were handed down to me by my family, what was omitted were the Jewish religious and cultural traditions which my great-grandfather carried on his emigration from a small village in Lithuania around the turn of the 19th century. Seeking to reconstruct my own past, I became fascinated by how little we really know of our history. Could place act as a filter for memory?

Sitting in the market, I had a series of often intimate, surprising and sometimes shocking conversations with strangers about their memories and stories of origin; where their family came from, where they came from, and their connection or otherwise to these places. Their journey to Brixton. As they spoke, my imagination took on their memories and I found myself in the places they described, inventing my own memory-pictures. I wonder: can it be possible for me to adapt these images into a collective biography?

Salt is a starting point for many of the conversations. Lauren, a Brixtonian, tells me about a woman she met in Bahia, Brazil, who collects salt from around the world. She says that salt embodies the soul of a place; and in alchemy, salt is soul, or soul is salty. So each sample of salt is like a sample of a place, somewhere in the world. This seems appropriate for the exchange taking place on the stall: the giving of salt in return for a sample, a fragment, or a relic of somewhere.


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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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White Wonder

A 1950s film about salt production.

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An Introduction

This blog will chart my progress as a PhD student in Architectural Design at the Bartlett, University College London.

My interest in ‘Salted Earth’ emerged through its possibilities as both a metaphor and material, and as a filter through which to explore traces and identities in contested sites with links to migrant history.

Salt is used in ritual and as a symbol by many different cultures; in Alchemy, salt is the ‘stable’ third element, representing form, knowledge and crystallization of that knowledge. In pagan religions, salt circles are devices of safety, and in Jewish customs salt is used as a blessing. In Santeria, salts are used in cleansing and exorcism, (for example this Jinx Removing salt which I bought in Brixton market.) Salt has been used as a currency from early civilization; the word ‘salary’ derives from the Latin word salārium, referring to the payment of Roman soldiers in salt. Salt cakes were used as currency in China, Tibet and parts of the mediterranean, and many global trade routes were developed to transport salt.

Salting the earth is a term which refers to mainly historical examples of using salt to render land unusable as punishment, now usually referred to as a ‘scorched earth’ policy. I came across the term “Salted earth” in South Africa, referring to an area of Cape Town demolished by the apartheid government, which subsequently became impossible to build on due to protests; the emotion buried in land had made its contested nature a metaphorically ‘salted’ site.

Through my recent practice investigating my genealogy and family migrations, I discovered my great-grandfather had harvested and traded salt in South Africa, which became the basis for a series of works. From this personal interest in migrant history I expanded my research field to draw in other narratives and memories of migration which connect to sites of ‘salted earth’.

Places of salted earth are sites with a contested, often obscured history. They are often ‘spaces of absence’, edge spaces with an unclear identity where migrants, who are often excluded from society, can exist. This suggests a need for a careful engagement, offering up possible alternative practices of memorialisation, which are between art and architecture. The research process will involve the drawing out of emotion from these sites, exploring the idea of healing and attempting to understand causes and legacies of these spatial conflicts.

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