Future Memory

Originally posted on 29 January 2011, this is an extended version of the explanatory text for a series of discussion events I organised at the Royal Academy of Arts Forum.

Memory, we might say, acts to mediate. All our experiences can be understood to be continually refracted through the prism of memory. Yet, memory itself is mutable: it can be moulded, augmented, conditioned, repressed, lost; and is constantly in flux. The way we understand the notion of memory is essentially dialectical, oscillating between series of polarities: the long and the short-term, the individual and the collective, the fixed and the contested. Here in many ways lies the difficulty of relating memory to art and architecture for practitioners and theorists alike. How can we take account of memory, which is in its very nature ephemeral and transient, when dealing with works of art and architecture that operate in the physical realm?

For John Ruskin, architecture embodied memory. A building – and, we could add, a work of art – held memory as an index or trace of the labour that went into its production. Thus, Ruskin saw memory and architecture as inseparable. Writing in 1874, twenty-five years after Ruskin, Friedrich Nietzsche contended that ‘it is possible to live almost without memory … but it is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting’, prefiguring in many ways the modernist ambivalence towards memory in art and architecture. Despite this, the twentieth century, and, indeed, the first years of the current century have been characterized by an obsession with memory, witnessed by the huge proliferation of museums, libraries and monuments and the great cultural and political importance attached to them.

Lying between art and architecture, monuments pose an interesting case in this phenomenon. Monuments are designed to act as lightning rods for memory, conducting and inscribing in space memories of an event, person or idea for posterity. Yet in usually focusing on one strand of memory, it can be argued that monuments inevitably propagate a selective memory. In the same way that Nietzsche argued forgetting was an essential catharsis for individual existence, how monuments ameliorate past traumas on a collective scale can be seen to perpetuate existing social and political systems. In the first RA Forum event, we examine the function and political implications of monuments, conceived both as object-based strategies and spatial practices of procession and ritual. We consider how tactical re-enactments or new stagings, like speaker Rod Dickinson’s re-working of presidential-style speeches press briefings, pose new perspectives on the political role of monuments and remembering.

The concern for preservation, like the enthusiasm for monuments, reveals a remarkable confidence in the power of physical objects to embody or act as a trigger for memory. In their installation, Cronocaos at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, Rem Koolhaas’ OMA examined preservation and destruction and the increasingly ideological imperatives behind them – the subject of the second RA Forum event. The motives driving what, how and why we preserve are noticeably fluid and often little understood. OMA’s installation showed how vast swathes of the world deemed ‘historic’ or ‘significant’ are being preserved, while other components of the built environment, especially post-war public architecture, have been vilified and are thus increasingly being destroyed. They argue, ‘The current moment has almost no idea how to negotiate the co-existence of radical change and radical stasis that is our future.’

The consequence of ‘our obsession with heritage’, OMA continue, is to manufacture ‘an artificial re-engineered version of our memory…’, echoing the influential Italian architect, Aldo Rossi, for whom ‘the city [was] the collective memory of its people’. An urban intervention can thus be seen as acting on collective memory too. While the urge to preserve stems from anxieties about forgetting, it can be questioned whether through preserving our physical environment we actually negate the need for memory. Could it actually be through the destruction of our physical reality that we remember? How do we in the present construct memory for the future?