RA Forum: Future Memory
In spring 2011, the Royal Academy Forum, in a series of events entitled, Future Memory, examined the role of memory in various cultural practices, and explored how interventions in the present can alter, inform and distort memory in the future. Owen Hopkins, lead curator of the series, discusses the theme and reports on the three events.
Memory mediates all facets of human experience. It acts as a prism, continually refracting how we perceive the world around us, understand ideas and interact with other people. Yet memory itself is mutable: it can be moulded, augmented, repressed or lost, and is constantly in flux. How we understand the notion of memory oscillates between polarities: the long and the short term, the individual and the collective, the fixed and the contested. How can we, therefore, take account of memory, which appears in its very nature as ephemeral and transient, when dealing with works of art and architecture that operate in the physical realm? In what ways is memory manifested in the urban environment: by the city’s built fabric or in the practices and rituals it sustains? How do we in the present, construct memory for the future?
Over the course of three events in spring 2011, the RA Forum in London set out to consider these questions, exploring the character, uses and implications of memory for architecture, visual culture and urban space. The first event
explored the role of monuments in shaping and defining memories. Monuments are typically considered 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, they can inevitably propagate a selective memory.
The first speaker, architectural historian Christine Stevenson, addressed the politically charged and contested nature of monuments in the context of Restoration London, arguing that even seemingly stable signifiers such as the archetypal equestrian statue – ‘man on a horse’ – were in fact almost always contested. The architect Ian Ritchie RA, then discussed his practice’s approach to monument commissions, focusing in particular on the relationship of physical objects to the mental components of the design process and perception, and the way memory can oscillate between them. The artist Rod Dickinson, showcased his re-workings of presidential-style press briefings, which critique the highly theatrical strategies by which power constructs itself through memory. As the chairperson, Ines Weizman, noted, in each of the three contributions, the importance of rupture – through ritual, protest, destruction, or, as in Dickinson’s case, re-enactment – was revealed as essential to how monuments are lifted out of the background of everyday life to come into being as conduits for memory.
One of the recurring themes of the first event was the difficulty in attempting to relate memory to the physical environment. This was one of the key points of departure for the exhibition Cronocaos mounted by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale (and on show this year at New York’s Bowery) which, guided by Ippolito Pestellini and James Westcott of OMA, provided the lens through which the second event
examined preservation and destruction and the increasingly ideological imperatives driving them.
Pestellini and Westcott explained how the exhibition derived from OMA’s own experience of dealing with issues pertaining to preservation and destruction. For OMA, the increasing urge to preserve, with 12% of the world now off-limits to development, ‘is destroying any sense of a linear evolution of time’. They cited the collapsing time span between the creation of buildings and the imposition of subsequent preservation orders, as well as heritage’s obvious economic benefits (primarily tourism), as key to the encroaching landscape of preservation. They suggested that preservation was a modern and specifically Western invention, anathema to, for example, the Japanese Metabolist architects for whom reuse and impermanence were intrinsic.
Responses were offered by the artists Jane and Louise Wilson and Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage. While for Thurley ‘heritage is about the future’, OMA’s contention that the obsession with preservation was due, at least in part, to our ‘growing inability to inhabit our current moment’ was compelling.
The assumed power of physical objects to embody or act as a trigger for memory came under question in the third event
, which focused on the relationship between space and memory. As the chairman, Iain Borden, noted in his introduction, space is a social construction, which comes into being through human activity and thought, and the role of memory in this process was explored through a variety of contributions from artists, architects and researchers.
The first session, with contributions from Gregory Dart (UCL), sound artist Will Montgomery and Fiona Anderson (PhD candidate at King’s College, London) focused on the notion of representation – visual, aural and mental – especially of the built environment as channels for memory. Anderson’s presentation, examining the abandoned, semi-derelict warehouses of the late 1970s New York waterfront, revealed how such physical extensions of the city were colonised by marginalised alternative, often queer cultures, with the ruinous buildings themselves becoming sources, and even the subjects, of creativity.
The second session began with two performative contributions by Royal Academy Schools students Blue Firth and Inez de Coo, which focused, respectively, on the psychic resonances of the nineteenth-century Schools, and on film’s capacity to influence and determine memory. Yat Ming Loo’s presentation returned the focus to political and social structures in his discussion of post-colonial spaces of memory in Kuala Lumpur, the subject of his PhD research at the Bartlett. In such contexts, he argued, ‘memory is always fabricated’, always the extension of a particular political (or economic) imperative of identity building. In the final presentation, architect and designer of the Future Memory Pavilion for Singapore’s ArchiFest, Asif Khan, discussed the possibilities of ephemerality and materials. Rather than constructing architectural monuments, he sought to create buildings which responded to but also opened up new possibilities for use. In shifting the focus towards the future, this was a fitting culmination to the event for, as the ensuing panel and audience discussions proved, memory, in its various forms, permeates all spheres of cultural activity, with creative interventions in the present having a powerful yet largely undetermined role in altering, informing and directing memory in the future.
Owen Hopkins (lead curator of the RA Forum: Future Memory series in London)