The Politics of Memory; Authenticity and the Artifice

By Thomas Cole
Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship

Culture is made manifest through many mediums, but perhaps architecture is one of the most confrontational. Architecture is negotiated in nearly all urban interactions; it is home, work, community and character. Architecture is built, torn down, abandoned and rebuilt. As time decays its surfaces, traces of past significance are left behind as legitimate artifacts to be subjectively interpreted by their present day inhabitants. The city of collective memory is a living museum that presents the rich palimpsest of the past to its populace as they interact in daily life. The city becomes the essence of culture, pulsing in a constant flux between storing and rewriting the fables of place.

Our memory stores, catalogues and recites moments of our past. Information gained from an experience of a prior situation that helps us understand the way in which we must act in response to specific engagements in the future. This mode of human activity provides us with both the inherent intuition and rationalized reaction required to perform developmentally as individuals as well as a collective society. As one uses references of past behavior to govern reactions to specific scenarios, memory becomes a critical pathway to developing individuality and personality. As personal experiences vary from those around us, different systems of reaction are imparted in the person's unique collection of memory providing individualism. ”We are at any moment the sum of our moments, the product of all our experiences”[1]

Memories however, exist within a fluid and ever-changing continuum. The way in which one perceives his or her own experience is influenced by other occurrences whether they are encountered first hand or through other intermediary exposure. “We are continually made aware not only of our own previous thoughts and actions, but of other people’s, whether witnessed directly or learned about second hand. Even the imprints of exceedingly remote experience can come into consciousness.”[2] The moment as described above, is influenced by ones absorption of the experiences before it and similarly reconfigured and remembered differently contingent upon experiences that occur after it. A memory one has as a child may be understood, and viscerally recalled entirely differently as an adult because the adjacent or connected memories that frame and contextualize it have distorted, been replaced or been forgotten. Memory is therefore a completely authentic as long as it continues to be a subjective account. While the memory may shift to be remembered in a completely different way, it remains absolutely accurate as the experience recalled by its owner.

The notion of a memory existing within a community refers to the idea of collective consciousness. A communal sense of decorum, morals and ideas that are generally acknowledged in a community or society providing what can be understood as a generalized notion of its culture.[3] The production of a communal viewpoint requires that a number of members within a society understand these values and actively recognize and implement them. Collective consciousness therefore becomes something of a living history, existing only for microseconds before it is partially consigned to the past and outmoded by its reinterpretation. In the same way that history can be altered through its rearrangement of evidence, the validity of collective consciousness hinges on the interpretation or reinterpretation of its providence. The culture of a society exists in its specificity at the interface between history and memory. The organization of fragments of a past that no longer exist, as to provide a history of what may have happened and how it was experienced.

It is the principle concern of this work to explore this interface; the mode in which memory is recounted as history and the ways in which the artifacts of the built environment and art practice can act as its curatorial agent. The work will examine artifacts specifically addressing the way in which their construction affords interpretation and the process in which it affects our perception.

This project will consist of three main chapters, The Curation of Trace, The Negotiation of Trace and The Creation of Trace. The Curation of Trace refers to a process whereby a series of artifacts are placed into a considered relationship that provides perpetual referencing between the objects and the metanarrative implied by the conglomerated whole. The Negotiation of Trace seeks to explore the boundaries of the artifact’s content and its designed context, offering an insight into the shifting definitions of ‘authentic’ and the ‘artifice’. Finally the creation of trace will examine the idea of performance and reenactment as a mode of memorialization and question whether it has the capacity to provide shared authorship and sustained collective memory.

Much of the research conducted for this project was undertaken over a period of fourteen weeks across six countries previously effected by the conflicts of World War Two and the paranoia generated by the Cold War tensions. While this physical and political geography had a huge effect on many of the buildings and cities that I visited, it was not the only past that was occasionally made present. This report seeks to outline a multitude of historic impacts; chronologically positioned across European history and politically positioned between the en masse struggles for power, and the importance of traditions in vernacular, domestic space.


[1] Quote from A.A. Mendilow

David Lowenthal, , The Past is a Foreign Country: (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009), 185

[2] Ibid., 186

[3] James Wertsch, “The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory,” ETHOS, Vol. 36, Issue 1 (2008): 122