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Memories are made of this

Anyone who has had the nerve-wracking experience of a hard-drive breakdown or losing or damaging digital devices will be only too aware of how fragile memory storage can be.

Cloud computing with its power to store vast amounts of information in unspecified locations in the ether (though your stuff is actually held in earth-based servers) is both wonderful and spooky.

But what would happen if a huge magnetic storm wiped all this stored data out, in a kind of digital apocalypse? It’s a question that writer Hari Kunzru asks and tries to answer.

Memory PalaceKunzru’s Memory Palace is set in a future where “Magnetisation” has erased the world’s information systems. What is left of humanity now lives in an age of decline, in which it is forbidden to remember.

Memory – so what is it? And what is the future of the planet and ourselves? The internet – vice or virtue? Museums as banks of memories – what are they good for? Can we return to a pre-knowledge state of innocence?

All this and plenty more is brought to life in a thrilling project at London’s Victoria and Albert museum. The V&A, one of the world’s greatest memory banks for the applied arts, commissioned a team of 20 artists and designers to create a “walk-in story” based on Kunzru’s book.

The venture is accompanied by high and low-tech artworks, including an interactive app and website called the Memory Bank.

In Kunzru’s tale, a group of revolutionaries, the Memorialists, are trying to defy the sinister new masters of the universe – the “Thing”. They resort to an ancient technique in which space is used as a way of placing memories and call it the Memory Palace.

The reason that the Thing wants to wipe out all memories of the  ancient golden age (The Booming) before the storm is because it wants to introduce The Wilding, when humans “live in complete union with nature”.

Therefore any notion of knowledge and memory – exactly what makes us human – must be brutally suppressed. The internet is denounced as “a conspiracy of fools and knaves, a plot against nature”. Civilisation is evil and anti-nature in the crude world of warriors which the “Thing” seeks to impose.

Kunzru’s story and these artists’ response to it raises searching questions at a time when, despite the huge advances in our understanding of natural processes, human kind is pushed towards a global eco-disaster.

In their installations, artists bring to life the mental and physical place that Kunzru describes. They imagine London as a Mad Max world, a decaying cityscape, providing a dramatic idea of what a post-global warming world might look like.

Memory PalaceJim Kay’s exquisitely complex three-dimensional cabinet, for example, is a shrine to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution which is banned by the new rulers. Other illustrators, graphic designers and makers help to tell the story.

Memory Palace is a massive exercise in collaborative working and a bold effort to place museums into the forefront of our brave new world. At a time when “re-wilding” is being proposed by some as a possible solution to the eco-crisis, it offers a salutary critique. The show also challenges the notion of original sin, that knowledge and civilisation are the causes of human downfall.  

Kunzru’s look backwards at our own age of the digital revolution and global corporations lacks a certain edge. Perhaps it’s down to the implied conflation of the Booming with capitalism. There did not appear to be any struggle between the rulers and the ruled at that time.

But it’s only a story after all!

Or is it? Our rulers are constantly trying to overwhelm historical memories that challenge their power. For example, the story of the English Revolution of the 1640s hardly figures in schools or universities.

So let’s praise the collectives and individuals who created the exhibition for asking the questions. They have thrown down a challenge to the rest of us to take the story onwards.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
18 June 2013

Memory Palace

Memory Palace

  • The exhibition runs at the V&A until 20 October
  • For those with access to Sky Arts, you can see Hari Kunzru’s documentary on Sky Arts 1 HD at 8pm on June 19
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