Memory Palace, V&A

Memory Palace is a curatorial experiment by Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar. They commissioned London author Hari Hunzru to write an original short story that would be interpreted by 20 illustrators and designers, and presented as an ‘immersive narrative experience situated in a gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum ... a walk-in book.’ The idea of an ‘immersive’ narrative that exists in space rather than on a screen peaks my interest. From a designer/illustrator’s perspective, this is an exciting curatorial model – although the designer/illustrator is not directly involved at the start of the process, by briefing a writer to compose an original narrative that will be visually interpreted, the importance of the visual communication is foregrounded. It is a creative process more familiar to children's books or comics that literary fiction, and an interesting shift toward a more collaborative practice to produce hybrid fiction.

My annotated room sheet

In a nutshell, Hunzru wrote a dystopian future in which a magnetic storm wipes out all digital technology. Due to our current dependence on this technology to record and store information, ‘memory’ ceases to exist, human knowledge is lost. Chaos ensues. A fascist regime outlaw recording, writing, art and collecting anything at all, hoping to push the human race back to a purely animal existence – a future anticipated by the term ‘The Wilding’. The imprisoned narrator is part of an underground sect, or ‘internet’ – the story is filled with often amusing misinterpretations of contemporary places, things and concepts. Known as the Memorialists, this sect have revived the lost ‘art of memory’ and strive to remember as much as they can of the past as a form of resistance. The narrator does his part to fight the regime by transforming his cell into a ‘memory palace’, a mnemonic technique in which you visualise a building/space and place the things you need to remember as ‘objects’ within that space. Before he is executed, he passes the information from his memory palace to a resistance spy, who will pass it on to other members of the sect.

The 20 designer/illustrators were each assigned a passage of the text and briefed to respond to it ‘freely’, incorporating as much or as little of the writing as they wanted. However the curators paired passages with practitioners carefully. For example, as designers of information graphics, Francesco Franchi and Stefanie Posavec were each assigned passages that establish the complex context of the fictional world, whereas passages heavy with dialogue were assigned to illustrators with backgrounds in graphic novels and children’s books.

A glossary of terms is displayed in vinyl lettering, on the passage leading into the main gallery space. Also printed on the room sheet, these terms explain key concepts, such as: 
Memory palace – a technique used to remember, a space in which to place memories
The Withering – the present time of decline
The Booming – the golden age before the Withering
Magnetisation – the magnetic storm that brought about the time of the Withering
The Wilding – a time in the future when humans live in complete union with nature
The Thing – the great council of rulers in the time of the Withering who want to bring about the Wilding
Alongside the two paragraph introduction on the room sheet, this glossary gives enough context to form a general impression of Kunzru’s fictional world. The first work, Franscesco Franchi’s dense information graphic explaining the history and concept of a memory palace, requires a lot of time to process. No wall signage is provided in the exhibition to attribute the work or prompt interpretation – I identify it as Franchi's work only from the room sheet. It's a beautiful thing, but I feel a little overwhelmed by its complexity, and move on to get a better understanding of the whole, intending to return to this work later. I move next to Stefanie Posavec’s piece, which is more immediately decipherable, especially because I'm familiar with Posavec’s Literary Organism work. I have to restrain myself from touching Sam Winston's experimental letterpress plates (others have not, as evident by the speckling of greasy prints). I am delighted by Le Gun's large installation of a shaman-like medicine man being pulled on a wagon by a team of strange foxes (think Tim Burton meets The Might Boosh). There’s a lot to like in the individual works, though as in any exhibition some engage me more than others. Yet as I move through the space, I feel increasingly disoriented. I understand the works are linked because they each visualise a section of the same text, but the stark variation between the graphic style of each work is throwing me – I'm struggling to make connections between the fragments. I need more context to immerse myself.

The reason illustrators often choose to reinterpret existing texts – Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Anderson fairytales spring to mind – is that viewers arrive at the illustration with an understanding of plot and character. Starting from a point of common understanding, the illustrator can take risks, be playful and engage the viewer by subverting or challenging the general understanding of the story. Curating an exhibition of mismatched artworks around an unknown story is a brave experiment. Before viewing the artwork, the audience need to find our way into Kunzru’s post-apocalyptic world. Then, we need to move between visually and formally disparate works to try to piece the story together. The exhibition revolves around a speculative fiction about memory loss, where the characters patch grabs of information together to understand a hazy past and uncertain future, so I understand disorientation and fragmentation is part of the experience. However overall, the exhibition doesn’t engage or affect me as much as I want it to. It feels very much like an experiment – a curious and conceptually interesting one – but not an ‘immersive narrative experience’.

Had I read the story beforehand, perhaps I would engage with the visual works more easily. Standing in the gallery I find I don’t want to read the longer graphic novel sections, which are carrying the narrative through character development and dialogue. There’s a reason comics and graphic novels work well in book form – they are intimate and private. We hang our heads over books, closing off the rest of the world to enter the fictional realm. A white-white gallery void with high ceilings is not a private and intimate space. I understand from the room sheet that the exhibition was designed by CJ Lim and Studio 8 Architects to be part of the experience, but the high white walls and so much blank space leave me feeling disengaged. I get an impression of the incredible variety of visual responses the different artists had to the text, but not a solid enough impression of the text itself. I arrive wanting to engage with the story, to have the promised immersive experience, but exit feeling strangely empty.

I buy the catalogue – which looks and feels like a hardback novel – and take it outside to the V&A lawn with a coffee, to see if I can get my head into the story this way. I find the catalogue is not a conventional archive of the works on the walls, accompanied by curatorial/critical essays. In fact, none of the final work appears in the book – only process sketches, printed in black ink on novel-standard stock. Hunzru's full story is printed, followed by essays about the process of curating and designing the work. I wonder if the absence of images of final artwork is because the book needed to be printed well in advance of the exhibition opening, so people like me could arrive with an understanding of the literary fiction before engaging with the visual interpretation. Perhaps in order to get this book into the world it had to be printed before the artists had completed the work. Or perhaps the catalogue is produced without images of the work for a more strategic reason. Will this work exist in other forms – a website, a film, a more richly produced book? Or are the curators withholding the visual documentation as a strategy to force us to experience what it is like to be denied access the visual record after the show, experiencing memory fading with no tools to help recover it?

Signs at the entrance and within the gallery space stipulate that photography and sketching are not permitted. Out of respect for the artists’ work I'm happy to not photograph the work (other visitors were pointing iPhones at things) however I can’t see the reason for no sketching – I notice similar signs attached to other exhibitions, showing that it’s not a rule particular to this exhibit. As is my habit, I walk the whole way through first, observing, then take another pass with my sketchbook.

My own resistance to the regime.

 In copying sections of the wall quotes and sketching particular elements, I engage with the work more closely. Sketching, I am forced to really look. I think critically through my hand as well as my eye, sketching is a form of deep engagement and a kind of respect for the work. But if the reason to have no photography, no sketching and no images of the final work exist as mementos is a curatorial choice based on the concept of the memory-less world at the heart of the show, then I feel it’s doing a disservice to the designers and illustrators who produced work that resonated with me, that I want to revisit later. When I return home, I look up the Sky Arts Ignition website (who sponsor the show) and find a promotional trailer and a documentary showing Hunzru talking about his creative process and interviewing a selection of the artists involved in their studios, showing their design process. Yet the final works are still not shown. In particular, I want to show Stefanie Posavec and Sam Winston's work to my colleague Kate – we have spent some time discussing the previous work of these two designers. The V&A website has a section with all the works listed with the passage of the story they worked from, but many of these – Winston and Posavec's included – are the same process sketches as in the catalogue.

After about an hour, having read the whole story, I return to re-immerse myself in the experience. I am informed I have to buy another ticket. You really only get one shot at the memory palace.


Eddie Campbell said…

I just picked up this while in Chicago, and wondered if you knew about it...

Eddie campbell

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