Scholars Delve into Human Interaction with Memory

October 21, 2014

CEU hosted the “In Search of Transcultural Memory in Europe” (ISTME) conference in early October, bringing together Europe's major scholars in the field as well as PhD students for a training school on “Mobilising Memory for Change.” ISTME, part of the COST network*, focuses on the tension between attempts to create a common European memory on the one hand, and numerous memory conflicts stemming from Europe’s fragmentation into countless memory communities on the other.

The five-day event kicked off with a keynote lecture on “The Living Archive,” by the University of Glasgow's Andrew Hoskins. “No one is secure from the living archive,” Hoskins said after telling a story about a friend from university days who maintained relationships with both a woman at school and one in his hometown. Against all odds, he was caught cheating on his hometown girlfriend when he attended a concert with his university girlfriend and their picture appeared in the paper. Today, Hoskins noted, with the pervasiveness of social media and digital connectivity, there's very little chance this man could get away with two-timing for as long as he did.

Hoskins shared side-by-side photos, one showing a crowd of mourners holding candles after Pope John Paul II's death and the other of Pope Benedict's “retirement” speech, in which nearly every member of the crowd is shooting photos/videos on their phone or tablet. “The act of recording has become more urgent than experiencing that which is being recorded,” he said. “Human imagination no longer seems sufficient – it requires some kind of capturing to be valued.” And not only to be captured, he noted, but for people to be congratulated (i.e. a Facebook “like”) for doing so.

There is some significant resistance to current digital media platforms which has spawned applications like Snapchat that, ostensibly, remove data after a set period of time (usually a matter of seconds after the intended receiver views the image or message). Snapchat was recently hacked and tens of thousands of users' data were compromised. The “Right to be Forgotten” concept in Europe allows individuals to have certain data about them removed so third parties are unable to obtain the information via online search engines. However, Hoskins noted that even people who consciously disconnect from all digital media for a few weeks always return, “because to disconnect is to not be a part of that culture anymore.”

Another featured keynote speaker, Marianne Hirsch (William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia), focused on how memory can be mobilized for a transcultural future that resists the national imaginaries and ideologies displayed in institutions. The topic is especially relevant as 2014 is the year of monumental memory, ranging from commemorations of the First World War to the openings of the National September 11 Memorial Museum and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Her talk explored ways of thinking about memory as mobile, mutable, portable, porous and vulnerable, reframing national and transnational paradigms from a feminist perspective. Focusing specifically on the role of aesthetic practices in the activation and dissemination of memory, and on the work of several female artists, Hirsch's talk highlighted small, unofficial, anti-monumental memory practices.

To open the second day of the PhD training school, renowned architect, film production designer, professor, and political activist Laszlo Rajk Jr. gave a keynote address titled “Hiatus in the Texture of Memory.” Rajk focused mainly on commemorative monuments – how and why they are designed as they are and people's interaction with them. He noted how society's idea of public commemoration has changed over the millenia. “It's rare now to find a joyful monument. Generally they are sad and commemorating victims, not victors, probably due to Judeo-Christian heritage,” he said. “In Greek and Roman culture, they always commemorated the victors in battle, not the losers. Why are we now commemorating the 'losers?'”

Rajk believes the strongest monuments are actually religious holidays. Although they aren't tangible, we never forget the dates, he noted. Continuing on commemoration of what we cannot see or touch, Rajk discussed the desire in monument-building to honor what's missing. “We also talk lately about monuments that try to commemorate something that's missing – mostly raised in connection with the Holocaust – because that's a very clear topic; we are commemorating the death of 6 million people.” He gave the example of the Nazi book-burning which took place in the square next to the Berlin Opera in May 1933. The “monument” there is a glass panel on the ground that opens up to a small room of empty white bookshelves, meant to remind viewers of what was lost. “It requires a conscious interaction between viewer and artist to commemorate [the event],” Rajk said.


Architect and designer Laszlo Rajk discusses his memorial at Birkenau. Image credit: CEU/Daniel Vegel

In Rajk's own work in designing the commemoration of the Birkenau sub-camp of Auschwitz, where over 430,000 Hungarians died, he also highlights what is missing. Visitors are on an “island” within the space and a projector causes their shadows to fall on projected images (of both victims and victimizers) on the wall so that they become part of the exhibition themselves. He uses the effect of shadows with a cattle wagon used to bring victims to the camp as well. “Ours is covered in glass and, from the other side, visitors see the shadows of people in the wagon. It's a trick and on the edge of perception. It's a kind of effect. Someone's missing – it's a silhouette that commemorates.” He noted that we cannot escape that we are in the present but that we “are always influencing what happened in the past.”

The conference featured over 10 panels and workshops as well as a guided tour of selected Budapest monuments and a visit to CEU's sister organization, the Open Society Archives. Associate Professor Andrea Peto of CEU's Department of Gender Studies organized the conference. For the full program, visit http://www.ceu.hu/sites/default/files/attachment/event/11087/draftfullprogram3108.pdf.

*COST is an intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology, allowing the coordination of nationally funded research on a European level. More info here: http://www.cost.eu/about_cost.