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memory palace

Hari Kunzru interviewed by Seth Wheeler.

From the V&A’s Memory Palace exhibition: Room 11, © Mario Wagner

Memory Palace is a new work of fiction and an accompanying exhibition commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The story forms the basis for an exhibit that explores the relationship between the written word and its visual interpretation, political and personal acts of remembrance, and the battle between memory and forgetting.

Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men, has created a dystopian vision of a future London, that reads like an inverted version of News From Nowhere.* In William Morris’s tale of a future London, the time-traveling narrator recalls his life in Victorian Britain, juxtaposing it with the harmonious state of affairs he now encounters between humanity and nature.

No such luxury exists for the narrator of Memory Palace, who interprets the world and its past through a garbled oral history. The text is littered with neologisms and reappointed words that are a joy to read and decipher. The story is bleak and unnervingly charming, following the character from his incarceration and torture to his inevitable fate at the hands of his enemies.

The London of Memory Palace is well on its way to returning to a state of nature. Accompanied by the legacy of our current ordering of things, runaway climatic change and huge floating islands of consumer detritus meet the new flood plains of London, altering its geography.

Set 500 years after a catastrophic magnetic storm wipes out the global information infrastructure, much of the world’s knowledge and technology is now lost to the post-literate society that inhabit London’s various locales: The Edge Where, Kings Curse and Liverpoor Street.

The story follows a member of a renegade group called the memoralists, a clandestine society who seek to keep memory alive in the face of a hostile and tyrannical force who wish to return humanity to nature. The despotic ‘Lords of Things’ seek to achieve this end by removing all memory and forms of symbolic representation and culture. Our hero is captured and imprisoned by his enemies and a battle then ensues between memory and enforced forgetting.

The exhibition features work from 20 individuals and artist collectives drawn from the world of contemporary design, illustration, graphic novels and advertising. Each collaborator was given a short paragraph from the story to interpret in a way they saw fit, that would then be bought together around a stripped down version of the story.

After staying up late to finish reading the novel, my early morning visit to the exhibit compounded my sense of immersion into Hari’s possible future. Familiar objects are displayed with unfamiliar terms or with new properties attributed to them. The story weaves throughout the Porter Gallery, developing lines of flight for the imagination at every turn, which punctuate the narrative like chapter headings. The humorous and the disturbing all sit next to each other; a fox-drawn ambulance complete with witch doctor opposite a house constructed of recycled newspaper, an illustrated torture scene next to an exquisitely crafted Darwin reliquary. The title Memory Palace refers to an ancient technique developed to enhance memory recall. I’m left with the sense that the exhibit and its title pose a subversive proposition to the labyrinth of galleries that surround it, forcing the visitor to redress what they then encounter as they traverse the rest of the museum: whose memories reside here, for what purpose are these things amassed and what has been forgotten or excluded?

After my viewing, I meet with Hari to discuss the unnerving and playful vision he and his co-collaborators have brought to life.

‘Here is how to remember. First you must choose a place. It should be somewhere you know very well. Most people pick somewhere spacious and grand – a big hall, one of the ruined towers of the city. You get to know this place as well as you can. You walk around it, impressing every detail on your memory, until you can tour it in your mind when you are not there. Then you place the things you need to remember around the building in the form of pictures. These pictures must be startling enough to trigger your imagination. They can be faces of people you know, or common things combined or altered in an unusual way. A Man with the head of a fox. A waterfall flowing uphill. If there is a list of facts you need to remember, you can put them in a specific order. In this way, when you need to recall something, you merely go in your imagination to the spot you have stored it. There it will be, waiting for you.’ (Memory Palace – Kunzru)

3:AM: Collective memories are always codified by the values of the dominant society in which they are generated (even if they are memories of opposition). In post-modernity, objective knowledge remains a spurious and suspicious concept. How important was it then to have Memory Palace housed inside an institution so identified with modernity? It seems a remarkably subversive undertaking on that basis.

Hari Kunzru: This is the thing. Obviously it wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t approached me in the first place. It’s not like I was phoning up museums and saying, I’ve got this great idea that could work in your space. I keep saying it, but I really do have to hand it to the two curators, Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar. They gave me the freedom to produce what I wanted. They just said, remember that you’re going to be in a museum; make something that resonates with that and then just go for it.

They really didn’t flinch, firstly with the genre aspect of what I’m doing. There are obviously folks inside a conservative institution who would not think of that as their first port of call for what they would want to see inside the space. Secondly, where I have posited ideas of destruction and where I have tried to complicate and challenge the ideas around nature and culture which are magazine readers’ received wisdom at the moment.

I was given a complete free hand and I’m very grateful for that. Clearly it has achieved quite a lot of its meaning from being housed in this grand palace, made at the height of an optimism about the Imperial future of Britain. It’s a good setting for such a dark and anxious piece.

3:AM: Memory and the conscious act of forgetting play important roles in many of your books. In your previous novel ‘My Revolutions’ the protagonist forces himself to forget a moment of his life, a political act of non-remembrance. Why do memory and forgetting occupy such a pivotal space in your work?

Hari Kunzru: Because I’m interested in the self. I’m trying to get a slightly more sophisticated understanding of subjectivity than that which is often presented in narrative fiction. Firstly, we maintain the fiction that we are continuous, and that we are substantially the same throughout our lives, but I think we are more broken up than that. The way that we actually experience the world is more complicated. We are in some ways swarms rather than bounded individuals. Our sense of self branches out of a lot of neurological processes working in tandem; you could say that the self is an effect or an aura. These things are important for fiction to engage with.

At the moment we seem to be in a place with narrative fiction where there are people quite happy to write very straight-up nineteenth century realist stuff and people who want to play Derridean language games exploring textuality. I would like to say that there is a third interesting thing that fiction writers can do, which is to take on, in a speculative realist way, scientific ideas about the self and to engage with social complexity: how memory constitutes itself. So for all these reasons thinking about the self is important to me.

3:AM: Memory Palace is set in a bleak future—a dystopian vision that appears equal measure Anarcho-primitivist thought, and the despotism of Pol-Pot.

Hari Kunzru: You’ve hit on two things that were actually in my head. Firstly I was reading ‘species Traitor’, a Zerzan influenced Anarcho-primitivist zine. The authors hold the view that things went wrong at the dawn of agriculture and we should slough off our symbolic culture and become one with nature. They have the whole return to Eden / state of natural harmony thing going on.

I have innumerable points of disagreement with this perspective, but I also think that the radicalism of that vision is both extraordinary and terrifying. Imagine if they were in charge? This is one of the things this story does.

The second thing is, years ago, I did go to Cambodia and had a kind of breakdown—actually, breakdown is too grand a word. While there, I visited a school complex, which was used by the khmer rouge as part of their death machine. They had a photographic practice where khmer rouge executioners would systematically photograph everyone who came in there. Of the thousands who came, a dozen or two came out. You can see the photos there today; mothers with small children, all with the same blank expression. It was too overwhelming. That death-driven totalitarianism is terrifying to contemplate. I have an instinctive disgust for operational totalitarian power on people’s lives.

So, these things were in my mind and I got to thinking about a primitivist totalitarianism, which is itself death-driven, being ideologically pointed towards the end of our consciousness, of what we feel is distinctive about our humanity.

In response, primitivists may say that I am immediately pressing on a humanist point, and should we not be interested in a certain notion of human separation from nature, isn’t that the worst fiction of domination?

There are complicated ideas that you come up against when engaging with the anarcho-primitivist agenda. I don’t buy it on any level but the questions they ask take you to really interesting places, certainly if you’re opposed to a liberal humanist position.

3:AM: The collaborative aspect of this project is very interesting. Your stripped back text remains the spine of the exhibition, like a jazz refrain that the various artists riff off, and that the visitor can return to as they wander the exhibit. It attests to the power of your writing that during my visit, the art I encountered didn’t feel too far from what I had held in my imagination while reading the text. Yet the snippets of text and accompanying art do tell a tale all of their own; the visitor doesn’t need the book, although the experience may be a richer one for having read it.

Hari Kunzru: That’s interesting, because I have no sense of what it is as an experience.

3:AM: I was particularly taken by the fact that an artist had incorporated in their work their own text in the voice of your protagonist.

Hari Kunzru: I know, that was really interesting. The curators were a bit nervous; they came to me and said, somebody wants to write some more stuff, and I was like ‘err…OK?’ Sam Winston, the artist we are talking about, is kind of ‘doing me’ heading off on his own, doing his own thing. I like the idea. Again it’s a genre thing. For example, many science fiction writers, like Michael Moorcock, will allow other authors to make stories set in their universes. I don’t know why this shouldn’t be attempted in a ‘high culture’ institution.

3:AM: The ‘internet’ is a mis-remembered word in your book, imbued with a new meaning for your protagonist, namely the act of collaborative or conspiratorial remembering. In a funny way, the exhibition has become just that.

Hari Kunzru: Exactly; it’s about communal memory and about the communal construction of civilization. Being somebody who provides a wire frame for other people to do creative stuff is a massive pleasure.

******

The full work of fiction ‘Memory Palace’ and accompanying illustrations from the exhibition’s collaborators is published by V&A publishing. The exhibition runs until the 20th October 2013 in the V&A’s Porter Gallery.

*Coincidently, News from Nowhere author William Morris—libertarian socialist / proto-ecologist, designer and craftsman—also contributed to the museum. In his role as Art Referee he approved the accession of many objects into the collection. His exquisite design work can be seen in the V&A’s collection and also adorns the walls of the museum’s cafeteria.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Seth Wheeler is a PhD candidate in Oral History at Royal Holloway University. He is the co-editor of ‘Occupy Everything’ published by Minor Compositions (2012). He is a part of the Novara Media Cadre and a member of Plan C. Twitter: @sethnotes.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013.