You don’t have to read Hari Kunzru’s novella Memory Palace. You can see it at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Imagine a magnetic storm destroying all the world’s information infrastructure and technology, leaving a ravaged planet with mankind under the control of a regime that wants him to forget everything.
This is the premise of the sixth book and first novella, Memory Palace, by British-Indian author Hari Kunzru. But you don’t have to read it — it has been transformed into a walk-in story at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London.
So what triggered the idea of metamorphosing a piece of fiction into a walk-in book, one of the first of its kind in the world? “There had not been an exhibition dedicated to graphics for more than 10 years at the V&A and so we wanted to look at how we could look at graphics and illustrations in a novel way,” says co-curator Ligaya Salazar.“We wanted it to be a story that did not have a linear narrative and that was flexible, that could be accessed in different ways and at different points.”
Twenty graphic designers, typographers and illustrators were handed different passages of his 10,000-word novella to interpret, making this a rare collaboration between literature, art and design.
Memory Palace is set in a dark dystopian world in which those who try to remember anything from the past are jailed. The Orwellian regime in power has banned books, reading, art, recording, remembering, collecting and writing, hoping that by abandoning ideas, technology and memories, the world will return to a period when humans lived in complete union with nature — an anarcho-primitive state of wildness referred to in the novella as the ‘Wilding’.
German Mario Wagner is one of the illustrators who helped create the exhibition. His collage shows humans flying in the air as if being carried by energy upwards; cars crash into things and a TV sits with a frozen screen, all depicting the magnetic storm.
Némo Tral, a Paris illustrator, uses acrylic print on a UV light box to display the ruins of London after magnetisation. The Olympic Park lies derelict and the famous Shard skyscraper has half collapsed, people are trapped, boats are crashing and towers collapse as the city drowns in rising water in an apocalyptic image which conjures up A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Day of the Triffids.
The protagonist, the narrator, is incarcerated for being part of a banned sect that uses the art of memory to store memories of what the world was like during the Booming.
Former labourer and London-based painter Frank Laws has built a 3D installation of his cell evoking its cramped, depressing conditions. Peeking through cracks you can see fragments of the prisoner’s memories.
Åbäke, a collective of four graphic designers in London, interprets a passage in which the prisoner finds a treasure trove of objects he does not understand. The designers have built a glass cabinet and put objects inside, some of which are worthless like plastic holders. The protagonist has forgotten all knowledge about what functions these items had.
Sam Winston, a London-based graphic artist, has put up three embossed metal pieces that display the chemical elements that exist in an 18k Rolex gold watch, The Origin of Species paperback and a SIM card to represent the banned concepts of time, knowledge and technology and how they were partially remembered. The text for the SIM says: “This object places many voices in the mind of the subject ... Once part of this network the subject obeys all voices it receives.” For the watch the text states: “It was most powerful in the Booming. It had the strength to raise millions from sleep and animate their limbs even though they did not wish to move.”
Part of the exhibition is the prisoner’s own memory palace. Bizarre objects include a misremembered 3D installation of a black and white ambulance pulled by urban foxes carrying items such as Bone Syrup, Rat Juice and a skull, depicting the prisoner’s confused distant memory of hospitals and the U.K.’s National Health Service.
The story ends with the protagonist facing execution but beforehand he is allowed to add one of his own memories to the memory bank that the memorialists are collectively keeping. After he has gone, this is all that will remain of him.
The exhibition ends with a web-based drawing tool so that the public can contribute the one single memory they would want recorded. These are displayed as posters.
In future, will it become common for words to move off the page, into multi-platforms like gallery spaces? Will readers choose how they want to experience a story?
“In a digital world where everything can be copied for almost nothing, we find that people are beginning to value experience. You find that with bands and live gigs and renewed interest in artefacts like vinyl records. People can choose how they want to experience something,” Kunzru says.
The themes in Memory Palace such as man’s tense relationship with nature, civilisation and technology can be seen in daily life too with Adivasis fighting against mining on their sacred land in India and protesters demonstrating against the technology of fracking in the U.K.
Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace will run at the V&A, London until October 20, 2013. Memory Palace is available from Amazon as a Kindle book and imported hardback and also on Flipkart.
Hari Kunzru on Memory Palace
They did not tell me to make it about the art of memory; that was my idea. They just said pay attention to where it is and I thought a memory palace would suit a museum space.I had known about the art of memory for a long time because I had read The Art of Memory by Frances Yates. I am fascinated by the idea, though I have not tried it. If you are a writer, you are someone on the side of memory against forgetting, as you are doing things that leave a trace. Memory is an extraordinary thing. For example, we don’t remember childhood memories. Even with me there are certain categories of things that I can remember like historical information but I can’t remember the birthdays of my family. The Wilding comes from a tradition of green anarchists and there has been a long tradition of that kind of thinking: of going back to nature and wiping out the ills of civilisation. It was quite big in the 1960s. I was reading Species Traitor, a journal of anarcho-primitivism. They are anti-civilisation. They believe that the point at which things went wrong was when man started agriculture. They want to turn the world back to before that time. I am suspicious of the romance associated with nature. If you say we need less energy, then what do you say to people in the developing world? In the book, I also talk about the financial crisis, austerity and that there are certain things we can’t do now that we once could do and that’s what comes after the moment of abundance. It’s a way of trying to capture this feeling of the world in ruins after something that was magnificent. I was also influenced by the Hindu notion of cycles like Kali Yuga but none of the artists comes from a South Asian background so a lot of Christianity turned up.