Monthly Archives: 05/2019

Re-envisioning Memorial Cultures: A Reflection on Techniques of Memory

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If you missed the diverse and engaging presentations at this year's Techniques of Memory symposium, fear not! Rhetoric PhD student Linda Kinstler writes below a reflective summary about the symposium. Linda Kinstler was also a member of the Techniques of Memory symposium planning committee.


Power Panel at Techniques of Memory

Memory is on the move. All around the world, artists, activists, architects, and scholars are re-evaluating approaches to memory and its physical manifestations. In New Orleans, ephemeral monuments to the city’s forgotten heroes and triumphs are going up where markers of Confederate power recently came toppling down; in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an artists’ collective is helping indigenous people reclaim long-buried memories of colonial domination; and along the U.S.-Mexico border, over 500 boundary monuments languish in various states of decay, marking the evolution of fortification and militarization on contested land.

These are just some of the projects discussed last month at the Techniques of Memory Symposium, a global gathering of practitioners and academics working on memorialization, memory, and power in the past and present. Organized by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative, the symposium took an interdisciplinary approach to reassessing the role of memory and monuments in the contemporary world, both locally, in the Bay Area and its environs, and globally, in cities like New York, Montgomery, São Paulo, and Dresden, as well as in contested landscapes and environments on several continents.

Over the course of two days, panelists selected from over 340 submissions shared their approaches to thinking about erasure, mobility, recovery, empathy, and temporality as they relate to memory and memorialization. The symposium consisted of four panels, respectively titled Landscape, Iconoclasm, Medium, and Power. Each examined the evolving role of memory across time and space, and considered questions like, how should contemporary monuments balance contestation and continuity, empathy and abstraction? At a moment when monuments are being protested, removed, and re-evaluated all over the world, what new possibilities for monument-making might be discovered? What makes a counter-monument? How do monuments create, reflect, and produce community?


Austin Allen at Techniques of Memory

A series of six keynote addresses evaluated how techniques of memory operate upon urban landscapes and historical objects. Several explicitly dealt with the unsettling legacy of segregation and racial violence in the American landscape: Austin Allen, a practicing landscape architect and retired Associate Professor at Louisiana State University, excavated the dark history of racism and death at Buckeye Lake, a former amusement park near Millerstown, Ohio. “Codes of memory are more complicated than collective memory,” he said. “Codes have to be decoded, you have to do the work.” Jason Berry, an investigative reporter based in New Orleans, traced how the city’s jazz funerals operate as “caravans of memory,” “vectors between continuity and change.” Architectural historian Irene Cheng addressed the delicate balance between fighting and feeling in American memorial culture, reflecting upon the varied approaches to representation and reckoning at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama.

The meaning of monuments and counter-monuments changes along with the societies they address. Several keynote speakers considered how memorial objects and spaces are reinterpreted and rebuilt, and how these acts of recovery might alter their intended audiences. Lauren Kroiz, Associate Professor in the History of Art Department at Berkeley, discussed the contested history of Adelaide Johnson’s suffrage statue, which currently sits in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and is laden with questions of historical idealization and obfuscation, marginalization and exclusion. The Dutch visual artist Hans van Houwelingen reflected on the limitations of counter-monuments and shared how his installations re-imagine how they operate. “Commemoration is a culture, which means that collective memory is something that can be organized,” he said. Marita Sturken, Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, took attendees on a virtual tour of New York’s Freedom Tower and the National 9/11 Memorial, considering how the site’s reconstruction mingles commercial, public space with the work of memory and mourning.

At a historical moment when monuments have re-emerged as objects of public contestation and discussion, Techniques of Memory generated new possibilities for re-envisioning memorial cultures. Perhaps, by embracing the ephemerality and occasional irrationality of memory, the work of memorialization might be reclaimed as a collective, public, and collaborative act.