Mapping for Survival | Memory, Objects, and Places

This week, Mapping Diasporas focused on the topic of memory, and specifically the relationship between memory, knowledge, and displacement. We also watched a movie, read a novel and the memoir of a memory champion, and discussed further applications of Virtual Reality (VR). And we also worked on “putting” some highlights of UC Berkeley’s history on a map (while pondering the implication of the expression, “to put [something] on the map”), thus experimenting with a GIS (geographical information systems) tool available at our fingertips, Google Maps.

Our first source was none other than Jason Bourne. In the last installment of his cinematic saga, Bourne—who, when he is not killing someone or blowing things up, is very concerned with the loss of his own memory, and later on, with its recovery—that “remembering everything doesn’t mean you know everything”:

In an age obsessed with memory (and memory loss), the question, “is memory something we have, or something we have lost?” holds many overlapping meanings.

In considering this matter in terms of culture, and cultural loss, we tried to decipher the many elements that constitute new media artists Ziv Schneider and Laura Chen’s project, RecoVR Mosul:

The project is an attempt to create a virtual environment that “brings back to life” the historical collection of the Mosul Museum, raided by IS [or ISIS, or daesh] in 2014.

With more than 3,500 archeological sites, including centuries-old religious and historic excavations, Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul has the majority of the country’s archaeological wealth. On June 10, 2014, Mosul was occupied by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Images of the destruction of historic sites and artifacts in the city’s museum made international headlines and shocked the world. RecoVR: Mosul, a Collective Reconstruction is a virtual reality installation created in response to this destruction, allowing us to visit the museum again and find out what happened to some of its key pieces. While walking through the museum we see the destroyed artifacts, digitally reconstructed through crowd-sourced imagery. This virtual environment was created by new media artists Ziv Schneider and Laura Chen. Apart from bringing the historical collection back to life, it also sheds light on ISIL’s war on cultural heritage.

The project involves VR technologies, crowdsourcing, collecting, oral history, digital research, and more.

We then focused on the recent works of two brothers, Jonathan (b. 1977) and Joshua (b. 1982) Safran Foer. In his debut novel, Everything is Illuminated (2002), Jonathan Safran Foer deploys, among other things, a delicate memory game played by a small “team” of intergenerational characters, all engaged in trying to recover a memory that is forever lost (specifically, to the destruction brought by  the Holocaust in the Ukraine during WW2), and that was suppressed, for very different reasons, by both perpetrators and victims. In the novel, memory is both recovered and presented in the impossibility of its recovery through a manic form of collecting fragments of the world that once was. A world that existed in a place, “Trachimborod,” that is no longer (even) on a map, and only exists in (some) people’s memory…

“Here are my maps,” he said, excavating a few pieces of paper from his bag. He pointed to one that was wet from Sammy Davis, Junior, Ju- nior. Her tongue, I hoped. “This is Trachimbrod,” he said. “It’s also called Sofiowka on certain maps. This is Lutsk. This is Kolki. It’s an old map. Most of the places we’re looking for aren’t on new maps. Here,” he said, and presented it to me. “You can see where we have to go. This is all I have, these maps and the photograph. It’s not much.”

In the cinematic version of the novel,  by Liev Schreiber (2005), this “memory work” is presented in the form of collecting.

The collector (and author; and, in the movie version only, the protagonist of the story) carefully selects seemingly unrelated fragments, and places them on an invisible map, a map that cannot, as we will learn, ever be recovered in full. In fact, these fragments are objects—more precisely, the cultural objects of a displaced/vanished culture. His collection is what in class we have been calling an archive of the invisible.


In Moonwalking with Einstein (2011), reporter Joshua Safran Foer—the co-founder of the online collaborative project, Atlas Obscura—tells the story of how he became the 2006 USA Memory Champion, able to memorize (and repeat) the random sequence of 52 cards in a deck within 1 minute and 40 seconds. In telling this story, the author also explores the history, and the functioning, of a variety of memory techniques that go back to (at least) late antiquity, and that eventually developed into “memory palaces” and “memory theaters.”

Physiologically, we are virtually identical to our ancestors who painted images of bison on the walls of the Lascaux cave in France, among the earliest cultural artifacts to have survived to the present day. Our brains are no larger or more sophisticated than theirs. If one of their babies were to be dropped into the arms of an adoptive parent in twenty-first-century New York, the child would likely grow up indistinguishable from his or her peers.

All that differentiates us from them is our memories. Not the memories that reside in our own brains, for the child born today enters the world just as much a blank slate as the child born thirty thousand years ago, but rather the memories that are stored outside ourselves—in books, photographs, museums, and these days in digital media. Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture, but over the last thirty millennia since humans began painting their memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids—a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years. Imagine waking up tomorrow and discovering that all the world’s ink had become invisible and all our bytes had disappeared. Our world would immediately crumble. Literature, music, law, politics, science, math: Our culture is an edifice built of externalized memories.

If memory is our means of preserving that which we consider most valuable, it is also painfully linked to our own transience. When we die, our memories die with us. In a sense, the elaborate system of externalized memory we’ve created is a way of fending off mortality. It allows ideas to be efficiently passed across time and space, and for one idea to build on another to a degree not possible when a thought has to be passed from brain to brain in order to be sustained.

The externalization of memory not only changed how people think; it also led to a profound shift in the very notion of what it means to be intelligent. Internal memory became devalued. Erudition evolved from possessing information internally to knowing how and where to find it in the labyrinthine world of external memory. It’s a telling statement that pretty much the only place where you’ll find people still training their memories is at the World Memory Championship and the dozen national memory contests held around the globe. What was once a cornerstone of Western culture is now at best a curiosity. But as our culture has transformed from one that was fundamentally based on internal memories to one that is fundamentally based on memories stored outside the brain, what are the implications for ourselves and for our society? What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?

In our class discussion, we explored how the two extreme approaches to “memory work” (remembering and forgetting, acquiring and losing) expressed by the “Safran Foer Brothers” meet in the gesture of collecting and placing “memory objects” on a map, however imaginary it may be.

We also discussed how museums are environment in which memory can be performed as a modern enactment of ancient memory practices that pre-date the advent of writing, and of the printing press.

Finally, we began to evaluate how today’s digital mapping practices—in the form of the digital footprints left by GPS-enabled portable devices, of online “reviews” of places ranging from cultural venues to restaurants to hospitals—can be linked to the “memory work” brought forth by our sources.

In doing so, we also “played” with Google Maps:

Our collaborative exercise, however, went beyond the idea of locating a place of interest on a map and sharing it with “friends.” Instead, we attempted to perform what, at first sight, should be a fairly simple feat: add a selection of significant achievements in the history of the University of California, Berkeley, to a Google Map. Here’s an example of a map made by students in class.

In doing so, we realized that we needed more than one campus map to achieve our goal. We used the map that is available via the UC Berkeley portal, but also resources made available by the Environmental Design Library and Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association websites. (Big thanks to Susan Powell, the fabulous GIS & Map Librarian at UC Berkeley, for the invaluable inspiration she provided in conceiving this in-class activity!).

We also soon realized that we needed to make very important decisions regarding the location of events that were not immediately “mappable,” thus evaluating whether they would be represented on our maps at all.

In considering our daily mapping activities, and the immediacy of GIS tools available to many of us (in this part of the world), in the context of memory work, we were thus immediately confronted with the implications of remembering and forgetting, of “having” and “losing” a memory, or history, and how tenuous memory is when people, and cultures, are in motion. At the same time, by practicing the gesture of connecting knowledge to a place (history to a map, in our case), we also began reflecting on the power of memory, and its essential role in mapping diasporas, or cultures in motion.


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