Drawing a square upon the ground: the complexity of memory in a changing environment

Guest blog by Annie Harrison.

This article draws on the work Annie is doing for her MA by Research in Art Practice at MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University and an associated artists’ residency at Lime, an arts and health organization. Annie also works as a Project Assistant in the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester.

My art practice is concerned with place and memory.  Both contribute to our sense of belonging, which in its turn plays a part in social cohesion.  I am particularly interested in how memory is affected by the loss of place, and how the visual arts can aid memory in a rapidly changing urban environment.  In my MA, I am researching the site of the recently redeveloped Central Manchester Hospitals and working with hospital staff to recover what the Swiss artist Christian Boltanski calls ‘small memories’, the memories of ordinary people.

Dickens knew all about small memories. I recently came across this quote from the final chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop. Kit takes his children to the site of Little Nell’s house, demolished in the slum clearances of the mid 19th century.

The house is gone, but he has the need to locate, not just remember it.  Placing the memory gives it substance, and he wants to pass on the whole memory, not just the story.  I recognize this from my own history.  Whenever our family travelled along the M6 to Birmingham, my mum would point out Frankley Service Station and tell us about her grandfather who worked for the water company and lived in a tied cottage at Frankley Beeches.  The memory was only ever recalled and retold in its proper place.

The locating of visual images in particular places has long been used as a memory aid. In traditional memory techniques, a familiar environment is recreated in ones mind, and inhabited with visual triggers. For this method to work, a pre-existing relationship between place and memory is not important, because the connection is established by the method of remembering. However in his book, ‘How Modernity Forgets’, Paul Connerton writes that the pace of modern life and the rate of change of our surroundings is causing a crisis of memory because our lack of deep familiarity with place makes this technique more and more difficult.  (Connerton, 2009)

It is not only in such specialist techniques that place is an important trigger to memory.  In the documentary, ‘The London Perambulator’ Russell Brand describes returning to the place he grew up and seeing a wall next to an ambulance station.  He suddenly remembers walking along the wall as a child, holding his mother’s hand and says ‘it was as if the memory had been left there … as if it was an object rather than something that had been carried in my mind.’ (Rogers, 2009)

Last remaining hospital corridor from the 1908 building

In my research I take people to the remaining parts of the original 1908 hospital site, and show them photographs of places which have now been demolished.  These actual places and photographic representations of place elicit not only rehearsed memories about the site like my mother’s story about Frankley Beeches, but other memories, forgotten in the interim, which are discovered as if they had been left in the place, rather than carried in the mind of the interviewee.

I interviewed a retired nurse who trained at the hospital and went on to have an extraordinary career, nursing in ward zones across the world.  Nevertheless, visiting the site triggered a small memory, more than 50 years old, of looking through the hospital railings and seeing policemen arresting prostitutes working on the other side of the road.

Sketchbook drawing of the hospital railings

The ‘new’ memories that my interviewees discover are triggered by particular places but when the places are gone, and there are only photographs to rely on, the possibility of unrehearsed memory is limited, whereas every stone, every view, smell, light condition, sound of the original building, could have been the trigger for some new memory. The loss of place leads to the loss of memories and weakens the sense of belonging, of being connected to a wider community.

Dickens suggests that when place changes, it leads to confusion. Certainly, people who suffer from memory impairment are often confused and distressed by being moved away from their familiar environment. Even a new kitchen or redecorated room can dislocate them from the past memory that they use to guide them in the present.

When I interviewed a psychiatric nurse whose association with the hospital stretched back almost 30 years he confidently showed me the place where the old unit used to be, where they used to play football with patients, where the patients used to run a car-wash as part of their therapy. But later we met his colleague who identified completely different locations for the same sites.

Manchester Royal Infirmary Outpatients Department (1948)

Visiting the post graduate training centre, the receptionist knew that round the corner, you could see the façade of the old Outpatients Department, but had no idea that the new entrance where she was sitting was built on the side of that very same building and that the lecture rooms she directed students to, were where people queued for treatment.

Returning to Dickens’ novel, Kit not only needs to find the exact place where the house stood, but he attempts to memorialize it by marking out its shape. The urge to describe memory by some physical manifestation in place is also a common experience. For example, people are drawn to leave flowers at an accident site – sometimes with a photograph or a poem. This same impulse inspires me to create work that memorializes lost sites. In my artwork, I, like Kit, am attempting to draw ‘a square upon the ground’, and in the process, I am insisting on the value of small memories, and their importance to people and to society.

For more examples of Annie Harrison’s art work, see her website: www.annieharrison.co.uk.

References

Connerton, P. (2009) How modernity forgets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, J. (Writer) (2009). The London Perambulator. London.

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