‘Memory, Empire and Technology’ Summer School
29 June – 3 July 2010
The summer school programme was designed to explore the three themes of memory, empire and technology through five days of seminars and events that encompassed film, archives, photography, music and history.
The first seminar, led by Dr Akane Kawakami, investigated the roles of the aeroplane and the telephone in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The discussion focussed on the reception of these technologies in nineteenth century society; in particular, the group became fascinated by the assimilation of these objects into the canon of the everyday through the language associated with them. Symbolic language threatens the new and exotic by awarding it a historic pedigree that makes even the most exciting of technologies seem banal. The technological wonder that was the aeroplane did not inspire the same excitement when it became merely a ‘flying ship.’ Human experience, as well as language, has irrevocably changed the connection we have with certain technologies, and with one another. The telephone disembodies the human voice, and forces us to recognise death every time we take a call. The plane, afforded a prominent role in the conflicts of both twentieth and twenty-first centuries, has borne a breakdown in its semiotic system. Does a plane mean death, or merely a holiday? This uncertainty plagues our relationship with all technologies and our own perceptions and memories. Do we doubt ourselves, or the instruments that enable us to remember?
It is interesting that our talk of technology should always bring us back to death. Found-footage filmmaker Yervant Gianikian suggests that silver nitrate film smells like a rotting corpse: while film preserves the light and shade of the living, providing an afterlife for countless forgotten objects, it is itself in a constant state of decomposition. Robert Lumley’s session on found-footage filmmaking addressed the methodologies and practices of Gianikian and his partner Angels Ricci Lucchi, and described the ways that the filmmakers ‘recycled’ footage to provide a shared public memory. One of the problems they faced, especially when working with film from the early 1900s, was its fragile state and tendency to disintegrate – a sad and rather beautiful reminder that film, too, can lose its memory (described by the filmmakers as a ‘state of chemical amnesia’). I wonder whose memory the film projects before us? In the Hills there is Peace, for example, reveals the cinematography of some soldier in the Dolomite Mountains, dead and long buried, perhaps beneath the snow. Are the flickering ghosts of his comrades his memories? The imprint of the film’s tarnished memory? Or the public memory of the filmmakers and those who view ‘their’ film? Throughout the seminar I struggled with the notion that the indexicality of these films authenticated them, or made them real as objects. The reframing, reediting and tinting of the original films highlighted the representative, unreal quality of the films and the staged process of their projection. Perhaps the question I would really like to ask is ‘who’s film is it, anyway?’
A workshop organised by Junko Theresa Mikuriya gave us the chance to create and develop our own images on film (or in this case, photographic paper). Working from a dark room in Bethnal Green, we were instructed to make our own pin-hole cameras, use them to capture images, and finally develop them. My images – all three were of bikes locked-up next to the road – enunciated the passing of light through, around and between my chosen objects. In negative form, these images preserve moments in time that are solidly rendered in light and yet remain utterly intangible.
A more tangible and physical experience came for me in what was the highlight of the week: a Routemaster bus tour around London. Led by the driver and conductor (and assisted by Prof. Derek Keene) the tour began in Bethnal Green and ended in Archway, taking in Shoreditch, Liverpool Street, Monument, London bridge, Tower bridge, Aldgate, Mile End, Stratford, Walthamstow and Tottenham Hale along the way. My first reaction on boarding the bus was to exclaim ‘Look at the wind-down windows!’ (a reaction repeated by others). The Routemaster bus, we were told, was decommissioned five years ago, with the last one built in 1968. The driver described the buses as ‘very popular objects’ – I immediately thought back to our first Autopsies meetings and furiously wondered ‘did we say a bus could be an object?’ Constructed around an aircraft fuselage, the bus was lighter than most subsequent designs and remained an iconic signifier of London, along with phone boxes and hackney cabs.
All comfortable in our seats, we were issued with tickets by the conductor. He used a Gibson ticket machine with a numeric fare wheel (this was switched to an alphabetic fare wheel in the eighties). In his bag, the conductor would carry a cardboard or Bakelite clipboard, with his fare charts on side and timetable on the other. He would also carry a single key to fit all the locks on the bus.
The tour was designed to show to us the changing topography of London, from its Roman beginnings to the contemporary addition of the Olympic Park at Stratford. The building work and regeneration taking place throughout the city was overwhelming, with offices, homes and railways under construction at every turn of the corner. However, many desolate and derelict spaces still existed. Indeterminate spaces, with no use, filled the gaps between the new and the already-established. What, asked our bus driver, would become of the fringe sites around the Olympic Park and the City? What kind of cultural assimilation, evidenced in the shop fronts along the more suburban roads leading out toward Essex, would take place in these dead spaces?
The bus continued to wind its way through the London traffic and densely populated streets. As other bus drivers beeped their horns in appreciation, it was all anyone could do but smile at the excited tourists and nostalgic Londoners who waved as the Routemaster, obsolete technology of yesterday, drove by once more.