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Memory is a Verb

Read the extended version of this interview.

Those who believe great design is incompatible with political content should consider the work of Julian Bonder and Krzysztof Wodiczko. Over the past decade, the two men have formed a design partnership that focuses on social memory related to unspeakable violations of human rights: genocide, holocaust, mass political violence. Their most recent project is the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, France, a national monument that examines human bondage from the 18th-century slave trade to modern-day trafficking for sex or labor. Bonder and Wodiczko spoke with ArchitectureBoston editor Renée Loth just after the memorial’s opening in late May.

ArchitectureBoston: Built memorials are a way that we institutionalize or concretize memory. Yet you two see memorials not as static and still but as places that are alive to the possibilities of activism. Can you explain how a memorial can provide this possibility of action?

Julian Bonder: Societies and cultures are increasingly calling for memorials. There’s an enormous number of projects that are looking at the past and trying to embody it physically. But we think that the process of remembering is in the present, that it is an action, not an object. The purpose of the memorial is not to physically manifest memory as an object but to invite people to think, which is an action.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: There is a danger that a memorial provides a premature closure of a collective cultural trauma; that it allows us to resolve our pain too quickly so that we don’t have to think about it or discuss it or work through the trauma. Perhaps the 9/11 memorial in New York might have been much more inspiring had there been time for more public discussion about what it is commemorating, and why.

ArchitectureBoston: It’s challenging to try to find the right balance between the public’s need to be heard in that conversation, at a very emotional time, and the artist’s role, which is to help translate that into something physical. In your experience, either with [the slavery memorial at] Nantes or in other projects elsewhere, how do you achieve that balance?

Krzysztof Wodiczko: It’s impossible to work alone. It’s important to involve committees, historians, people who are working through the issue that’s being commemorated, as well as those who are affected by those issues today or are survivors of the fallout of past events.

Julian Bonder: Part of the challenge of any project is how you respond to constituencies that may be asking for certain kinds of approaches and also how one responds to that intangible aspect, which is the suffering of others. How do you translate suffering into something that becomes a hopeful moment, without trying to redeem historical trauma?

These projects involve not only an enormous amount of time but an enormous amount of repetition of aspirations, almost as if you repeat enough things, you can get some of those things into the public discourse. Present-day slavery, for example. At the opening [in Nantes], the public officials were all declaring that this memorial should serve as an instrument to bring people to a discussion of present-day slavery, which is what we always were trying to say. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen.

Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, Nantes, France. Architecture by Wodiczko + Bonder.  Photo by Philippe Ruault. Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, Nantes, France. Architecture by Wodiczko + Bonder.  Photo by Philippe Ruault. Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, Nantes, France. Architecture by Wodiczko + Bonder.  Photo by Philippe Ruault. Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, Nantes, France. Architecture by Wodiczko + Bonder.  Photo by Philippe Ruault.
Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, Nantes, France. Architecture by Wodiczko + Bonder.  Photo by Philippe Ruault.      

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ArchitectureBoston: What I like about this project is that it doesn’t make the link to present-day slavery in a contrived way; it seems natural.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: At the outset, the city itself maybe was not aware about the meaning of the very act of designating such a large chunk of space in a symbolically, emotionally charged part of the embankment, in front of Palace de Justice, the center of the city. They had an intuition, and part of our work was to prove to them that their intuition was absolutely right. It’s not that we were designing things so much as that we were bringing up the visibility and emotional impact of that very terrain. Certain groups couldn’t fully understand this, because they were expecting something dramatically new, something vertical, something narrative to happen; but others were on our side. So this was a long battleground between various expectations. Fortunately, the general concept actually became the project.

Julian Bonder: Also, the very ground has stories that are embedded, that are not visible. Part of our task is to listen not only to the constituencies but to the sites themselves to try to interpret what is there and what may not be visible in terms of its own past. All our projects involve research about what is there, visible and not visible, under the surface.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: For example, one myth is that there were abolitionists in Nantes; there was actually nobody. So raising the consciousness of the city about its own implication in the slave trade is part of the project. But the trick is not producing guilt; rather, raising a consciousness and an understanding of a new mission: what the city is going to do for the future.

Julian Bonder: That is also connected to the scale of the space, the fact that this is not an object of memory but a series of spaces that are inviting people to inhabit and to think and to discuss. The time that it takes to go from one place to the other is very long, and the physical conditions of looking at the ground and moving in silence, or speaking with people and then descending into damp, humid spaces 150 meters underground by the water, with the sounds of the water…

ArchitectureBoston: In a very constricted space…

Julian Bonder: But still somehow filled with light and reflection from the water — it’s very strange, because the structure that existed there is extremely heavy, yet because we made some incisions, it’s full of light. So again, we are not trying to represent this, but to invite people to think.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: This is related also to bodily perception. It’s not only the reading of those inscribed texts but also walking-reading — a passage of reading. So the relation between people and the space is felt through the body and bones. It takes time to read every plaque with information about every slave trade expedition departing from Nantes; getting closer, maybe kneeling to read, or at least lowering your body — all very important.

Julian Bonder: You see people’s physical movement in space change from the familiar walking position with heads straight up to a less sure kind of physical condition, changing the position of the body with head downward. It internalizes the process of walking in a different way.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: In one passage, there is an opening that is lit, a kind of window through which is framed the Palace of Justice on the other side of the river. Now that is a place where lots of conversations could take place! The issue is, to what degree can this memorial create conditions under which things will be done, to the point where there will be no need to end up as a court case in the Palace of Justice? So the symbolic space can actually help the process of justice happen, on an ethical rather than a moralistic plane.

Julian Bonder: The ethical plane also connects to the notion of the other; who are these others, whom we don’t know? How can we address the presence of others who have suffered so much in the past, or may be suffering today, without attempting to represent them? The city should be commended for taking this on but also for allowing the scale of this project to maintain the character of emptiness that is so significant for [allowing] us to think. Because if you go to many historical museums or memorials, they have become didactic. They’re filled with lectures and objects. And the city allowed 150 meters underground with almost nothing but one’s own experience.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: At the opening, there were some schoolchildren with their teachers who immediately started to discuss the matter. It was quite moving. One child, if I remember well, said, “How can such a thing be both so beautiful and so sad?”

ArchitectureBoston: Give that child a star!

Krzysztof Wodiczko: The children were talking about the issue of freedom for children, about themselves being in a kind of twilight zone between freedom and slavery [as students]. They were mobilized by this memorial to think about situations that normally are not understood as enslavement.

Julian Bonder: It illustrates that this is a work in progress. It’s interesting to think of those young people in 10 years visiting the memorial again. As long as this place has invited conversation, then they may become useful. I say may become useful — if they establish only one way of looking at the past, then they become static.

ArchitectureBoston: What about your own memories, backgrounds, and experiences? How do they shape the way you approach this work?

Krzysztof Wodiczko: There is a saying: “Somewhere between memorials there is Poland.” From my own upbringing in Poland, I was fed up with memorials. It was a kind of disease of our national culture, this obsession with commemorating tragic losses, heroic sacrifice, without preparing us for much more complex and difficult conditions and work to do for the future, how to make the world better. So I think that that Polish experience could explain my drive toward different kinds of memorials, because we should end this somber, serious, passive repetition of, almost, reconstructing the event for the pleasure of suffering. It’s kind of masochistic.

ArchitectureBoston: Do you think that’s unique to Poland?

Krzysztof Wodiczko: Poland is symptomatic because so many wars went through it. So many catastrophes.

Julian Bonder: To add to that, I come from a family part of whom escaped the Holocaust but didn’t speak about it. Even my grandmother, one of the most expressive people I remember, never wanted to talk about the bad parts of Berlin.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: I had the same. My mother never spoke about it, even though her entire family was murdered in the first week of my life. But her silence was not the result of a traumatic shattering of memory; it was more an irritation with other Jews who were indulging themselves in tragic recollection.

Julian Bonder: Right. I grew up studying under dictatorships where we couldn’t speak about democracy; we knew that some people at the university were actually disguised secret service. Some people I knew from the university disappeared. Still, none of these autobiographical notes legitimize anything we do, because again, it’s not about self-indulgent memories that we project into the public. It’s about how we think, perhaps from our experiences, how can we somehow extrapolate some of that to silence ourselves and to invite the voices of others.

ArchitectureBoston: When you say that your experiences, your past, should not be used to legitimize the work, then what does? Just the work itself?

Julian Bonder: Of course, we cannot avoid our own subjectivity. [But] when we think of memorials, I always try to understand this as a kind of process of deferral of the self. That doesn’t mean that we don’t think that authorship is extremely important; but it’s not about the author, it’s about the process — about the project. It’s about laws for the abolition of slavery.

ArchitectureBoston: Let’s talk about the idea of universal human rights. Some cultures insist that human rights are a Western concept and that imposing them on traditional societies and practices is almost a kind of imperialism. What do you make of that?

Krzysztof Wodiczko: By virtue of being born human, we acquire certain natural rights.

Julian Bonder: One of the texts that receives you at the entrance of what we call the “Monumental Stair” is a portion of the 1948 Articles of Declaration of Human Rights. It’s very significant to understand the 1948 declaration, as almost a rebeginning of the struggle.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: That’s a contagious idea. When you look at all these countries that are not Western, you see people struggling to gain access to those rights. The issue is how the cultural differences and all those other rights are acknowledged.

Julian Bonder: The question then becomes, Can these projects help countries and society understand public space as public? In which ways do societies take risks? Because it’s clear that you can have banalization of suffering, aesthetization of suffering embedded in every project. But can we collectively affirm in the public sphere that in this kind of work, aesthetics should be always at the service of a larger ethical, political condition?

Krzysztof Wodiczko: What we are saying goes beyond our project now. It justifies the larger horizon that we have and our hopes toward memorial projects in general. But one important aspect is that memory as a social and political process should be allowed to be agonistic, that is, based on disagreements. Memory as unison is a danger.

Julian Bonder: Because it suppresses.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: Memorials should create conditions for people to argue, to exchange opposing views, and confront their memories and their interpretation; [they] should become a forum for major debates, and actually multiply them and prolong them, and include more and more voices. That will be the best way to think of a memorial as a discursive place. Of course, a memorial could also do something to help people engage in projects that will ameliorate the situations.

ArchitectureBoston: Julian, you’ve said, “Memory to me is a verb,” the idea that memory is not a passive thing. I’d like to go deeper into what that means to you.

Julian Bonder: There is an aspect of that which is an affirmation, almost like declaring publicly, “Here I am.” It’s very significant. What Krzysztof is saying about the kind of agonistic conditions for debate comes from a way of looking at democracy as always a work in progress, not a static condition.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: It’s a protest. The word “protest” has a component which means “witness.” So I testify publicly to what I know is wrong in order to propose something better. Memory and protest are connected, and it’s not an accident that many protests take place in front of memorials because they actually bear witness, although they were not consciously designed for that purpose.

Julian Bonder: That is also connected to spatial experience, because again, if it’s an object, then you look at it. And once you start looking at it, the main way to connect is through your gaze. And your gaze is always about you controlling the object that you are witnessing. There is something about the problems of the gaze that has been discussed in contemporary art, but here what we’re trying to suggest is that the spatial experience invites more senses, invites other ways to address something that is vicarious. Because most of the time we’re talking of vicarious memories: I have not been a slave, so why could I relate to that?

Krzysztof Wodiczko: Then there’s the other side of the story, that there are people who are survivors of injustice and traumatic events. They are themselves memorials, even more so, and they can communicate what they remember. So one aspect of design of a memorial could be to provide equipment, inspiration, and encouragement for those people to become speaking memorials. Many memorials could have more of a media component, taking advantage of new digital communications technologies, so there could be some interactive aspect between sections of the group in exchanging memories. There is so much that can be done in design.

Julian Bonder: It has to do with the ability of designers to apply insight to unfamiliar conditions. In a way, every project we do, both as architects and artists, relates to a certain unfamiliarity. Those unfamiliar conditions are addressing us, are demanding from us, are questioning us. And that’s where they become ethical instruments. Because they demand from us a response that we may not even have, yet we have to search for it.

Krzysztof Wodiczko: For example, the Vietnam War Memorial is very good. But there is no acknowledgement of the 4 million Vietnamese people who lost their lives, and the traumatic fallout of that war on that nation, two nations, in fact. So it’s important to see what memorials are not saying. Is there a possibility to provide supplemental, complementary projects that will help us to reinscribe what is missing, what they forgot?

Julian Bonder: I think this goes to the heart of the problem with memorials, which is that they are built so that we forget about them. They serve an aspiration of closure, as Krzysztof said before, yet the word “monument” comes from “moneo,” which is to remind, to warn, and to advise.