ALMOST UTOPIA: HOW STORYTELLING CAN RECAST AND ALTERNATIVE MEMORY OF PUBLIC SPACE - ON THE AUDIO WORK OF ANCA BENERA
The structure of Anca Benera’s project Matter & History (2007-2010) is fairly lucid: the Romanian artist examines the symbolic dimension of destruction of public monuments in Bucharest, drawing our attention to their ongoing embodiment of power and memory; she takes photographs of the original locations of a series of 13 disappeared monuments which emphasize the official(ised) construction of history and mirror the political circumstances that provoked their relocation, destruction or transformation; then, she creates an audio-guide describing the ghost-like appearance of the former statues as they are still existing on their sites. Presented in a gallery, as impartial documents, the photographs are accompanied by soundtracks listened via headphones - each monument’s shape, dimension, materials, artistic features and location being precisely described, narrated by a stand-offish voice of a tour guide. Alternatively, the artist leads the visitor through the city, performing the role of a local guide who explains the image of an urban landscape that doesn’t exist (anymore) on site.
As one of the most ideologically charged places in Bucharest, the Revolution Square, looks back to an eventful history of changing representative monuments populating its site. The equestrian statue of King Carol I (1866-1914) was commissioned by his successor King Carol II and erected in 1939. In 1948, after the instauration of pro-Soviet government led by Petru Groza, the bronze was melted down and partially recast as the statue of Lenin. It was not until 2006 that the Romanian Ministry of Culture decided to start negotiations for reinstalling the original sculpture at its former location, which didn’t work out well because of the miscommunication with the heirs of Ivan Meštrović, the author of the monument. In 2008, a new proposal for the statue of Carol I (by sculptor Florin Codre) was unveiled, but has been taken down due to the accusations of plagiarism, so its future stays unclear and the site remains empty.
Experienced as a printed visual document exhibited in the gallery space or a performed walking tour in the public space, either way, Matter & History is a journey through the afterlife of Bucharest public monuments of the interwar and socialist times, through identity politics and reformation of public space. The project investigates different attempts to rewrite history by manipulating the collective memory. What is the exact relationship between history and memory, though? – The French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs considers memory and history two contradictory ways of dealing with the past (On collective memory, 1925/1952).
Whereas in modernity, history was still understood as an objectifyable chain of contingent and progressive events, we are now aware that history permanently re-constructs itself, and that images and ideas, as well as interpretations and evaluations of historical events change with every epoch, always including a reflection of that specific epoch. We all repeatedly redesign our connections with the (political, social, cultural) history in a performative way – meaning that history is never purely objective, but always merely “created” as interplay between documented facts and their interpretation assigned by individuals.
Just as history writing is a discourse and such is based on text, a common medium for the transference of memory is storytelling. Temporally, storytelling precedes historiography, being the medium through which the knowledge and the cultural and moral values of a society were passed from generation to generation long before history writing developed in ancient Greece. Through storytelling, the collective memory of a civilization was generated and preserved.
Other than history writing, which aims at maximizing objectivity and delivering an authorized version of the past, a story deliberately allows, or rather necessarily incorporates, a flexible and creative handling of the association of facts and fiction on the one hand, and requires the (social) interaction between the storyteller and his/her listeners, on the other hand. Storytelling depends not only on the imagination of the storyteller, but also on the one of the listener to partake in the production of memory. In the same way that individual memory consists of numerous layers corresponding to different points in time which are always rearranged, we can describe collective memory as a system of multiple and complex facilitations produced by a whole community. The smallest unit in such as system is, in Freudian terms, the “mnemic trace” (detailed in The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900). A mnemic trace (or simple “memory trace”) is the combination of an unconscious perception that has bypassed the psychic apparatus’ protective shield with a conscious memory.
In her project Matter & History, Benera analyzes the contemporary history production in Romania and contrasts it with the concept of (collective) memory. She opposes the “official” visualization of national history as it is inscribed today in the statuary that populates the public space (generally cleansed from the communist “intermezzo”) to a more personal perspective upon the significance of monuments, for which she brings up forgotten or neglected details or obsolete information on the city history and the public space (fallen) symbols. While the removal of the political undesirable historic remnants from public space does not affect seriously the official historiography, as it is based on the document feeding into a text and leaving a visible trace (which is more difficult to manipulate), it does affect (collective) memory. The mnemic trace is sensory and varies according to the impressions that we construct from perceptions. If the political interests of the governing class aim at modifying the collective memory, they erase all possible triggers for mnemic traces that could lead to undesired recollections. In our emblematic case of Carol l /Lenin, for instance, a strong reconstructionist movement supports the re-installment of Carol I statue (as part of a revisionist idea of re-writing history), whereas the supporters of recasting Lenin are presumably few (whose reinstatement wouldn’t necessarily stand for the desire to return to communism, but perhaps merely not to blank out half a century of history).
Consequently, Benera re-feeds her research with those monuments in contention disappeared from the public display and thus it challenges the collective memory, because verbal “memory traces” are posited as having the power to bring into consciousness all the other memory traces that they name.
Although her audio guide apparently only provides the listener with well researched facts – for instance the ups and downs in the existence of King Carol’s and Lenin’s monuments – her approach is closer to storytelling rather than history writing, in terms of format and subject matter, because she speaks about objects that are removed from their sites, defaced and banished- thus she deliberately leaves plenty of space for her listeners to fill in the gaps with their own remembrance and personal fantasies.
An alternative Bucharest to the one we see before our eyes is unleashed to become alive in our minds; one that merges diverse epochs and spatial layers and that is more versatile than the “real” Bucharest could ever be. Could, for example, Carol and Lenin statues exist in parallel, or could one of them even become alive (like in Benera’s early video that is part of the project)? Could something entirely different happen at the Revolution Square? – Benera aims at giving space to these kinds of questions and therefore activates the imagination of each listener and fosters it becoming a vital site for the production of a modified image of the city and its public space.
If we are now venturing to introduce a tiny bit of utopian thinking into the text before concluding, we might assume that any dominant construction of history can be undermined, if only sufficient alternative stories are being told and imagined. We could, in a manner of hallucinatory wish fulfillment, bypass the leading construct of history representation in public sphere and imagine (or memorize?) an almost utopian public space for Bucharest. Maybe we need the void pedestal as “the condition of thought and experience” (in deconstructivist terms), because as a trace, it doesn’t represent an object itself, but it can be perceived as an always contingent term for a mark of the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present.