Mnemeden. A net.performance of mnemonic conceptions

Mnemeden, a net.performance of mnemonic conceptions

I will begin with a well-known phrase of Walter Benjamin that associates literary and architectural experience through a certain ruin sensibility. He writes: Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things. If things speak the same, ruins αλληγορούν, speak always of the other, that is, retain in space a fluid, unsteady position, full of ambiguity, multiplicity of meaning, transformation, reflecting the unstable phenomena of the skies. Ruins are spatialized ideas in a state of transit and transformation. In this brief presentation I will present a work in progress that is exactly about conceptions becoming space, and space as dynamic archive or generator of conceptions. This unbounded experience is conveyed by communication space, inner memory space, but also real space as ruin and metaphor for both communication and memory space.

In the history of ideas of Western civilization there is a reccurent metaphorical understanding of architecture as memory technique, as mechanism for remembering ideas. The art of memory is the art of associating the ideas to be remembered with remarkable images (or words) which are arranged in a series of places in a mental or real architecture. By re-visiting in imagination one by one the places of this memory theatre, one is able to reconstruct the original train of thoughts and arguments.

This method of places, as it was called in the age of ancient orators, used the symbolic and spacial language of architecture to construct the mnemonic matrix of meaning. What was important was the intensity and extraordinary of impression for the mind, and this is the reason that treatises of memory, even more than treatises of architecture, describe in detail the rules and qualities mnemonic places must have, their size, luminosity and decorum for optimum function.

Mechanical means of remembering such as typography, magnetic, and today digital recording media render obsolete the lived art of memory, favoring read-only memory: what is recorded, this is exactly what is recalled on demand. Cultural memory in the West depends upon such technological means of recalling: books, libraries, archives. The ancient art of memory and even the art of architecture are artificial forms of memorizing that operate in a way similar to the function of human memory. If machine memory processes autonomous, rigid mnemonic contents, human memory, on the contrary, retains and recalls contents that are contextual, open in their relations with changing time and space situations, with the environment and external objects. Books killed architecture, as Victor Hugo claimed, also in the sense of dethronement of such a multi-sensory memory system, the signs of which are rich and even ambiguous.

On the other hand, the old cultural techniques of memory are static models that used monumental architecture in an attempt to eternalize the identities of speeches, theories and dogmas. Today, at the beginning of 21st Century, in the context of new realities that are modeled by digital and networking techniques of storing, processing and transmitting of information, there is a need to rethink possible symbiotic schemes of machine and human memory, away from both technological determinism and ageing historical cultural models.

Mnemeden, memory theatre for specific subjects is here discussed as artistic practice that uses information technologies and networks to shift the emphasis from a technological to an anthropological approach of memory. At the same time it proposes a shift from the idea of memory as psychological process, directed towards the past, to a prospective memory, that amidst mass consumption of information, produce voids, lacunae, zones of silence that destabilize the present time and the unified subject. Architecture, textual practices and inter-human activities, as interdependent systems in time, function as places of construction and deconstruction of memory at the limits of personal and social, of hermetic and transparent, of predictable and accidental.

Mnemeden is a participatory and multi-local performance of mnemonic concepts. It is based on an internet-constructed platform, allowing many users to simultaneously create, perform and maintain personal memory theatres (conceptual or real structures used as memory loci) on any subject. During the performance, there is a continuous real-time exchange of textual data between the three interconnected public spaces where the project take place: the web site, the historical Baths of Bey-Hamam in the city of Thessaloniki and the boundless live chat rooms of the internet.

Mnemeden is a highly textual and archi-textural work. It is really about displacement and metamorphosis of mnemonic space through words. As a virtual performance, it has a specific duration, an internal mechanism of evolution and involves participants who interact together producing individual versions of the work. It is about prospective memory: it does not deal with the past, bringing it to the present, but projects present time events, stories and images to the future as past. Prospective memory works like an artificial ruin, where the quality of decay is there from the beginning. In that sense, being a large scale real-time performance of all mnemonic contents of all participants, Mnemeden ideally offers a universal mnemonic panorama of the present.

Historical memory theatres function with the assumption that contents to be remembered do not change in time. On the contrary, mnemeden mechanism contextualizes memory, by allowing mnemonic contents to be continuously regenerated and at the same time disintegrated. This mechanism, based on programs and algorithms developed specifically for the project in the Department of Computer Science in the University of Patras, does many things: it mediates between topical and remote participants and interconnects physical and virtual public places by circulating data among them in real time; it selects, processes and admits new textual material, drawn from the “external” sites; it makes possible the permutation and substitution of words and suffixes according to pre-determined algorithms, allowing thus movement of memory; and finally, it constantly measures complication of the overall structure, leading it towards a state of entropy.

At the beginning, participants are asked to write an initial content, by setting out a list of compound words that best signify the story, event, place, or person they want to remember. Each word is then placed, via the network, in one or more rooms of the Baths. This initial mnemonic content starts immediately to restructure itself. New words or suffixes substitute existing words, producing thus new mnemonic instances. Peformance unfolds under the influence of other participants’ contents, of human actions and dialogues in the real space of the Baths and the chat rooms of the internet, at the moment they happen.

Today, the archaeological place of the Ottoman Baths Bey-Hamam (or Paradise) in Thessaloniki functions as a strange heterotopia, referring to a historical period of occupation of the city that nobody wants to remember. With its memory and historical value neutralized, the monument becomes a pure sign, a kind of a-temporal topology of the void. The empty rooms of the Baths are filled up with the mnemonic contents of all participants, while they remain empty. Six ordered domed rooms – experienced as micro-skies – are full of words, invisible to in-situ visitors, but visible to on-line participants. During the duration of mnemeden, visitors of the Baths “stumble” on textual fragments of other people’s desires, and involuntarily activate and send them to mnemeden. There is no visible trace of this act in space: invisible light beams, connected with a computer server, process and redistribute data. In a similar way, everyday textual material that are drawn from the a-dimensional chatrooms of the intenet enter Mnemeden and infiltrate personal contents.

When does Mnemeden end? when does transfiguration of mnemonic content end? it ends when it reaches its most simple form and all possibilities of movement are exhausted. Recalling of the initial content, in the sense of archive, that is of usable memory, is then impossible. What matters more, is the errance among the unpredictable architecture of transformed meaning. What started as an art of memory, on the way it proved to be a latent apprenticeship in forgetfulness.


Panos Kouros, “Mnemeden: a Net.performance of Mnemonic Conceptions”. Sky Art Conference 2002. L. Knot and B. Kracke, eds., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Visual Studies, σ. 186-189




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