This weekend I visited the Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V & A Museum. The exhibition brings author Hari Kunrzru together with 20 different designers, illustrators and typographers to create a “walk-in” graphic novel. The idea is intriguing but I didn’t have much scope on what to expect. I’ve recently been to an immersive theatre experience and I wondered if it would be similar and I spend my time manically running around trying to catch every strand of action in order to get the complete story. It turns out a walk-in novel is much more static, running is discouraged and the exhibit gives you a really good idea of the book as a whole.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, a magnetic storm has destroyed all electronic history. What follows is the Withering a dark decline in civilisation that is spurred on by an ominous authority called The Thing who bans all form of history, art, writing and memory which systematically undermines hundreds of years of civilisation, taking humanity back to nature (a time that will be known as the Wilding).
The exhibit is a non-linear progression but it makes sense. The SF story is familiar enough to understand quickly but has enough backstory to keep you interested. It’s sort of Fahrenheit 451 meets the Pol Pot regime. The books and data are burnt and the Thing is sending people back the farms. Thinking about the entire worlds electronic data being deleted is pretty scary (why we must keep the books) and people having no literacy or way to record information is a long forgotten dilemma. We take the vast information available – free access to education, libraries and the internet – for granted so it was interesting to think and look at a world without it.
Our narrator is an unnamed prisoner who is part of an underground rebellion to salvage information and memories from the wreckage of London; they are called the Memorialists. From his imprisonment, the narrator tries to piece together all the information he has ever received in a time-honoured technique known as the Memory Palace. Much of the information is distorted but within it he creates a bizarre interpretation of 20th century London.
It’s easy to pick up the story as you walk around, generous chunks of prose are written along the walls and there are various installations from print work to film. A couple of bigger installations stand out. A ruined church is constructed from giant bales of recycled newspaper that represents the old religion of “recycling”. Similarly, hospitals have also been mystified. Illustrator collective Le Gun has created a giant witch doctor wagon that represents a NHS ambulance. Written next to it is “Once there were great palaces called Hospitals.” Oh course the NHS is gone in this future, along with medicine and any doctors in general.My favourite piece is the sequential artwork by Luke Pearson telling of the narrators capture and interrogation; it’s fantastically compelling and just as impressive as the large scale art pieces.
The exhibit isn’t exactly ground breaking but it’s a lot of fun. It ends with an interactive installation in which visitors can add their own memory to a growing digital poster and create their own “Memory Palace”. It was really warm and fuzzy seeing what memory each visitor chose and made me wonder what memories I would keep in my Memory Palace. If you are in London, I would recommend the visit!