Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, film by Michel Gondry


Philosopher Helen Petrovsky explains her view of the future and attempts to predict how the role of memory in the urban landscape will change

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An interview with Helen Petrovsky

An interview by Maria Sakirko

The memory of a city is comprised of the symbols and objects within it that bear witness to past events. These events are not preserved solely in explicit ‘monuments’. The architecture, spaces, and buildings of a city collect and store the customs and memories of its inhabitants and passers-through.

Memory is the version of the past that we take with us into the future. Memory is subjective and fragile; it can be influenced. This makes the question of preserving and transforming memory in the city not merely important, but indispensable to the study of future urban life. The work of the philosopher and cultural studies scholar Helen Petrovsky is concerned with memory: she examines the shapes memory takes and the way it relates to people and places. In this interview about the value of memory, Helen recalls ideas articulated by Benjamin, Virno and Jameson; taking the past and present as a starting point, she explains her view of the future and attempts to predict how the role of memory in the urban landscape will change.

Helen Petrovsky holds a Ph.D. in philosophy. Since 2011 she has been head of the aesthetics department at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences; she is a lecturer at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH). In 2011 she was awarded the Andrei Bely prize in the research category for her book Theory of the Image. She is the editor of 'Sinii Divan' magazine.
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In your work you often touch on the subject of memory. Some time ago you wrote a small article entitled ‘The city and memory’, in which you make the shift from a discourse about memory as something, say, official – something preserved in architectural monuments – to a discourse about individual and collective memory. Why was that shift important to you?

Firstly, I think that individual and collective memory are manifested in different ways in different cities. I have in mind, for example, a rather surprising piece of news, which didn’t make it to front pages of newspapers or TV news. I’m talking about the monument to Alexander I that was erected a few days ago in the Alexander Gardens. It’s a big monument to a tsar who lived rather a long time ago. In and of itself, perhaps, this isn’t especially interesting. What’s interesting here is something else. There used to be another monument next to the site of the new one. There was a stele dedicated to the revolutionaries and utopian thinkers of the October Revolution. Of course, that monument was not really about the heroic revolutionaries of the past; it was oriented principally towards the future, because, of course, it was erected by an order that saw its sole purpose as the construction of that future. The stele was quietly taken down under the pretext of reconstruction (and put back in the form of a Roman obelisk) and alongside it up went the standard-​issue tsar. I say ‘standard issue’ because no open competition was organised, as per the proper procedure: the monument was a prefabrication, as experts say. It was predetermined; it already existed.

So we can ask ourselves: what kind of memory does this symbolise? I don’t mean the monument itself, I mean the gesture of replacing one thing with another. You see this sort of gesture all the time and I think it makes our relationship with history and our understanding of ourselves within historical time problematic. For Russians and Muscovites, I mean. I think this gesture, this act of turning to the past – especially on a site where there was once a monument to the future – is revealing in many respects. You could put it another way: it’s an act of simply erasing whatever memory there was. It’s the replacement of a particular symbol of a time – a utopian time – with a symbol of a time that is completely inaccessible to us now. This statue is a truly empty idol for us today; it’s the embodiment of a state ideology and it has absolutely nothing to do with historical memory in the proper sense. Which raises the broader question of what monuments preserve and what they erase in the urban tissue.

Обелиск-монумент революционным мыслителям и деятелям борьбы за освобождение трудящихся. Александровский сад. Москва

Obelisk in the Alexander Gardens dedicated to ‘the outstanding thinkers and activists who fought for the emancipation of the working classes

And also of what memory they construct for citizens in the process.

Another interesting phenomena are absent monuments, monuments that have been taken down and the empty plinths left behind. That is also a species of immortalisation, but immortalisation of what? Or, you could say, it’s more of an embodiment of certain expectations than it is an attempt to draw on the past. In fact, I think that here we see the intersection of various vectors which aren’t necessarily directed only towards the past, and which aren’t necessarily connected to a specific perception of the present. Yes… it’s an intersection of vectors moving both into the past and, in a certain sense, into the future. It’s a projection of today’s wishes into tomorrow.

Moscow was voted one of the least pleasant cities in the world to live in: 162nd out of 164

Let’s return to the subject of individual and collective memory. Not long ago Moscow was voted one of the least pleasant cities in the world to live in: 162nd out of 164. Why? My theory is that in Moscow it is extremely difficult to develop any kind of personal, private space where you can project your private life or lived experience into the greater whole of the city. The city has been rebuilt a lot. I can’t even begin to picture all the different master plans drawn up for the city during Soviet times when the face of the town was changed beyond recognition: think of the Zaryadye region that was destroyed or the hotels that don’t exist anymore – these sorts of sweeping projects are gobsmacking of course. It seems to me that Moscow is a kind of state project. Where there used to be old buildings, which had a certain value – from the perspective of architecture, engineering and so on – now we get nice little ‘historical’ replicas, which have no memory whatsoever. It’s pure postmodernism. This erasure of collective memory is happening right in front of our eyes. When you’re faced with projects that are all-​encompassing, sweeping in nature, there’s absolutely no way for you to customise the urban tissue, to make it your own, even over a whole lifetime: it’s constantly being taken away from you. In a sense, it’s a truly inhumane space. I’ll be frank, I see Moscow as an inhumane city in its own way– as a city that was never designed for human life. For experiments – yes; for making money – yes; for all manner of schemes and grand strategies – economic and social – for sure; but for living as an individual? No. Therefore, it’s very difficult to form a view on how the individual and the collective combine here.

In the article I mentioned, you write that every citizen perceives their city through the places of ‘meeting with themselves’ and the places of meeting with others. In other words, through individual experiences. How relevant is this to the modern city? To the Moscow you were describing?

I remember that I was partially inspired by the memoires of Walter Benjamin, where he explores his Berlin childhood. Don’t forget that he was a collector, and that dimension was also significant for him. We can ask the question: is it possible to transfer the practice of collecting to the urban environment and to travelling?

Benjamin was not around to witness the development of the tourist industry, when urban areas started to be set aside exclusively for pedestrians and when the lived experiences of the town started to be heavily commercialised. Today it is very difficult for you as a city resident to separate your private, lived experience from the fenced-​off, alien, commercial image of the city which the tourists bring with them and which forms as a direct result of the huge volume of people passing through a city. The city arose as a place of dwelling, but today’s city is comprised by the currents flowing through it, especially in a metropolis the scale of Moscow. Movement changes the face of a city. That is to say, now the face of a city is not so much the buildings to which you can express a relationship – the backstreets, the passageways, the little cafes; now you are part of a moving crowd… you are a vector in the life of the city. It is harder and harder to find places in cities that have a personal significance, and perhaps they will vanish altogether. Everything is contrived so that when you return to a place you find yourself in a new one, whether you want to or not; that is to say, today’s city and today’s urban life push you out and force you to move. Today the city is a strange combination of the moving and the sedentary. Of course, that is connected with the stream of immigrants, with the rituals they bring, with their cultural codes. In that sense, today’s city is a far more complicated formation – more heterogeneous, more multicultural, if you like – than it was when Benjamin wrote his childhood impressions of visiting the Berlin Zoo.

It is very difficult for a city resident to separate private, lived experience from the commercial image of a city

The city is becoming ever more standardised and faceless. As you were saying, individual memory is being lost – it’s increasingly difficult to pin it down. Do you think we should resist this process somehow, try to overcome it?

I don’t know whether we should. I think that we simply need to look at what’s happening with different eyes. Although, of course, that can cause some personal discomfort… That doesn’t mean that we should all renounce our habits, but what it does mean is that we can no longer count on being able to tie them to a specific part of the city. Perhaps the city requires us to have no habits at all, to be pure opportunists, as Virno puts it – to be completely open; perhaps it asks us to move with the crowd, with the masses and so on. That’s precisely why you can’t get a hold of any separate inch of the urban fabric: you belong to this new population of the city. The loss we are experiencing is proof of our belonging to the many.


Monument to Alexander I in the Alexander Gardens, unveiled 2014

In this state of constant movement, where we are swept along by the flow of the city, what should we try to preserve and take with us?

Everything is changing with such momentum that we need to be prepared to let go continually – to experience more and more loss. We have to be able not to preserve – that’s a thoroughly different mindset – and not to be surprised when everything changes at a rate of knots. Take the site where Hotel Russia used to be: soon we’re supposed to get a kind of theme park representing the whole of Russia in bite-​size chunks. It’s a kind of micro-​space within the space of the city, which is no longer in dialogue with the city, but with a much wider territory, which, of course, none of us can picture – none of us can imagine the country that we live in – or represent it, as they say. The creation of these historical amusement parks is something of a trend. The town gives birth, internally so to speak, to these little gnomes, these mini-​towns where you go and look at a nice little display of history. These are the strange forms that historical memory is taking at the minute. Ultimately, city buildings are ceasing to have any significance beyond their functionality. Because monuments are being erased, destroyed, re-​worked, and reproduced as pseudo-​antiques, that is, the town itself is turning into a great big theme park – a specifically historical one. That is why we have to look at the city through different eyes, and find joy in what we discover, rather than worrying about whether we are looking at something original or not. That question isn’t relevant anymore.

It seems to me that there are currently a lot of artists working with the themes of memory and overcoming urban alienation.

Do you think so?

Well, you often mention Katherine Šeda for example…

Yes, that’s true. But her work isn’t about memory, it’s about a different problem. Were you thinking of Šeda’s project in residential areas of Brno?

Yes, among others.

That’s a good project and I admire it enormously. You are right, that was an attempt to overcome urban alienation. It’s a typical characteristic of residential areas in modern cities, but Šeda was also engaging with the country’s socialist legacy, more specifically with a particular archetype of social housing development: she was trying to overcome this state-​imposed scale and facelessness, too. When she posted residents shirts printed with an image of their tower block, she filled in the return address with the address of the resident’s neighbour, to try to get everyone to meet. In the event, everyone did meet a month later when Šeda arranged a gathering at a local gallery.

But I don’t see this as an attempt to work with time. It’s an attempt to work with society and community, with all the people that live in the same block but don’t know each other. Šeda did something similar in the countryside. She’s always contriving for people to meet. She is not concerned so much with the living environment itself – how to imbue, and reimbue it with meaning – as with the idea that given the right circumstances people can and do connect, and that as an artist she can catalyse the process. She sets the wheels in motion and then, in principle, her role is over. She effectively creates living environments in which people start to socialise and communicate with one another, overcoming the urban landscape – re-​appropriating it, you could say, but this time as a common space. Not necessarily as public space – ‘common’ is the important word here.

If we switch from artistic projects to urban, social ones that are dedicated to memory in the city…am I right that so far there have been very few initiatives?

In Russia, yes. In other countries, there are more.

Could you give an example?

Well, take social experiments. There’s an artist from the Netherlands called Erik Van Lieshout who made a project in Rotterdam where he set up an experimental zone – a sort of commune – and tried to create an alternative system of relations within the city. But that’s more about social relations. Like Šeda’s project in fact…


Shirts against Isolation. Project by Katerina Šeda, Czech Republic, 2007. The artist posted her shirts to residents of the Czech city of Brno; she filled in the return address with the address of the recipients’ neighbours, instead of her own /​Photo: Kateřina Sedá /​Tum​blr​.com

I know there was a project in America, perhaps you’ve heard of it, StoryCorps, where anyone who wanted could record their life story.

I think that sort of thing is quite out of date now. Because you make your recording – and then what? That’s the question. It’s not obvious what to do with it…

Make a common map of memories…

Well, yes, a common map of memories. But what’s the underlying idea of that? The stress is on making a common map. It’s not my memory or your memory, which on their own, perhaps, are insignificant. I see this as an attempt to use the common, and not the individual as a starting point. That’s the approach in the ascendancy today. This is what Virno is exploring – that today our launch pad is common, and that any singling out takes place against the backdrop of the common, the shared. There is indubitably a certain I which gets brought to the fore, individual memories and so on – but it is always surrounded and swallowed by the common – that’s the only place the I can manifest itself. There is an English word: ‘commons’. Besides the basic meanings, you can translate it as ‘public space’, ‘the public realm’, or ‘common property’. These sort of public spaces are actually quite dead and if they are somehow redefined, it’s only when they are populated by a large number of people: big crowds, the masses. That’s when you get a redefinition of urban space. But the routes of individual people – I’m afraid that they no longer have an impact on the city.

Are you saying that we can expect to see more projects that focus on the collective?

I don’t know. It could be the opposite: maybe we’ll see more projects that focus on the individual – to compensate. That might be the form that nostalgia takes. You could see projects about the individual as a sign that it’s already being forced out by the common. Your generation will experience a powerful longing for a time when you could still collect toys.

Is there a possibility that in the future we could find a way of measuring memory, of evaluating it? What should we preserve and what should we let go?

Our cultural policy is rather bizarre, to say the least

It’s impossible to say what we should preserve. This is a question about values. What should we deem of value? What should we deem worthy of preservation? All this is linked with the priorities being propagated at the moment, of course. Our cultural policy is rather bizarre, to say the least. Tsarism is currently playing a big role, for example. It’s part of this notion of the continuity of history. There’s an attempt to construct the development of the Russian state as a continuous line. What criterion is being used for this? What are the values? As it turns out, the underlying value is space, but not public space or urban space – space in the sense of territory. Our leadership is fixated on ideas which are obscenely archaic: you can build up your might, so the argument goes, by owning a large territory – and acquiring some new ones. It’s archaic beyond belief because might today is measured in completely different terms. We live in a different world, and everything in it has changed: the system of relationships between states and all the rest of it. Sovereignty itself is very much in the balance; not only is it problematic as a concept of political philosophy, but as a political practice that developed in the early modern period.

Машины на Красной площади. «Я шагаю по Москве», фильм Георгия Данелия, 1963

Cars in the Red Square. Image taken from Georgiy Daneliya’s film Walking the Streets of Moscow, 1963.

When different methods for preserving memory are used and manipulated, people are being experimented on in a certain way. What are the consequences of this?

They’re bad. You know, these new school history textbooks are exactly the kind of experiment you’re talking about, and it’s being played out on all of us. The next generation is going to have a very eclectic picture of the world. What we’re witnessing, first and foremost, is an attempt to sow a particular value system – a patriarchal one – in the minds of young people who haven’t yet found their bearings. At the same time, they’re being installed with a hostile view of the outside world. I don’t know what the ‘end-​product’ is, what sort of adult you end up with if you add television into the equation, where they quite literally teach lessons of hatred. I suppose you get orthodox people, stupefied by hatred for the world around them, devoid of memory – heard something or other about the tsars, but hardly capable of stringing it together into a coherent schema showing the transfer of power. I fear that if you go ahead and model the person who fully embodies these values you end up with some sort of cyborg! Well, actually, you get a person with a complicated mental mosaic because it’s impossible to reconcile all these elements in a single psychological system. Alongside this, of course, you have the experiences of the modern world: computer games, contemporary cinema, the internet and so on. So on top of the patriarchal values, you need to overlay the modes of existence embodied in all of the today’s information technologies. What’s the result? A very strange hybrid. A person with a very specific understanding of his own history. What such a person will want to preserve and what to reject, I won’t venture to comment.

That’s in Russia. But what if we talk more globally?

What will citizens of other countries want to preserve? Perceptions of history are increasingly blurred. Nowadays, our history is handed to us as second-​hand experience, as a set of particular images. A set of historical films. Our relationship with time has changed to such an extent that we can never go back – Jameson writes about this in his study Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. He groups historical films into a single genre that he calls ‘nostalgia movies’, which gets translated into Russian as ‘retro’. That’s exactly it – we relate to the whole of history as something ‘retro’. Everything is inauthentic…inauthentic ad absurdum. But that’s the only mechanism we have left for including our lives in history: through consciously contrived cinematic symbols (and not only in films). Through images of the city which you can no longer relate to anything – apart from to films. All these inauthentic images prop each other up and proliferate one another, and that’s the only authentic image of history that we have.