Making Memory in the City

 “As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands” Italo Calvino 1


Image: Intervention at ‘Estación Rodolfo Walsh’, Helen Morgan, 2011

On a cold Wednesday lunchtime in July 2011, I joined a group of people beginning to gather at the entrance to the underground station Entre Ríos in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The atmosphere as people assembled on the street was one of excitement but also gravity. Without a word, the group of around 30 people moved down inside the station, armed with perfectly designed imitation stickers of platform signs and no-smoking signs, ready to change the name of the station. 

The activity taking place was to symbolically rename the station after Rodolfo Walsh; a journalist and author kidnapped by the Argentine dictatorship of 1976-1983. Witnesses saw him being taken on the corner of Entre Ríos on the 25th March 1977, and his body was never found. The organisers of the event are Grupo de Arte Callejero, GAC (Street Art Group), which is formed of five women activists who create provocative and political interventions in the city. These interventions have focussed on seeking justice for the victims of the last dictatorship, where impunity has prevailed. On that day in July, as the group passed through the station, stickers were placed over the originals on the platforms declaring the station ‘Estación Rodolfo Walsh (Ex-Entre Ríos)’ and the walls were covered with imitations of the no-smoking sign now boasting an image of Rodolfo’s face. The final act was placing stickers on the vertical face of the stairs, so when a passerby stood at the bottom looking up a large image of Rodolfo’s face was created. This temporary subversive act was stunning; a balance between beautiful visual art and dramatic political statement.

This site-specific intervention involved a remarkable interaction with the space of the station; the group swept down from the street and through the station, exiting on trains from the platform, leaving a different space behind them and transforming its surface into a site of memory. The act of remembering and commemorating was of course with sadness, yet the tone was not melancholic but of a sense of achievement; catharsis was gained through the activity. The public reacted in many ways; some stopped, watched, read the flyers, and spoke to people. Others observed from a distance. Some seemed amused by the activity, smiling at the transformation of the space. Others seemed unaffected and did not notice the changed name of the platform they were waiting at. 

During the period of military dictatorship in Argentina known as the dirty war, an estimated 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’. Since the dirty war, and especially in its wake, surges of memorialisation of its victims, or desaparecidos, have taken place alongside wider transitional justice mechanisms and the shift to democratisation. Human rights organisations (most famously the Madres de Plaza de Mayo – ‘Mothers of May Square’, who are mothers of desaparecidos), civil associations and the state have contributed to this active process of ‘remembering’. These vary from the city’s Parque de la Memoria sculpture park and ‘wall of names’; ex-clandestine detention centres where desaparecidos were imprisoned such as the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA) and more informal sites such as Club Atlético; and performances of memory and protest such as the escraches of the human rights group H.I.J.O.S. and the interventions of Grupo de Arte Callejero

Physical memorials and monuments to historical events scatter cities around the world. They represent a narrative and tell the city’s inhabitants a story of what are likely to be contested histories and events. Though important, these staid and static memorials have been critiqued by many who say that memory is practiced, a performance, the multitudes of which cannot be represented by an ‘official’, top-down, narrative. This builds on critical concepts of space and cities; that cities are not static, passive recipients of the activities they are stage to. Rather they are dynamic lived places, with histories and memories that permeate the physical and the intangible and shape the everyday life of its inhabitants.

The day following the intervention I returned to Estación Rodolfo Walsh (Ex-Entre Ríos) with the intention to return again a week after the intervention to record its decay. However, as I entered the platform (this time from a train) I did not recognise the place; there seemed to be not a trace of the GAC intervention left. I was, perhaps naively, shocked it was gone, expecting instead to observe its gradual erosion and the eventual return of the original space. Yet as I walked about the station I began to notice a few small stickers that had escaped removal. These remaining stickers, like little individual victories, seemed rebellious and amusing; they evaded disappearance and forgetting. To judge GACs work by its longevity misses the point; the intervention affects those who happened to be there. It was transient, temporary, and dynamic. As Estela Schindel explains, “Actions based on interaction or participation, ways to inscribe memory in the city that are not eternalised, but incorporated into everyday life, are perhaps the Argentinian way of answering the contemporary question of how to write painful memories into the skin of the city” 2.  Some of the greatest challenges when memorialising the missing are how to represent loss and disappearance (that which is not there) and how, in a context of continued human rights struggles for justice and accountability, do you memorialise without closing the book on those who are not ‘officially’ dead? The temporary interventions of artist-activist groups such as GAC avoid both this fundamental impossibility, and setting in stone one narrative of contested and un-concluded pasts. 

The use of streets and public spaces are central to these performances of memory. One member of GAC told me their activities are “a return to public spaces, a way to retake the streets after so many years of silence”. They use the streets of Buenos Aires to perform active and lived memory and to etch it into the urban fabric. The city is haunted with memories; potential memory sites are on every corner, in every square, in every house. GACs interventions articulate these hidden memories so the passerby can see them, contributing to individual and collective memory. Urban historian Dolores Hayden explains, “While a single, preserved historic place may trigger potent memories, networks of such places begin to reconnect social memory on an urban scale” 3.  The experience of moving through, being in and living in the city enables an individual to experience memory through a combination of static memory sites, spontaneously interventions such as GACs, and through personal past experience. 

The work of GAC in post-dictatorship Buenos Aires is just one specific context of memory in the city. It is a context of trauma, contested histories and transitional justice. However, what it demonstrates is how the city functions as a site for memory and a site for performance. The intervention at Entre Ríos demonstrates the co-production of memory and space. Specifically, we can see how cities are palimpsests; that memories and histories, both collective and individual, become layered in the very fabric of the urban environment. 

So what can people designing cities do to allow space for this kind of civic intervention and flexibility in the built environment? Examples can be wide ranging, from networks such as Theatrum Mundi; urbanists and artists who work on projects that bridge the stage and the street, to physical spaces such as the ESMA in Buenos Aires (mentioned above). The ESMA was the largest clandestine detention centre in Argentina, which the state appropriated from the Navy in 2004, and it is now the Space for Memory and the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights. Creating spaces like these for citizens to shape and explore the memories embedded in their city moves us some way to rooting civic participation into the city. 

1 Invisible Cities, 1997 [1972], London: Vintage, p10

2 ‘Siluetas, rostros, escraches: memoria y performance alrededor del movimiento de derechos humanos’ in: Ana Longoni and Gustavo Bruzzone (eds.), El Siluetazo (2008) Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo editoria, pp. 411-426, p 422

 3 The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (1995) London: The MIT Press, p78

Danielle House is Intern at Social Life. This blog is based on research undertaken for her Masters Dissertation: ‘Mapping Memory: The Spatial and Psycho Geographies of Memory Sites’