“They were brave,” the British writer Hari Kunzru told me, over a plate of lunchtime noodles in New York, near Columbia University where he teaches creative writing. “They took a risk. When I came back and said, ‘What I’ve written is a post-apocalyptic piece of science fiction set in the ruins of a future London’, they said, ‘Good.’ ”
Kunzru was talking about Ligaya Salazar and Laurie Britton Newell, two curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, who had approached him in 2011 about a project with the broadest brief imaginable. They wanted him to write something – anything – that could serve as the basis for a “walk-in book” to be “staged” in one of the museum’s galleries. Kunzru’s text would then be the inspiration for 20 international artists and designers to interpret sections of the narrative in any graphic form they chose.
Although Kunzru’s writing is published in an outmoded, glue-and-paper printed book, Salazar and Newell thought that his output – in particular his story collection Noise (2005) and his novel Gods Without Men (2011), a series of disparate narratives linked by a desert setting – showed an interest in fragmentary structure, or an impatience with conventional narrative modes. Once Kunzru had accepted the commission, Salazar and Newell gave him a limit of 10,000 words in which to create a story-world; it was also agreed that, given the way most people move around an exhibition, and given the fact the show was intended to challenge existing conceptions of book-bound narrative, the story should not rely on chronology or suspense. Otherwise, he was free to take things wherever he wanted.
“As often happens,” Kunzru said, “something you were thinking about anyway turns out to fit.” His story emerged from an existing interest in mnemotechnics, the classical and medieval art of memory. “We’ve outsourced our memories,” he said. “We don’t need them any more. I don’t know any phone numbers ... That immediately led me into science fiction.”
In Kunzru’s story – which gives the exhibition its title, Memory Palace – an event known as “magnetisation” has wiped out all technology and infrastructure. The “thanes” who rule London in the new, post-industrial age, “the Withering”, view the previous age, “the Booming”, as a period of decadence, and have outlawed the spread of knowledge. The narrator, an unnamed male, is a member of a splinter group, the Memorialists, devoted to keeping facts and history alive. Lacking computers and paper, they rely on an old mnemonic trick, sometimes called “the memory palace”, whereby you visualise your memories and arrange them in a pictured space. The mind becomes a storehouse, or filing cabinet; to recall something, you simply imagine retrieving it.
“Memory palace” is a generic term; any space will do. Kunzru’s narrator, an enemy of the state, is confined to a bare prison cell. But by being resourceful – depositing memories on a crack in the floor or on a rusty broom handle – he makes it feel “as grand as a power station”. (The story of Simonides, the Greek poet who putatively invented the technique, is among the things he has memorised.)
As well as giving the project an architectural angle, the idea of the memory palace is analogous to a museum, where cultural memory – itself a collaborative enterprise – is given spatial form. It is also well suited to an exhibition whose founding concept involved the marrying of words and pictures. Kunzru told me he approached the commission as he would any piece of fiction but he was writing with an end in mind – to give the artists something to work with. One of the artists, Stefanie Posavec, a London-based graphic designer, studied the distance between capital cities and rendered the results as a “data visualisation” of the globe during “the Booming”. It looks like a football with uneven stitching.
By imagining an idiosyncratic vision of the present, Kunzru has given the artists the chance to subject our present to surreal reorganisation. At one point, the narrator evokes the lost tradition “known as hospitality”: “The doctors performed great feats of surgery and roamed the cities …” In response, the London-based illustration collective Le Gun has created a black-and-white graphic of a three-wheeled, single-storey cart, led by foxes and driven by a top-hatted charlatan, complete with apothecary cabinet, weathervane, a life ring marked NHS, and a flag that asks bystanders “How are you today?”
Kunzru’s characters don’t only reimagine the past; they also speculate about the future. The humourless rulers of London believe that the only hope for progress is to return to an even more primitive age. “I had been thinking about a particular sub-current of green anarchism, which is anti-civilisation,” Kunzru explained. Sometimes called anarcho-primitivism, its central notion – which Kunzru described as “wrong-headed but kind of interesting” – is that everything went wrong with the invention of agriculture. In Kunzru’s destroyed London, it is universally agreed that the Withering will be followed by another era, “the Wilding”. The rulers foresee “a joyful harmonising with nature” but, the narrator explains, “it might just be nothingness”.
Kunzru says he never intended Memory Palace to be “predictive”, only a “thought experiment” about what might happen to London over the next century or so. But it is nevertheless a comment on some real developments. Kunzru grew up in Essex and lived in east London when he was older. Memory Palace was written as the Olympics were being planned rather than staged but it expresses some of his fears – which he felt were confirmed. “I rarely felt more alienated from Britain than I did during the opening ceremony,” he said, describing it as “a weird Disneyfication of British history”. The Olympic Park, itself a kind of Disneyland, is a prominent feature of his future landscape, with Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit appearing as a kind of shrine – neglected by London’s rulers but worshipped by outsiders as the Red Man.
And it isn’t the only 2012 monument on tarnished display. There’s also The Shard, Renzo Piano’s 300-metre-plus skyscraper. Kunzru said he’d enjoyed “imagining one of these brand-new symbols of the thrusting financial economy in a state of decay”. Judging by his sketches of the Isle of Shard, the French illustrator Némo Tral enjoyed reimagining it in pictorial form. (Tral has also created a series of images of the land known as the Limpicks, home of the fearsome Red Man.)
Kunzru hasn’t seen all of the visual work that will end up in the show but he knows that it will vary a great deal in style, scale – and the degree to which it diverges from what he wrote. With illustrators, for example, there is the principle of “fidelity to the text”. Graphic designers, on the other hand, are “congenitally wired up to use the material for something completely different”. It’s in the nature of a collaborative project over which the writer has little authorial control that you don’t quite know what will be done in your name; it might be a case of “based on”, or “loosely based on” or even “inspired by”. But Kunzru feels prepared. From the start, he viewed the loss of creative control less as a problem than a precondition. “You’d have to be quite stupid not to realise that would be part of it,” he said.
“I always knew that there would be things in the show where I would be like: ‘That isn’t anything I could have foreseen.’ ”
‘Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace’ is at the V&A from June 18-October 20. ‘Memory Palace’ by Hari Kunzru is published in June (V&A Publishing, RRP£12.95). An accompanying programme featuring the exhibition will be broadcast on Sky Arts 1 HD on June 19. To comment email firstname.lastname@example.org