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Memory Palace at the V&A: Shored against my ruins

In effect, this exhibition is a book in 3D, a walk-through experience where much (but not all) of Kunzru’s words jump out of the pages in rusted copper lettering.

Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace
Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7

“I originally resisted moving to Brooklyn because it’s so fucking clichéd,” says the novelist Hari Kunzru, now an Essex boy in New York. We’ve just had to leave the first Brooklyn coffee shop where we’d wanted to do the interview because the entire cast of Girls were sitting tapping on their MacBook Airs and nursing lattes. Sometimes the New Yorkness of New York is overwhelming.

I’m here to talk to about Memory Palace, a collaborative, multi-dimensional project between him and 20 graphic designers and illustrators for the V&A in London. The curators, Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar, wanted to put on the first exhibition of graphic design in the museum for a decade but for it to centre around a specially commissioned work of fiction. The result is a dystopian novella by Kunzru – chosen for the non-linear and allusive quality of his fiction, in novels such as Gods and Monsters – and a simultaneous exhibition of the book, as interpreted by the designers. In effect, it’s a book in 3D, a walk-through experience where much (but not all) of Kunzru’s words jump out of the pages in rusted copper lettering.

Kunzru also seems a natural choice of author because he’s at ease with the contemporary art scene, has artist friends and writes on art. He tells me he can feel closer culturally to that world than the literary one. “The book world can feel rather divorced from other cultural institutions and it frustrates me.”

His brief was deliberately loose. He worked with the curators and designers on what a book would look like conveyed in a museum space. To Kunzru, it was imperative the book “should use the fact it was going to be presented in the V&A of all places – imperial treasure house”, while bringing in many strands of his interests and obsessions: Sixties “inner space” science fiction, green anarchism, Norse mythology, the 18th-century cult of ruins, disaster movies and the eponymous “memory palaces”.

“I came across the concept of memory palaces reading about the Renaissance. It was the idea of imagining spaces, mostly cathedrals populated with mnemonic objects to remember complicated pieces of information.” This became an anchor for his story as he imagined the circumstances in which such a system would be used again: “And I realised it would only be if you took away the whole digital world and the internet.” At the same time he was becoming obsessed with online writing by anti-civilisationist anarchists. “I find it an intriguingly alien set of thoughts: they believe that everything went wrong at the dawn of agriculture. To them, as soon as you start having a surplus, you’re going down the route of building a palace for the leader, and with that comes numbers and writing and domination . . .”

Memory Palace is a semi-allegorical, everyman story of a London far in the future in which a magnetic storm (“the Withering”) has wiped out the world’s technology and knowledge. Books and any forms of remembering are banned by the hardline, kiltwearing rulers, or thanes, “the bringers of the Wilding”. London is in ruins and people have lost the art of memory, except for a small resistance group called the “memorialists”, of whom the nameless, Winston Smith-like protagonist is one. We read and see his journey as told from prison; both book and exhibition are presented in fragmented form, chunks of prose interspersed with illustrations; and in turn the text and graphics brought to life in the gallery space.

As much as there is a solemnity and seriousness of intent about the project, it’s also clear Kunzru has had tremendous fun with the language, in the mangled and misinterpreted words from the past (an “internet” for a banned group, “landfills” for vast treasuries, “pewters” for computers, “sign” for information, “tricknology” for technology and so on). “It allows you to be a little bit sly and satirical – and any time you’re writing a dystopian story, you’re not really writing about the future, you’re writing about now.” As such Kunzru sees it firmly as a “post economic crash book”. But it’s also a chance for the self-professed sci-fi geek to obliterate his former hometown, turn the Olympic park into the worst slum in London and shatter the Shard: “It’s a privilege of being a writer that it’s very cheap to express ideas that would be expensive on film – I can destroy London just by typing a few sentences.” He knew early on that he wanted to include the Olympic Park: “it’s immediately amusing to take this shiny, new venue and ruin it straight away.”

The ruin of London is nothing new in literature, he says, from early 20th-century sci-fi and “weird Victorian penny dreadful stories about airships bombing London and yellow hordes storming up the Thames”. The main work of dystopian fiction that influenced him, however, was Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. “It’s an extraordinary novel set after a nuclear disaster that imagines an England in which technology has been obliterated and it’s reverted to a tribal setting.”

I tell him I love the protagonist’s misplaced, rose-tinted nostalgia about the London of the past (our present). “He thought it was a wonderful world of palaces, whereas today is a dog-eat-dog Hobbesian world of grubbing about in the ruins.” There is a sense for Kunzru that it was ever thus, that we’ve always rubbished the present and remembered some previous, imaginary past. Something like the hyper-idealised Downton Abbey? “I’ve been thinking a lot about Downton Abbey recently and I think it’s definitely a symptom of the End Times. It’s true! But yes there is always this sense that perhaps we live after the great times, whether that’s the Sixties, the Empire or the Battle of Agincourt. That suspicion you’ve come after the party.”

This fear about the fragility of civilisation permeates the project, I suggest, because of our over-reliance on technology, and it wouldn’t take much for us to slip backwards. Kunzru compares it to no one remembering phone numbers any more; if you’re arrested and have one call, who do you call if you know no numbers. “We’ve outsourced a lot of our memory to devices.”

In Kunzru’s vision, with the death of the digital world, we are plunged back into a dark age. As he says, “I’d love to imagine we’d all discover our love for each other but I suspect that there’s some pretty nasty shit.” He compares his experience of the recent hurricane in New York: “When you take the power away, what happens is that a lot of people freak out. During a false alarm hurricane a few years ago, people were losing their minds: candles ran out so someone in my building just panic-bought Diptyque!”

The exhibition is a triumph for the collaborators’ collective vision. Some of the practitioners have interpreted Kunzru’s text two-dimensionally, others in vivid sculptural form. It’s as if the pages of the book have burst open, magically scattering words and illustrations into the gallery’s rooms.

The story ends in a viewer-participatory space, symbolising the prisoner’s cache of memories that are, as Kunzru puts it, “going to dissolve into this larger body of memories the group was going to hold.

“The question is: if someone asked you if you were able to transmit one of your memories, what would it be? It’s about what persists of us after we die. And that’s a religious, a scientific and a literary question.

“Memory Palace” runs until 20 October

Thomas Calvocoressi is a sub editor at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland