Re-Imagine

Philippe Campays, Vioula Said

Abstract


To Remember

‘The central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenisation and cultural heterogenisation.’ (Appadurai 49)

While this statement has been made more than twenty years, it remains more relevant than ever. The current age is one of widespread global migrations and dis-placement. The phenomenon of globalisation is the first and major factor for this newly created shift of ground, of transmigration as defined by its etymological meaning. However, a growing number of migrations also result from social or political oppression and war as we witness the current flow of refugees from Africa or Syria to Europe and with growing momentum, from climate change, the people of Tokelau or Nauru migrating as a result of the rise of sea levels in their South Pacific homeland. Such global migrations lead to an intense co-habitation of various cultures, ethnicities and religions in host societies. In late twentieth century Giddens explains this complexity and discusses how globalisation requires a re-organisation of time and space in social and cultural life of both the host and the migrant (Giddens 14). In the host country, Appadurai terms the physical consequences of this phenomenon as the new ‘ethnoscape’ (Appadurai 51). This fact is particularly relevant to New Zealand, a country that is currently seeing an unprecedented level of immigration from various and numerous ethnic groups which is evidently influencing the makeup of its entire population.

For the migrant, according to Xavier & Rosaldo, social life following migration re-establishes itself on two fronts: the first is the pre-modern manner of being present through participation in localised activities at specific locales; the second is about fostering relationships with absent others through media and across the world. These “settings for distanced relations – for relations at a distance, [are] stretched out across time and space” (Xavier & Rosaldo 8). Throughout the world, people in dis-placement reorganise their societies in both of these fronts.

Dis-placement is ‘a potentially traumatic event that is collectively experienced" (Norris 128).  Disaster and trauma related dis-placement as stressors happen to entire communities, not just individuals, families and neighbourhoods. Members are exposed together and it has been argued, must, therefore, recover together, (Norris 145). On one hand, in the situation of collective trauma some attachment to a new space ‘increases the likelihood that a community as a whole has the will to rebuild’ (Norris 145). On the other, it is suggested that for the individual, place attachment makes the necessary relocation much harder. It is in re-location however that the will to recreate or reproduce will emerge. Indeed part of the recovery in the case of relocation can be the reconstruction of place. The places of past experiences and rituals for meaning are commonly recreated or reproduced as new places of attachment abroad. The will and ability to reimagine and re-materialise (Gupta & Ferguson 70) the lost heritage is motivational and defines resilience.

This is something a great deal of communities such as the displaced Coptic community in New Zealand look to achieve, re-constructing a familiar space, where rituals and meaning can reaffirm their ideal existence, the only form of existence they have ever known before relocation. In this instance it is the reconstruction and reinterpretation of a traditional Coptic Orthodox church. 

Resilience can be examined as a ‘sense of community’, a concept that binds people with shared values.  Concern for community and respect for others can transcend the physical and can bind disparate individuals in ways that otherwise might require more formal organisations. It has been noted that trauma due to displacement and relocation can enhance a sense of closeness and stronger belonging (Norris 139).  Indeed citizen participation is fundamental to community resilience (Norris 139) and it entails the engagement of community members in formal organisations, including religious congregations (Perkins et al. 2002; Norris 139) and collective gatherings around cultural rituals. However, the displacement also strengthens the emotional ties at the individual level to the homeland, to kinfolk and to the more abstract cultural mores and ideas.

Commitment and Attachment

Recalling places of collective events and rituals such as assembly halls and spaces of worship is crucially important for dis-placed communities.  The attachment to place exposes the challenges and opportunities for recollecting the spirit of space in the situation of a people abroad.  This in turn, raises the question of memory and its representation in re-creating the architectural qualities of the cultural space from its original context. This article offers the employ of visual representation (drawings) as a strategy of recall. To explore these ideas further, the situation of the Egyptian community of Coptic Orthodox faith, relocated, displaced and living ‘abroad’ in New Zealand is being considered. This small community that emigrated to New Zealand firstly in the 1950s then in the 1970s represents in many ways the various ethnicities and religious beliefs found in New Zealand.

Rituals and congregations are held in collective spaces and while the attachment to the collective is essential, the question to be addressed here relates to the role of the physical community space in forming or maintaining the attachment to community (Pretty, Chipuer, and Bramston 78). Groups or societies use systems of shared meanings to interpret and make sense of the world. However, shared meanings have traditionally been tied to the idea of a fixed territory (Manzo & Devine-Wright 335, Xavier & Rosaldo 10). Manzo and Perkins further suggest that place attachments provide stability and are integral to self-definitions (335-350). 

 

Image by Vioula Said.

Stability and self-definition and ultimately identity are in turn, placed in jeopardy with the process of displacement and de-territorilisation.  Shared meanings are shifted and potentially lost when the resultant instability occurs.  Norris finds that in the strongest cases, individuals, neighbourhoods and communities lose their sense of identity and self-definition when displaced due to the destruction of natural and built environments (Norris 139). This comment is particularly relevant to people who are emigrating to New Zealand as refugees from climate change such as Pasifika or from wars and oppression such as the Coptic community. This loss strengthens the requirement for something greater than just a common space of congregation, something that transcends the physical.  The sense of belonging and identity in the complexity of potential cultural heterogenisation is at issue.  The role of architecture in dis-placement is thereby brought into question seeking answers to how it should facilitate a space of attachment for resilience, for identity and for belonging.

A unity of place and people has long been assumed in the anthropological concept of culture (Gupta & Ferguson: 75). According to Xavier & Rosaldo the historical tendency has been to connect the realm of constructing meaning to the particularities of place (Xavier & Rosaldo 10). Thereby, cultural meanings are intrinsically linked to place. Therefore, place attachment to the reproduced or re-interpreted place is crucially important for dis-placed societies in re-establishing social and cultural content.  Architectural spaces are the obvious holders of cultural, social and spiritual content for such enterprises. Hillier suggests that all "architecture is, in essence, the application of speculative and abstract thought to the non-discursive aspects of building, and because it is so, it is also its application to the social and cultural contents of buildings” (Hillier 3).

To Re-Imagine

An attempt to reflect the history, stories and the cultural mores of the Coptic community in exile by privileging material and design authenticity, merits attention. An important aspect of the Coptic faith lies within its adherence to symbolism and rituals and strict adherence to the traditional forms and configurations of space may reflect some authenticity of the customary qualities of the space (Said 109). However, the original space is itself in flux, changing with time and environmental conditions; as are the memories of those travelling abroad as they come from different moments in time.  Experience has shown that a communities’ will to re-establish social and cultural content through their traditional architecture on new sites has not always resurrected their history and reignited their original spirit. The impact of the new context’s reality on the reproduction or re interpretation of place may not fully enable its entire community’s attachment to it. There are significant implications from the displacement of site that lead to a disassociation from the former architectural language. Consequently there is a cultural imperative for an approach that entails the engagement of community in the re-making of a cultural space before responding to the demands of site.  Cultures come into conflict when the new ways of knowing and acting are at odds with the old.  Recreating a place without acknowledging these tensions may lead to non-attachment.  Facing cultural paradox and searching for authenticity explains in part, the value of intangible heritage and the need to privilege it over its tangible counterpart.

Intangible Heritage

The intangible qualities of place and the memory of them are anchors for a dis-placed community to reimagine and re-materialise its lost heritage and to recreate a new place for attachment. This brings about the notion of the authenticity of cultural heritage, it exposes the uncertain value of reconstruction and it exhibits the struggles associated with de-territorilisation in such a process.

In dealing with cultural heritage and contemporary conservation practice with today’s wider understanding of the interdisciplinary field of heritage studies, several authors discuss the relevance and applicability of the 1964 Venice Charter on architectural heritage. Glendinning argues that today’s heritage practices exploit the physical remains of the past for useful modern and aesthetic purposes as they are less concerned with the history they once served (Glendinning 3).  For example, the act of modernising and restoring a historic museum is counterbalanced by its ancient exhibits thereby highlighting modern progress. Others support this position by arguing that relationships, associations and meanings that contribute to the value of a site should not be dismissed in favour of physical remains (Hill 21). Smith notes that the less tangible approaches struggle to gain leverage within conventional practice, and therefore lack authenticity.  This can be evidenced in so many of our reconstructed heritage sites. This leads to the importance of the intangible when dealing with architectural heritage.

  

Image by Vioula Said.

In practice, a number of different methods and approaches are employed to safeguard intangible cultural heritage. In order to provide a common platform for considering intangible heritage, UNESCO developed the 2003 ‘Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage’. Rather than simply addressing physical heritage, this convention helped to define the intangible and served to promote its recognition. Intangible cultural heritage is defined as expressions, representations, practices, skills and knowledge that an individual a community or group recognise as their cultural heritage.

Safeguarding intangible heritage requires a form of translation, for example, from the oral form into a material form, e.g. archives, inventories, museums and audio or film records. This ‘freezing’ of intangible heritage requires thoughtfulness and care in the choosing of the appropriate methods and materials. At the same time, the ephemeral aspects of intangible heritage make it vulnerable to being absorbed by the typecast cultural models predominant at any particular time.  This less tangible characteristic of history and the pivotal role it plays in conveying a dialogue between the past and the present demands alternative methods. At a time when the identity of dis-placed people is in danger of being diminished by dominant host societies, the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage is critically important in re-establishing social and cultural content.

Recent news has shown the destruction of many Coptic churches in Egypt, through fire at increasing rates since 2011 or by bombings such as the ones witnessed in April 2017. For this particular problem of the Coptic Community, the authors propose that visual representation of spiritual spaces may aid in recollecting and re-establishing such heritage. The illustrations in this article present the personal journey of an artist of Egyptian Copt descent drawing from her memories of a place and time within the sphere of religious rituals. As Treib suggests, “Our recollections are situational and spatialised memories; they are memories attached to places and events” (Treib 22). The intertwining of real and imagined memory navigates to define the spirit of place of a lost time and community.

The act of remembering is a societal ritual and in and of itself is part of the globalised world we live in today. The memories lodged in physical places range from incidents of personal biography to the highly refined and extensively interpreted segments of cultural lore (Treib 63). The act of remembering allows for our sense of identity and reflective cultural distinctiveness as well as shaping our present lives from that of our past. To remember is to celebrate or to commemorate the past (Treib 25).

Memory has the aptitude to generate resilient links between self and environment, self and culture, as well as self and collective. “Our access to the past is no longer mediated by the account of a witness or a narrator, or by the eye of a photographer. We will not respond to a re-presentation of the historical event, but to a presentation or performance of it” (van Alphen 11).  This statement aligns with Smith’s critical analysis of heritage and identity, not as a set of guidelines but as a performance experienced through the imagination, “experienced within a layering of performative qualities that embody remembrance and commemoration and aim to construct a sense of place and understanding within the present”(van Alphen 11).  Heritage is hereby investigated as a re-constructed experience; attempting to identify a palette of memory-informed qualities that can be applied to the re-establishing of the heritage lost. Here memory will be defined as Aristotle’s Anamnesis, to identify the capacity to stimulate a range of physical and sensory experiences in the retrieval of heritage that may otherwise be forgotten (Cubitt 75; Huyssen 80). In architectural terms, Anamnesis, refers to the process of retrieval associated with intangible heritage, as a performance aimed at the recovery of memory, experienced through the imagination (Said 143). 

Unfortunately, when constructing an experience aimed at the recovery of memory, the conditions of a particular moment do not, once passed, move into a state of retirement from which they can be retrieved at a later date. Likewise, the conditions and occurrences of one moment can never be precisely recaptured, Treib describes memory as an interventionist:

it magnifies, diminishes, adjusts, darkens, or illuminates places that are no longer extant, transforming the past anew every time it is called to mind, shorn or undesirable reminiscence embellished by wishful thinking, coloured by present concerns. (Treib 188)

To remember them, Cubitt argues, we must reconstruct them; “not in the sense of reassembling something that has been taken to pieces and carefully stored, but in the sense of imaginatively configuring something that can no longer have the character of actuality” (Cubitt 77). 

  

Image by Vioula Said.

Traditionally, history and past events have been put in writing to preserve their memory within the present. However, as argued by Treib, this mode of representation is inherently linear and static; contributing to a flattening of history. Similarly, Nelson states; “I consider how a visual mode of representation – as opposed to textual or oral – helps to shape memory” (Nelson 37). The unflattening of past events can occur by actively engaging with culture and tradition through the mechanism of reconstruction and representation of the intangible heritage (Said 145). As memory becomes crucial in affirming collective identity, place also becomes crucial in anchoring such experience. 

Interactive exhibition facilitates this act using imagery, interpretation and physical engagement while architectural place gives distinctiveness to cultural products and practices. Architectural space is always intrinsically bound with cultural practice.  Appadurai says that where a groups’ past increasingly becomes part of museums, exhibits and collection, its culture becomes less a realm of reproducible practices and more an arena of choices and cultural reproduction (59). When place is shifted (de-territorilisation in migration) the loss of territorial roots brings “an erosion of the cultural distinctiveness of places, a de-territorilisation of identity” (Gupta & Ferguson 68).  According to Gupta & Ferguson, “remembered places have …. often served as symbolic anchors of community for dispersed people” (Gupta & Ferguson 69).

To Re-Make

In the context of de-territorialisation the intangible qualities of the original space offer an avenue for the creation and experience of a new space in the spirit of its source.  Simply reproducing a traditional building layout in the new territory or recollecting artefacts does not suffice in recalling the essence of place, nor does descriptive writing no matter how compelling. Issues of authenticity and identity underpin both of these strategies. Accepting the historical tendency to reconnect the realm of constructing meaning to the particularities of place requires an investigation on those ‘particularities of place’.  Intangible heritage can bridge the problems of being out of one’s country, overseas, or ‘abroad’.  While architecture can be as Hillier suggests, “in essence, the application of speculative and abstract thought to the non-discursive aspects of building” (Hillier 3).  Architecture should not be reproduced but rather re-constructed as a holder or facilitator of recollection and collective performance.  It is within the performance of intangible heritage in the ‘new’ architecture that a sense of belonging, identity and reconnection with home can be experienced abroad. Its visual representation takes centre stage in the process. The situation of the Egyptian community of Coptic faith in New Zealand is here looked at as an illustration. The intangibility of architectural heritage is created through one of the author’s graphic work here presented. 

 

Image by Vioula Said.

The concept of drawing as an anchor for memory and drawing as a method to inhabit space is exposed and this presents a situation where drawing has an experiential nature in itself.

It has been argued that a drawing is simply an image that compresses an entire experience of temporality. Pallasmaa suggests that “every drawing is an excavation into the past and memory of its creator” (Pallasmaa 91). The drawing is considered as a process of both observation and expression, of receiving and giving. The imagined or the remembered space turns real and becomes part of the experiential reality of the viewer and of the image maker. 

The drawing as a visual representation of the remembered experience within the embrace of an interior space is drawn from the image maker’s personal experience. It is the expression of their own recollection and not necessarily the precise realityor qualities perceived or remembered by others. This does not suggest that such drawing has a limited value. This article promotes the idea that such visual representation has potentially a shared transformative role. The development of drawings in this realm of intangible heritage exposes the fact that the act of drawing memory may provide an intimate relationship between architecture, past events within the space, the beholder of the memory and eventually the viewer of the drawing. The drawings can be considered a reminder of moments past, and an alternative method to the physical reproduction or preservation of the built form. It is a way to recollect, express and give new value to the understanding of intangible heritage, and constructs meaning.

From the development of a personal spatial and intuitive recall to produce visual expressions of a remembered space and time, the image author optimistically seeks others to deeply engage with these images of layered memories. They invite the viewer to re-create their own memory by engaging with the author’s own perception. Simply put, drawings of a personal memory are offered as a convincing representation of intangible heritage and as an authentic expression of the character or essence of place to its audience. This is offered as a method of reconstructing what is re-membered, as a manifestation of symbolic anchor and as a first step towards attachment to place. The relevance of which may be pertinent for people in exile in a foreign land.

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Keywords


culture, heritage, displacement, representation, drawing



Copyright (c) 2017 Philippe Campays, Vioula Said

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