The Hayabusa Super Express takes me at 350Kmh towards Tokyo, and home. That I’ll be glad of. It is hard to be away for periods of time. But I digress, I wanted to use your reading time to recount the evening session I went to on Archiving and Memorialisation of Disasters.
This was one of the many public side events, which looking at the program, I would have been equally happy to spend my time in. These were more seminar focussed, so speakers were given substantial time to explore a topic.
The seminar opening with an video archiving project, stemming from the Tohuku Earthquake, which had the goals to preserve, discover, connect, participate and create from the wealth of available material. They spoke about being able to access 20,000 websites, 800,000 tweets, 170,000 photos, and over 275,000 headlines relating to the earthquake. As they collected this material, they weren’t really sure what to do with it. As one said, when in doubt run a student unit. SO they ran a unit with the above objectives. They wanted to use the archive to achieve a historical or ethnographical record of the disaster. Students needed to work in groups, and engage with the materials, and create something in the end. It was important that there was a unifying theme through the projects, and that it created a narrative, which could be challenging working with such materials.
The students presented image based projects that described life in the hinanjo, the evacuation centres that people lived in for some time. Another interesting project students analysed tweets to find what the meaning of the term ganbare (which meant hang on) was to affected people. These were two of the interesting projects they talked about. What struck me was both the amount of and diversity of material available, as well as the truly global nature of the project. No longer is it just the local historical society sifting through a few ruins or interviewing a handful of people. Anyone, anywhere who has “#imwithyou” etc is part of the narrative of the disaster. But is it all just ephemeral? I think phenomenon like jesuischarlie would be very interesting to explore the meaning. What do people take from it, is it solidarity, is it comfort, is it herd mentality, is it another form of clicktivism (or slacktivism as I have heard it described). And how long does it last? DO these sentiments fade in the same way that news interest in disasters fade when there is no new angle.?
Another project presented was called Voices from Tohuka. David Slater teaches at a university in japan. After the quake, he and his students visited affected areas to help with packing materials, clearing rubble, digging, digging DIGGING. As there was much to do, they decided to make a little video getting other students to come along and help. So they filmed themselves digging, and recrded a little video. At the end of the video, an old woman who was watching them waved them over and said “why don’t you come to us, we have stories to tell too” So they videoed her story. Then others, and others, before eventually ending up with 500 hours of stories. David talked about why did people want to tell stories. Firstly it was to set the record straight, that often what we hear about, read about isn’t right, that mainstream media get things wrong. IT also helps them set out their own experience in a narrative form. Finally it gives them something to do. Some of the other reasons people gave was we are telling you so you will tell others. Or the stories are starting to fade, to change, and we want them recorded. We want to keep this for the future, as we didn’t take notes during the disaster, and so we can remember, but also forget as it is recorded now.
Their approach was simple. They needed to be different from the media, no focus on the sensational. They also wanted to be different to researchers, who generally took, but did not feed back to the interviewees. The three broad questions to shape the conversations were; tell us about your community before the event, tell us about what has happened since the earthquake, and tell us about your community into the future. The project has collected all of this rich information, it is now open to scholars to interrogate and interpret.
Susann Ullberg from Sweden talked about a project defining a floodscape in Santa Fe. Her project looked at how floods were forgotten in the city. Santa Fe has had significant destructive floods over its history, yet all of these have been forgotten. The most recent floods were described at the worst ever, yet others were equally comparable. She saw that this repression of memory led people to be surprised at these large scale floods, rather than prepared. Interviews with flood survivors created what she called an accidental community of memory, things that would emerge, randomly or suddenly remembered of things lost, or an evocation of their experience. This memory making, and a commemoration of sorts brought also anger, anger at the city for their failures pre and post flood.
She spoke about how things get erased from the memory, the logic of omission, where there is selective remembering and forgetting, how his leads of a normalisation of an event that might have a significant event. This normalisation, knocking out all the bad stuff, means that authorities (but also people, particularly in higher classes) want to forget the bad, and remember the good, so they don’t need to do anything about it there is no need for preparedness when it really wasn’t that bas was it. It’s an interesting use of terminology, because I think normalisation is good, we want disasters to become part of the vernacular, the narrative, the routines. But of course, only if people take appropriate action.
My favourite topic up next, and one I might write a book about one day (giving me an excuse to listen to lots of music, read lots of books, and see lots of movies. Susanna Hoffman talked about catastrophe and culture. The presentation was basically a list of disaster books, which she talked about some in a bit fo detail, went through the premise of disaster movies (ie outsiders, nature as evil, to be battled, etc, everyman saving the family etc, the authorities not to be trusted. The key point I took away was that the fictionalisation, the entry of disaster into popular culture, and myth, means that not always the true story will be told. Having said that, what is the true story? We all have our own narratives.
The final session was from Sebastien Baret, a French professor living in Sendai, He found himself helping a small community, Yuriagu, that was completely devastated by the tsunami develop a memorial. Of their 5000 residents, 750 lost their lives. And the entire town was destroyed. (sound familiar, longer term readers). In the Buddhist tradition, ancestors are cared for in the home, with the shrines. With the homes, and the shrines washed away (not to mention the cemetery), the ancestors are no longer cared for. This can lead to troubled times, with restless ancestors appearing as ghosts, tormenting people in their sleep. So to develop a memorial in this context takes on an additional meaning, it becomes the memorial, the cemetery, and the shrine for people to care for their ancestors.
A memorials group was formed to represent the families, it was seen as a way of bringing together a community that was challenged by conflict. One of the things that Sebatien reflected on was the divergent views on the purpose of the memorial. For families it was a collective grave, to remember the dead, and the experience of those that survived, and a place to come together. For the local council is was an opportunity to mark a “successful recovery”, remembering the disaster, and educating for the future.
He also tackled the problem of timing the memorial. He said, in this context, with the absence of a grave, and the need to mourn, he felt it was good to start planning the memorial early. I can see this as being important when the memorial has such a purpose as outlined above. For other circumstances, I still believe it should be when the community is ready, and it has started to shape it’s narrative/s around the fire.
By the end I had to go for dinner. Luckily I had to walk, because I needed time to process it all. This is the complexity of what we do that challenges me. The more complex, the better.
As many of us grieved Jeff, it feels right