Models of Memory – Chapter 2

More past-musings…. (ironic given  the subject)

Marc Augé and the theory of non place

This is a look into Marc Augé’s theory of non-place, from his book, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, and the idea of collective memory. Non-place can be defined as a generic space, they occur all around us, cash machines, petrol stations, supermarkets even modes of public transport; busses and trains. These non-places are places of transient existence, places we all experience yet never truly inhabit. Our memories of these places are constructed from a series of experiences from spaces that differ in location, but not in function. .


“If a place can be identified as a relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be identified as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.”(Marc Augé)

The non-place is a facilitator, a vessel which enables us to complete our task. Non-places hold no significance, and yet we all rely on them, we all experience them, yet our memories of them will be momentary.

Augé writes that Supermodernity creates non-places, and that excess of time, space and ego creates Supermodernity.  The excess of time relates to our increasing life expectancy, the more time we have, the more we spend in places of no significance. The excess of space is all about the change of scale on in the world, as we expand, physically and technologically the planet is relatively shrinking. Distance is no longer an issue, with motorways and railways, our perception of space has changed. The excess of ego is a result of the two previous.

What is interesting about non-place is that it only exists with our interaction.

“Clearly the word non-place designates two complementary but distinctive realities; space formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have with these spaces. “(Marc Augé)

These two realities create a solitary environment, opposite to that of anthropological place. (As defined by Augé: Anthropological place is formed by individual identities, through complicities of language, local references, and the unformulated rules of living know-how)  Augé argues that every individual occupying a non-place ‘are only indirectly connected with their purpose’ (Marc Augé) this confirms that non-place is simply a place of momentary reason, it merely facilitates the ultimate object of the individual

Non-place and collective memory

Collective (also referred to as shared memory) memory is when a group of people have the ability to recall an event, detail or experience; it is a shared pool of information. Collective memory contains several types of memory:

  1. Popular memory; defined by David Midelton and Derek Edwards, memory as represented by the public.
  2. Official memory; according to Jeffrey Olick this is memory influenced by the state. (Official memory has additional importance as it has a political bearing, both nationally and with other countries. Not necessarily the absolute truth, the state can control what the public has access to.)
  3. Autobiographical memory; a primary source of memory, as described by the one who experienced it.
  4. Historical memory; the study and representation of the past, mostly by academics.
  5. Cultural memory; defined by Ian Assmann as how society views its past by the things left behind, buildings, newspapers, monuments etc.

Non-place creates generic memory. These generic memories will be shared by all that experience that space. Our memories of these non places will be fleeting, unimportant, non-specific. But we have memories of them, we can remember the queue in the supermarket, or that the cash machine that wasn’t working at the petrol station and each individual will have similar memories, this creates basic shared memory.

Collective memory, generic spaces and the work of Uta Barth

Uta Barth produces photographs that stir up memories; she plays with light and perception to evoke sensations and recollections of the past.

Una Barth. Untitled (NW6) from nowhere near . 1999

“The work invites confusion on several levels, and that ‘meaning’ is generated in the process of ‘sorting things out.’ On the most obvious level, we all expect photographs to be pictures of something. We assume that the photographer observed a place, a person, an event in the world and wanted to record it. . . . The problem with my work is that these images are really not of anything in that sense, they register only that which is incidental. “(Exert from Uta Barth’s artists statement.)

She is interested in how we appropriate meaning to an image, and plays with the idea of the inconsequential memory being stirred by her images.

“We all expect photographs to be pictures of something.” (Una Barth)

Barth raises an interesting point, in that it holds truth. She changes the focus by photographing the mundane, underappreciated corners of life. (Similar to how Whiteread approaches her work, as explored in chapter one.)

“If I’m interested in light and perception, and this visual acuity to the mundane, fleeting, ephemeral, everyday kind of information, there’s no point in me going out to seek that out.” (Una Barth)

For fourteen years, Uta Barth only photographed inside her house. (The use of the interior can be seen in Whiteread’s work, and Bachelard’s writing. Closeness to their personal environment seems an important factor.)  She fully opened herself to her personal space, letting it influence her. Barth’s’ photographs play with perception; she portrays generic spaces, beams of light, angles and diverse surfaces textures.

Here the theory of non-place and collective memory can be seen being put into play. The photographs portray just enough detail to conjure up memories, and still remain anonymous .the obscurity of the image creates a not quite familiar feeling, yet a sense of recognition. As explored earlier, the memories formed in non-places maintain a generic significance, and this generic memory can become a collective one, given enough people experience that particular non-place. This is what occurs with Barth’s photographs. We view her work, and obscure image of a place that seems familiar yet we know we haven’t personally experienced it.

Uns Barth. Ground #38. 1994


The familiarity of the image stirs memories in us, we find ourselves reminiscing, an echo of past is cast through her viewers; Barth’s uses her work to communicate with her viewers on a subconscious level.(This relates to Pure memory, previously explored in chapter 1.)

More to come at a later date.

Some more books to check out if you wish – 

Calvino, I (1972) Invisible Cities 

Coverly, M (2010) Psychogeography 

De Certeau, M (1980) The Practice of Everyday Life

Gilloch, G (1996) Myth And Metropolis Walter Benjamin And The City 


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