Rachel Baker’s Platfrom

We have always located ourselves by mnemonics, by having shorthand visual maps of our environment. This is as true for virtual information spaces as it is for ‘real’ geographies. Memory experts use visual mnemonics as a way of remembering lists of information. These techniques propose visualising a room or a house with many shelves or cupboards, and then walking around depositing the bits of information you need to remember around the rooms of this virtual space. When you want to recall the information, you mentally walk around the space until you find the memory object you placed there.

In his classic book on urban planning “The Image of the City” Kevin Lynch describes how important this kind of technique is when we navigate real spaces;

“Way finding is the original function of the environmental image and the basis on which emotional associations may have been founded. But the image is not only valuable in its immediate sense in which acts as a map for the direction of movement. In a broader sense it can serve as a general frame of reference within which the individual can act or to which he can attach his knowledge. In this way it is like a body of belief or a set of social customs, it is an organiser of facts and possibilities.”

Lynch is making a very distinct link between a repository of knowledge -a body of belief as he calls it -and physical space. A contemporary example of this is NYC Bloggers maps Blogging activity in and around Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, encouraging bloggers to register their physical location by marking their nearest stop on the subway. Visitors to the site can navigate the map of New York, clicking on the subway lines presented as mnemonic linking blogging activity. Using this mnemonic structure, you can find out who is blogging on Canal Street, or who’s blogging at 5th Street , or in Queens or in Brooklyn.

In Platfrom SMS is used as a medium for a similar group of individual mnemonics. The train journey from London to the North is described not just a train journey but as a repository of stories and anecdotes. Train drivers tell stories about work, about how they have to be constantly thinking about the next station ahead, landmarks rushing by triggering them to think further down the line to the next station, the next curve, the next signal. For them the landscape is a series of mnemonics collapsing on themselves; each one a domino knocking a visual memory of what is further up the line.

But the drivers’ stories in Platfrom are tinged with melancholy for the rail industry. The lines that provide the visual mnemonic that enables them to do their job has been cut up and reformed through privatisation. With privatisation, a form of collective memory has been lost too. Kevin Lynch describes a similar disorientation in subjects who have suffered brain injuries:

“These men cannot find their own rooms again after leaving them and must wander helplessly until conducted home or until by chance they stumble upon some familiar detail. Purposeful movement is accomplished only by an elaborate memorisation of sequences of distinctive detail so closely spaced that the next detail is always in close range of the previous landmark. One man recognises a room by a small sign, another knows a street by the tram car numbers. If the symbols are tampered with, the man is lost.”

Platfrom makes an explicit connection between the privatisation of the railways and the corporate ownership of the cellular networks we have come to rely on so much. The cellular network, like the railway network, enables us to augment our environment with stories – mnemonics that root us in dynamic space. But who owns these memories? Are your private reveries really in a public space, or are they reliant on a private infrastructure that can be broken up and resold? If we had invested in memories in such an infrastructure, how would we find our way around then?

(originally commissioned by proboscis for the Private Reveries/Public Spaces project)


  1. networked_performance


    Routed Narratives Platform, by Rachel Baker, uses the platform of the mobile phone within a very specific context ­ the train journey. A series of playful SMS messaging scenarios will make a relation between mobile phone and rail network as…

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