Memory Triggers from a Prison.

Under the arche.
Part of my research project is to investigate the way humans perceive and remember their surroundings, from an architectural point of view. Results from the first set of experiment using 3D Virtual Environment (3DVE), see ArchiMemory XP 2.3, brought me some insights on what architectural features are most efficient at enhancing participants memory.
This is typically a top-down approach: by placing architectural elements  (doors, windows, arches …) at specific locations inside a 3DVE, we can use them as triggers or symbols to construct a meaningful journey for the participant. For example, a door is used as a transition from one type of information to another; a window is used as a digression device to give a hint on something else without taking you away from the main subject.
Lets look through that window, for a mo!
 A few month ago, I had the opportunity to work on an important project about syrian’s prison with a special research group in Goldsmiths: Forensic Architecture (FA). I couldn’t say much until the official release of the website we worked on due to the secrecy of the mission. Now that Amnesty International has released the website, I am taking the opportunity to briefly explain  the project in the light of my own research.
Saydnaya's prison - Aerial 3rd floor
Saydnaya’s prison – Aerial 3rd floor

The purpose of this project is to make the public aware of the existence of torture prison in Syria where humans right are baffles everyday. No NGO or any journalist have ever been inside, we don’t have any document, picture or report on this prison. What we do have is a satellite view and a few ex-prisoners testimonies.

Prison's Corridors
Prison’s Corridors

FA investigation started by doing long interviews of those witnesses. Based on their memories, an architect and a sound designer rebuild in real-time a 3D model of the prison. Because prisoners were blindfolded when arriving at the prison, most of their memories are based on sounds, movements and proprioception. Only after a few weeks, they got to their main cell, they were able to see the walls and the other people faces. Even though, sounds were a big part of their memories, my job was to focus on the visuals including 3D models, lights and textures. I will explain more about this in a separate post.

Triggers in Corridors
Triggers in Corridors
Back to the main room.
Working on this project gave me the opportunity to understand my research topic from a bottom-up approach.  In this case, memories are already in participant’s minds. They are vivid and strongly attach to all sort of emotions and perceptions due to the high stress environment where they happend. In a opposite direction as my previous method, here the process was to extract and rebuild those spaces from memory.
Those interviews were a constant demonstration of how memory works. The further we got in the interviews, the more we realised that memory is triggered by details like objects, architectural elements or colors.  Being in a cell with no window or arche, those triggers can take very different shapes. It can be a water pipe with his specific sound, re-purposed as a communication device or a hatch in the door through which the food was coming.
From the truck on arrival.
From the truck on arrival.
Before closing the door.
Even though those two methodologies are very different by essence,  one being to enhance memory, the other being to retrieve information from existing memories, they have a lot of common ground. From a cognitive psychology point of view, the main factor  activating those memories is “trigger”. Either we find them by telling the stories we remember and go in as much details as we can, or we place those triggers along a new journey to create that story.

To have a hint of those prisoners memory, visit the website and explore the 360 panoramas (more about this in next post) here: Saydnaya Project

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