Susan Hillers the j street project (2002-5) and the memorial

When beginning to understand and rationalize grouped experiences the theorist Henri Lustiger-Thaler summarises perfectly. He begins to talk about the harrowing and tragic grouped experiences people begin to feel when visiting the holocaust memorial museums, the joint anguish the majority of us feel when visiting this location. I say majority because although most of us would feel a particular emotion, these experiences are completely subjective and also situational, thus is how understanding these collective experiences can become challenging. Thaler states “holocaust memorial museums are physical embodiments of memory in their representation of constituents who are devoted to collective remembrance.  they are institutions that have as their mission the authorship of collective memory, serving as conduits to a deeply tragic past” (Lustiger-Thaler 2008). Personally speaking, it is the understood subjective of the ‘survivor’ and the ‘lost’ that are central to the narrative of memory with regards to this circumstance. It is also interesting to consider The fundamental understanding of the geography of the senses within this situation. The central understanding is that the senses mediate space and in doing so donate to our sense of place – as framed by (Yi-Fu Tuan 1972).


With relevance to the holocaust museum the location and situation are crucial in understanding and sympathising as a collective remembrance; for example, the Auschwitz memorial museum. Because we understand the atrocities committed on this land, and the sheer loss of life that occurred, as a collective we can empathise. We empathise because as humans we understand the ‘feeling’ of loss and thus situate and familiarise with those who lost loved ones and their lives at Auschwitz, thus share a collective experience, a shared emotion or sensibility. Further, the spatiality or far-stretching, long dirt fields of Auschwitz surrounded by high barb wired walls also speaks to us; the enclosed location and total lack of vegetation echoes an ulterior message, that of the ‘lack’, thus loss of life. We associate the feeling of ‘loss’ with a material sensibility and understanding of place, this material sensibility crosses other feelings and contributes to a higher emotional and attuned understanding of the area and geography. More so for some cultural groups such as Jewish communities the memory and significance of Auschwitz is incredibly important in terms of collectiveness, heritage, memory, and understanding of the tribulations that have occurred in their people’s cultural past as a collective consciousness. You could say to some degree that Auschwitz as a phenomenon has a form of predominance, constituting to a wide network of negative sentimentality. This is where This sensory example, although an extreme scenario is notable for showing us the way we understand relations among the senses as a group and also as a subjective individual, how a geographical location can have both material and immaterial relationships with individuals and cultural groups, beyond and past Auschwitz informational content. Internationally significantly tragic Events such as Auschwitz are typically remembered in twofold, due to the media: as if one had first-hand been there, also where one first heard of the tragic story/news, often in many cases via the very media which soon occupies all memory of it. overlapped, the two become a complex entity which in turn, becomes part of the individual’s personal experience of the event. As we all to some degree feel the same or at the very least understand the tribulations experienced at Auschwitz we form part of the collective consciousness of a greater understanding, we become available as part of the wider spectrum of Auschwitz memories. It is also further interesting to question the idea of the ‘personal memory’ when talking about this topic, for many people the memory of Auschwitz is denoted as something ‘personal’, but for many individuals Auschwitz and the holocaust is an unexperienced memory, one where the physical tribulations finished before many of our times. Some may argue, and I would agree, the tribulations stretch further than something physical;


In Susan Hillers the j street project (Fig.2 above -2002-5) the artist filmed and photographed the 303 German roads, paths, and streets scattered across the country whose names still referred to and incorporated a former (Jude) Jewish presence. The 67-minute visual inventory was exhibited as a film consisting of a collection of still camera shots that documented daily life around the signs associated with the project. The soundtrack that accompanied the film featured sounds of the cityscape such as traffic, church bells, and general incidental background noise. Although Hillers approach to the project was neutral, progressively it became clear that the signs she was documenting became increasingly rich and full of Jewish memory and presence in locations, not just from the present but also from millennia past, the film is rich with historical meaning and denotes geography or sense of place to sensibility and further through semiology emotion. The overwhelming tension between past and present within the camera shots emphasises the sense of absence and traumatic loss. The place names operate as memorials of expurgation, what was and now is. As a collective, very similar to the experiences spoken about with regards to Auschwitz the project projects a historical consciousness which does not rely on the belief of the event, and as such side-steps history’s perceptual rewriting of itself under the guidance of that socio-political standpoint.  What is interesting to consider with regard to Hillers film is that without changing the works subject, the approach taken opens it up to be engaged and experienced by those who have suffered expurgation and catastrophe in other times and other places, thus having further collective but also subjective repercussions.


On the other hand, the theorist James Young and others have investigated the opposing nature of the traditional public memorial as suppressing collective memory rather than truly conserving it. ‘By assigning a fixed material form to memory – which is something essentially unstable- the memorial freezes meaning and relieves the public from the obligation to remember’ (Lanyon 2006). Although on the one hand, the Jewish street names are not out rightly monuments that have been reinstated they are never less intended to fulfil a memorial function. So per say these street signs do act as a vestige to our memories, they also allow a forgetting, a release from the guilt and weight of storing these tragic remembrances. Although I agree to some extent, on the other hand, I disagree. I believe that the physicality of a memorials function for a collective remembrance is imperative. Although to some degree you could argue it allows us to forget, I would purpose memorials act as a beacon; a place where people can collectively come together, remember and console as a group.


A memorial generates ambience and like Auschwitz acts as a timeless physical reminder of a specific part of history. The problem with remembering is that our experiences and memories are all fundamentally subjective. All our experiences of a specific moment although shared are completely different, thus without material memorials, a memory over time that is passed on from generation to generation becomes nothing more than a Chinese whisper that is open to change and interpretation, consequently over time memory through explanation is altered, exaggerated and mislead. As time goes on the personal impact historical tragic events has becomes less personal because the people who first hand experienced these events pass away and thus, as time goes on a personal event becomes a story, thus history. The J street project on the other hand, proposes an alternative to this dark thesis. The j street project provides a critically practical memorial that functions as a parallel of the issue raised. As a moving visual inventory, bringing together sites of memory Hiller creates a setting for a semiotic time-based conceptual ‘space’ where remembrance becomes possible, an archive of visual memory. The fundamental point is that whether our concern focuses upon the constructing or observing of images, representational or non-representational, we are consistently involved in aspects of relationships, where multifaceted concepts of order, form and structure emerge.

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