treibhaus goes EXPO – Folge 5
United Nations – Pavillon Zero
… and the enormous wooden Renaissance Computer
At this year’s Expo in Milan, most countries and corporations created monstrous pavilions, most of which self-indulgently showcase their products, services and tourist destinations and only pay lip service to the guiding theme “Feeding the Planet – Energy for Life”.
The United Nations is different. In its Pavilion Zero, the UN translates the guiding theme into an immersive space replete with installations that explore the relationships between people and food throughout the centuries and across different cultures.
The first installation, the so-called Memory Theater, is an enormous wooden library full of protruding filing cabinets and endless shelves. The design, as the inconspicuous info point in the far corner makes clear, was inspired by the Italian renaissance philosopher, Giulio Delminio Camillio’s L’idea del Theatro.
In this rather cabalistic work, Camillio lays out a plan for an organisational structure – a sort of wooden amphitheater – that would give users access to and the capacity to store all the knowledge of the universe. Were a person to stand at the center of this edifice, he or she would be able to navigate through meticulously arranged symbols that contain information compressed in a type of code. In other words, a renaissance computer where symbols and aide-memoires take the place of files and icons.
This gets at the essence of the Memory Theater. It is a reification (Vergegenständlichung) of Camillio’s vision for the ultimate memory palace. As fans of the British TV series Sherlock undoubtedly know, the memory palace, or method of loci, is an ancient technique for mentally storing endless amounts of information – numbers, words, emotions – through the use of spacial relationships and visual associations. The Malaysian memory champ, Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, recently used the wrinkles on his arm to memorize the entire 57,000-word Oxford English-Chinese dictionary.
So why did the UN invest millions in constructing an all-but-forgotten blueprint for an all-but-forgotten memory skill? And more importantly, how does this colossal structure (perhaps the first thing any guest sees when entering the Expo grounds) help us to understand the challenges of fighting global hunger?
The countless shelves represent a systematic compartmentalization of all of humanity’s knowledge of food. This includes not only food and nutritional science scholarship, but so-called “indigenous knowledge” – the skills, experiences, and insights of a people about their environment passed down from generation to generation. In other words, the agricultural practices that sustained a people long before the introduction of modern farming concepts. In its sprawling series of museum-like installations, the pavilion quite literally memorializes this not-yet-forgotten knowledge.
While walking through these installations, a central argument emerges: globalization in its present form is obliterating this “indigenous knowledge” and endangering the livelihood of entire peoples: resilient crops give way to cash crops, tried-and-true seeds give way to genetically modified seeds. And all of this for short-term gains at the expense of bio-diversity.
The task, it would seem, is to amass such knowledge and make it publicly available in a universal database. So why didn’t the UN symbolize this with a simple computer instead of constructing a colossal memory palace?
Because it’s the Expo. And Camillio was from Milan.