As a semiologist you investigate the processes people employ to attribute meanings to places and things surrounding them. For many years you have been responsible for the observation and study of memorial sites related to traumatic events and the practices of commemoration that characterise them. The expressionSpatialising trauma’, to quote your words, clearly conveys the relationship between a place, an event, and its memory. Would you please describe the cultural and symbolic process behind these places and how much do they effect space making the example of a specific case?

I believe one cannot speak of a general single cultural and symbolic process when referring to all so-called ‘places of trauma’, which are often very different, based on their shape, layout and memory transmission mode, as well as political and sometimes ideological intent. In very general terms, we can say that all of these places encompass the transmission of memory. But memory may be functional to different symbolic logics and underlying policies. The huge memorial site dedicated to the victims of the devastation of the city of Nanjing by Chinese troops in 1937 for example, became a gigantic theme park in the 1990s, following the complex ideological revaluation sought by Deng Xiaoping in nationalistic and hegemonic terms. During the Mao era, the image of China as a victim and a loser would have been unthinkable. Hence, in the course of a few decades memory has been first been banned and removed and later restored and emphasised as evidence of how memory is not an absolute value in itself since it follows more complex logics of power and domination.

You are currently  coordinating the project ‘MEMOSUR: A Lesson for Europe. Memory, Trauma and Reconciliation in Chile and Argentina’ organised by IRSES: International Research Staff Exchange Scheme). What is the focus and what are the main objectives of the project in relation to social, political and economic issues in contemporary Europe? What do you mostly expect from the project?

MEMOSUR is a European project within the framework of the Marie Curie actions that mainly aims at developing educational and research collaboration among partners, comparing experiences on the themes of memory and trauma between two European countries (Italy and England) and two countries from Latin America (Chile and Argentina), based on mobility exchanges of faculty and doctoral students. The proposal contained in the title—A Lesson for Europe: Memory, Trauma and Reconciliation—suggests what seemed, at the time of the project, its priorities and originality: not looking to Latin America from our European experience but trying to reverse the process by learning something about our own traumatic past from countries that emerged from terrible fascist dictatorships. Eventually, we did not achieve the goal we expected at the beginning. However, I think this is a constitutive feature (and not necessarily an unhappy one) of projects that are undertaken while already having specific developments and outcomes in mind which then take other routes instead. So far, I believe that the project’s most relevant achievement has been the fostering of continuous exchange between people from the countries of the Southern Cone and European colleagues. The project envisages a minimum one-month stay in Europe and in South America. At first glance, this seemed a heavy constraint which would have been difficult to achieve. Instead, it actually turned out to be the real trump card. In my experience, being deeply exposed to the reality of the countries I visited has allowed me to expand my knowledge in a way that would never have been possible only through pure research. As a matter of fact, in those countries the history of dictatorships is still alive and pervades the whole society; it still lives in the memory of the people who thus, want to talk about it as in the numerous still ongoing trials or in the thousands of official and unofficial memorials scattered throughout the country. From this three-year research I expect, in addition to more traditional results, to complete a book I am currently working on, to organise a convention and other initiatives, to expand the possibility of still working together and exchanging experiences and reflections that have already gone far beyond a mere research project.

Interview by Francesca Lanz, Christopher Whitehead and Michela Bassanelli

Patrizia Violi is Professor of Semiotics at University of Bologna, Coordinator of the PhD Programme in Semiotics and Director of TRAME, an interdisciplinary centre for the study of memories and cultural traumas. Her actual research areas include memory and space, with particular reference to memorials, museums and trauma sites. She is project coordinator of the research project MEMOSUR – A Lesson for Europe: Memory, Trauma and Reconciliation in Chile and Argentina (July 2014 – Juin 2017).