The Forbidden Traces of Memory in Bucharest


A review of Chorographies of Memory: Everyday Sites and Practices of Remembrance Work in Post-socialist, EU Accession-era Bucharest, by Alyssa Grossman.

“Chorography” is the process of mapping a conglomeration of geographic, social, historical, cultural and individual landmarks that shape how a place is internalized, felt and interpreted by locals. Chorography and its preferred methodology of “perambulation” were used by a group of British scholars in the seventeenth century. Even if it remains a marginal approach to anthropological fieldwork, its adoption – as clearly demonstrated by the work under review – draws upon methodological strategies of data collection that promise to reveal a profoundly complex and sensuous construct of place. Alyssa Grossman’s approach in Chorographies of Memory is not one that aims at unpacking the various meanings and interpretations of remembrance in contemporary Bucharest. Rather, her research aims to focus on “what memory does, rather than determine what it is” (p. 29; her emphasis). This fundamental distinction shapes both her written thesis and the film Lumina Amintirii – In the Light of Memory (2010: 40’) that she produced as part of her PhD in Social Anthropology and Visual Media.

Grossman reports two main cultural memory narratives associated with communist Romania: on the one hand, the communist past is remembered as a period of stability and solidarity; on the other hand, the past is compared to a pathology, an unhealthy period perceived as abnormal. Those narratives are interwoven with individual accounts of the past, fostering another level of memories, memories that may contradict the dominant official and/or collective discourse(s). This complex interweaving of narratives and past imaginaries is taken up by Grossman to deconstruct – but not eradicate – two major dichotomizations of memory, which are individual vs. collective and official vs. unofficial. She further demonstrates how memory is an individual and social construct, and, therefore, how it remains unsettled and in constant redefinition.

Because of the inextricable nature of memory, conducting ethnographic research on this topic raises significant challenges; it is volatile, immaterial, often internalized and in constant transformation. In order to foster an in-depth and meaningful discussion of memory in a post-socialist and transitional context, Grossman develops a strategy that seriously considers the constructed imaginaries of materiality, visuality and spatiality in everyday life. Rather than focusing on expected markers of memory such as monuments, historical exhibitions and political discourses, Grossman’s work sets itself apart by the originality and richness of her exploration of less common – often hidden or taken for granted – artifacts and sites. Reconnecting with neglected and rejected objects – such as those associated with a communist aesthetics or objects of little economic value – allows people to access different angles for understanding the past in relation to the present; providing  “new points of intersection between realms of memory and forgetting” (p. 108).  Therefore, Grossman adopts an approach to memory that relies on people’s interpretation of sites, landscapes and place that is intrinsically local and temporal, and on the subsequent self-projection of those people in such a contextualized future.

In Chapter 2, Grossman investigates how people experience and re-create Bucharest in focusing on exterior landscapes. Rather than limiting her survey to official memorial architectures and sites, Grossman constructs a fascinating constellation of urban landmarks composed of old house windows, old-fashioned shop windows, and advertising banners, among other things. Those landmarks – perceived at first sight as non-memorials – do in fact reveal the ways in which people remember and disremember their city. Chapter 3 shifts the focus towards the interior landscape of the home. Again, Grossman goes beyond an exploration of memories associated with objects exhibited in a house; she is instead interested in the devalued material objects accumulated in insignificant and forgotten containers. Chapter 4 explores how the materiality of money, its physical and linguistic treatment, involves other forms of interactions than economic and functional–qualitative, subjective and emotional ones, namely forms that are bound up with memory. For instance, as an object of collection and recollection, the money artefact reveals inadvertent and unintentional memories that are often tied to nostalgic remembrance.  Grossman’s account of memories surrounding exchange rate fluctuation is incredibly rich in ethnographic accounts.  The sensuous dimension of memory takes on its full significance in Chapter 5 when Grossman explores the interactions and sensory implications of Bucharest residents’ relationship to food. To explore this idea in greater depth, Grossman develops an original methodological experiment inspired by “visual elicitation” she calls “gustatory elicitation,” which consist in using specific foods to evoke narratives of the past.

In Chapter 6, Grossman highlights the multifaceted aspects that “visual research” implied in her own filmic and written work. The film Lumina Amintirii highlights – among other aspects – the spatial dimensions of memory, not to mention its emotional and sensuous qualities. The “site of memory” finds its full deployment in the film; more than just a site with its memorials, it is a place where remembrance is endlessly reshaped and fluctuated though ordinary objects and people’s relation to those traces. More concretely: The film Lumina Amintirii takes place in Cişmigiu Gardens, one of the oldest parks in Bucharest. Here the park is not represented as a site where memories statically emerge; it becomes a site in which a constellation of memories are articulated and enacted by the intersubjective encounters of flâneurs, visitors, and individuals who work and even sleep there. Therefore, Grossman re-constitutes the park, as a meaningful memorial site that emerges as the result of a series of personal narratives and mundane interactions.

The filmmaker’s presence in the park is felt at various occasions; one powerful visual tool used by Grossman consists in using horizontally moving and uninterrupted shots, what she calls the bicycle “traveling” sequences, in which the viewer observes people sitting and relaxing on the park’s old wooden benches. When subjected to Grossman’s camera, many people look at her as if she was invading a private moment. Some seem to wonder what she is doing while others don’t even notice her. The traveling shots are extremely powerful. As spectators and outsiders, we feel a desire to learn more about these people; we are made to imagine their presence in relation to a past and a future of which we know little except what we garner from the physical presence of embodied memories. The park becomes a space of imagination and memorialization.

The complexity and multiplicity of individual and collective memory is beautifully orchestrated in the film by a fluid montage. Superimposed voices of interviewees – whom the viewer never gets to see – share memories over beautiful but mundane shots of the park. Our attention constantly shifts between images lived in present time and voices sending us back to stories of the past.

In observing and provoking acts of remembrance, Grossman has constructed an exceptional account of memories in present-day Bucharest. Her sharp and sophisticated argument on the hidden and forgotten traces of memories provides a fresh impetus to an entire series of artifacts and landmarks that remain unexplored in anthropology. What I found in Grossman’s work in Bucharest is more than hidden traces of memories. I found an extremely rich approach to the lived experience of a place in time that makes us focus on the chasms, gaps and containers that make our sensuous perception of a place meaningful, even if temporarily… that’s what memory does.

Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
University of Victoria


Ethnographic work and interviews in Bucharest, Romania
The film Lumina amintirii – In the Light of Memory can be viewed on the University of Manchester PhD and MPhil Films in Social Anthropology with Visual Media

Dissertation Information

University of Manchester. 2010. 245 pp. Primary Advisor: Sarah Green.


Image: Photograph by Alyssa Grossman.

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