By Tyler Goldberger

This summer has challenged me when thinking about memory. What does memory look like? What should memory look like? Do there exist any “requirements” when talking about how best to display memory? Memory is such a unique concept, but should there also be a certain amount of standardization when talking about how to honor the memory of victims of human rights atrocities? Every recognition of history presents itself with both positive and negative consequences, and it is our job to discern how best these platforms can help us to remember the victim and not the perpetrator.

With all of these questions and thoughts in mind, I attended a lecture on the role of historical memory in Argentina. Specifically, the professor who led the presentation focused on a method of memory related to the clandestine detention centers that impacted so many victims during the Argentinian Dirty War. While ESMA was the largest detention center during this atrocity, Professor Vecchioli explained that historians often lose themselves in obtaining information regarding ESMA in a way that delegitimizes the victims’ experiences in other camps. It was with this framework that she formed a team of historians and computer scientists to work and see how as many of these torture centers as possible could be understood and presented to the public. For many years, they have been working on creating and publishing a virtual reality version of certain camps in order to demonstrate what exactly these camps looked like and how they functioned during the Dirty War.

The last portion of her presentation walked us through the newest virtual reality project, El Campo de Mayo, and explained how while virtually navigating through the camp, the program presents the viewer with written texts explaining what each room or space is as well as listening prompts spoken by a survivor that expresses what exactly it was like to be there and undergo the constant torture at the hands of the police officers. While I am extremely impressed with this method of delivering history to a more accessible audience, I am also hesitant to paint this virtual world as a perfect solution to increase efforts of historical memory and contribute to the ethics of memory.

Maybe three, four months ago, I would have been enamored by this method and shared it for all my friends to see. However, I recently had the opportunity to visit Poland and see, in first person, the damage done against the Jews during the Holocaust. I have grown up in an environment where I have seen pictures of Auschwitz, and I can honestly say that I had become somewhat desensitized to what this place represented. When arriving at Auschwitz, all five of my senses were on alert. I felt and I thought in silence, I touched and took my time to try and understand what I was seeing and what happened where I was standing. I tried to picture the scene on that day around 70 years ago, and I felt so much closer to the victims while feeling the emptiness and the solitude of Auschwitz. Obviously not everyone has the resources to visit these types of places, and I am very thankful for Duke’s support in making this experience possible for me, but it allowed me to confront these questions of memory from a more emotional perspective as opposed to a more mechanical and quantitative perspective.

Thinking about this virtual reality method of presenting the detention centers, what is gained by the audience when interacting with this method of memory? What is lost? For each person, their perspective on this front will vary. I know for me, I have been unable to communicate with any survivors of the Dirty War, so hearing the testimonies of the victims who have lived to talk about it has greatly impacted my knowledge of the event. As I am currently unable to go to Argentina, it has been a great resource to contextualize what I have read with what I can see with this representation. However, the static nature of the virtual setting, to me, has desensitized my empathy for what was experienced in this setting. Virtually witnessing sheds and trees does not translate to the pain and suffering that these victims had to confront after being kidnapped and deemed disappeared. This method of memory excels in presenting the viewer with many unheard stories and voices, but I also believe that the use of the screen makes it difficult for the viewer to be impacted by what is on the screen. This online format greatly increases the accessibility to this type of information, but it also allows the viewers to stroll through these sites of torture from the comfort of their homes without having to confront the suffering attached to what is being seen.

When witnessing this virtual environment, I immediately recognized that all the information was only displayed in Spanish, meaning that since the Dirty War is rarely taught in curriculums worldwide, it would be unlikely for many people to be able to use this resource as a form of education. After the lecture, I approached Professor Vecchioli if she needed help with translations, and three weeks later, I am a member of their team! I have been able to translate all of the functions of El Campo de Mayo in English, meaning that this information will now be accessible for many more readers. I look forward to bringing up these questions of memory and ethics when discussing how we relate this information to the public. This publicly accessible format is doing a good job to educate the general public, but should this be done at the expense of delegitimizing and suffering the experiences of the victims?

To view the interactive virtual world of the detention centers, feel free to visit http://www.centrosclandestinos.com.ar