Alice Bucknell

Nostalgia, Disaster, Desire: The Virtual City and Cultural Memory in Late Capitalism

Alice Bucknell

Fig 1. Still from the Smithsonian Channel’s original series Perfect Storms. Season 1, Episode 1 (2013).

At 9.30 AM on 1 November 1755, the most powerful earthquake in the history of Europe hit Lisbon, killing an estimated 30,000 – 40,000 people and instantly toppling 10% of the city’s architectural tissue while rendering countless other buildings uninhabitable. Beyond the material damage, the disaster marked a seismic shift in the country’s international standing, expediting Lisbon’s waning status as one of the most significant trading ports in the continent from its golden age in the early 16th century, and destabilizing Portugal’s role in the future of Europe’s expanding colonial empire.

As ripple quakes, fires, and even a tsunami besieged the city in the following days, the scale and drama of the damage profoundly shook the European collective conscience. Newspaper headlines relived the traumatic event for over half a year following: the first event of its kind to receive such widespread media attention. Nearly 300 years later, the desire to visualize this disaster and the traces of the historical Lisbon that it wiped out remain strong, with contemporary technologies including Virtual Reality software and digital mapping utilized across disciplines, from academic research to the entertainment industries.

Nostalgia, Disaster, Desire: The Virtual City and Cultural Memory in Late Capitalism is an attempt to piece together the competing visions of historical and contemporary Lisbon enabled by Second Life®/OpenSimulator technology and spurned on by 21st-century forces of globalization and late capitalism. Taking the 18th-century earthquake that ravaged the Portuguese capital as its departure point, this piece intends to reflect on the social capital of disaster-led nostalgia, particularly within the present condition of crisis that has produced an insatiable hunger for such imagery. 

In its broad meditation upon the social, political and aesthetic qualities of cultural memory, this work intends to create a dialogue across sectors, from academia to the entertainment industries of television and tourism. It draws upon VR renderings of historical and contemporary Lisbon produced by such diverse sources as the City and Spectacle project developed at the Centre for Art History and Artistic Research (CHAIA) at the University of Évora; the Smithsonian Channel’s Perfect Storms television series; and a birds-eye view of Lisbon sourced from the 3D Earth Mode of Google Maps, a computer program developed in part to enable virtual tourism. 

City and Spectacle: A Vision of Pre-Earthquake Lisbon was thus devised as a virtual, interactive and immersive laboratory of research on the lost city of early eighteenth-century Lisbon. It aims to envision not only the material city destroyed by the earthquake but to also conjure some aspects of its daily life, through the recreation of typical events such as processions and opera performances.

Perfect Storm: Disasters That Changed The World was a Canadian historical documentary series produced by the Smithsonian Channel that attempted to “bring to life” the most destructive natural disasters throughout recorded history, exploring the reason for their occurrence and “revealing the stories of survival, heroism, and devastation” left in their wake. Premiering in early 2013, “God’s Wrath” was the first of six episodes comprising the show’s single season. It touches upon an abject fascination with the aesthetics of destruction and crisis, perhaps as intrinsic to human nature as our capacities for nostalgia.

Flight over top Lisbon landmarks is a 7-minute long video uploaded to the popular video-sharing site Youtube in September 2014. It was developed using Google Maps software in order to perform a touristic function of a streamlined presentation of the city’s most notable built structures as seen from a voyeuristic birds-eye view. Prior to the construction of recent cultural projects across public and private sectors including the A_LA designed MAAT museum and SelgasCano’s Second Home, that take aim at an international crowd in an effort to tap into a resurfacing post-recession tourist economy, the video doubles as a future archaeological record of a resilient capital seemingly always in flux.

By placing these alternative renderings of Lisbon side by side on one of the most frequented and historically significant streets of the city, where they play out simultaneously and ad infinitum into the dark hours of the night, this project intends to reflect upon our insatiable hunger for sensory stimulation of all kinds, as well as a universal human yearning for an absent past that stretches far beyond a single culture or historical event, however catastrophic. In addressing the many competing visions of Lisbon’s lost history and speculative future, it also offers a larger narrative of a highly adaptive and resourceful city that has always managed to keep its head above water.

From top to bottom: Visualization of the destroyed Ribeira Palace, as featured in City and Spectacle; the oncoming tsunami about to flood Lisbon following the 1755 earthquake, as visualized by the Smithsonian Channel’s Perfect Storms; Discoverer’s Monument, featured in Flight over top Lisbon landmarks.