Sunday, 19 February 2012

An Act of Memory

Anniversary - an act of memory is a series of performances that began as a response to the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezez in July 2005. 

As part of this series, artist Monica Ross has memorised the entire text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and is currently on tour with the project, picking up co-reciters from communities along the way.

Ross was at Arnolfini in Bristol this weekend where she and other local recruits recited the UDHR in its entirety, along with its Preamble. The event was free and the audience was invited into the rather drab studio to sit in chairs which had been arranged in a lose circle, or to stand and come and go as they pleased. The event started without ceremony with Ross reciting the Preamble and then passing the microphone to one of her co-reciters to start with Article 1. When Article 1 was finished, the microphone was passed to the co-reciter for Article 2, and so on.

This was a striking event in many ways. The co-reciters were members of the community who had simply expressed an interest in taking part; they were not necessarily affiliated to the art world or adept at public speaking or performance which gave this event a feeling of genuine inclusiveness and reality. They spoke in a variety of languages, sometimes stumbling and forgetting the words, backtracking and starting again, asking for prompts and laughing nervously. There were smiles and expressions of support as the microphone was passed back and forth.

A piece like this could easily have been fraught with pretentiousness; it could have been smug and puffed-up. The reason it was not these things was down to its unpolished nature; Ross and her co-reciters did not 'take to the stage' or attempt to assume any ownership of the text or the space in which it was being recited. It was apparent from the very beginning that in reciting the text in front of an audience, each individual was trying to get closer to a deeper, personal understanding of it.

The programme for the event stated the following:

Each recitation is shaped by the producers and co-reciters who deliver it. While the text and its aspirations remain the same, the different voices reciting in different languages mean that each performance is specific to its context and community and nuanced, inflected and impassioned by the individuals who commit themselves to reciting the Articles from memory. ... The emphasis is not on  perfect recall but on the attempt to remember and the difficulty of fulfilling the Declaration's call to keep it "constantly in mind" especially when under pressure.

One man needed Ross by his side the whole time to give him gentle prompts. Each time she did, he went back to the beginning to start his recital again. Whereas in some contexts, this would have constituted a bit of a dodgy performance, in this instance, it felt like a great privilege to be permitted to watch this person try and falter and try and falter again and then eventually succeed. It was as if the audience were watching the man literally go through the process of learning how to keep the Declaration 'constantly in mind'.

The UDHR was drawn up in December 1948 as a response to the atrocities that occurred in the Second World War. It is incredibly striking in its integrity and in its quest for equality and fairness. It's not surprising that many of the Articles are still deeply relevant today; we still live in a world that condones torture, arbitrary arrest and poverty. It is an incredibly important document because it is for all people, everywhere and also, put simply, a very beautiful piece of writing.


  1. Thanks for the post. We came and took part in the recital as members of Bristol Refugee Rights. It was a moving and powerful evening, not least because the rights that the individuals from countries including Somalia, Eritrea, Kurdistan who have fled human rights abuses in their own countries, are increasingly suffering the erosion of their human rights here in the UK. Bristol Refugee Rights and others are campaigning to protect these rights; against arbitrary detention, the right to a fair trial, against inhumane and degrading treatment, to name a few. Unfortunateley, often hidden from view and behind the scare stories in the media, there are daily violations of these rights happening here in Bristol under the UK's increasingly harsh immigration and asylum system. Although the evening was very important, we must remember that political action and ongoing vigilance are required to protect these hard won rights, for ALL, not just those who already have citizenship.
    Please see website for more information about our work.

    1. Thank you very much for the post; I really appreciate your care and thoughtfulness in writing it. it goes to the heart and aim of the work: - we all have rights but we are all also responsible for those rights and their recognition and effectiveness in the world. human rights can easily slip our minds and slip away from us even when we think they are secured, unless we try to keep them in mind and work to ensure them, as Alice says above, for everybody.
      many thanks,

    2. Thank you Monica. It was a very moving and beautiful piece and it will be remembered for a long time.