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Monica Ross. Anniversary – an act of memory

Monica Ross. Anniversary – an act of memory

Monica Ross. Anniversary – an act of memory

Monica Ross. Anniversary – an act of memory

Monica Ross. Anniversary – an act of memory

Monica Ross. Anniversary – an act of memory

Anita Ponton, 2013-09-04

A small woman, dressed in black, steps up softly. She turns and pulls back her thick silver grey mane of hair into a ponytail. It is time to start. She turns back to face the small crowd and, clasping her hands in front of her, she looks, pauses and then in a soft clear voice, she begins.

Anniversary – an act of memory, a multi-lingual performance in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is recited from memory.

Devised and produced by UK artist Monica Ross. Act 50, in a series of 60 Acts taking place between 2008 and 2013

Location: Placa del VI, Girona, Spain
Part of FEM_12 Festival Internacional de Dones Artistes d’Art dAccio I Performance, in association with Gresol


Whereas…

A small woman, dressed in black, steps up softly. She turns and pulls back her thick silver grey mane of hair into a ponytail. It is time to start. She turns back to face the small crowd and, clasping her hands in front of her, she looks, pauses and then in a soft clear voice, she begins.

Whereas…

We are in the Catalan town of Girona, gathered between the market and the Courts of Justice. It is Saturday morning, 1stDecember (World Aids Day) and it is bright and cold. Around us court vans come and go and the shoppers bustle past. The bells chime for 11am.

‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…’ (Preamble, UHDR)

Ross states her intent on the project website: ‘Anniversary — an act of memory  is a performance series in 60 acts of solo, collective and multi-lingual recitations from memory of the entire Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by Monica Ross and Co-Recitors. Ross first challenged herself to memorise and publicly recite the Declaration as a response to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by police in London in July 2005 in the solo performance ‘rights repeated—an act of memory’ at  Beaconsfield, London 2005.’ 1

The work aims to embody ‘a struggle for personal and public memory and the attainment of human rights as a continual process of individual and collective negotiation and re-iteration.’ 2 In other words, by remembering and repeating the rights enshrined in the UDHR, we keep it live, we keep it active and relevant. By learning in private and then declaring in public we defend those rights, we make it so that human rights are necessary. Indeed, what use are rights if we don’t know what they are, if we don’t articulate them?

In the recitations, people take their turns reciting, remembering (sometimes imperfectly), speaking in different languages. Sometimes if they falter, Ross steps closer to them ‘It’s okay. Take your time,’ she might say. Or she will whisper a prompt, to get them going again, only taking over if memory fails entirely. It’s hard to remember the words exactly but the real difficulty lies in declaring those words out loud, publicly. Ross remembers all the acts and the preamble, not always every line and every word in perfect order - however she always articulates the true meaning every time. Try it, try to memorise a short section. Then say it out loud in front of people.

‘Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realisation of this pledge…’ (Preamble, ibid.)

Words spoken, remembered and repeated out loud have a different quality to the words we read and they become a declaration of intent. The co-presence of an audience and other recitors make it so. Furthermore, as this is clearly not theatre, the recitation demands – gently but firmly – that we pay attention to the direct social and political implications of what is being said in relation to actual people in the real world. The public performance of the UDHR brings it into our immediate and present reality, it heightens our awareness of the manifold inequalities it addresses and, as Ross hoped, it offers one way to act on defending human rights.

Every recitation is different. The location will be different – a grand chapel, a contemporary art space, a library perhaps, or an online webcast. The crowd will be different, sometimes large and sometimes small, drawn from varying social backgrounds. Sometimes Ross will recite the whole thing alone and at others she is joined by a group of co-recitors. Here in Girona, we are at Act 50. There is a small crowd of recitors and another slightly larger group of friends, observers, photographers and passers-by who are wondering what just happened to their shopping morning. But they wait and watch all the same. This time, in Girona the recitors are a mix of genders but with a strong showing from a group of teenagers and a voluble group of older ladies who are excitedly waiting their turn.

‘Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a kindred spirit’

Hear it in Catalan, Spanish, French, English, Farsi… each act is recited by an individual, in the language of their choosing, either solo or with other people. This is Catalunya so people have brought their kids, their Mums, their babies, their dogs. In the end, for this recitiation, nearly all of the acts are declaimed by someone other than Ross. The crowd has grown as the performance continues, at first they look on quizzically but they wait to figure out what is happening. When the locals begin to recite their remembered acts in the local dialect, the shoppers understand. They get it straight away and they stick around. Because they are Catalans, because right now they are considering independence from Spain and politics is in the air. Giant Catalan puppets - gegants i capgrossos – turn the corner dancing, with trumpets blaring. They pause and watch from the back of the crowd for a few minutes. Their giant papier mache heads bobbing over the assembled shoppers, passers by and recitors. This all seems very normal for a Saturday morning in medieval, modern Girona.

‘Article 7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.’

Ross’s presence is quietly insistent – she is calm, never strident. There is no spectacle, no drama, no smoke nor mirrors. It is an honest act, this multilingual act of remembrance. Simply done, simply repeated, a straightforward reiteration of human rights, the performance offers us a simple challenge. Will we also stand up for Universal Human Rights?

Simply by remembering and declaring those rights publicly, we signal political intent. It poses the question, is this work, instigated, orchestrated and performed by Ross (and, over time, almost 1000 other recitors) a direct political action? Or is it public, participatory Art? Certainly we can approach and engage with it through the lens of contemporary art practice. But the power of this work is that it engages on all levels, through all lenses – different ages, nationalities and classes engage on the same level precisely because this is all about equality. In this way the performance reflects the universal embrace of the UHDR. Without being grandiose, it proposes and reinforces the necessity of universal access to human rights.

As such, I see it as art as a political act. Or better, it’s both art and political action. But what we call it matters less than the actual impact a work such as this can have in the real, imperfect world. Just as a small stone cast into a pond makes a ripple that eventually turns into a wave, one solo voice turns into a chorus that swells with every iteration, every performance, every act of remembering. And every act of remembering these rights is a radical act, a significant and potent action in the face of a frequently cruel and unfair world. It is an act of solidarity with those whose rights are infringed or non-existent.

Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.’

Anniversary — an act of memory works on other levels too – it’s a gift, a gesture. Ross cares. She cares about the recitors who struggle nervously with their words, she cares about the rights that constitute the declaration and she cared enough about the horrendous and unjust shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, at the hands of the British Police, to learn the entire Universal Declaration of Human Rights off by heart. And she has been reciting it ever since. That caring should matter may seem quaint to the slavishly ironic world of contemporary art. But in the real world of people and struggle, caring is sometimes all you have. Sometimes it’s what makes the difference.

After 45 minutes, the performance comes to an end. Ross unties her hair – a red ribbon flash as it comes loose. As it is World AIDS Day, Ross has asked that all the participants, at the end of the piece, walk backwards to a stall by the river, run by the local AIDS organisation. They said that not many people visit them on Saturday. Around the corner, past the busy stalls selling toys and chocolates and flowers and fruit, the entire group of recitors plus assembled friends and helpers walked backwards until they reached the stall. Then, in the winter sunshine everyone mingled, talking and laughing for a while and then eventually dissipated, drifting off into the narrow streets of Girona.

‘Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’

On Friday 14th June 2013, the performance reached Act 60 at the 23rd session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, in collaboration with Architects of Air. Monica Ross died at 5am on the same morning. Just five weeks earlier she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given no hope of recovery. She left us all too quickly, too soon. Her loss is felt keenly by all those who knew and worked with her and she will be missed terribly. However, with the help of her family (especially her husband Bernard and daughters Alice and Lydia) and with support from co-producer Michelle Hirschhorn and Andrew Mitchelson she saw to it that the final few performances took place, even if she couldn’t be there in person.3

Monica’s determination to see this work through, initially as homage to Menezes and the utter disregard for his human rights, then as homage to all those around the world who are deprived of their basic rights as human beings, is an example to all of us. It’s an example of how art – even the much-maligned art of performance – can be directly useful and necessary to the actual world of ordinary people. This work needs no rich collectors, no prestigious Bienale champagne opening to complete or validate it. It just needs us – you – to remember. To turn up and listen and maybe to remember that you are entitled to all of these rights, as is every single other person in this world. Remembering and reiterating human rights is possibly the most radical and useful thing you can do in the name of art.


‘Whereas it is essential, if people are not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.’

Thank you Monica. It was a privilege.

Anita Ponton
9th July 2013

For more information about Anniversary — an act of memory go to the website: http://www.actsofmemory.net/

For more information about FEM­_12
http://femgresolart.wordpress.com/

For a full transcript of the UDHR
http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/


ENDNOTES

1 From the website http://www.actsofmemory.net/

2 ibid.

3 Mitchelson stepped up and memorised the UDHR, leading several of the final recitations (Acts 55, 59 & 60) in Ross’s place, while Caroline Bergvall collaborated with Ross on a performance to camera for
Act 56, Cordelia Mayfield led Act 57 and Ilana Mitchell and Robert Duncan led Act 58.


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