By Dint of Repetition: on the lasting legacy of Monica Ross

Published in Art and Christianity, the quarterly journal of Art & Christian Enquiry, number 77, Spring 2014, pp. 2-5

Anniversary-an Act of Memory, 2012: Monica Ross and pupils of the Cathedral Primary School of St. Saviour and St Mary Overy (photo: Bernard G Mills)

On Friday 14th of June, 2013, two events took place that were connected in a deeply sad but also poignant and remarkable way. The first event was the death, in Brighton, of the British artist and teacher Monica Ross. Ross, who was just sixty-two, had been diagnosed with cancer only a few weeks earlier, and she continues to be painfully missed by her wide circle of family, friends, fellow artists and former students. The second event took place in the afternoon, in Switzerland, at the 23rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Gathered before a large audience outside the Palais des Nations, a group of individuals shared the task of reciting from memory the text of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The group was enacting the final, sixtieth, part of Ross’s six-year-long project of performances Anniversary–an Act of Memory (2008-2013) and continuing a practice the artist had initiated nearly a decade before with the 2005 event Rights Repeated: an Act of Memory, a solo recitation of the entire Declaration by Ross herself.

In the years following 2005 Ross made the recitation many more times in a diversity of locations and institutions. Anniversary–an Act of Memory was launched with a solo recitation at the British Library in 2008, the Declaration’s sixtieth anniversary year, and it was planned as the first of sixty. However Ross’s (in her own words) “modest strategy” of solo recitations started to inspire others, and by June 14th 2013 nearly a thousand people had taken part in the project. They had approached the artist, rather than vice-versa, inviting her to facilitate collective events in which each individual reciter proclaimed a particular article of the Declaration that he or she had chosen.

And so, Ross explained, the performances were always the same at the level of the Declaration; and yet each one was always quite different, involving new contexts and new speakers, each with his or her own individual motivation for learning their chosen text and voicing it in public. The performances’ languages also diversified, and by the end of the process parts of the Declaration had been spoken in over fifty languages, some of them endangered. Signing featured too, and in April 2013 the United Nations online translation database uploaded a video of the Declaration in British Sign Language – a direct consequence of Ross’s work. The venues involved ranged from art galleries, libraries and universities, via government premises (including, in 2009, the House of Commons) to sacred spaces: on November 13th 2012 at Southwark Cathedral, forty-two pupils from The Cathedral Primary School of St. Saviour and St. Mary Overy recited the Declaration in Mandinka, Irish, French and Jamaican Patois as well as English.

In a way she had not originally anticipated, propagating the habit of memorization and public recitation became central to Ross’s project. Her passionate intention was both for the Declaration to be widely remembered and repeated, and for its reiteration to have positive effects. “Expression isn’t the same as action”, she insisted, not long before her death. “One has to commit to the actualized defense of human rights. The act of recollection forms just a part of that urgent process.” [i] So although the project Anniversary–an Act of Memory is now concluded, its aims and practices are still live. There are now hundreds of people able to voice an Article from the Declaration (and in some cases, the entire Declaration) directly from memory – to keep it in mind and potentially to act on it, and the iterations will undoubtedly continue.

Based as it is in performance, collaboration and participation, Anniversary–an Act of Memory might seem to fit neatly into recent critical debates about the collaborative, participatory and “relational” art of the last few decades. It clearly relates, albeit loosely, to a variety of art practices that re-model the making of art as an occasion for consciousness-raising and self-education. Examples might be Tim Rollins’ Art and Knowledge Workshops with the at-risk students who titled themselves K.O.S. or Kids of Survival (early 1980s onwards), Mark Dion’s Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group, 1993, or even Joseph Beuys’s lecture-actions of the 1970s. Discussing her initial reactions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Ross described the impact of its Preamble, which enjoins “every individual and organ of society” to work “by teaching and education” to disseminate its contents. Deeply committed to the idea of art teaching as a radical practice, she was troubled that she had not paid attention to the Declaration earlier, and she decided to begin raising awareness about it. To this extent, then, Anniversary–an Act of Memory has a “pedagogical” dimension, welding processes of education and performance together.

However, current discussions about collaborative and “pedagogical” art often seem based in quite narrowly drawn art-epistemological questions and immediate historical perspectives, frameworks that don’t seem geographically broad or historically deep enough to do justice to Ross’s initiative. Working with the artist, the communities of participants and audiences involved in Anniversary–an Act of Memory were arguably establishing a practice that links back to long oral cultural traditions, ancient conceptions of citizenship and its duties and rights, and the disciplines of spiritual observance and the commission of doctrine to memory, just as much as contemporary “relational” art. The colossal feats of memory involved in Rajasthan’s Bhopa performances of epic myths is just one of many possible points of reference. Another (more recent and more obviously political comparison) would be the devastatingly fluent oral testimonies of twentieth century rights activists such as Fanny Lou Hamer: facts and experiences recounted and rights asserted over and over again, with absolute accuracy and stunning clarity.

Moreover, Anniversary–an Act of Memory’s performances certainly did not feel exclusively or even primarily pedagogical. Whether solo or group recitations, their atmosphere was, if not exactly ceremonial, then very serious in character: freighted with a consciousness that an important task was being undertaken and that it should be done well, sincerely, and with passion and dignity. Infused with feelings of celebration and urgency – maybe even, for those with religious faith, a sense of sacramental significance – they were performative in the way J. L. Austin articulated in How to Do Things With Words [ii]: participants both identified their human rights and simultaneously, through those autonomous acts of free expression and self-assertion, they exercised those rights.

Anniversary–an Act of Memory’s iterations also insisted on the importance of memorization and accurate on-the-spot recollection, in a social and historical context where reliance on textual prompts and prosthetic memory (most obviously, connection to the Internet) is becoming – at least within advanced capitalist societies – so heavy as to be absolute. By recalling the long tradition of oral cultural practices, Anniversary–an Act of Memory tactically highlighted a widespread present-day process of cognitive de-skilling. It is also impossible to listen to the Declaration’s articles without registering the fact that around the world, right now, millions of people are persistently and grievously denied the rights it sets out. Shadowing each of the project’s “acts of memory” is the question of how we might cope if stripped of access to the textual and digital prompts that many of us now depend on. Thrown into an isolation cell, say, or into some situation with potentially grave consequences that demanded immediate, decisive judgment and action, and equipped with no resources other than our wits and our memory, how would we fare? Would our mental storeroom turn out to be hopelessly depleted?

These concerns are obviously not abstract or hypothetical, and they were central to Ross’s original conception of her project. Rights Repeated: an Act of Memory began as a response to the police shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes following the terrorist attacks of July 2005 in London. How was it possible, she asked, for such an obscenity to happen: for a completely innocent man to be hunted down by the UK police, pinned to the ground, and fatally shot? She concluded that there had been a complete failure of presence of mind on the part of the police; following distant voices of authority far from the scene, they had become blind to the real situation and the real consequences of their actions. Reflecting on historical precedents, she speculated that “a strong sense of communal commitment to a clearly articulated ethical code” was a key support for those who have resisted injustice in the past, and this in turn led her to the strategy of committing to memory the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its entirety.

Comprising of a Preamble and thirty Articles, the Declaration runs to just under two thousand words. Compared to the dusk-till-dawn epics of the Bhopas the recitation of the Declaration, which lasts less than an hour, represents the nursery slopes of oral performance. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the gravity and urgency of its message, its precise, legally formal language and strong elements of near-repetition make it a hard artefact to memorise. A good deal of video documentation exists of the sixty performances of Anniversary–an Act of Memory, and it’s clear that for some participants even the commission to memory of an article of a few sentences has proved a bit too much: crib sheets are clutched, quick glances taken. But these moments are not “failures”: the will to remember is transparent and, as Alexandra Kokoli has pointed out, the performances’ hesitations and discontinuities are intrinsic to the work’s aesthetic. “The repeated caesurae in ‘Anniversary’ dramatize the struggle for and in memory. Remembering one’s rights in order to defend them is a difficult pursuit”, she writes. Participants wait “in silence, anticipation, sympathy and trust” as each Article is voiced; there is “a tolerant, patient waiting for one’s turn, for the other to recall
 and hesitantly perform their part” that poetically embodies the ethos of the Declaration. [iii]

Researching her project, Ross felt it was critical that the “clearly articulated ethical code” deployed be a secular one, and in this she was acting on her personal ethical convictions. The code that she sought needed, amongst other considerations, to be one that enshrined within it people’s freedom to hold and manifest their religion or belief “in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (Article 18). Nevertheless, the Declaration’s nesting of religious faith within the secular framework of “the purposes and principles of the United Nations” has inevitably generated controversy and rendered it unacceptable to some. In 1948, Saudi Arabia refused to ratify it on the basis that it conflicted with Sharia law. Moreover, one can think of a good many objections other than religious ones to the idea of the “purposes… of the United Nations” as the ultimate determinant of global human rights. The Declaration has been accused of being both Western-centric and anti-feminist; the U.S. professor of law Catherine MacKinnon took issue with its use of “universal masculine” grammatical formulae. Others (Amnesty International, for instance) have argued that the Declaration is incomplete without the inclusion of a “Right to Refuse to Kill”, and although this right is alluded to in other UN documents, it has yet to appear in the Declaration itself.

However, the existence of these points of controversy hardly invalidate Ross’s project; in fact they do the opposite. As important as the affective qualities of watching people strive to remember and recite, are the difficult questions raised as one listens to and concentrates on the slowly uttered text. Should parents be able “to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” as an absolute right (Article 26)? And should the family be promoted as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society” (Article 16)? Who gets to decide what constitutes a “family”? Presence of mind means thinking hard. In her teaching at Central St. Martin’s and elsewhere, Ross privileged effort, awareness and curious enquiry; polished finished artefacts were of value only in so far as they figured within active processes. Her underlying thinking in the devising of Anniversary–an Act of Memory would have been just the same. She was not holding out the Declaration as a perfect solution to the issue of human rights, a definitive articulation that could be trotted out pat without the labour of thought. She would have seen it as a necessary but contingent step in the right direction: a basis for more work, not an ending.

A small but telling detail about Ross’ commentaries on Anniversary–an Act of Memory is that she avoided any kind of fetishisation of her own recitations as a kind of memory feat. None of her interviews or statements goes into detail about her specific techniques and systems: “First I learned the entire declaration by heart” [iv] is as much information as we get. The start of each recital was marked by her tying her hair back with a red ribbon, and the end of each with its removal. Going to work, tying up one’s hair: one suspects this small ritual was actually a key memory ploy. In discussion, her emphasis was on the idea of mindfulness – of remembering and acting correctly under pressure. Her final illness was a cruel test of that mindfulness; however everyone who saw her during her last weeks found her self-possession, fortitude and humour remarkable and unforgettable.

In both her work and her teaching, Ross valued collaboration very highly, maybe even at the cost of recognition of her own achievements. The innovations that she introduced at Central St. Martin’s in the 1980s and 1990s via her Critical Fine Art Practice programmes had a significant subsequent impact on art school teaching nationally, and her initiatives in the feminist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s helped make possible the rise of some of today’s leading female artists: in a recent online article artist Conrad Atkinson paid tribute to Ross as a highly influential, yet “underacknowledged force in UK art practice and art education of the last forty years” [v]. Through Anniversary–an Act of Memory her influence spread far beyond the U.K. art scene into the lives of everyone who participated, and we will all remember her with the deepest affection and esteem.

[i] See:

[ii] J.L. Austin: How To Do Things With Words, Oxford University Press, 1962

[iii] Alexandra M. Kokoli: Remembering, Repeating and Working Through in‘Anniversary – an act of memory’: by Monica Ross and Co-recitors (2008–) in Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, published online, 09 Oct 2012.