In the works of British artist Monica Ross, drawing, performance, video, and text are used to address questions of memory and history. Ross’s project Anniversary—an act of memory celebrated its culminating fifth year in 2013, with the concluding section taking place at the twenty-third session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 10–14, 2013. In the course of the work’s completion, nearly a thousand individuals spoke the two thousand words of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights in sixty public recitations in over fifty languages. In late May 2013, the artist spoke to Rachel Withers about how the work began.
“I DEVELOPED ANNIVERSARY—AN ACT OF MEMORY in 2005, in response to the British police’s shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazillian electrician living in London. Two weeks after the July 2005 terrorist attacks, police began surveillance on de Menezes’s apartment building and saw him for the first time when he was leaving for work one morning. They identified him as a terrorist suspect on the spot due to his supposedly “foreign” appearance. They followed him into the London Underground, where a team of armed police pushed him to the ground and shot him repeatedly in the head. The officers were following a covert shoot-to-kill procedure that’s still active in UK policing, although it has no democratic sanction. It was a terrifying demonstration of the power of law enforcement to overstep its responsibility and kill an innocent man.
In effect, the officers had failed to exercise presence of mind; they were responding to instructions via earpieces, following some distant voice of authority telling them to attack and shoot. I recalled Hannah Arendt’s comments about evil rising from thoughtlessness, and I wondered if I would have had the courage and temporal focus to disobey. I asked myself how a society might nurture these qualities in its citizens. I speculated that having the bravery to resist injustice might be connected to a strong sense of communal commitment to a clearly articulated ethical code.
This idea took me to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a secular statement with a rarely quoted preamble, which urges “every individual and organ of society” to strive “by teaching and education” to promote awareness of and respect for the declaration’s rights and freedoms. This ignited my interest; in addition to being an artist, I’ve also been a teacher for a long time, yet I had never paid any attention to this historical document.
The recitation format of the final work developed in three stages. First I learned the entire declaration by heart. Then I worked on its spoken delivery. The third step was to cross the significant divide between my personal recitation and a public one; the challenge of dealing with pressure in an exposed context is symbolically very important in this project. The first few solo recitations in 2005 took place in various settings, including the Beaconsfield gallery in London, the National Review of Live Art, and the foyer of the British Library. This last recitation marked the sixtieth anniversary of the document and began the series of sixty solo, collective, and multilingual recitations that will conclude in Geneva.
In the mid-2000s, I saw these “acts of memory” as a modest strategy, but to my surprise, individuals and groups all over the UK took up the process. I think this is a sign of the times. People today seem more aware of history, which, as Walter Benjamin observed, is never safe from the victors. See, for example, the widespread anger sparked by Margaret Thatcher’s funeral earlier this year. That event was emblematic of the political right’s bid to maintain its own historical narratives through performative gestures, and it infuriated people. I’m delighted by the reception Anniversary—an act of memory has received. Crucially, though, expression isn’t the same as action. It isn’t enough to simply reiterate the declaration. One has to commit to the actualized defense of human rights. The act of recollection forms just a part of that urgent process.”
Text and images © Estate of Monica Ross.