Monica Ross and co-recitors: Acts of Memory, review by Beverley Knowles
On a cold Saturday afternoon in March a group of teenagers sit noisily around a memorial in St Philip’s Square, Birmingham. They all have black hair or semi-shorn heads. They are the Emo generation. Twenty or thirty feet away a middle aged lady corrals a mass of waist length wavy grey hair into a pony tail. She stands beside a microphone that looks oddly out of place, as though forgotten, overlooked in front of this vast cathedral. Eventually she begins to recite, sonorously and from memory, sentence after sentence, article after article, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Occasionally she appears to be struggling with herself to recall the words. Once or twice she trips over them and at one point she declares: ‘everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed guilty…’ before correcting herself with slow, poignant dignity. A ragtag of people, about ten in total perhaps, stand apart from the ‘audience’, the small group of people who have come to witness this event. These are the co-recitors. Sporadically one of them will take to the microphone and recite a sentence or two, some in English, one in French, another in an Arabic language. The co-recitors have been recruited from Birmingham for this event so the piece is projected specifically from and to it’s immediate context.
The Acts of Memory series began in response to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menzes by police in Stockwell, London in July 2005. It was launched by artist Monica Ross in 2008 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Declaration. It is her aim to achieve a minimum of 60 recitations. To date more than 400 people have taken part in over 50 languages.
Monica has memorised the entire Declaration. She has literally taken into her body the world’s most translated document, carrying it with her everywhere. In some ways it could be said she lives it.
Acts of Memory, in its quiet, humble utopianism, in the willingness of its participants to so completely reveal their own vulnerability, in it’s extraordinary ordinariness, evidences humanity at its best, bringing to the fore that which is always present but not always apparent - the will of the individual to feel and share love, respect and tolerance for themselves and for their fellow beings.
At the end of the performance Monica lets down her hair to symbolise the end of this act. She has vowed not to cut her hair until the project is completed some time in 2013. It has become a symbol of the endurance. Throughout the performance the teenagers had been moving closer, seemingly wanting to listen without wanting to appear to be listening.
One of them, a tall boy, approaches Monica and speaks to her. Her gentle grey eyes light up and her body is immediately eloquent of enthusiastic affirmation. She again approaches the microphone, this time with the boy following. He is caught between bravado and nerves, between self belief and self doubt, his desperate longing to connect palpable alongside his agony over that connection.
Monica gives him a piece of paper and into the microphone he hesitantly reads, in a broad Midlands accent: ‘Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ He slowly lowers the piece of paper. His face breaks into a broad grin as he raises his arms above his head in victory.