Today, I, along with fellow student, Austin, presented some work in progress which we’ve been developing over the last few weeks. The origins of the project was a piece which I’d planned concerning my difficulty in ‘finding individuals’ amongst the countless victims of the Holocaust – particularly when faced with a mountain of shoes and suitcases, as was the case in Auschwitz. I’d intended to ask people to bring in a piece of luggage containing a selection of personal items, and having seen Austin’s work with text and sound, thought it would be good to put the two together. His sound work consisted of a group of people reading the same prepared piece of text and resulted in a sound that was at first a mass of tangled voices, ending with just one. This illustrated perfectly the idea of looking for a single object, for an individual amongst a mass of objects; amongst countless numbers of dead.
The process of the piece was as follows. People brought in bags of objects as requested, whereupon, on my own, I emptied the luggage, and documented the contents. I then piled them in the middle of the room and asked people to come inside. Having had time to study the pile, Austin initiated the first sound work of the performance, dividing viewers into two (men and women) and then again, as if arranging a choir. They were then asked to read a prepared text – lists of people Austin had seen during specific intervals on a specific date: a young man, a middle-aged man etc. – which they did, the result of which was as hoped, a mass of voices ending with just one.
For the second part I sorted the possessions into six piles (one for shoes, one for clothes etc.) and then Austin asked everyone to read (this time positioned individually around the objects) from a second list which was itself a sorted version of the first text. Again the results were the same, albeit with a different sound; many voices becoming just one.
The last part of the piece was getting people to take their bags and reclaim their possessions from amongst the piles, in effect reclaiming their individuality.
Reactions to the piece were mixed. Some saw the sound work as being a separate thing altogether, others saw them both as a whole. Some felt the piece to be difficult and challenging (as expected) and one felt it ‘offensive’ (although not as far as I could tell in respect of the victims of the Holocaust). Dealing with a subject as emotional and as difficult as this presents the artist with many challenges, but ones which he or she must not shy away from. Equally, potential audiences should be encouraged not to ‘turn away’ from such works – some today clearly didn’t want to engage with the work at all – as this only serves to illustrate how easy it is for us now, just as it was then, to pretend that nothing bad is happening in the world.
This was a work primarily about the Holocaust, but atrocities occur every day; not on the scale of the Holocaust perhaps, but nevertheless, a murder is still the death of an individual, wherever, whenever or however it occurs.