The Year of These Boxes

If you’ve been following me through social media or my newsletter … well, you’ve done better than reading my blog here. But the year of touring my transmedia/multimedia piece IN THESE BOXES draws to a close December 1, 2014 – World AIDS Day – and it seemed time.

I’ll skip the general news stuff and get to what has my attention.

The longer I have done the piece, the more it kept opening conceptually. It’s hard to remember that when I first started, I did not ask people for photos of things the dead left them. But my lifelong struggle with the ivory tower nature of art-making kept me tugging at this, until a conversation with Heather Woodbury made the idea pop out. I can’t remember the order of the ideas, but the social media cemetery came almost simultaneously, and suddenly I was making art in the form of a conversation with the audience – or even with an audience that might never come to see me. I loved the idea of someone uncomfortable with their pain being able to privately upload a photo of their dead child’s toy, or the t-shirt of an activist lost to the plague years of AIDS. I loved that they could tell their stories publicly at, or say nothing and let it stay private: I met them exactly where they were (or are); it was about them as much as me.

Then, in the long preparation for the upcoming shows in Chicago and Cedar Rapids, the idea of advance public events where people could bring their objects in to be photographed and uploaded. We realized that for every person who needed to be private with their experience, there was someone who did not want to face these objects alone and needed a public, communal space of people coming together. Jane Beachy responded by using one of her Salonathon performance nights, and Megan Carney sponsored an afternoon at the University of Illinois at Chicago in collaboration with the Youth Empowerment Performance Project (YEPP).

Last – and just a few days ago – I came to what I think is the final element of the piece. Because so many people told me how hard it was to face their objects, and how they delayed to the point where some never did take the photos, I realized the audience should be invited to just bring the objects to the performance itself. If they are willing, I will put the objects on stage with me, in something like the spontaneous shrines that pop on street corners where people have been killed. At the end of the night, I will take the photos myself and upload them to the online cemetery.

I’ve crossed some line between art and social work, maybe. And that makes me incredibly happy.

Unfortunately, it’s probably too late to let people in Chicago and Cedar Rapids know about bringing their objects with them. But the work grew and developed as fast as it did and no faster.

We’ll be videotaping in Chicago, and if it comes out OK, I’ll post what is good for your viewing. But it’s just one version of the piece, and every city gets its own version. There will probably be just a couple more performances in 2015 before I retire the piece. Unless, of course, someone really needs it.

The last thing I’ll say is this:

I’ve spent my career – if you can call it a career – obsessed with telling stories people want to turn their heads from. I always thought they were important stories, stories that riveted me, but it makes obvious sense that very few people have wanted to hear them. This piece was the first time in, I think, 18 years that I found large numbers of people who resonated with my work. And I had to burst through the walls of art to do it.

But: grief and trauma are not identities, but places of damage people need to pass through. In a sense, IN THESE BOXES’ constituency was a mix of those in the thick of grief and those who are trapped in grief and need a way forward. By its very nature, then, this is not a piece that people return to over and over again as they might a favorite record or film. And I’m almost certainly not an artist they will jones to see next time out. I’m probably what Robert Bly would call an artist for the “time of the ashes.” If I remember the quote right.

So for those of you who do come back, who are emotionally adventurous, I thank you for existing. There aren’t many like us. And for those just passing through? I’m truly glad I could be of service in your time of trouble.

© Dudley Saunders