The Possible Indignity of Remembrance
This post is written by Latitude 53’s Writer In Residence, Carolyn Jervis. She will be writing critically about Latitude 53 programming, the community and more on a regular basis over a six month term. Read more about the Writer In Residence program.
Memorials have a finite quality to them – we go to services to celebrate the lives of friends and family members when they pass away, and to monuments in remembrance of the devastation caused by atrocities. When memorializing events, there is a need to hold on to the remembrance as a resolve to never let a similar event ever happen again.
The question of creating a permanent memorial to homelessness has been up for debate again in the chambers of City Hall. What does it mean to create a memorial to a problem faced by our city that, as far as I can tell, isn’t going away any time soon? Memorials have an element of celebration, or of relief that the horror is over. According to Scott McKeen’s Edmonton Journal article a couple weeks ago, it is estimated that 45 people died on Edmonton streets last year. We have a long way to go before we consider homelessness in our city a thing of the past.
On my way home from working downtown one day, I decided I wasn’t up to the 10 kilometre ride, so I hauled my bicycle into the elevator that goes to the LRT station below Enterprise Square. The slow descent downwards was accompanied by the distinct, pungent smell of urine. It would be easy to be angry for having my senses assaulted, but I don’t think that I am the one who suffered the real indignity. That lies with whomever it was that peed in the elevator. Not everyone has 24-hour access to rooms designated for that purpose. What a privilege it is for me to have the smell of urine as the biggest struggle in my day. Truth be told, I am part of the system that has failed this person, so the least I can do is give them a huge goddamn piece of art for living in poverty without a home.
On Sunday I had the privilege of moderating an artist panel at The Works Art and Design Festival. Our Multiculturalism Day conversation with artists Curtis Santiago, Olivia Kachman, and Pedro Rodrigues De Los Santos ended up converging on the important role art can play in supporting and magnifying the voices of the voiceless. Art is delicately handled, thoughtfully lit, and exhibited with pride. Exhibition practices communicate to the public that this piece of visual culture is deserving of careful consideration. Now contrast this with the indignities homeless people face when being actively ignored by the rest of us on a regular basis. They become invisible and unimportant because we intentionally avert our eyes. Our city’s homeless don’t just deserve increased municipal funding for the programs that help end cycles of poverty and act as a caring safety net. They deserve an intentional space for symbolic thoughtful looking, consideration, and care – something those who have died on our streets weren’t provided by their greater community.
Herein lies the struggle: how do we create a piece of public art that memorializes those who have died on our streets, that gives them voices, but also makes clear that we continue to fail these marginalized people?
To grapple with this question, I look to York University professor Mario Di Paolantonio’s work on memorial museums. I had the opportunity of hearing him speak in Montreal last month about his paper, “Beyond the Rhetoric of “Never Forget”: Considering what a Museum of Forgetting Could be a museum of…”. I believe this paper could be a useful tool for our city as we contend with this question of a memorial for the homeless. Paolantonio warns against a top-down form of remembrance, imposing a specific angle and approach to memory through institutional choices. When institutions make the choices, they’re imposing an idea. As Adam Phillips is quoted in the paper, “engineered solutions are part of the problem.”
How can Edmonton create a memorial that does not impose a message about homelessness onto the populace? How can a work of public art be created that provides room for multivalent perspectives and memories about homelessness?
The good news is that within public art there is a model for this approach which validates and respects multiple and individualized truths. Paoloantontio discusses the work of Alicia Framis from her 2008 exhibition, “Welcome to Guantánamo Museum: Things to Forget” as a prime example. This work is useful in the context of what I’m grappling with because, like homelessness in Edmonton, Guantánamo is also an ongoing problem.
Instead of presenting information and fact under the guise of objectivity, Framis treats “artifacts” from Guantánamo as materials to physically reflect on. Surrounded by mock-ups and maquettes of a hypothetical museum, visitors to the exhibit become participants and museum builders when they take up Framis’s offer to turn prison artifacts into souvenirs and decorations for the supposed future institution. Not only do these acts allow viewers to use the Guantánamo objects to interpret, edit, and make new, but they also, as Paolantonio points out, critique how memorial spaces can depoliticize the remembered event or circumstance, removing what would otherwise feel urgent as artifacts become decorative.
The question I’m left with is how to provide Edmontonians with a memorial that encourages urgency. How do we maintain a poignant political edge about the ways we continually fail those who live in poverty without shelter, the street often being their final resting places. Welded steel or carved stone seems too static a material for such a memorial, and insufficient to allow for the honoring of many voices. De Los Santos, an artist on the panel I mentioned earlier, is creating a project for Immigration Hall downtown that I hope will be a precedent for the engagement of the public in the making of public art and its imbedded messages. The forthcoming mural will be drawn from imagery created by his workshop participants. The artist’s work will use their pictures and audio recordings.
If the memorial for homelessness goes ahead at all, its completion – regardless of the form it takes – is a way to counteract that dehumanizing act of averting eyes that our homeless must live with on a daily basis. To be featured in art is to say that you are seen and you are valued. But whether or not this initiative can give voice to a voiceless population will depend on what kind of memorial is created. Will it be one that acknowledges the humanity of those who spend their days on our streets? Or maybe it will serve to end conversations about who still lives on the street by focusing exclusively on a homogenous and abstract whole so that the urgency to act now is removed. This could be a great opportunity to look good and hard at everyone we categorically dismiss and to really see who is on the other side of the invisible wall.