As producers of live events, we at FirstWorks are inherently concerned with the memory of shared experiences; it is from the vantage of live arts that we approach concepts of legacy and commemoration. Commemoration has a connotation of finality which comes with being in the past, as if the event or occasion being commemorated is immutable because time exists between it and us. In reality, a commemorated event is not a static stake in the ground, but collectively created and constantly in flux, as the people interacting with its memory shape its impact and engage newly with its meaning. Commemoration, therefore, keeps a moment in time – or the impact of a moment – living, current, and directly affecting us in the “now.”
Commemoration’s true nature is misunderstood because divorcing events, objects, words, and actions from the larger arc of history is a tool wielded by white supremacy to control this country’s narrative. Whiteness attempts to fix history in place to be forever remembered in a way that maintains its primacy as the unspoken standard.
Over the past year we have seen a continued grappling with commemorative objects – statues, flags, named buildings and tracts of land. Whiteness tells us these objects exist to preserve historical truths, when in actuality they exist to reinforce white supremacist historical narratives. Meanwhile, because commemoration is an ongoing and constant process, these objects, and the narratives they spur, cause harm to our communities in our daily engagement and interaction with them.
Grappling with the impact of these objects’ existence in our public spaces is imperative. But FirstWorks has spent this year drawing closer to a different kind of commemoration: that of commemoration-by-doing. We’ve spent time producing, commissioning, and supporting artists and works that remind us that history is alive and evolving daily – just as we are as human beings. This type of work challenges whiteness’ claim on our relationship with our collective past, and subsequently, our collective future.
The artists we’ve spent time with this year understand that the connection between the past and the future is the present: Ana Maria Alvarez and Shey Rivera Ríos’ naming the ancestral technologies at work in their respective creative processes; Taylor Mac’s refusal to differentiate the queer from the spiritual in judy’s play with an age-old holiday; Orlando Hernández and Vatic Kuumba’s documentation of the unattributed labor of slaves in Providence through process and ritual; Daniel Bernard Roumain and Carlos Andres Toro’s encapsulation of a moment and a movement in their Requiem for the Living, In Color. These artists disrupt white supremacist ahistoricism with their commemoration-by-doing: drawing on history, whether shared, personal, embodied or narrativized.
This is the kind of legacy-making that FirstWorks will continue to support – the assertion of living history through living art; and the reminder, through art-making, that the past is not set in stone, as a monument may be, but living and breathing within each of us.
By Holly Taylor, Executive Coordinator, FirstWorks
With Kathleen Pletcher, Executive Artistic Director, FirstWorks