NEXT week, some 30 volunteers will gather at a Newcastle art gallery to take part in an unusual participatory artwork called Anniversary – An Act of Memory.
It will consist of a collective recitation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Each of the volunteers will have learned a small part of it by heart and will recite it aloud in their native language.
You can imagine that they might be feeling a bit nervous, since it will be a public event.
Still, plenty of people have put themselves forward for the performance at the Globe Gallery on March 8. This will be the 52nd in a planned series of 60 public performances – or Acts – to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Act 1 took place at the British Library in London on December 7, 2008, where it coincided with an exhibition called Taking Liberties: the struggle for Britain’s freedoms and rights.
There was just one speaker on that occasion. It was Lancashire-born performance artist Monica Ross, the creator or instigator of Anniversary – An Act of Memory.
Subsequent Acts have taken place at different locations around Britain and Europe, including libraries, an opera house and the House of Commons. Act 36 was performed in British Sign Language at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, on November 2, 2011 as part of the Wunderbar Festival. Act 51 was in January at Herstmonceux Castle, Sussex.
Monica Ross says it was the shooting of innocent London tube train passenger Jean Charles de Menezes on July 22, 2005 that got her thinking.
In what must have been terrifying circumstances, the 27-year-old Brazilian was pinned down and shot in the head by armed police officers who mistook him for a terrorist.
It happened two weeks after the London bombings on public transport in which 52 people died.
“My question was not to do with blame in relationship to the police.
“It was more about those individual policemen in that situation,” says the artist, who lives in Brighton.
“We now know from the inquiry that he (de Menezes) wasn’t carrying a backpack, but they had been following him for some time and they were under pressure because of what had happened a couple of weeks before.
“Clearly they had a voice of authority directing them and telling them to behave in one way. But in that space and in that moment, weren’t their eyes telling them something else?
“My question was to do with how people manage to act in an ethical way in a highly pressured situation. How do you do it? How do you get to be brave?”
Searching for an ethical framework, she came upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Following the Second World War, with all its atrocities, it was the first attempt to list the rights to which every human being should be entitled.
It consists of 30 articles covering just about every facet of human life. Many, though not all, have been enshrined in the law of individual countries.
Monica says she didn’t know much about it when the de Menezes shooting, with its myriad violations, propelled her on her journey of discovery.
“There were all these things I didn’t actually realise were rights and then there are rights we don’t actually seem to have any more.
“What a wonderful document it is. It really does cover everything, even the rights of an artist to own their work.
“So my first question was to myself: how do you get to be brave? Then: how do you get to be able to stick up for human rights?
“I was thinking that, if I learned it all, it would be something I could call on to make better decisions and behave in a more appropriate way. So my first act was to learn it off by heart, and my second was to recite it as a public act in a public space. Symbolically, it’s an attempt to recreate that moment of being under intense pressure. We’re all entitled to human rights, but that means we’re also responsible for remembering and delivering them.”
The performances, she says, have become things of beauty but with a certain tension.
“They bring people together but some people do get nervous. We’re not talking about trained actors or performers. Anyone can take part and in that moment of doing it, even if they make a mistake, they are the centre of attention.”
It is important to Monica that people can read their allotted article in whatever language they choose, even British Sign Language.
The original document, she says, is written in the language of 1948, “quite old-fashioned”.
“I found it incredibly difficult to learn because, in a way, it’s not how we would say it. But when you do learn it off by heart, it pushes you into a place where you have to think about it. It does produce a kind of thoughtfulness.”
That, surely, can be no bad thing.
Act 52, billed as “a spoken, signed and multi-lingual recitation”, will take place at Globe Gallery, Blandford Square, Newcastle, at 8pm on March 8 – International Women’s Day.
For more information visit www.globegallery.org or www.actsofmemory.net
The first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written by John Peters Humphrey, a Canadian legal scholar and human rights activist who, as a child, lost both parents to cancer, and an arm through playing with fire.
It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris.
40 countries voted for it and none against. But eight abstained from the vote, mostly from the Soviet bloc, but also Yugoslavia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.
Article 1 (of 30) reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”