The Political Performance of Mourning
Gardens Speak is an interactive sound installation based on the oral histories of ten ordinary people who were buried in gardens across Syria during the first two years of the uprising. Each narrative has been carefully constructed with the friends and family members of the deceased to retell their stories, as they themselves may have recounted it. The oral histories were transformed into narrative texts and recorded as sound pieces that are compiled with audio traces of their final moments. Some of these audio traces were found in home videos or diaries that were shared with us by friends and families of the deceased. Other material was found on YouTube videos documenting the moment of the person’s death or burial.
We originally collected more than ten stories. However, we decided to develop the ten that were ultimately featured in the performance. It was these which we felt we had the most amount of information about. We also wanted to include different experiences of people during the first two years of the uprising. Some of those killed were non-violent activists. Others participated in armed resistance. Some simply happened to find themselves in a war zone. Each of the ten Syrians featured had dreams, hopes, fears, and political opinions. For me, they represented the aspirations of the early days of the Syrian uprising. We particularly struggled to identify and narrate the fate of more women. Only two out of the ten oral histories are those of women. At the time of our research, the vast majority of the people who were buried in gardens were located in areas where armed conflict and regime shelling took place. Consequently, many of the victims were men engaged in armed mobilization. Though depending on the area, women have also been involved in the armed fighting in Syria.
The audience is invited to enter a garden space in which ten tombstones are planted. Under each tombstone a speaker is buried. Each speaker tells the story of one of the ten killed. To be able to hear the stories, audience members have to take off their shoes, walk bare foot on the soil, kneel in front of one the tombstones, and dig with their hands in order to get to the sound source. They lie on the soil, in front of a tombstone, and listen to stories whispered into their ears.
Gardens Speak is a performance that functions without a performer. It is the audience members themselves who activate the piece while engaging in a (collective) ritual of mourning. At the very end of the performance, the audience is given the option to write a letter back to the person whose story they just heard. Should they write a letter, they must bury it in the soil of the garden. The audience members are told that these letters may be shared with the friends and families of the deceased. Some of these letters can be read in the accompanying book.
A crucial element of the performance is the multisensory experience of the audience. Throughout the piece, the audience bears witness to the stories they hear and embody the lives and deaths of the ten martyrs. They end by placing themselves inside the stories of the deceased through addressing their surviving families and friends. They contribute to the collective mourning and remembering of activists and ordinary Syrians who revolted and, as a result, were killed by the regime. The ten martyrs we mourn died before witnessing the hijacking of the uprising by various local, regional and international actors, and before the uprooting and displacement of millions of their fellow Syrians.
The Arab uprisings have transformed hopes, fears, regimes, and societies. They have also changed how we perceive art and political mobilization. At the centre of these changes are people who rose up, took to the streets, and were brutally repressed, some by death, some by torture, and some by imprisonment. It is the duty of those who survived them to tell their stories, learn from their struggle, and continue to challenge the narrative forced on us by those who crush revolutions or hijack them.
This is a lightly edited version of the introduction from Tania El Khoury, Gardens Speak published by Tadween, 2016.
Republished here with kind permission from the artist.
This is part of The Learned Pig’s Tuin Stemmen (Garden Voices) editorial season, autumn-winter 2018/19. Guest editor: Marloe Mens.