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Nothing remains but memories

Dec 11, 2015

In Summer 2012, Slought and the The College of Physicians of Philadelphia convened a group of young adults, educators, and scholars concerned about the epidemic of youth violence and fatality in Philadelphia. We proposed a structural critique of this public health crisis, responding to the observation that our society knows more about city youth when they appear on the autopsy table than when they are alive. What does it mean for public knowledge of an individual to arrive post-mortem, when it is too late? What does it mean to live in a society in which you are invisible, only appearing to the public when you die? What does it mean for your life to only count in statistical form? With our partners at Metalab at Harvard University, we developed the following proposal, which we hope to realize one day.

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Hasinah Abdul-Rahman, Mantua, West Philadelphia, November 2015Untitled, by Hasinah Abdul-Rahman, Mantua, West Philadelphia, November 2015.
From the project "Empty Barrels" / Mixplace Studio at Slought.

Nothing remains but memories is an advocacy project that responds to the current epidemic of youth violence and youth fatality in Philadelphia. Responding to the observation that our society knows more about city youth when they appear on the autopsy table than when they are alive, our project takes the form of a collaborative response and structural critique to this public health crisis.

Our project is framed around the following questions: What does it mean for public knowledge of an individual to arrive post-mortem, when it is too late? What does it mean to live in a society in which you are invisible, only appearing to the public when you die? What does it mean for your life to only count in statistical form?

By beginning our project in this way, and in response to a youth testimonial from which this project takes its name, we seek to work back from these fatalities and find value in life. Specifically, we aim to humanize victims of youth violence in Philadelphia and create a visible platform for discussing youth fatality within a variety of communities and institutions.

Anatomies of a Youth Homicide

We propose an installation that reconstructs the path traveled by a young victim of homicide from the initial crime scene through a relay of institutions (police, social agencies, morgue, funeral home, etc) and finally to the cemetery. We will tell the story of how, in each of these moments, the complexities of human life are translated into statistical data as these institutions literally construct this victim. Our intention is to produce a series of institution-specific "data portraits" that explore the social agency of institutions involved in the aftermath of youth fatality, and specifically the way in which a simplified and standardized language of classification, quantification and resolution enables the traumatic loss of a youth to be reduced and ultimately filed away.

Each of these data portraits will be accompanied by archival materials, which will enable us to track the institutional pathway of past victims of crime, and the long history in America of reducing the complex identity of the citizen to a simple paper trail. In so doing, we seek to provide a "deep" history, one that provides a narrative framework for understanding the present crisis and its relation to earlier bureaucratic processes and forms.

Taken as a whole, this mosaic of past and present portraiture aims not only to represent in comprehensive fashion the translation of a young life into a form of statistical personhood, but also the multiplicity of institutional practices and ideologies that criss-cross the bodies of homicide victims, the acts of inclusion and exclusion that characterize these forms of collective portraiture, and their efficacy and social costs.

The exhibit will be installed at Slought and partner institutions throughout the city, in the form of a timeline consisting of the following:

1) A series of video interviews with a processing agent for each institution (e.g. policeman, EMS technician, emergency room physician, morgue administrator, funeral home director, cemetery registrar). These interviews will be based on a collaboratively-developed template of questions, conducted by the youth researchers working with filmmakers

2) A series of stations that feature examples of the bureaucratic forms (either redacted or blank) that each institution uses to generate the distinctive data biography of the deceased

3) A series of photographs documenting the site of processing at each institution, and the technologies that support this activity

4) A series of signature objects that are emblematic of a given institution's approach to processing homicide victims

City of Ghosts

We will also realize a second project and installation entitled "City of Ghosts." This is a web project that crowd-sources the generation of a map of sites of remembered or marked sites of homicide. An anonymous submission pipeline with a map pinpointing the location of these homicides will be required.

In the physical installation, we will aggregate and represent a cluster of shrines (both marked and unmarked) with location information and minimal / austere data. The experience will be a dense graveyard of events from the past that remap the cityscape as a place of now invisible but remembered acts of violence.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Slought, and Metalab at Harvard University are the primary institutions who are coming together to undertake this project, joined by mutual concern that our society frequently renders youth voices invisible.

The primary collaborators are youth researchers from West Philadelphia neighborhoods at Mixplace Studio at Slought, and from youth programs at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, all interacting with a diverse faculty of educators, researchers, community leaders, and artists.

Please contact us if you would like to get involved.