Sara Rafsky contributed her father Bob Rafsky's shirt to In These Boxes

What do you do with the coffee mug or the set of house keys a loved one left behind after they died? Is there an easy way to dispose of the toothbrush or comb belonging to someone you shared your life with? For artist and activist Dudley Saunders these questions lead him to healing, and to create an online community. He is touring with multi-media performance and online platform, "In These Boxes" an exploration of the "cemetery for the things the dead left us." He will be performing in New York on Thursday June 6th at Dixon Place. In the interview below Saunders talks about hidden stories, the pain of hearing voices from the past, and what people can expect to hear at his show.

Visual AIDS: In talking about In These Boxes you speak about your ex lovers who died from AIDS in 1991 and how because so many other people were dying as well, there was no one who remembered you all together. Did the physical objects your lovers leave behind help you process your pain and help you share memories of them?
Dudley Saunders: When the culture is telling you (as it did then) that you do not matter and your life is unreal, I mostly needed the objects to prove to ME that we had existed. I was the one who needed them, as totems against our disappearing (I expected to be dead soon too). There wasn’t really anyone to share these objects with — I told people in ACT UP, but in that context these were just two more deaths among thousands in a war that was still claiming lives and you don’t commiserate much on a battlefield. It was very Moby Dick: “I alone am left to tell the tale.” Except there was no one to hear it, no one who wanted to hear it. I became weirdly attuned to objects on the streets, feeling them as relics of hidden lives, of unseen pain, of unwitnessed crimes. It was a haunted, private, alienated experience.

But I mostly kept my own objects in drawers and closets, which I’ve found is common. I remember one object, a tape of my second lover Chris Stewart singing. I couldn’t listen to it, and then I finally did and it nearly killed me and I had to turn it off. It did the job too well, brought him too much back to life in all his vulnerability and fear and self-sabotage — but not enough. Eventually, I forced myself to throw it away, which I simultaneously regret and think was wise. It had done its job for me and I had to let him go. He would not be more here if I kept it. Ugh - I say this, I mean it, but I ache in regret anyway.

Visual AIDS: What was the moment like when you realized that you were not alone in your situation? That maybe others could benefit from sharing their stories through objects?
DS: It took almost two decades for this idea to crystalize. What was interesting was sharing the idea early on with people who were not part of my community and seeing them respond immediately and emotionally. Perfectly ordinary, even dull people suddenly welled up with unimagined feeling, which shocked me because I was used to people running from my content. I have a deep discomfort with nostalgia because it tends to make the remembered experience discrete and “special.” To me, the AIDS experience created a lens through which I see trauma in others, especially people who don’t see their own trauma. If work about AIDS is only and discretely about the AIDS experience, then it can’t reverberate beyond itself. But here in this piece, evoking these unfinished lives, and the survivors damaged by loss, I found this dammed up flood of grief in nearly everyone I talked to. There was a chance of connecting the AIDS experience to everyone’s experience without being forced to diminish or explain. Today I got a photo of an unfinished Lego car from a mother who lost her 15 year old son two months before. There is no curing that experience, there is no making that better, there is just a way to walk through it with her until she learns to live with the missing part of herself. Her trauma feels deeply familiar to me. She won’t get over it any more than I have. But I have that rare opportunity to directly help her with an art piece. I still can’t quite believe that, even though it’s happening right in front of me.

Visual AIDS: What can people expect from the show?
DS: In the simplest terms, I just stand before a screen, talking and singing. Behind me are projections of 12 objects in boxes, each of which transforms into a video evocation of the missing person who owned them. Onscreen, I frequently take on the role of the missing person, so I exist simultaneously as storyteller and enactor, whether in bondage, in a coffin, making out with a naked man, etc. I’ve been writing songs from the AIDS experience for three decades now, merging the deep Appalachian death ballad with the experimental, complex chord structures you need to evoke an experience this twisted. So this is experiential music, dense music, and I realized that in order to really take audiences into the heart of these stories I had to create a kind of art-world version of triple-combo therapy: I could hit them simultaneously with direct narrative, non-narrative video, songs and documentary images from real lives and stop them from developing emotional resistance to the content. And yet the most interesting thing so far is that everyone comes to me afterwards telling of a different experience of the piece. People come and talk about all different sections of it, and tell me their own stories. But the most unexpected thing is that noone has come to me in sadness. One man told me when his grandfather’s object came on screen he began to cry, but his face was clear and happy as he told me about it.

Visual AIDS: What are some of the stories you tell?
DS: The emotional engine of the piece for me is the need to tell the stories of people whose lives did not become stories. There is an overarching narrative tracing the different places people’s lives get stopped. Some don’t begin, like the man in ROSEWOOD CASKET, who thinks he is a killer and so stays hidden in Appalachia, where he emotionally poisons the lives of his sons. There is a teenager obsessed with the man in his video game, in love with him, and who tries to make him real with a real, very phallic gun. There is a Kentucky boy who picks up truck drivers on the highway at night until he is found out and driven from home. There is the tale of two men falling in love on crystal meth. And there is an ACT UP story, which is a life that finally becomes a true story, a true heroic story. But by that point you have seen how much it cost to come to that heroism. In nostalgic retrospect, heroism is an obvious and easy choice, but that’s a false narrative. We find heroism in the middle of confusion, doing things that may seem vaguely wrong or humiliating to ourselves, always half believing our opponents are right about us. This is one reason why most of us are defeated. But defeated people matter too, and maybe have more to tell us.

Visual AIDS: Is it too late for people to share their objects with you?
DS: The piece lives both online and in performance, so it’s never too late for the online portion. I call it a “social media cemetery”, and it’s meant to be a place that people can virtually visit the way they do a graveyard, or the way they visit the AIDS Quilt, to see not just how many lives are lost but how many people loved them and still need them. I've put the video to bed for the Dixon Place performance, but I continue to incorporate new images in every performance. This piece by definition will never be finished.

Visual AIDS: What do you think people should do with object left behind by loved ones?
DS: It’s interesting: I have contributions from people who have had to open up boxes they’ve kept hidden for years, and from people who keep the objects right on their desks everyday. Something has to come out of those hidden boxes eventually, even though it makes the death somehow realer and more permanent - there is a kind of magical thinking that if you don’t look, then they might not have to be dead. You do it in your own time, but you can’t become a hoarder of grief. A hoarder keeps everything but won’t take care of any of it. It’s all there, nearby, but the love the object represents is kept at bay. Get something out and put somewhere it can be seen. Dust it. Shine it. Put it in a frame. Treat it the way you’d treat them, if you could have them back.

Visual AIDS: In many ways, In These Boxes, acts as an archive of the banal yet meaningful. As an artist I wonder if you have any insight or ideas around the importance of the everyday?
DS: All objects are meaningless in and of themselves. This is the other part of the piece: when we die, the stories hidden in the objects will die with us and the objects will become just things again. A priest at the Washington DC performance talked to me about this, about how these banal objects operate for a time like the relics of saints, but in fact have no intrinsic value except as pointers to the divine. But we need pointers to the divine, or at least to the love and life that made us more than we were beforehand. Without them, we are all just so much meat. As, of course, we all will be in time.

To purchase tickets for In These Boxes at Dixon Place: TICKETS
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