THE GRAVE PROJECT
JESS MILEY DEREK SARGENT
The Grave Project is an ongoing performative research project by Jess Miley and Derek Sargent. We research historical individuals who have had an impact on queer and non-normative culture. This research culminates in a pilgrimage to their gravesite, which we document through performance, photography, film and text to create an alternative historical archive. We examine the way their queerness is used in the construction of their historical biographies, including how and where they lived, either by choice or not, had a profound effect on their queer story.
The Grave Project is divided into chapters, where each chapter is a location, either a country or city and in each chapter is several individuals that we research and make a pilgrimage to. We record our pilgrimage by staging a photo of us standing guard at the gravesite, holding a placard. The placard displays the person's name, birth and death date, along with their portrait. For each person, we write a short text about their life. This text is written in a style that describes their life back to them, appropriating the style of a eulogy. A short film is also made for each chapter of the project, usually depicting us at the gravesite and in the cemetery, scenes of us walking the streets of that city, visiting other sites related to that individual and found footage or imagery of the person.
Graves or burial sites can be an important place in the lives of some of these figures who have often had their public biographies highly edited or adjusted to remove or diminish their queerness, and their tombstone can be the last physical evidence of their existence. We have chosen their gravesites as a marker in their narrative, the halfway point between their lived life and their biographical legacy. Our research, pilgrimage and subsequent documentation serve as a way to re-look at their biographical story with a queer lens.
Across the work of The Grave Project, we are specifically interested in exploring the tensions within a queer and non-normative narrative, to re-imagine the tractions that exist between histories of ‘authenticity' and 'inauthenticity' in order to rearrange and explore other forms of storytelling. This is in effect our research method and practice; to extract narratives and histories obscured within the recording and public representation of dominant histories.
As two queer artists, we have personally experienced and observed how dominant systems influence what stories are privileged over others. The marks of these engrained systems are seen even more clearly when we look at the past. In the tradition of normative archives, evidence of queer life often tells a story of medical and criminal deviance. At the same time, we encounter this significant absence, where non-normative lives do not meet the requirements of knowledge institutions and miss the historical methods of depicting personal accounts, community and thus the complexity of queer pasts. Instead, we find and interpret their evidence in gossip, innuendo, and fragments of history.
The reinterpretation of historical biographies using a particular location as a focal point is the strategy we use for The Grave Project. In our work, we use the gravesite as the focal point of retelling and reimagining these stories. Gravesites have traditionally had a strong association as a location for remembering and reflection, while invisibility is a dominant part of queer existence. Another connotation of gravesites is death, while a troupe of queer existence is tragedy. We use these familiar overtones of the location to re-imagine the traditional notions of these spaces.
With this project, we try to link the past with the present by using our physical presence to re-imagine and reinterpret the under-documented lives of the past. Our work draws on past stories to draw parallels to the current struggles and invisibility of present-day queer communities. By making these pilgrimages, we create a physical embodiment of the past that we can use to reflect on the current situation of queer existence. A facet of the work is our friendship and our solidarity in making these discoveries and journeys. Although we are visiting and telling stories of individuals, our goal is to bring out the stories of personal relationships and community that they had while also highlighting the similarities in their lives. We use our own lives, experiences and community to draw parallels between under-recorded parts of queer history and the present queer existence.