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Artworld polymath Greg Allen has made an odd, ritualistic, perhaps metaphorical memorial by creating a digitized work that elaborates on another piece of art, one originally concocted by Félix González-Torres, “Untitled (Death by Gun)” (1990). Allen’s piece, “Better Read #008: Death By Gun,” has essentially made an oral shrine to a group of people who are unremarkable to those who did not know them: a collection of 460 humans who happened to have been shot to death in the first week of May 1989 in the United States. The work by González-Torres consists of a stack of copied papers, each depicting a grid of photos of these individuals with their names, ages, and locations, as well as details about the circumstances in which they died. (The information was gleaned from an issue of Time magazine on gun deaths.) Allen transcribed the names of these people who, besides their commemoration in the story, were otherwise unremarkable. Then, on the website that archives his “Better Read” series, in installment #008, Allen has all the names read aloud by a computer, in the order in which Felix laid them out in his work.
What makes the piece odd is the computer voice. Its intonation is off and the emphasis is often placed on the wrong syllable for most of what it pronounces, which includes some prefatory explanation and a coda as well as the names. Thus the voice doesn’t sound affectless, but rather like it is trying to generate feeling and communicate that, but is failing.
I recommend listening to the audio memorial in as much quiet as you can muster, and concentrate — don’t look at your phone or other devices. I did so and heard more than I thought I would. I heard relationships in last names repeating. I heard intermittent names of sons with the appellation “Junior” attached. There were many names I’ve heard before, or think I’ve heard before: William Alexander, George Smith, Yvonne Campbell. I heard older names that have fallen out of fashion, like Melvin and Fred. I heard ethnicity in names like Chisolm and Ortega and Jesus. I heard the name of a person who could have been born this year, Riley Taylor, and someone who might be famous: Richard Owens. I also heard the name of a person who was one letter away from being my middle-school teacher, Mr. Venables.
If you are reading this and you live within the borders of the United States — and perhaps even if you don’t — it is very likely that this work will prompt you to think about the massacre carried out in Florida a few days ago. And Allen indicates on the website that the Orlando shooting of mostly gay men of color did prompt him to make this work. At the end, I thought of something Ted Kaczynski (also known as the Unabomber), once said: In order to gain public attention and retain it, one had to kill people. Where are we ethically if we have become so accustomed to people dying, even scores at a time, that these deaths don’t move the debate around guns toward reasonable limitations? We are like that computer voice reading names in an attempt at memorialization, trying for feeling and getting even that wrong.