Crafting Memories

The crafting of material objects and memories are irrevocably and intimately bound together. As memory studies scholar David Lowenthal explains, memories “are not ready-made reflections of the past, but eclectic, selective reconstructions ” (qtd. in Dickinson, Blair and Ott 29). Similar to handcrafted objects, memories are not uniformly made by industrial machines in factories. Instead, they are molded and hewn in ways that are often imperfect, idiosyncratic, and human, as they help us make sense of the worlds within and around us. For German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, memory-making and Handwerk—“hand work, or artisan labor”—were inextricable (Leslie 6). Benjamin understood “craft practices” such as weaving and pot-throwing to be modes of “processing and reconstituting experience” which mirror the process of making memories (6). A similar sort of craftiness is needed to sculpt matter that is material or incorporeal: a “wisdom based on praxis” that is generated through a combination of “thinking, seeing and handling” (6).

Benjamin’s process-driven understanding of the relationship between craft and memory helps us appreciate craft’s rhetorical quality as generated through movement (Adamson 4). Craft studies scholar Glenn Adamson demonstrates this movement-oriented approach by defining craft as that which “only exists in motion. It is a way of doing things, not a classification” (4). By extension, craft’s rhetorical power—its ability to persuade and shape both personal and collective memory and identifications—is bound up in its capacities as an active, creative process.

Movement is, after all, central to the ASP’s craft practices. Most of the memorials are mobile—they are crafted with the intention of being transported in the Procession. We saw memorials built on wheels and bicycles and attached to backpack straps. We saw parade floats, elaborate costumes, and handheld signs. The meaning making of the crafting process did not end with the carving, gluing, or sewing of materials. Instead, the memorials continued to both accumulate and generate meaning as they were held, pushed, worn, and carried during the Procession. As a result, the Procession is not merely a repository for finished crafts but a dynamic extension of the crafting process.

As a means of understanding the rhetoricity of craft practice “in motion” at the Procession, we analyze its spatial-temporal dimensions: the relationships between space and time that ASP memorials replicate, generate, and rupture as they move through the streets of Tucson (Adamson 4). At the Procession, craft functions as an imaginative rhetorical tool for blurring established boundaries and conventions: between material/spiritual, life/death, and public/private. In analyzing these spatial-temporal rhetorics, we also begin to identify the Dia de los Muertos craft rhetorics enmeshed within the ASP.


Video 1. All Souls Procession 2014 Footage (Hairlesscactus’ YouTube)

Material/Spiritual

The All Souls Procession intends to blur boundaries between material and spiritual realms through ritualistic engagement with memorial objects. This spiritual framing of the ASP’s craft practices is present in its very title, the All Souls Procession, and is extended in descriptions of the event as a “ritualistic procession” and a “sanctuary” on the ASP website (Many Mouths, “About”). The ASP is, certainly, a ritual of sorts: those in the procession move with purpose, clasping their memorials as they make their way from the Procession’s starting point to the closing ceremony. Ritual performances such as the ASP are often characterized as generating a space within and apart from ordinary space-time (Huizinga). The ASP transforms—and reanimates—the space of downtown Tucson: there is no car traffic, and most of the shops are closed on the main strip. The spectators crowding the sidewalks, many of whom are dressed in costume for the occasion and painted with calavera (skull) faces, are largely transfixed by the Procession, craning their heads to stare at memorials and snapping pictures.

hugging skulls
Figure 3. Calavera Bride and Groom Puppets (Sanchez-Avila Photograph)

Arguably, the memorials at the heart of this procession are not “dead” or static objects—they are rhetorical agents that play an active role in facilitating this otherworldly connection. Chican@ rhetorician Gloria Anzaldứa is helpful in understanding the spiritually and rhetorically dynamic role of objects animated through ritual performance: “When invoked in rite, the object/event is ‘present’; that is, ‘enacted,’ it is both a physical thing and the power that infuses it. It is metaphysical in that it ‘spins its energies between gods and humans’ and its task is to move the gods” (88). This spiritually dynamic understanding of material craft challenges both Western positivist epistemologies (where empirical evidence makes things knowable and “true”) and the way that artistic practice is often appreciated and consumed in Western culture. In dominant Western culture, value is often indicated through disuse, as Native American masks and Jackson Pollock paintings alike are placed in museums behind glass and velvet ropes (Anzaldứa 87-88). In contrast, the ASP—and the indigenous practices it is patterned off of—refuse to “split the artistic from the functional, the sacred from the secular, art from everyday life” (88). The ASP memorials, many of which are crafted from everyday materials, transform memorialization into a spiritual process.

Life/Death

This otherworldly form of memorialization transgresses the temporal and corporeal boundaries between life and death. The altars, floats, and performance pieces in the procession memorialize those who have passed by simultaneously celebrating life while mourning death. The boundaries between life and death are complicated further through the “walking dead” who participate in the Procession. The ASP is packed with live bodies in motion, their faces and clothing hand-painted with skulls and skeletons. As the living perform death, the inverse occurs, too: large photographs of the dead, plastered onto signs, bob up and down in the crowd next to the faces of the living. The participation of both the dead and the living troubles the boundaries between animate and seemingly inanimate forms.

Private/Public

ASP’s community-generated craft practice has the power to create space for marginalized histories that might not otherwise be publicly remembered. Often, the memorials that are permanently sanctioned in public spaces—through bronze statues in public gardens or oil paintings in city museums—reaffirm dominant historical narratives and attempt to mold public memory in ways that are imperialist, masculine, and heteronormative. Many of the memorials in the ASP share histories that might otherwise be perceived as too intimate, too trivial, or too dangerous to be honored in public. ASP’s mobile, ephemeral craft practice, where theoretically anyone can bring and display a memorial for the evening, facilitates access to and visibility within public space. This transmission of memory has the “potential to unsettle common sense, challenge the commonplace, and move communities to invest in their own sense of civic and collective agency” (Giroux 23). In other words, ASP’s memorialization practice is a form of activism—or really, craftivism—with the potential to generate social change at the local level. Both of us have powerful memories of handcrafted social justice memorials from the All Souls Procession. At the concluding ceremony, Joanna saw a group of 10 people push through the crowds holding large posters covered in photographs of the 43 missing university students from Iguala, Mexico. Earlier in the evening, Lizzy watched a group stride through the Procession carrying a large hand-painted banner memorializing migrant deaths. Those who made and marched with these signs called upon those present to bear witness to borderlands atrocities that were—and are—being silenced by governments and largely ignored in institutionalized spaces. At an event celebrating “the universal experience of Death,” these activists’ handiwork lent visibility to social issues haunting public imaginaries and to people whose stories are silenced both in life and in death (Many Mouths, “About”). These moments uncover community craft practices’ rhetorical capacity to “challenge the nation-state’s role as the preeminent source of communal identifications” by disrupting collective memory at the local level (Gabbes and Schindler 247).

And yet, experiencing these radical moments of awakening at All Souls reminds us of the forgetfulness—even the selective amnesia—at the core of its practices. Why does the most explicit acknowledgement of Latina/o culture and identity occur at the peripheries of the All Souls Procession? Why is Latina/o identity and experience more openly acknowledged in moments of victimhood and loss, not in and through the cultural practices that inform the event? We must ask: at a predominantly white event full of calaveras (skulls), ofrendas (altars), and marigolds, whose publicity flyers bear Mexican imagery, is this enough?

all souls postcard
Figure 4. "Framed Black and White 2014 All Souls Procession Postcard Flyer" (Bentley and Sanchez-Avila Embellished Flyer)