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In Gratitude: Reclaiming Sites of Trauma

December 7, 2020

How can we remember, reclaim, and transform sites of historical violence and trauma? Hannah Jacobs revisits a timely conversation with artists Tift Merritt, Nina Angela Mercer, Anna Schuleit Haber, and Deborah Luster on site-specific art as a mode of healing.

By Hannah Jacobs

Creative Site-Making: Trouble, Hope & Healing
Left to right: Tift Merritt, Nina Angela Mercer, Anna Schuleit Haber, and Deborah Luster speak at the Forum for Scholars and Publics in February 2019 as part of Tift Merritt's project, "The Other Side of Hungry River," a site-specific song cycle exploring the emotional history of two former mental asylums in North Carolina. Creative Site-Making: Trouble, Hope, and Healing was sponsored by the Forum for Scholars and Publics and made possible by a grant from the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment Fund.

On a temperate February morning, four artists gathered in the basement of Old Chem to explore questions of agency surrounding sites of trauma.

Creative Site-Making: Trouble, Hope & Healing brought musician and writer Tift Merritt into conversation with playwright and performer Nina Angela Mercer, painter and installation artist Anna Schuleit Haber, and photographer Deborah Luster. The ensuing conversation centered around the creation of site-specific art and engagement with stories of trauma and violence as a mode of healing.

How can art be a vehicle for reclaiming sites of prior violence and healing the communities traumatized and oppressed by the institutions that uphold them?

These four artists understand that connections between place and identity are created through action, and particularly through enactments of power. Their respective bodies of work challenge, reshape, and reclaim identities that have been twisted and stripped from their holders by the institutions that they inhabit.

Merritt’s found belongings from two North Carolina psychiatric hospitals conjure the lives of those who left them behind. For Mercer, site-specific art is grounded in African American contexts, forming both ritual and protest. Haber’s sonic transformation of an abandoned psychiatric hospital created new experiences of the space for its listeners and its former inhabitants. Luster has captured hundreds of individuals imprisoned in Angola, Louisiana, as they wanted to be seen.

As activists across the country reclaim sites of past violence and ongoing historical trauma, these artists offered examples of how art can be a vehicle for reclaiming identities and agencies. Many communities are finally asking the question, “What do we do with these sites?” — sites such as the Market House at the center of downtown Fayetteville or the Confederate sculpture carved into Stone Mountain. Perhaps we should also ask, “How can art be a vehicle for reclaiming sites of prior violence and healing the communities traumatized and oppressed by the institutions that uphold them?”

We should engage artists alongside community members and historians to repurpose these spaces as sites of healing, remembering, and reclaiming. For those seeking examples, the light and insight offered by these four artists serve as inspiration and a guide.


"To treat vulnerability as value, as wisdom, as currency in the universe of this project is something that I've been thinking about a lot."

—Tift Merritt


"To me, there's a direct relationship between dance and writing, in the sense that I dance on the page."

—Nina Angela Mercer


"Any kind of medium has its drawbacks. But I think the power in these photographs comes from the fact that I really tried to stay completely out of it."

—Deborah Luster



The following excerpt of "Creative Site-Making: Trouble, Hope, and Healing," which took place on February 26, 2019, at the Forum for Scholars and Publics, has been edited for length and clarity.

Tift Merritt: I kept thinking about Dorothea Dix Hill. I don't know if you all know, but it's a former mental institution that's now being reconstituted as a public park. The idea of the asylum began to embed in me, and I began to want to get inside Dix Hospital and look at its objects. And I decided that I wanted to make a site-specific song cycle about it.

One thing I realized in going through the things at my hotel [Merritt co-owns a Raleigh hotel that once operated as a boarding house] — and I am encountering this problem on a larger scale with the asylum work — is the question of information. In terms of objects, the information in the hotel is unorganized. It's in its own language. It's not direct. I mean, sometimes it's direct. But it's piecemeal. It's found. And there is endless non-information that you have to go through to get to a piece of information.

With the asylum, it's just exponentially more, more, more. There’s a metaphor for that, I think, in the world of online information. In my lifetime, studying history, it used to be that you really were starved for information. You had a couple of things to go on, or maybe you had to interview somebody before they died. In some ways, it’s still the same, but now you have so much information that you have to weed through it to find knowledge.

In terms of site-specific work, there's a decluttering that has to happen — of all the information that we now have about what happened at a specific place, which we wouldn't have had, and we wouldn't have been responsible for, 25 years ago. Now, we’re responsible for it, because we know what happened. So these are some things that I'm thinking about: how to deal with trauma, how much larger trauma is than storytelling, and why it’s important to keep picking at the mountain with a needle.

Anna Schuleit Haber: Simon Schama wrote a book called Landscape and Memory, and he talked about the expectation we bring to walking across battlefields and wanting to find buttons of soldiers' coats. That is transferable, I think, to looking for specific clichés in any place that we visit. In a hotel, in a motel, in a motor lodge, we have certain expectations of finding left-behind personal items. And in a mental hospital, after 150 years of history, we expect to find certain artifacts of presence, right? We're very much looking for a match to what we expect.

Nina Angela Mercer: I've been thinking a lot about one of my earliest encounters with ritual reenactment. I took a trip in 2004 to Ghana. I don't know if anyone in here has read Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother, but she took a similar journey. She's a historian and literary scholar, but I went with some Black psychologists who believe that — or would suggest that — we cannot be well as Black people on this side of the Atlantic if we don’t take a pilgrimage to West Africa, to Ghana in particular, because of the preserved dungeons in that area.

So we took this journey back with the intention of transforming and healing. We went to the north of Ghana, to Salaga, and all the way down through the country to Elmina and Cape Coast. And along that journey, from the beginning to the end, we were engaged in ritual — in site-specific ritual. Some people would call that reenactment, because the intention was to take that journey back.

What was striking to me was that those who are descendants of the transatlantic slave trade, the Middle Passage, and child slavery here in this country don't often have an archive, in the sense of paper and objects. And so our relationship to homeland is very much infused by imagination, or what some might call intuition, or deep gut sense, or what you feel in the marrow, something that has nothing to do with particular objects that can give a definitive grasp of history.

And yet the power of ritual, of being in close proximity to other bodies, with people who share a history, a story, a collective memory that we can't necessarily prove in the Western epistemological sense, you know — it's not something concrete, and yet it's there. I think what is most striking to me is that memory, imagination, and history are so closely aligned. In this space of ritual, we're not bound to what we can touch or prove. And when we're not bound to that, there's so much to be discovered in it.

In three of the site-specific projects that I’m involved in, I've challenged and pushed up against the concept of owning, of something belonging to a self rather than something that is communally experienced. And Black life, and resistance against property, and land, has always been at the center of these co-authored, collaborative, site-specific projects.

But I'm speaking from my subjectivity as a Black woman. My relationship to land in this country, or the relationship of my collaborators to land, means that, when we are doing site-specific work, we are actually in protest. We are taking up space knowing that we are doing the very thing that is dangerous, that we're not supposed to do. We want to push up against the ideas of who owns the property, and we're also very clear that our bodies have been and are always sites of contestation.

And so again, I feel like the site-specific work provides this opportunity to bump up against everything that this country, and that capitalism, tells us we need to value. Because it happens in a moment, it can't be duplicated, and it can't be owned in the sense of claiming and putting it somewhere behind a box. And that's the beauty in it to me.

Anna Schuleit Haber: In all of my work, I'm borrowing — as a walker, as a pedestrian, as someone who just gathers piece by piece. Never on this quick road to understanding, but always very pedestrian-like, finding the pieces of what I'm assembling. And that always feels like a loan. It's never, ever felt like something I'm possessing. And sometimes, when it works, it feels like a channeling, and that speaks to ritual, to what Nina was talking about.

Deborah Luster: One thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is the difference between ... I've often been called an activist artist. But it seems like activism sort of implies that you're going in with preconceived notions about change, and expectations. And I think that artists go in more often like Dorothea Lange said: wide open, on a journey to see what they're going to find.

Tift Merritt: With the Dorothea Dix Park project, my inner longing was to reclaim this land that was set aside on the outskirts of town as a place to put things we don't want on our kitchen table. To bring these things back. To sit them at our kitchen table and look them in the eye. And I'm sure that I will mess up plenty as I try to do that.

Anna Schuleit Haber: Whenever these hospitals get redeveloped, there's a clause in the redevelopment process that requires the developer to create some sort of memorialization, at least in states that have a percentage for the arts built in. Even in states that don't fund the arts, it's mentioned. “Please take care of this history. Remember its people, its stories. Create remembrance.” And developers say, "We'll do that. But first we're going to get our RFP done." Years later, like 10 years later in the case of Northampton, it gets reduced to a plaque or a stone or a marker.

But that’s not enough. If we, as artists, stick to the original mandate, which is to remember what these places were like, then maybe we get past that marker and create something more meaningful. Even if it's risky.

Deborah Luster: I think objects and places represent a story, and after a traumatic event, what do we do? We tell the story over and over and over and over. I realized that at the end of doing the Angola prison project, when it would take 30 plates to get one of them to come out right — just years in the darkroom. And I thought, "I'm making less money than the guys working in the license tag factory at Angola."

Then suddenly I realized that it's the repetition. I'm telling my story, my traumatic story, over and over and over, and it's the repetition of that action that is allowing me to recover. I think that’s it. It's a story, and it's the same story. And it's a story of loss that everyone shares, in some way or other.

Hannah Jacobs


HANNAH JACOBS is the Digital Humanities Specialist for the Wired! Lab for digital art history & visual culture at Duke University. She provides instruction and conducts research in digital concepts and tools for Wired! courses and projects. She leads tutorials and workshops, collaborates with faculty to develop and implement digital humanities projects in the classroom, consults on faculty research, offers advising on digital tools for undergraduate and Master’s student theses, provides technical support for lab projects, and liaises with other digital humanities staff at Duke. Jacobs holds an MA in Digital Humanities from King’s College London (2013) and a BA in English/Theatre from Warren Wilson College (2011). She is currently pursuing an MS in Information Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2018-present). She is interested in challenges of conducting and representing historical research via data and visualization; project management in digital humanities; applications of digital technologies in humanities pedagogies; and potentials of visual interactive storytelling for scholarly communications, public outreach, and education.