“At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them” - For the Fallen, Robert Laurence Binyon
Checking Twitter early on Friday morning, I expected to see #Somme100 trending. But another hashtag also caught my eye - #wearehere.
The feed showed men in WWI uniforms standing silently in train and bus stations, outside cafes and in market squares, marching down high streets across the UK. They occasionally broke into song: “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here.”
They handed out cards with the name, age and date of death of men from 15 battalions who were among the 19,240 killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The cards included the hashtag #wearehere, encouraging viewers to share what they’d seen on social media.
People were universally moved. They shared photos and videos; their feelings on what they’d seen; their memories of loved ones lost to war. Some shed tears.
At 7pm it was revealed that the living memorial of 1,400 ‘ghost soldiers’ had been commissioned by 14-18 NOW and created by artist Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris (Director of the National Theatre). It was produced by Birmingham REP and the National Theatre, working with 27 theatres across the UK.
The project was partly funded by an Ambition for Excellence grant from the Arts Council. I feel particularly proud to work here when I hear about projects like this – great ideas that are perfectly executed and genuinely touch people’s lives, but which wouldn’t have been possible without public funding.
When you experience something so remarkable, powerful and moving, the natural instinct of a millennial like me is to share it on social media. I often hear complaints that people are too keen to share the dull minutiae of their life, with no consideration as to whether it really needs recording.
But during an event like #wearehere, social media really comes in to its own: it capitalises on our desire to be involved; it takes art and culture outside of physical buildings; and it becomes a living, evolving museum and place for conversation.
The soldiers disrupted our everyday routine. They gave us a reason to pause and consider where we are. #wearehere wasn’t just a reference to their song, it was a statement for the viewers: “We are here; we are experiencing something special together.”
This taps in to the same desire that drives much of social media – the desire to be involved, to record your participation in an event that is worthy of comment.
We tend to think of the natural homes of art and culture as buildings that house the objects and creations of artists. For an artwork like #wearehere, which has no physical home and exists for only a short period of time, social media can create a new space – a digital building.
Like a museum it houses our records of the artwork; the photos, the videos, the comments. Each individual sees the artwork through the prism of their life. Thus the digital museum records the artwork seen from many different angles, allowing us to appreciate things we would have missed if we were isolated.
This is particularly important when the artwork is intended as a memorial. In preserving our memory of the artwork, it also preserves the people it commemorates. It records the sacrifice of men like Corporal Albert Rothwell, whose card I was handed at Manchester Piccadilly Station. He died on 1 July 1916, aged 21.
This digital building also provides a place for conversation; for comparing notes and swapping stories. We share our joy at witnessing something unexpected. There is debate – how a project like #wearehere can speak to our current politics, what we’ve learned (or not) from the past and where we go in the future. We feel connected to one another in this space, though we may be hundreds of miles apart.
The genius of a contemporary artwork like #wearehere is that in an age of oversharing it can still punch through the white noise and touch people.
It connects the physical to the digital by providing us with something worth sharing. The digital space becomes an amplification chamber for the emotional impact of the artwork, and in sharing you perform a service to those who gave their lives for that freedom.
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See more photos of #wearehere across the UK: