Louisville Native Dudley Saunders ‘Resurrects’ Local Dead with Crowdsourced Performance Art

Someone you know died – a friend, a family member, a partner – and some thing that once belonged to the deceased is now in your possession. What happens to those keepsakes? Do they stay tucked away on a far shelf? Such objects – and the stories and people behind them – could have new life in avant-folk singer/songwriter Dudley Saunders’ on-going “In These Boxes” memorial project, which comes to Louisville’s Dreamland this month. 

All I’m really trying to do, essentially, is resurrect the dead,” says Saunders, a Louisville native who now lives in Los Angeles. 

“We’ve all lost people in our lives,” Saunders continues. “99 percent of us are just ordinary people. Not only do I think that ordinary people matter, with their ordinary lives that don’t become some grand heroic story, but if you really want to know what America looks like, you have to look at the people we don’t talk to, the stories we don’t tell. The truth of who we are is in the stories that have been ignored.”

Here’s how it works: People take photos of the objects they want memorialized and email them directly to Saunders or upload the photos to Instagram using the hashtag #InTheseBoxes. (“That puts them on the online social media cemetery.”) 

Saunders works these images and objects into what he calls a “transmedia” performance that combines video art with a live narrative/music act that’s customized for every community in which he performs. 

Listen to Saunders perform “Zero Out (In These Boxes)”.

Saunders prefers to use photos local to each performance.

“Different towns have different comfort levels with loss, with death,” he says. “We still do body viewings in the South. Most of the country doesn’t do that.” 

Sometimes all he has to go on is a brief caption. Other times, the submitters pour their hearts out to Saunders in emails. 

“A lot of time they’ve been buried away in boxes because they’re too painful to look at, because they make people feel the loss. And I find the people who feel the loss the most are those who felt like the people they lost have not been truly memorialized. They were addicted, or their lives did not turn out the way people wanted them to, but still they were loved and they mattered,” he says. 

Saunders likens his communal mourning-through-art project to The NAMES Project Foundation’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was started by volunteers in 1987 as a way to memorialize those who died of AIDS-related causes and now includes 48,000 panels. A member of ACT UP-New York in the early 1990s, during the height of the AIDS crisis, Saunders took careful notice of how often he’d see the belongings of AIDS patients discarded in curbside trash bins after their deaths. He says the idea for “In These Boxes” began germinating around the same time, when two of his ex-lovers died within three months of each other.

“I realized that nobody who remembered our lives together was still alive. It was that absence of memory, of people who remembered, that’s what really got me,” he says. “I had these objects from them, like a spoon. To anyone in the world, it’s just a spoon. Only I knew it had a meaning.”

Saunders will perform “In These Boxes” at Dreamland (810 East Market Street) on May 16 at 8 p.m. To submit to the project, email photos to Dudley@DudleySaunders.com or tag them on Instagram with #InTheseBoxes.

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