This paper will present Letter to an Unknown Soldier, a new kind of war memorial, made entirely of words. Created by writers Neil Bartlett and Kate Pullinger, the project was commissioned by Britain’s 14-18 NOW to mark the centenary of the outbreak of WW1. Inspired by Charles Jagger’s 1922 bronze statue of a soldier, who stands on Platform One of Paddington Station, London, reading a letter, the digital artwork invited everyone in the country to write their own letter to the soldier.
Letter to an Unknown Soldier began with letters commissioned from 50 well-known UK-based writers; it opened to the public for submissions from mid-May 2014, and all the letters received to date went online on 28 June (the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand). The website remained open for submissions for 37 days, until 4 August (the centenary of Britain’s declaration of war). The project quickly snowballed in popularity. By its close, more than 21,400 letters had been received from around the world.
Letter to an Unknown Soldier now stands as an extraordinary example of a crowd-sourced participatory media artwork written by thousands of people who don’t think of themselves as writers. It forms a vivid snapshot of what people think about war, and what it means to remember a war no longer within lived experience.
Website address: www.1418now.org/letter
Letter to an Unknown Soldier directly disrupts Britain’s increasingly hegemonic and nostalgic approach to commemorating war. In the UK, Remembrance Day, which marks the end of WW1, morphed into Remembrance Sunday, which became Remembrance Weekend, which is now in the process of becoming Remembrance Week. Heavily ritualised and pre-programmed, we are expected to remember war by watching the Queen at the Cenotaph on television, by wearing red poppies, and by observing the two minutes of official silence. Letter to an Unknown Soldier gave people the opportunity to speak into that silence by posing the following questions: What does it mean to remember something you can’t remember? If you could say whatever you wanted to say to the unknown soldier, what would you say?
Letter to an Unknown Soldier was an international transmedia writing event. Spread across many platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Wattpad, Figment, Tumblr, YouTube and Storify – but always focussed on the digital artwork itself, it has generated layers of data that transform the notion of the war memorial from something static to a work that reflects both lived and living experience. The diversity of responses to the project was both unusual and inspiring, including submissions from schoolchildren, serving soldiers, a huge range of the public, as well as the current British Prime Minister. We asked people to write a letter to the soldier and they responded, in their thousands.
During the project, Harper Collins UK commissioned a book of selected letters: this book includes 138 of the letters and was published in November 2014. Over the next few months the website, and all its digital traces and residues, will be transformed into both an archive of the artwork and an open access resource for educators and community organisations; using the archive, the British Library has created a dataset for researchers. This presentation will show the work as well as describing how it was made, how it was disseminated, and the future of the project.
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