Freya Powell. Only Remains Remain. 2020. Courtesy the artist

How do you memorialize someone you’ve never met and whose name you may never know? Artist Freya Powell uses the structure of a Sophoclean chorus to create an elegy for the hundreds of unidentified migrants who died crossing the US southern border and whose bodies were buried in unmarked graves across border states, specifically for this performance, Sacred Heart Cemetery in Brooks County, Texas.

Powell was inspired by the efforts of forensic anthropologist Dr. Lori Baker, who was one of the first people to exhume and identify remains at the border, and by her ongoing correspondence with Dr. Kate Spradley, director of Operation Identification at Texas State University. While unregistered burials largely ceased in 2012, following a public outcry, Operation Identification, founded in 2013, continues to identify and repatriate remains, bringing peace to families, where possible.

The chorus in ancient Greek tragedies is a collective character that moves the narrative along and comments on action from a distance. In Powell’s work, a chorus of 15 female performers draws attention to a contemporary tragedy. With these performers and singers, Powell explores the mournful potential of the human voice through pitch, intonation, breath, movement, and pause. In bringing these voices together, she pays homage to the lives lost, invoking the silence of their burial and acknowledging our collective complicity and grief.

15 Minutes is our creative prompt. MoMA invites musicians, writers, and artists to produce an original work that takes about that long to watch or read or listen to. Powell made her contribution alongside the development of a live performance for her VW Dome Artist Residency at MoMA PS1, part of VW Sunday Sessions.

Taking excerpts from the performance, Powell looped and layered the vocals, moving between spoken and sung text and improvisation to create this audio piece. The audio is paired with an informational booklet compiled by the artist.

Listen to the audio below as you scroll down to read the booklet. Click on each panel for a closer look.