What Art Can Do: Robin Behn’s Requiem for the Innocent

Robin Behn’s latest book, Requiem for the Innocent: El Paso and Beyond (2020, George F. Thompson Publishing), is a poignant and elegant commemoration of the victims of the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. The poems—jarring and provocative—are accompanied in the book by the photography of John Willis, all images of flowers of remembrance placed in the aftermath of the tragedy. However, the work is intended as a larger collaboration with the music of Matan Rubinstein, so that image, text, and score all work together in 23 installments, one each for the victims of the shooting.

The show opened in September 2020 in Gallery Kayafas in downtown Boston. The work was shown in the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center in Brattleboro, Vermont. In galleries, large prints of the images are mounted, with small speakers for the music between each of the prints. “Matan wrote the composition so that when you get close to one of the speakers, you hear that particular part of the music most, with the others as a softer background mixture—it’s a dynamic soundscape the participant moves through,” Behn explains. The text of Behn’s poems are projected onto a separate wall, a decision the collaborators reached together because “when there’s a photograph or an image right next to a text you tend to read the text first and then use the words to interpret the image. We didn’t want that to happen; we wanted the visuals to speak for themselves. So, partway into the project, we decided to separate the text so that it would have its own space.”

The poems—as well as the music and images—generate an elegiac tone, in line with the collaborators’ aim, Behn says, to “create a work where time seems to slow down so that the never-ending grief and overwhelmingness of the tragedy strike deeply into the viewer, the reader, the listener.” The aim, too, is to address the ongoing nature of mass shootings in America—hence the Beyond in the title—and so Behn’s text incorporates research, definitions, statistics, drawing them into the art to help cut through the “compassion fatigue” we may experience when benumbed by the steady news of shootings.

As with all things, access to the work has been affected by the pandemic. In response, the collaborators have found alternate ways of making it available. In addition to the book, they created a film version of the project, which allows for the text, music, and images to be experienced simultaneously and in digital form. In the film, Behn’s text is no longer static, becoming instead animated and choreographed. “I wanted the text to have a dynamic, visual element—choreographed in time and space throughout the film,” Behn says. “In creating these effects I have our wonderful MFA student Kaush Suresh to thank for her technical expertise and for contributing ideas.” The film has been a finalist in the Vancouver, Paris, and Berlin film festivals, and was shown in the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival.

Additionally, the collaborators created a large, handmade limited edition of interleaved prints and text, made available in libraries and rare book collections across the country. Gallery Kayafas has also created an Artists Conversation page that includes an interview about the work with Behn, Rubinstein, and Willis.

The project itself began as Willis, the photographer, was traveling with his wife along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019, documenting the reality of the conditions they found. Willis was not far from El Paso when the massacre occurred, and felt compelled to go there, arriving in time to witness the enormous outpouring of grief and the solidarity of the community, reflected in the spontaneous memorials of flowers.

Willis soon realized that his should be a collaborative project, and recruited Rubinstein and then Behn, whose history of collaboration made her perfectly suited to the work. She is a faculty fellow at UA’s Collaborative Arts Research Initiative (CARI), which, she explains, “encourages scholarship wherein artists collaborate with others to produce works. It might be artists with other artists, or artists with someone from the sciences, for example, or the humanities.” She also teaches courses on collaboration and on documentary poetics and has collaborated extensively in her prior work. “The first time I did a substantial collaboration,” Behn recalls, “was a couple of shows with Mirjana Ugrinov, an abstract painter in Chicago. She and I met at The Ragdale Foundation, an artists’ colony near Chicago, and started working together over a few years. I wrote poems to pair with her paintings, and those parings became an exhibit that ran in a number of places in Chicago.” In addition, Behn has written the libretto for an opera, Freedom and Fire! A Civil War Story, and, as part of her recent book of poems Quarry Cross, included “fiddle tune poems,” which combine some poems with the fiddle tunes that inspired them (Behn both reads the poems and plays flute and penny whistle on the recordings). “I trained as a musician before I was a writer,” Behn says, “and that’s useful in terms of thinking of more than one art form at once.”

Behn also recently edited Once Upon a Time in the Twenty-First Century: Unexpected Exercises in Creative Writing, a book that collects exercises generated over the years by UA MFA students in her Creative Writing Club for area high school students.

For Requiem for the Innocent, the creators are working with galleries across the country to display the work, and Behn and her colleagues expect an installation at The University of Texas-El Paso sometime next year. They are also working with Shannon Hummel at CORA Dance in Brooklyn, to incorporate dance into the work. Always, the hope is to create that space and stillness in the audience, to move them much in the way Behn was moved in the act of creation: “The more I learned about the massacre, the more I wanted to know. Understanding the overwhelming tragedy—the layers of it, the legal history of guns in this country, statistics about guns and about mass shootings—it’s so arresting how we take a step forward and then step back again as a nation. I became utterly moved and I felt I had a rare opportunity to bring the tragedy to light in a way that wasn’t just conveying information, but also what doing what art—what any kind of art—can do, how it can be emotional, spiritual, physical, and full of information all at the same time.”


–Kevin Waltman