Newspaper 45, January 2005
The why nudged between two tellings
By Maxine Kopsa
A double projection on two small LCD monitors. The left shows a man holding a large red flag running through the streets of Berlin. The right screen shows a younger man with a smaller and cleaner red flag running through the streets of Stockholm. There’s a marked resemblance between the two protesters, a similarity in their expression, around the mouth, a certain determination. Looking more closely there’s also a slight but somehow telling difference: a hint of a smile hiding in the corners of the younger man’s mouth, and an awkwardness in his raised shoulders. The title of the work is Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne II (Color Test, The Red Flag II), Time travel, 2002 to 1968 and we learn -by reading the label- that the young man on the right is the artist, Felix Gmelin, and the other is his father. The left film is from 1968 and the one on the right from 2002. Left documents a relay protest where several runners pass on the flag eventually all the way to the town hall and end up waving it from its balcony. As a signal of defiance, of course, but also as closure to their demonstration. Right we find out is a re-enactment of this protest, this time in Stockholm, a truthful re-enactment that is, up until the part where they would have had to enter the town hall. Right doesn’t, it stops before, there’s no storming of town hall and no righteous flag waving from the balcony. Right has no signal, no closure, it’s a replay clearly without the same loaded significance as the original act; so obviously devoid of it, in fact, that it’s as if Gmelin the younger were pointing to the discrepancy, underlining it, making it about it, as if he were saying: no need to look further boys, there is no symbolism here, what you see is what you get. Holding a protest without reason to protest means re-doing the gesture of it, its shell, acting it out. That’s the apparent reading. The broader meaning lies in what this discrepancy signifies, what it means to see the same then, now.
To re-enact, simply put, is to act-out-again, to re-make. In art it could be a new video about an existing film, a new painting about an existing painting, a new photograph based on an existing photograph, a new performance referencing an older performance. But of course it’s more than just imitation. If you think about what a remake actually is, carefully, closely and slowly and try to grasp all its implications -is there a difference? Is it deliberate? Why change things? Why repeat them?- then you realize the tremendous intricacy of repetition itself. If I say something twice do they meant the same thing? If I repeat a gesture is my gesture the same the second time? Is there even such thing as true, honest to god, senseless repetition? Or does not every thing repeated become a new thing when repeated?
In 1980, in a small town in western Lithuania, Arturas Raila saw strange lights in the sky. Pinkish ones, which, in his words, moved in an unworldly fashion. He saw them four times afterwards and all five times in total he was fascinated and confused. It is the way in which he tells of these encounters that we as readers and viewers begin to feel a connection between his thoughts and these lights. He speaks of them as though they had a kind of r e l a t i o n s h i p. And it is the strength of this relationship which causes him -we assume- to attempt to re-create and record these experiences. The result entitled ‘Primitive Sky’ (2003) is a film and stills, of the sky at night in this small Lithuanian town. Without the story, without knowing this is a re-creation, a re-enactment of a significant moment, frankly you would walk passed and only wonder -like I did- at the plain-in-your-face tediousness of it all. We see dull homes, average snowy suburban streets, bear trees, power lines and faintly, very faintly -so that the dull homes and the streets seem the subject- lights, strange geometric crisscrosses or jelly fish-like forms, red, indeed pinkish swarms or wavy lines. But once you know and look again and think of Raila’s encounters, of his story, of these passed five -to him- sublime experiences, you can’t but help to feel as though you’re looking right into someone’s head, right into his dream. Raila tells us a story. ‘Primitive Sky’ is as though he has said ‘sit back, relax and listen...’. He’s re-played his experiences as much it would seem, as a poetic exorcism for himself as proof for all others. As much a return via recollection to the very personal ‘scene of the crime’ as a nostalgic narrative.
Re-enactment isn’t only fascinating because of the psychological implications of repetition, it’s also alluring because of its temporal nature. If you repeat something, you do so in time. The re-enactment, whether it be an object or an event is always an elongated act. It’s an action. A performance. And if in a re-enactment we consider the ‘script’ to be in fact the ‘original’ event, it’s in these ties between ‘original’ and ‘result’ where the particularity of re-enactment lies. Closer to ‘homage’ than ‘reproduction’, the re-enactment involves feelings of respect and sentiment and draws on both personal and collective memory -on nostalgia-, combining them. Not unlike a homage’s vital link to the past, the re-enactment has an equally crucial relationship to its original act, to the thing it’s repeating. What is more, all the reasons, each desire to re-make the thing or event are present in the re-enactment itself. But quietly so. And deciphering them -the search for the why- is an extended, I dare say performative activity.
So let’s get straight to that, the why, why this compulsion to return, to re-make, to appropriate, to re-enact?
Douglas Huebler said in an interview on July 25 1969 (1) : “..The world is full of junk, anyway. The world is full of too much stuff to walk around...” Pierre Huygue, years later explained his art-making intentions as “not to add anything else to the world.” If there is among some artists today a will not to add, an allowance for a certain saturation of things in the world, be it the world of culture or the (visual) world at large, then perhaps a tendency to re-look at the already there isn’t so strange. Or could it quite simply be a question of masochism? This need to return? This need to go back to the scene of the crime, to the origin of the trauma, to repeat it, to re-enact it? Freud explains the ‘repetition compulsion’ as a manner to gain mastery. And mastery is surely something we all seek, if not mastery -as in control- in the very least mastery in terms of understanding. But apparently clinical experience has shown that this rarely happens (2). Instead -in laymen’s terms- everything just gets worse (3).
I suppose one of the first times the term re-enactment was used distinctly for an artistic project, would be for a work by Jeremy Deller. ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ as the now infamous 1984 minor’s strike clashes in South Yorkshire are known were re-enacted on the 17th of June 2001 under the auspices of Deller. It was his concept, his idea, but it was organized a professional Re-enactment logistics company, EventPlan, and filmed by Mike Figgis for ArtAngel Media and channel 4. The hour long film is basically a documentary of the day’s events, a behind the scenes look following the minors who were invited to participate and the ‘professional’ re-enactors. A making of, you could say. Howard Giles, the head of EventPlan refers to Jeremey Deller as the ‘event creator’ but it is clear in the film that Deller is just as surprised and curious about the (psychological) effects of the grand staging as we are. Giles explains re-enactment as being ‘re-creation’, successful if it is able to get ‘as close to fact as possible’. It’s about ‘getting it right’, he says, about ‘re-living it’.
But what does this ‘getting it right’ imply? If we’re to understand the drive behind such an extensive hobbyist folklore tradition, then we must try to understand the why. We have to comprehend why a certain event has been chosen in the first place to be duplicated. ‘Orgreave’ was a ‘running sore’, according to Giles, an open wound, an embarrassing moment in history loaded a priori with significance. As though that moment in history was a self-aware watershed, an iconic instant full of its own future significance (4). Plainly put, some claim it to have been a grand set-up, both the strike and its outcome (the mineworkers lost). A re-enactment avant la letter you might say, a set-up, as if Orgreave 1 were already a rehearsal.
Without skipping into an easy though still so poetically paradoxical trap of chicken and egg: it can be said that the artifice was present in the original event. In other words, the past event held within itself its potential to be re-enacted. The London Riot Re-enactment Society’s mission statement touches on this chicken and egg -though without understanding its Zenness- “If we staged a re-enactment of May Day 2000 on May Day 2003, would people notice it was a re-enactment or would they think it was that year’s May Day riot? And if the next year we re-enacted June 18 1999 on May Day 2004 would people notice the discrepancy?”
Indeed, indeed, would they? But is that the point? I can understand The London Riot Re-enactment Society being worried about misleading the audience but I think the point is more subtle and more complicated than mere honesty. Onlookers may or may not notice a difference but the difference would still be there, plainly, but implicitly. And that’s the point. There’s part of the why. One would have to know.
Re-enactment thus is not only privy to, but creates, a legend. You could say that the re-enactment of the thing or the event, establishes it. We can also safely say that it underlines all the intricacies of repetition, proving that to repeat is not merely to copy. To repeat in its case is to tell a story, to speak reverently of…, to honor…, or at the very least to re-visit... But you need both. Both the knowledge of the past and its retelling. You need to know. You need to be in the know. You need the ‘inside information’. Which makes re-enactment’s use of citation -of appropriation- so very unlike the suggestive surface quoting of postmodernism’s appropriation. The point here is not to juxtapose differing signs and contexts just for the shock of it. The point goes far deeper. Re-enactment, you could say, brings appropriation -appropriation in all its full intellectual glory- into the 21st century. With a narrative twist. Re-enactment’s afore mentioned mix of the quoting of personal and collective memory blurs their very boundaries, letting us into the collective or the collective into us. It’s very loaded story-telling.
Manon de Boers’ work ‘Sylvia’ (2001), a 40 minute super 8 film, shows Sylvia Kristel in the opening scene smoking a cigarette. She says nothing, just takes a few drags and turns away from the camera. And then we’re given a pan shot of a grainy Paris, an overview of what looks like the entire city and she starts telling. In French she commences ‘The first time I went to Paris it must have been 1972…’ Her tale persists as she moves from film set to film set, from man to man, sometimes happy in love and successful in her career and sometimes depressed and in doubt. After 20 minutes she comes to an end and we see her again, silent, smoking, on the same green hill overlooking, in the distance, a city. This is an interruption but a tentative one, we soon see, since the film promptly start all over again. But not quite the same. We pan back to Paris and Sylvia begins recounting again. This time though she starts differently, in a different tone, a less anecdotal ring to her voice and far more factual. She ends this time somewhere closer to the present, somewhere in Amsterdam, her current home. Closer to the truth? Closer to now? We’re left wondering why she’s edited herself, why she first told us of her insecurities, her infidelities, her desires and her misgivings. We’re left to reflect on a possible correlation between the two stories, the whys of certain screaming gaps and other more silent ones.
I’ve left out an important clue, I should have started with. In the beginning of the film we’re told the first monologue was recorded 22.09.2001 and the second monologue 10.11.2000.
There it is again: the clue. The point. The why nudged in between two tellings. What has Sylvia’s re-enactment of herself shown us? A different image of herself, certainly, a different portrayal of character. But not only a mere alternative, also proof that ‘self image’ and ‘character portrayal’ are not fixed beliefs. They change from day to day, from listener to listener, from camera to camera. The psychology behind re-enactment is apparent in Sylvia, and more complicated than in the case of Orgreave. More intricate as an example of re-enactment, Sylvia is an auto-referential case in point where ‘original’ and ‘result’ are self inflicted, where part 1 and part 2 fall almost seamlessly together. Almost, but not quite, and that’s the point, again.
This re-look and re-work -this new appropriation- comprises a re-think that offers the audience at the very least a re-telling of what has already passed or been made, and at best an alternative view of that same past. Be it personal -be it even yourself- or not. Perhaps, but this might be going too far, this re-telling is a not dissimilar version of (former) oral traditions: it too is a passing on, a slight re-interpretation, re-collected timely amendments, from generation to generation, from them to us. Question is, does a proper quote not comprise a true new? And the answer is of course, of course. But a contingent new. If you think about it, what appropriation really is, that it’s a manner to deal with the (immediate) past, with history, then re-enactment’s version is certainly a critical translation, a questioning of position, the makers’ own, the viewers’, the narratives’. Not a macho this-is-the-answer-to-supplant-all-others attitude but a modest inquiry. A suggestion. Another take.
Gmelin’s protest, Deller’s riot, Raila’s vision, de Boer’s Sylvia are trying to re-tell us our favorite bedtime story. With each slight alteration of the original, of the first time, reading like personal commentary of then in the now. And there’s a consolation in that, a consolation not all too different from the solace of the (unchanged) parental home, as banal as the relief of a trusted restaurant, the return to the same hotel, the conviction of a brand of toothpaste…The consolation of recognition. And at the same time the desire for the element of surprise (‘I love this restaurant AND they have daily specials’). That’s re-enactment’s wondrous cocktail. You need both, you see.
Re-enactment could very well be the first form of artistic practice where knowing the background, knowing the part 1, is an explicit pre-requisite to part 2, minus any elitist implications.
Originally published though re-worked here, in Metropolis M, issue nr. 4, 2004
(1) Alberro and Norvell, Recording Conceptual Art, Universoty of California Press, 2001, p.135 ff.
(2) ‘The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma. Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism’ in Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Volume 12, nr. 2, June 1989, p. 389-411
(3) Think of J.G. Ballard’s desperate hero in the novel Crash (and later David Cronenberg’s film adaptation) who after having experienced a serious car accident becomes obsessed, addicted really to (the surge of adrenalin of) a crash, his crash, any crash. Throughout the book he continues to re-play various ‘famous’ car crashes, returning to the locations where they occurred. He returns to the trauma, or rather, more precisely, his incessant return to it, his re-living of it, creates it. Turns the original experience into the trauma, after the fact. Things just get worse.
(4) As if the minors and the police force then, in 1984, were already being ‘trained for a specific role’. This pre-training (picket manipulation) becomes apparent in stories form one of the policemen and a lobbyist who describe how Margret Thatchers politics in fact forced the issue actually orchestrating the conditions for the conflict What with M15 infiltration in the plant, provocation from the police instead of the minors to kick start the conflict (though sequences were reversed on TV), forcing the strikers (actually escorting them) to picket in a field North of the plant and then flanking them on three sides leaving the railway lines still open for transport…Deller’s re-enactment invited the minors to re-play the conflicts, but to do so from the other side: some of the minors played their former enemy, the police.