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Inke Arns - History Will Repeat Itself: Strategies of Re-enactment in Contemporary (Media) Art and Performance 

(Curator's text for the exhibition at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, 18.11.2007 - 13.01.2008)

"Is there repetition or is there insistence.
I am inclined to believe there is no such thing as repetition.
And really how can there be." (Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetition”, Lectures in America, pp. 166–169)

A little more than a century ago, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote that hypnosis makes it possible for a patient to fulfil “one of the most fervent wishes of humankind”, namely, “to experience something twice”.(1) The main character in Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005) (2) fulfils precisely this wish — not through hypnosis, but through ‘re-enactments’. The novel’s protagonist is disabled after an accident but is very wealthy as he received a lot of money as compensation. He has banal scenes from his own life, and later also spectacular events that were hyped by the media, re-enacted in public spaces and in apartment blocks bought specifically for this purpose. Through these re-enactments, in which the protagonist is always the main actor, he hopes to recapture a particular, but diffuse, feeling again that he has only felt very vaguely since his accident. The re-enactments, which are staged with an absurd amount of work and an enormous number of helpers, allow the protagonist to experience the repeated situation in full consciousness (of his own role), and at the same time to observe events from the centre yet from a distance. 

Historical Re-enactment as a Practice of Popular Culture

In general, a so-called re-enactment is a historically correct re-creation of socially relevant events, such as battles (for example, the Battle of Hastings or the Battle of Gettysburg). (3) It is the “best possible, detailed repetition of how an event occurred, historical or modern; where possible, it is staged at the location where the original event took place, and under the same conditions as when it occurred.” (4) Criminology, for example, uses re-enactments to reconstruct a crime. Re-enactments are often part of experimental archaeology (5) when testing working techniques of the past through experiments (for example, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947). In numerous countries, many very different re-enactment groups exist in which there are people who do it for a hobby, but also professionals who devote themselves to specific subjects, epochs, or events. For our particular enquiry here, both the parallels and the differences to similar practices are of interest. For example, re-enactments are very different to pop-cultural practices such as ‘living history’ and ‘live action role-playing’. Living history, (6) for example, does not take a concrete, historical event, but rather seeks to re-create the life style and realities of life in past epochs (for example, the late Middle Ages, the late fifteenth century, the Napoleonic Wars, or the American Civil War). And live action role-playing (7) is role-playing games in which the actors also physically play their character. In contrast to re-enactments and living history, which both refer to historical events, live action role- playing is entirely fictional.(8) What all three forms – re-enactment, living history, and live action role-playing – have in common, is that they allow access to history, or histories, through immersion, personification, and empathy in a way that history books cannot. 

Re-enactment as an Artistic Strategy

In recent years, the strategy of re-enactment is increasingly found in contemporary art, especially media art and performance. Historical re-enactments, such as the ones mentioned above, are about imagining oneself away into another time and have nothing (or little) to do with the present, such as playing a totally different role that has nothing (or little) to do with our own reality (for example, as a Viking or a daughter of a medieval lord of a castle). Artistic re-enactments, however, do exactly the opposite. The difference to pop-cultural re-enactments such as the re-creation of historic battles, for example, is that artistic re-enactments are not performative re-staging of historic situations and events that occurred a long time ago; events (often traumatic ones) are re-enacted that are viewed as very important for the present. Here the reference to the past is not history for history’s sake; it is about the relevance of what happened in the past for the here and now. Thus one can say that artistic re-enactments are not an affirmative confirmation of the past; rather, they are questionings of the present through reaching back to historical events that have etched themselves indelibly into the collective memory. “To be sure”, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, “we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the way in which the spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it (…). That is, we need it for life and action, not for a comfortable turning away from life and action, or merely for glossing over the egotistical life and the cowardly bad act.” (9) In contemporary (media) art of recent years there are an increasing number of artistic re-enactments, that is, the re-staging of historical situations and events. One reason for this rather uncanny desire for performative repetition seems to reside in the fact that experience of the world, whether historical or contemporary, is based less and less on direct observation and today operates almost exclusively via media; that is, through images or other kinds of recordings of (historical) events. (10) History appears to be present at all times and in all places; at the same time, however, this permanent availability of media representation renders all forms of authenticity increasingly remote. In the current situation of intensified spectacles, there is a growing feeling of insecurity about what the images actually mean. In this situation artistic re-enactments do not ask the naïve question about what really happened outside of the history represented in the media — the ‘authenticity’ beyond the images — instead, they ask what the images we see might mean concretely to us, if we were to experience these situations personally. In this way the artistic re-enactment confronts the general feeling of insecurity about the meaning of images by using a paradoxical approach: through erasing distance to the images and at the same time distancing itself from the images.

© Harry Benedict Arthur Coday, all rights reserved