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On Reenactment: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools

 | 
Cristina Baldacci
, 
Susanne Franco

Prelude

Under the Sign of Reenactment

Stefano Mudu

Texte intégral

1Reenactment is a hypernym: it refers to a field with vast and ever-changing boundaries. Thanks to its interdisciplinary application, the very meaning escapes univocal analysis models, definitive standardisation, or even linear genealogies. For example, in the artistic field, anyone would find it difficult to trace the history of its use or, indeed, would struggle to navigate through the complex network of practical and theoretical references that it has produced.

  • 1 A seminal thought in this sense is the one formulated by the British philosopher and archaeologist (...)
  • 2 For any further studies see the introduction by Sven Lütticken in Life, Once More: Forms of Reenac (...)

2The term reenactment has always indicated an act of deliberate repetition of the past. In manifesting itself as an example of formal repetition, it questions the most varied interpretations: philosophical, political, cultural or affective. According to a first contemporary genealogical hypothesis, the concept was introduced in the historiographical field from the end of the 1940s1 and, at least for the following thirty years, mainly described episodes of historical or folkloric reenactment that aimed to reconstruct past events such as battles, parades or tournaments. A second and parallel history of the term2 traces its origins to many artistic contributions that, during the sixties, and in light of an intermedial discourse, methodically reproduced happenings and live events conceived by the Fluxus movement, or by the exponents of the so-called American Minimalism.

  • 3 This theory has never been addressed by Nietzsche in a linear and systematic way. The meaning of t (...)
  • 4 The concept was introduced by Benjamin within his famous essay Unpacking My Library (Ich packe mei (...)

3In both cases, these historic and performative events demonstrated how the development of events hid the possibility of fruitful temporal vitality and how the present could be interrupted by a voluntary invocation of the past. Also, they showed how the relationship with the past, when undertaken with awareness, made it possible to remember the actual event, modify it, and critically analyse its value. This last perspective has found its allies in the most authoritative voices of modernity and has demonstrated both the reliability of Nietzsche’s “eternal return of the same” (die Ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen),3 and the possibility of Benjamin’s “renewal of existence” (die Erneuerung des Daseins).4

  • 5 There are plenty of videos documenting these events online. A quick survey on the most famous stre (...)

4On the practical side, these reenactments have frequently been conceived as almost faithful reconstructions of their originals. Still, each execution has highlighted an inevitable distance (formal or conceptual) with the past to which they referred. The historical reenactments followed the historical traces in a meticulous and detailed way but, as the countless international examples5 still demonstrate today, they turned out to be theatrical objects often with inconsistencies. On the contrary, the performative reenactments started from photographic and documentary material derived from the live moment but, depending on the context in which they were performed or the artist who proposed them, they regularly produced new narrative solutions.

  • 6 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (London and New York: Continuum Books, 2004).
  • 7 Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Re-Enactment (London and (...)

5More generally, to frame it in the words of Gilles Deleuze, both types of reenactment – the historical and the performative – showed that repetition produced a series of unavoidable differences from the original.6 Furthermore, as Rebecca Schneider argued, the repetitions showed an evident inadequacy in covering the temporal distance with the recovered object.7 From the very beginning, thus, these reconstructions demonstrated the impossibility of obtaining an authentic version of an event that has passed. Each time a gesture, an object, a work of art was reproduced or reproposed, it stood out as a different entity. Nevertheless, these first explorations are valuable because they offered a performative approach to historical events.

  • 8 Susanne Franco and Marina Nordera, Ricordanze. Memoria in movimento e coreografie della storia (Tu (...)
  • 9 See André Lepecki, “The Body as Archive: Will to Re-Enact and the Afterlives of Dances”, in Dance (...)
  • 10 In The Shape of Time, the American philosopher and anthropologist George Kubler defines “relays” t (...)

6Starting from the eighties, many postmodern choreographers proposed alternative approaches to past works. Even if their practice was not called reenactment at that time – a term that gradually gained popularity in dance quite recently – this attitude became almost strategic in the relationship of choreography with preexisting dance works. In fact, this new generation of practitioners – both choreographers and dancers – began to intentionally insist on adapting pre-existing scripts or scores without necessarily “restoring” them. Using their body as a tool to embody memory, they proposed new and ever-changing versions of past experiences. After all, dance has often conceived movements and gestures as if they were information destined to migrate between bodies. Dance’s “visual, emotional, kinaesthetic”8 features have been preserved thanks to the dancers as living archives9 or relays,10 who have retained memory and transmitted forms, knowledge and experiences. But once the study of the past gained the value of the creative method of reenactment, this process distanced itself from the accurate demands of historical reconstruction and subjected the archival and even embodied documents to continuous variations to determine the autonomy of reenactment from the original source.

7Even musicians have always needed to pass on their compositions, and this was achieved thanks to scores and notations. It is no coincidence that starting with postmodernism, also music granted a wide range of interpretations to its performers or audiences. By creating the so-called “open works”, composers and musicians, in general, have given listeners and attendees the chance to finish their compositions by interpreting or re-arranging them. This practice has pushed reconstruction limits and proposed each time different approaches to the source material.

8In other words, dance and music were the first disciplines exploring the infinite creative possibilities derived from a critical analysis of the historical heritage and, with an eye to the future, they “danced and played the present” adapting the forms of the past to one’s expressive needs. Rather than simply reconstructing their references, choreographers and composers, dancers and musicians, have reactivated them by allowing their survival with a certain degree of critical, formal and conceptual autonomy.

  • 11 Cf. Cristina Baldacci, “Reenactment: Errant Images in Contemporary Art”, in Re-: An Errant Glossar (...)
  • 12 See Cristina Baldacci and Marco Bertozzi, eds., Montages: Assembling as a Form and Symptom in Cont (...)

9Then, this freedom of interpretation has been reinforced by performance art and cinematography. In an equally daring exercise of temporal manipulation11 that we can easily ascribe once again to postmodernism, both disciplines have chosen their references from the past, assembling them in the present to create works of art made of multiple sources.12 These disciplines, thus, challenged the cyclic temporal dimension always linked to the idea of repetition and started to create objects crossed by as many temporalities as the sources. In a short time, performance art and cinematography led to the definition of reenactment of any object of visual culture presented as a symptom of previous iconographies or built at the crossroads of several citations.

10At least regarding their disciplinary heterogeneity, the “duets” gathered in this book seem to derive from the freedom of this latter approach and, in enhancing it, underline how it has reached the maximum degree of experimentation and brought reenactment to new frontiers.

11In the last ten years, artists and curators, dancers and choreographers, scholars and research centres have randomly adopted the term reenactment on a theoretical and practical level. They have plumbed their past, opened their archives and reconstructed their narratives starting from traces and documents. By proposing formal and content configurations that were consciously less faithful to the sources, they built new objects at the intersection of multiple temporalities. Without too many distinctions, the term reenactment has increasingly taken distance from the logic of pure historical repeatability – from the perspectives of a linear narrative that at most had to deal with the return of a single moment in the past. It instead started to qualify also those artistic products or creative processes whose formal, spatial, and conceptual characteristics derive from the juxtaposition of materials extrapolated from different times and contexts.

  • 13 See Geoff Cox and Jacob Lund, eds., The Contemporary Condition: Introductory Thoughts on Contempor (...)

12The concept of reenactment has become a mirror of the space-time entropy reached by contemporaneity; that chaotic coexistence of “heterogeneous clusters” that scholars Geoff Cox and Jacob Lund say are “generated along different historical trajectories”.13 To put it in other words, the ever-growing umbrella of reenactment deals today with multiple and overlapped temporalities that question the traditional model of history as a linear and progressive succession of events.

13Indeed, all the examples presented in the following pages – from the exhibition project discussed by Cecilia Alemani and Cristina Baldacci to the dance-related examples referred to by Mark Franko and Lucia Ruprecht – can be defined as both multidimensional and multitemporal “objects”: they are made in turn from materials (images, things, scripts or scores) that derive from historical moments widely spread in different times and spaces.

14Nobody denies that the motivations behind such an expanded look at the past are not specific to each discipline: dance reconstruction is still strongly linked to mnestic operations; anthropology and historiography appeal to different degrees of identity recognition; art today seems to coincide with the need for a general aesthetic and media fluidity. But what seems helpful to consider is that, despite the different political, cultural or affective perspectives, under the sign of reenactment, today complex realities find a shelter that contains an aggregation of objects linked by common and traceable approaches to the same sources. More and more museums and international collections include dance and performance in their contemporary art programs. The visual artist often uses movements, gestures and other resources from the world of performance or music. It is equally true that dance, cinema, and music are also influenced by visual arts and shape their approaches to the past by giving a certain degree of dynamism through complex bodily processes or embodiments. It seems, therefore, that the reactivation of the materials no longer shows (or perhaps has never foreseen) a real disciplinary distinction: the various narrators of the story – be they curators, artists or theorists – all draw from the same archive of previous documents and, less and less philologically, rearrange them at an intermedial level according to their own narrative needs. Perhaps the most urgent problem concerning contemporary reenactment operations is “compositional”. By highlighting the different ways of combining the source materials, reenactment provides an orientation method capable of dealing with all products of the past as equally necessary in constructing a new mise-en-scène.

  • 14 Abbreviated with the acronym OOO and pronounced “Triple O”, it is a school of philosophy founded i (...)
  • 15 An idea that changed completely not only the scientific field in which it came up, but also the cu (...)

15According to one of the most promising philosophical systems of recent years, the so-called “Object-Oriented Ontology” (OOO),14 it is helpful to think of the world as an aggregation of “things”. Regardless of being fixed or moving materials, physical elements or human, inhuman or imaginary entities, all aggregate in compound configurations giving life to progressively larger objects. According to Graham Harman, the initiator and most outstanding exponent of the theory, every manifestation of reality – artistic, social or political – is connected to the materials that make it. People, things, and thoughts unite, giving life to new, more complex objects that keep the memory of the characteristics from which they derive but are also distinguished by the emergence of unique and peculiar qualities. The OOO derives from the theory of cellular evolution proposed in the 1960s by the biologist Lynn Margulis, who claimed that objects behave like agglomerations of more or less composed cells and unite with others grafting and hybridising their genetic code. Margulis’ so-called “symbiogenesis” would explain not only that the unions between simple cells serve to develop new and more effective survival activities but also that each newly obtained cell-object always possesses different characteristics from those of the fragments that compose it.15

16With the necessary simplifications, this compositional perspective lends itself to describing not only the rules that govern each phase of generic reenactment but how each of them increases the entropy of the artistic landscape. Following the transformation processes outlined by OOO, every fragment of artistic entity – image, gesture, document, photograph, script, score, and so on – becomes necessary and potentially (re)orderable in a new configuration. Like an archival material, it carries the formal and conceptual experience of its act of creation and, together with other elements, gives life to layered compositions. But not only that. Each object is also the repository of a precise temporal experience: it encapsulates the time in which it was created and the eventual stratification that preceded it. Therefore, the encounter with other similar materials contributes to the construction of an agglomeration made of the temporalities of all the objects it gathers within it.

17Compared to the words Cox and Lund use to refer to contemporaneity, reenactment is a perfect accelerator of entropy and, in each phase of recomposition, adds a new level of space-time complexity to the reference system.

  • 16 See Tristan Garcia, Form and Object: A Treatise on Things (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, (...)

18From an “object-oriented” perspective and using the aphoristic terms of the Spanish philosopher Tristan Garcia, our time “is perhaps the time of an epidemic of things”:16 a kind of “contamination of the present” created from the juxtaposition, the montage, the reactivation of objects with a previous composition; it is itself stratified. In our times, the artistic product appears both as an object-compound isolated in space-time and a chaotically and constantly shifting material in a broader context.

  • 17 Curated in 2013 by Germano Celant in the Venetian spaces of the Prada Foundation, the exhibition i (...)

19The sense of this compositional filter and the value of this space-time expansion certainly do not escape from curatorial practices. The exhibition itself is a collection of materials that renegotiate their autonomy when rearranged into a new configuration. It emerges as an entity conceptually, formally, and temporally stratified thanks to the reactivation of the fragments it is composed of. In turn, it becomes a reproducible agglomeration of objects – think of the famous exhibition When Attitudes Become Form restaged by Germano Celant almost fifty years after the original by Harald Szeeman.17 This is precisely the point of the dialogue between Cecilia Alemani and Cristina Baldacci. Starting from the analysis of the exhibition The Disquieted Muses, conceived for the Venice Biennale in 2020, they discuss the possibility of creating the exhibition as a helpful device to revive archival references and materials in a new way and according to open narratives. Their approach seems to suggest the possibility of gathering and sharing objects according to a choreographic method or, vice versa, of re-reading the exhibition as a multitemporal and multispatial score: a new score for the history of art consisting only of the reactivation of previous elements.

  • 18 See further in this volume: Mark Franko and Lucia Ruprecht, “Duet: Witnessing Versus Belatedness: (...)
  • 19 Ibid., 132.

20It is a compositional model not too far from the one to which the specific examples that Mark Franko and Lucia Ruprecht dealt with seem to allude. For them, reenactment is a tool to operate a re-description of the past through choreography as an annotation system that can allow the repetition of a plot and its connection with “all the archival resources one can assemble”.18 Therefore, dance also reorganises its objects with and through movement from a compositional point of view. Once the reactivation process is over, it remains as a choreography that, in Franko’s words, “is such an object itself”.19

  • 20 Franck Leibovici, “On Scores”, in Choreographing Exhibitions ed. Mathieu Copeland and Julie Pelleg (...)

21More generally, at the basis of any object – its internal organisation or the relationships it establishes with others – there seems to be a score that has an ambivalent temporal positioning: “It encodes material that is directed towards the past, but it waits to be activated in the future”.20 As Francesca Franco’s words also suggest, the concept of the score is, for example, the basis of Daniel Temkin’s projects and, indeed, what unifies every work of Generative Art. In this context, every image presents itself as the visual translation of an algorithm, the systematic transposition of a set of information that the machine re-elaborates according to its functions and not always flawlessly. The act of putting in form follows a precise code but, always – even when nothing seems to change – it translates into an object different from the score it refers to and settles in a form that is itself the promise for new and equally different executions.

22Gerald Siegmund and Susanne Traub assign a political value to this difference, or rather, to the formal and conceptual gap between a dance work and its source. According to what emerges from their conversation, the past materials survive only if they prove to be functional to the present in which they are reshaped. Precisely by virtue of their adaptive capacity (what the OOO defined as “symbiotic”), new characteristics emerge, not belonging to the materials they are made of. This seems to be why, as Siegmund and Traub argue, many artists have criticised institutions by proposing choreographic objects from the past that are adaptable to the racial, ethical or gender urgencies of their contemporaneity.

23This is undoubtedly why the CHR, the Center of Historical Reenactments in Johannesburg, becomes the centre of the conversation between its co-founder Gabi Ngcobo and the curator Matteo Lucchetti. Their reflection emphasises the possibility of reactivating objects from the past and reorganising their composition to invoke narratives highlighting their adaptability to the present. This is the case of The Old House (2006) by Rabih Mroué, for which the artist uses a film from the nineties that depicts a ruined house being destroyed by the bombings of the Lebanese civil war, but, thanks to video manipulation, it never really collapses. Or, more generally, it is the case of all those projects that have the valuable quality of knowing how to reactivate the past to criticise it or avoid a slavish and dangerous return, almost as if they were de-enactments of previous objects, which get deconstructed for the mnestic purposes.

24The question of the prefix is crucial. As emerged from the discussion between Sven Lütticken and Susanne Franco, such a complex and charged landscape seems to require the emergence of new orientation tools: nomenclatures capable of taking over whenever a compositional action invokes an equally specific narrative structure. The two scholars propose the terms pre-enactment and post-archive to describe the artistic objects (for instance, scores or choreographies) that anticipate and prefigure the actual performance or even something that has not happened yet in history but is already achieved through dance. At the same time, they argue that it is possible to use the pure concept of “enactment” to allude to the staging alone. They do not seem to exclude the possibility of replacing, adding, or mixing as many prefixes as the perspectives the concept of reenactment allows over time, thanks to the manipulation of time.

25Speaking of the hypernym and its versatility, the purpose of the term reenactment is to recalibrate the weights and dynamics that constantly gravitate within it. What changes on a practical level, in the compositional area of any discipline deserves a revision on a theoretical level and, perhaps, opens up to ever new perspectives. Indeed, the compositional structure of the reenactment is in continuous dialogue with the present. Its destiny, and the destiny of its objects of study, will have to be constantly documented, represented, and perhaps evaluated.

Notes

1 A seminal thought in this sense is the one formulated by the British philosopher and archaeologist Robin George Collingwood. In his famous book The Idea of History (1946), he defined reenactment as a methodological tool to decode history. Robin G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

2 For any further studies see the introduction by Sven Lütticken in Life, Once More: Forms of Reenactment in Contemporary Art (Rotterdam: Witte de With, 2015): 5-8.

3 This theory has never been addressed by Nietzsche in a linear and systematic way. The meaning of the concept was treated in an aphorismatic way first within The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) and then in the famous Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883-1885 (Also sprach Zarathustra), in the paragraph “On the Vision and the Riddle”, from which the quote in the text is taken. See Adrain Del Caro and Robert Pippin, eds., Friedrich Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 123-27.

4 The concept was introduced by Benjamin within his famous essay Unpacking My Library (Ich packe meine Bibliothek aus). The author refers to the power of the collector and his possibility to renew the existence of objects by managing their position and conservation. See Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”, in Walter Benjamin. Illuminations: Essays and Reflection, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1988): 61.

5 There are plenty of videos documenting these events online. A quick survey on the most famous streaming video service, YouTube, and dozens of them will appear: from the reenactment for the 200th year since the Battle of Waterloo (1815) to the annual reenactments for the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), one of the most critical clashes that took place during the American Civil War. Most importantly, many contemporary artists have used this method of historical reenactment in some of their works. Think of the famous project by British artist Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave (2001) – in which a group of reenactors interpreted the riots between the miners and the Labor government of 1984 – and how contemporary art has drawn from the folkloric aesthetics. Emblematic is also The Modern Procession (2004), the work of Mexican artist Francis Alÿs, in which a lay procession carried some pieces of the Museum of Modern Art from one location to another in New York City.

6 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (London and New York: Continuum Books, 2004).

7 Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Re-Enactment (London and New York: Routledge, 2011): 6.

8 Susanne Franco and Marina Nordera, Ricordanze. Memoria in movimento e coreografie della storia (Turin: UTET, 2010): 5-13.

9 See André Lepecki, “The Body as Archive: Will to Re-Enact and the Afterlives of Dances”, in Dance Research Journal vol. 42, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 28-48; https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0149767700001029 [accessed 18 March 2022].

10 In The Shape of Time, the American philosopher and anthropologist George Kubler defines “relays” those agents who are both “receivers” and “senders” of a message and deform their content during the phases of transmission. See George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Heaven and London: Yale University Press, 1970): 21.

11 Cf. Cristina Baldacci, “Reenactment: Errant Images in Contemporary Art”, in Re-: An Errant Glossary, ed. Christoph F. E. Holzhey and Arnd Wedemeyer (Berlin: ICI Berlin, 2019): 57-67.

12 See Cristina Baldacci and Marco Bertozzi, eds., Montages: Assembling as a Form and Symptom in Contemporary Arts (Milano-Udine: Mimesis International, 2018).

13 See Geoff Cox and Jacob Lund, eds., The Contemporary Condition: Introductory Thoughts on Contemporaneity and Contemporary Art (London: Sternberg Press, 2016).

14 Abbreviated with the acronym OOO and pronounced “Triple O”, it is a school of philosophy founded in 1997 by the American thinker Graham Harman. There are plenty of colleagues that use its epistemological structure (Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Tristan Garcia, and Timothy Morton), and the disciplines that have been adopting its philosophical procedures are different: Architecture, art, and dance among them. See Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (London: Penguin Random House, 2018).

15 An idea that changed completely not only the scientific field in which it came up, but also the cultural panorama in which it migrated. Here it became a metaphor useful to deal with themes such cooperative living, interspecies relationships and also traditional schemes of artistic evolution.

16 See Tristan Garcia, Form and Object: A Treatise on Things (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014): 1.

17 Curated in 2013 by Germano Celant in the Venetian spaces of the Prada Foundation, the exhibition is a classic example of reenactment studies in the curatorial field. Having been a restaging of the famous project by Harald Szeemann at the Kunsthalle in Bern (1969), the Venetian show was perceived as a problematic object both aesthetically and conceptually speaking. For further reading see Nicola Foster, “Restaging Origin, Restaging Difference: Restaging Harald Szeemann’s Work”, in Journal of Curatorial Studies, vol. 8, no. 2 (2019): 233-258.

18 See further in this volume: Mark Franko and Lucia Ruprecht, “Duet: Witnessing Versus Belatedness: Representation, Reconstruction, and Reenactment”, 125-136.

19 Ibid., 132.

20 Franck Leibovici, “On Scores”, in Choreographing Exhibitions ed. Mathieu Copeland and Julie Pellegrin (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2013): 46.

Auteur

Stefano Mudu holds a PhD in Visual Culture from Iuav University of Venice. His thesis, entitled Re-/Over-/Hyper-Enactment, analyzes reenactment strategies in a novel compositional and terminological perspective. As well as having written several essays on the subject, Mudu regularly writes for publications in the field, such as Flash Art. He is the author of the monograph Spazi Critici. I luoghi della scrittura contemporanea (2018) and has edited the volume Altrove. New Fiction (2020). He worked in the curatorial team of the 59th International Art Exhibition–La Biennale di Venezia, assisting the artistic director Cecilia Alemani during the research for the main exhibition The Milk of Dreams.

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