Essay: Doomed To Repeat: Art, Memory & Historical Reenactment


Catalogue: Pay Attention: GM08

By Christopher Atkins, Coordinator, Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program


Doomed To Repeat: Art, Memory & Historical Reenactment

“In other words, we rely upon the overly simple circle which has as its content the passing present and as its shape the part of reminiscence. However, the order of time, time as a pure and empty form, has precisely undone that circle. It has undone it in favour of a less simple and much more secret, much more torturous, more nebulous circle…” – Gilles Deleuze

To some, there’s comfort in the notion that ‘history repeats itself’. If historical events can be thought of as a set of similarly recurring episodes, then history is a resource that can be drawn from for the experience and knowledge necessary to stem imminent wars, natural disasters, and cultural upheaval. Instead of being unprepared by the future, we’re able to predict it. This way of thinking about history does a few things. In terms of how history is written or visualized, it creates a series of events that succeed each other while creating affinities to what has already happened. More problematically, the trouble with ‘history repeats itself’ is that it creates, through repetition, too tidy an equivalence across events that are actually very different. We’re more interested in creating a likeness rather than appreciating the nuances of what has happened that make every event unique.

When it comes to recalling personal histories, there is just as much, if not more, at stake. The internalized memories and external events we experience and contribute so much to who we perceive ourselves to be are always on the verge of being lost. We might even say that in order to keep from losing our memories, and with them our identity, we remember events as we’d prefer them to be rather than as they really were, if that is even possible. In repeating the events related to the first day of school, the funeral for a loved one, and a failed relationship over and over in our mind, each of these is narrated and re-narrated by affects as well as the events as we remember them. So, while there is a very distinct fear of forgetting, there is also something added to and created when we attempt to recall a succession of events as they occurred.

To the artists in this section, all of whom are interested in past events, works by writers and film directors, and news media, history is a resource but it is also full of inaccuracies. Through their use of high-tech reenactment, images culled from the internet, and staged events, they critique history and documents in such a way that asks us to reconsider them as imperfect records and critique our assumptions of how the past is narrated.

One of Jan Estep’s pieces for Pay Attention: GM08 is discussed in another section of this catalog but her project for 2007’s McKnight Fellowship, Trail Map to Wittgenstein’s Hut, takes up her interest in history and visual documentation. Estep’s map is a record of her trip to the woods of western Norway in search of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writing refuge. While the project pays particular attention to his philosophy of language in relation to her larger body of work, the resulting take-away trail guide, part pilgrimage and part recorded performance, is a personal cartography that makes a claim to provide you with directions to a specific location. Yet Estep’s project is not just an adventurer’s log about arriving at a specific location in the wilderness.

Rather, instead of leading you towards a preserved landmark, the map ends at the site where the hut once stood. All that is left are the remains of the foundation and, as her accompanying photos show, the ruin is overrun with fecund moss and trees, and is slowly disappearing into the landscape. The hut isn’t a protected monument and as time goes by, it will become more and more entwined with the natural surroundings then disappear. Before it slips further and further from view and from memory, Estep’s documentation of the site have captured how both nature and building are discernible but inseparable, and that any project about memory must also make room for loss.

Eric Carroll’s photograms, large scale lo-fi photographs printed on blueprint paper without developing chemicals, a lens, or shutter, are mono-chromatic contraries to the monumental over-produced color images that many photographers are printing these days. Carroll’s work is more interested in subtracting the camera machinery and photographic fussiness to see the limits of what photography can accomplish as an imaging-making device and its ability to record events. For a recent project at Augsburg College, All Buildings Dream in Blueprints (Student Art Show) (2008), Carroll covered the gallery wall with photosensitive blueprint paper and quickly rehung the immediately preceding exhibition. Then, exposing the gallery to light, the framed paintings and drawings slowly burned their imprints into the paper. What’s left is a strange remnant that only records the spectral outline of each work in the exhibition that isn’t overly concerned with the details of how each painting or drawing actually looked; Carroll’s photogram records the work in the Student Art Show at the level of lingering presences as they were (re)installed, without the specific details that would make it easier for us to recognize them.

For GM 08, Carroll continued with a similar technique where he created a photogram of his band’s rehearsal studio. While the work is not a record of another artwork in the same way that All Buildings…is, it is analogous to other records produced in studios like cds, vinyl lps, and mix tapes. Each of these compresses time-lapsed information into a physical object. Carroll’s photogram, as it is installed on the wall, compresses the three dimensions of the studio and the delayed photogram exposure time into the flatness of the blueprint paper. This compression of time, space, and information into one location means that something must be omitted and that whatever record is left behind, photogram or otherwise, it represents only a portion of the studio space. The key is to not compare the representation to the actual place but look at the gap between the two as the creative additions/subtractions of information that are made in each and every artistic representation.

tectonic industries’ video installation The possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately three thousand, seven hundred and twenty to one (2008) focuses on the tenuousness of memory and recollection. On each of the 12 monitors, we watch as a volunteer walks in front of the camera, makes their best attempt to recall the entirety of the original Star Wars Trilogy in the space of an hour, then walks away. Because the project is focused on each participant’s recollections we don’t see the special effects, characters, and the individual scenes that have come to mythologize the film. The longer we watch, we become keenly aware of the tenuousness of words to recreate, in this case, the details and nuances of the Star Wars Trilogy. While our memory is one of our most precious resources, something we’re both willing to share and keep completely private, it’s also an inaccurate record of events and experiences. Memory is full of embellishments and imperfections, and when asked to recall a piece of it, we do what we see here: perform a recollection rather than the event itself. After all, the act of memory occurs in the present instead of recreating the past.

In a previous project, The longer I sit, the less inclined I am to stand up (2006-7), tectonic industries filmed another set of volunteers as they followed recipes dictated by the television chef Rachel Ray. Her show can be heard in the background as we watch these women hurriedly prepare and struggle to keep pace with the televised instructions. These attempts at matching Ray or struggling to follow her recipes uncover underlying anxieties about self-improvement and idealized gender-types. And there’s a certain kind of melancholy as we watch; while the camera follows them around the kitchen as they move from stove to table to cabinet, it keeps a lock on their best attempts to finish the recipe. Yet, try as they might, it’s clear they just can’t keep up.

Pete McLarnan’s Death Wish suite of videos are spare yet cinematographically accurate recreations from the 1974 film directed by Michael Winner. Filmed alone against a white curtained sound stage, we watch McLarnan as Charles Bronson as Peter Kersey repeat short scenes from the film. Without the mise en scene that contributes to Death Wish’s urban anxiety and climate of fear, McLarnan focuses on scenes where Kersey finds himself in kill-or-be-killed showdowns, and how these become moments of transformation. After his wife and daughter are murdered, he goes from family-man pacifist to vengeful vigilante. But when he goes out in the evenings packing a pistol, he seems surprised by the trouble that always finds him.

Many reenactments, whether in film, fine art, or live action, are as invested in mythologizing the past as they are with accurately recreating events. And just as often, homages and memorials to previous artists or artworks show us just how heavy a burden history and ‘influence’ can be for an artist, that you should make sure to account for your precedents. In McLarnan’s videos, there doesn’t seem to be either, or perhaps it is equally both; they don’t fall back on elegiac tributes to answer our collective ‘Why Death Wish’? By obscuring whether there is an artistic or cinematic debt McLarnan owes to Bronson or Winner, we can ask broader questions on how our Kersey achieves ‘self actualization by way of the gun’ and his vigilante justice.

In his most recent project Moorehead Rumble (2008) McLarnan continues to elaborate on the theme of reenactment, this time on the events surrounding a street fight as they occurred in his hometown of Moorehead, Minneosta. Ramping up the production value and scale of the project, and including a cast of volunteers, McLarnan restaged a street fight that occurred in 19___. Moorehead Rumble pulls double-duty as both a documentary of what happened and as a sort of memorial. Most public monuments take the form of bronze marbleized erections plopped onto a green space. And with war memorials especially, publically mandated memory relies on inscribed names of the dead and dates of an event to carry and contain all that there is to remember. Everyone and everything is accounted for. Looked at another way, we’re just as likely to forget what happened as we are to remember. Like Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave (2001) McLarnan’s Moorehead Rumble looks at what happens when historical events aren’t remembered with physical event-markers and are, instead, reenacted through body-to-body interaction. Both projects deal with, among many other issues, the premise that violence is a social phenomena and that, through performance, it can be better understood through living history rather than a monument.

The Stolen Identity Project (2006-7), a photo essay and publication by Andrew Schroeder, is a fascinating reenactment. After his PIN was stolen and bank accounts emptied, Schroeder used the subsequent trail of ATM and restaurant receipts to trace the steps of the identity thieves as they traveled through Bulgaria and Macedonia. With a curious sense of fascination, Schroeder traced their steps and sought ‘to reunite my conceptual, digital self with my actual, physical identity.’

It’s one thing to reenact scenes from a movie or an historical event. It’s something quite different to return to and document an event from your own past, especially where something was taken from you. Once he was informed by his bank that his account information was stolen, Schroeder became acutely aware of the unique cultural phenomena that each of us has a vulnerable virtual identity separate from our physical selves. While the damage to this ‘virtual self’ was mitigated by the bank, Schroeder’s project makes something out of what happened.

By taking the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of those who wanted to remain hidden, photographing their steps with featureless captions during his travels, he has turned the theft of his identity into a productive event in the form of a photo essay and publication. Yet, with the absence of people in each shot, Schroeder is always too late to catch up to his conceptual self. We see, as he follows the trail further and further, how identity isn’t always formed through a set of personal and internalized memories and experiences, but is also constructed by banks and phone companies using external technologies and virtual identities that can be cleaved and appropriated from our physical selves.

Kirsten Peterson is an artist who works with photo reproductions screen printed onto matte Duralar sheets. Culled from internet news coverage and video sites, her project is, in part, to aestheticize documentary coverage of natural and ecological disasters. With an infinite range of images at her disposal, Peterson’s interest in this material began shortly after the tsunami disaster that struck southeast Asia and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While there are many more, these are only the most recent and most widely covered events where she has focused on the images of urban destruction and architecture falling into ruin.

The works in Peterson’s Infrastructure series aren’t reproductions from the mediated scenes of natural disasters and the environments where so much was lost. Not wanting to further narrate events that have already been saturated with media coverage, she begins with videos of building models assembled for shaking table tests. In each there is an uneasy and quiet remove from the scientific study of earthquakes by hard-hat clipboard toting engineers creating carefully controlled disaster re-enactments. Peterson works to describe the need for empirical knowledge about earthquakes but also shows the attendant indifference towards what actually happens during disastrous events. In other words, we see a simulated disaster not ‘a disaster’. Where are the remains of buildings, people, and communities that have been destroyed, swept away, and are no longer there? Retaining the pixilation of the images, she reminds us that her screen-prints are based on found/appropriated footage and, importantly, that the grain of the image is like our own ability to remember disastrous events; video is a high-definition record yet is actually a constructed image and not an infallible memory technology.

To some extent, all artists deal with history. Some do so through a direct conversation with Art History while others creatively cite their influences. The artists that I’ve discussed here have gone deeper in asking questions about the narration and recollection of historical events (i.e., how are they written and by whom). While ‘history repeats itself’ may not be as comforting as we previously thought, there are those who will always find it easier to register similarities instead of admitting to the difficulties of and blockages to recalling an event. Even though we often fall back on an instinct to record events so they can be archived and replayed, dupicated and shared, we have to remember that while they may be captured with exacting detail, in their new presentation, fine art, video and sound recordings can capture events only as long as we agree that they do so ‘differently’.