Institute of Para-Enactment Research
Softcore Historicism and Embodied Heritage


’’Einmal ist keinmal’’
Observations on Re−enactment

Jennifer Allen

in: Quaranta, Domenico. Re: Akt! Reconstruction, Re-Enactment, Re-Reporting. Place of publication not identified: Lulu Com, 2013.

ddp images/ Capital Pictures


Re-enactment always presupposes a missing body. Consider how the term “enactment” relates to the law (decree, edict, mandate) and to the theater (dramatization, acting, impersonation). In both cases, a unique body has been replaced by an endless series of bodies that are interchangeable with one another, across time and space. The law in a democracy cannot be personified as can the law in an absolute monarchy, which is embodied in a despot-king who signs decrees according to his inclination: “Tel est notre grand plaisir.” In a democracy, law is enacted by the abstract collectivity of the nation-state and then reenacted by countless citizens who succeed or fail to perform according to its terms.

The theater performance functions in a similar way, since the script can direct anyone and everyone to brood like Hamlet, to wait for Godot or to suffer a 4.48 psychosis. A theatrical representation may be based on an individual's life, but this person is always already assumed to be gone. Behind every re-enactment, there is a “little death”, be it the beheading of the king or the passing episode in the life of an individual, grand or insignificant. Although no one really dies in the re-enactment, all language becomes an epitaph.


Re-enactment uses the body as a medium for reproducing the past. Every re-enactment is a form of natural history, which is centered upon the comings and goings of human beings. While a re-enactment may depend upon historical documents and artifacts – from newspaper reports describing an event to the clothing worn by key figures – the body remains the vehicle that can carry the past into the present, that can give the past presence. After all, the re-enactment is much closer to the zookeeper’s living charges than the taxidermist’s stilted creatures. Mediated by living bodies, the re-enactment also emerges as an egalitarian way of doing history, which is inherited by humans through the mere incidence of their birth. As everyone has a body and therefore the same means to reproduce history, there is no division, specialization or alienation of labor, which all arise with the evolution of material property. Indeed, there is no property in the re-enactment, no possession that can be held longer than the breath.


The re-enactment often searches for a lost totality. Take the re-enactment of a crime, where the pieces of a puzzle are put together through a careful restaging of the misdeed. Here, the missing body inherent to every re-enactment becomes the body of the missing criminal, who leaves a script of clues. The re-enactment can also be found in psychoanalysis and its offspring (both legitimate and illegitimate), therapies that seek to cure the patient by reliving a traumatic past under qualified supervision. In this case, the missing body belongs to the patient himself, who has lived his past selectively by repressing certain experiences. As Freud and Breuer wryly remarked, hysterics suffer from reminiscences, which they are condemned to repeat as pathological symptoms in the body.
The talking cure liberates the body by revisiting the trauma, by turning partially repressed memories into completely cognizant ones. Where the hysterics deny part of their own history, the participants in a historical re-enactment – whether players or spectators – attempt to deny the passage of time itself and seek to be at one with the past, like a child in the womb: immersed in history and without history.


Whenever the search for a lost totality takes place in the re-enactment, there is always a witness – specialist or spectator who turns the many parts into a total sum.
The presence of witnesses guarantees that something complete has taken place, even if the re- enactment strays in its portrayal of the original event.

What is reproduced is not only a series of past occurrences but also an experience of duration, which lends the past a clear beginning and an unmistakable ending.
In contrast to the chaotic unfolding of the original event, the re-enactment knows what will happen and, more importantly, when this happening starts and finishes. In the eyes of the witness, the original event becomes historical by taking up time, and claims its status as history by appearing as a discrete event with a finite duration.
In other words, the re-enactment makes the origin, gives the origin a definition and an identity that it may not have had for itself. The witness casts a particular gaze at the re-enactment of the origin: not looking, nor seeing, but recognizing something that has already happened, even if the event was never experienced firsthand by the witness. In recognition – which is linked to the verbs identify, admit, endorse and honor – the gaze fulfills the promise of instant knowledge while legitimizing this knowledge as recurring truth.


Re-enactment depends upon a linear construction of time. Of course, the “re” denotes a return to an earlier time, the existence of an event that has expired and therefore can be safely enacted once again, without being confused with itself. In this model of time, many predicaments inherent to the re-enactment – such as splitting one’s experience between the past and the present – are resolved.

While forging one straight line into the future, time leaves a set of train tracks in its wake and only sells return tickets, whatever the destination in the past.
Hegel theorized this model of time by linking Spirit’s creation of world history with the sun’s motion from east to west; H.G. Wells penned a fictional version of the time machine, which could travel through the unified time of world history as if traveling through space. Indeed, like Hegel and Wells, the re-enactment confounds history with geography, spatializes the past and treats its linearity and continuity as an architectural site, if not a stage that can be animated by new players. While proclaimed as universal, this model of time did not have the same consequences for everyone and put some people in the past and others in the present. Like world history, the global day humbly begins in the orient only to culminate in the occident; the West is not a relative geographical marker but an absolute one that defines progress; the most progressive, Westerners are the most privileged travelers who can buy the most tickets to the past. Since only the West is assumed to be contemporaneous with the present, all other destinations are equated with time traveling in history. Herein lies the violence of the re-enactment: other societies appear as the backward re-enactments of the Western world’s history, or they have been forced to reenact parts of this history in order to “catch up” with the present. Every sunset is not a sign of progress, yet the re-enactment asserts that the West is now’s timekeeper.


There is repetition, but not re-enactment, in orality. Of course, oral cultures also use the body as a medium for reproducing the past, but they do not assume the temporal split between now and then, which renders the “re” in re-enactment possible. Instead, the past and the present mingle with each other; they exist in cohabitation because there is no library, no archive, no museum, where the past could be safely stored. The body plays all these roles, juggling new events without dropping any from the past, because dropping one would mean losing it forever. In the ever-expanding archive of oral cultures, accumulation is indistinguishable from distribution. Each new event is “recorded” with an older one in the archive, which consists of portable tales, poems, songs. The wife in a union that has gone sour may slightly alter a poem to address the sad state of affairs. By singing the modified poem, she spreads “news” that everyone can “read”, because they are familiar with the traditional version. While inspired by her life, the woman does not explicitly address her situation but rather transforms an unfortunate turn of events into an opportunity to revive a collective culture through repetition.

Here, repetition does not strive for an exact copy of the past. Rather, the past incorporates novelty into itself; the novelty serves to recollect the past; both are bound to each other through the creative interventions of the collectivity.
Fahrenheit 451 – François Truffaut’s film based on Ray Bradbury’s novel – offers a close approximation of orality for a literate culture: the characters learn novels by heart from one another, and wander around reciting the tales, because books are forbidden. Relying on the body, the re-enactment – like Fahrenheit 451 – sits oddly between orality and literacy, poised between the book and the body, between learning by rote and living by remembering.


The society of the spectacle and its many attendant visual technologies, from photography to television, complicates all re-enactments by transforming them into reproductions. Captured by the camera lens, the re-enactment becomes a reproduction of the past and a reproduction of itself; the re-enactment emerges as yet another original with its own claims to authenticity that are inextricably linked to its reproduction. Indeed, the spectacle is so omnipresent that a re-enactment must be recorded to have an authentic existence, if to exist at all. The camera is the only ticket for traveling on the time machine. Since the reproduced re-enactment can be endlessly circulated, it may seem to come even closer to the repetitions of an oral society, albeit as a perfect copy that never strays from itself. There is no doubt that the society of the spectacle borrows mnemonic techniques from orality. Yet the spectacle uses these techniques to colonize time with a continuous now instead of perpetuating the past to prevent its irrevocable loss, as in orality. Consider how reshooting a film sequence a mere day later involves erasing any signs of the passage of that day. Time traveling on the camera is no longer about visiting the past but about organizing the present. The fact that the most historically advanced technologies for conserving events have occasioned an increase in the circulation of the past – instead of its safe storage in the archives – attests to a shift from production to reception, where active players are replaced by passive spectators in the re-enactment. The spectacle and spectatorship have become so predominant that we seem to prefer reproduced re-enactments of our own pasts, even our most immediate past. Compare the woman singing the altered poem or another woman wearing a historical costume on a stage with a woman enjoying an art exhibition through the viewfinder of a digital camera. Oral society puts a prime on experience; the re-enactment puts a prime on the past; the society of the spectacle values only reproductions.


When the re-enactment is recorded to be reproduced, there is a double alienation. First, the body is no longer the main medium for making the past; the biological reproduction is replaced by a mechanical one, the eye with a lens, the presence of the actor with a glowing monitor, a silver screen or a set of gelatin prints. As the actor’s presence becomes superfluous, the audience becomes the missing body that is endlessly reproduced and interchangeable, across time and space. The audience – better, the spectator – plays its part by watching Hamlet, Godot or early morning psychosis. The audience as spectator has nothing to do with the witness, who recognizes, identifies, admits, endorses and honors the past, but is a part to be played by anyone, anywhere, anytime. As the script shifts from actors to spectators, interpretation is no longer about authenticity but reception: the question is not “Is this re-enactment true to the past?” but “Is this re-enactment true to our present?” While spectators appear to wield a new power over the past – as the ultimate “actors” in the re-enactment – they are alienated. This second alienation arises since the reproduction, however ephemeral and ethereal, remains material property and, above all, private property, no matter how many times it circulates in public. A mechanical reproduction always implies a division, specialization and alienation of labor in both the production and the reception of the re-enactment. Someone somewhere owns the camera, the rights to the story, the seats in the theater, the stills from the movie. Budget, not birth, imparts the right to make history, whether hiring the actors or buying the movie ticket.

A reproduced re-enactment especially as a film – offers the illusion of ownership, a virtual experience of property which spectators can never hold in their hands, let alone act for themselves. The visibility of actors, who always play someone else, only serves to hide the owners behind the spectacle. Its genius lies in making the ephemeron into a commodity that can never be entirely possessed by the consumer but must be consumed again and again. A film, even when purchased, cannot be owned and dispensed with like finite commodities such as cars or clothing, as it remains restricted to private use. The rise in piracy is, first, a refusal to pay what amounts to a tax on the repeated consumption of the same product and, second, a recognition that looking is indeed a type of labor.


Performance art arose with the society of the spectacle. Artists initially believed that they could resist the market by working with the one artistic medium that had not yet been commodified, namely, the human body. By using their bodies, artists could communicate directly with an audience and avoid the whole question of property, whether upheld by the gallery or the museum. In retrospect, performance art – from expanded cinema to happenings seems to have anticipated an economy beyond the traditional material commodity, where spectacles, adventures, experiences and services could be packages and sold. While the performance artist was a pioneer – especially in expanding the body’s possibilities – art’s role was already shifting from a political avant-garde to an economic avant-garde. Art could be a harbinger of, not just lives to be realized at a moment’s notice, but also lifestyles that could realize long-term profits. Andy Warhol, whose cynicism was indistinguishable from optimism, was one of the few to understand the double edge of this era – an era when wearing jeans constituted a major social statement (and tipped off the market to the endless commodities that could be sold in the name of style). Little remains of the original performances, beyond scattered props, black-and-white photographs and super-eight films, which are generally blurry or poorly lit. The dearth of artifacts and documents attest to the artists’ desire to resist the market while leaving their mark in history. Indeed, performances were recorded with a sensibility that lies somewhere between journalism and the snapshot, as history and as happenstance, both singular and moving moments in time. The aesthetics of the documents ultimately served to confirm the belief that the artist’s performance, like the body itself, could never be reproduced.


In light of this history, the re-enactment of performances - whether Andrea Fraser’s take on Martin Kippenberger’s drunken tirade or Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s spin on Vito Acconci’s auto-erotic acts appear to break a taboo. While artists’ aesthetic styles have long been quoted, appropriated and reworked, the artist’s body has remained inviolable in what appears as an unspoken professional pact: artists are not actors, art is not theater, artworks are not plays. Reenacting a performance by another artist is not so much a reproduction as a critique of the autonomy of art and the artist in a field that includes many arts, from theater to music, which tend to thrive through interpretation. Consider the pianist who makes a reputation with a certain repertoire or the actor who gains prominence by playing a role that countless other actors have played before. The fact that Fraser and Kelley & McCarthy effect a shift in gender – from man to woman – also diminishes the male artist’s claim to creativity in genius, which is assumed to be absolutely singular even if its products recall efforts by other artists. The legendary status of  Kippenberger’s and Acconci’s original performances in recent art history puts Fraser’s and Kelley & McCarthy’s re-enactments closer to orality, especially since the memory of the originals has circulated, not through artifacts, but primarily through testimony and hearsay. The audience can “read” the “news” in the new version since they have heard about the old one. By contrast, Barbara Visser and Omer Fast work in the world of spectacles where originals – performances or people – exist only by being reproduced. Thus, Visser happily invites an actress to perform her artist’s talk and yet another actress to reenact this initial performance. Fast, instead of looking at the original story behind Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, travels to the movie’s location in Poland and discovers extras whose memories of the Nazi past are mixed with memories of making the film.

By treating the reproduced re-enactment as a constitutive part of reality, Visser and Fast articulate the new program: not “everyone is an artist” but everyone is an actor.


Beyond these individual acts, there has been an increase in re-enactments of performance art.
In 2001 at Berlin’s KunstWerke, A Little Bit of History Repeated brought together a group of contemporary artists who reinterpreted performances originally done in the sixties and seventies, from Laura Lima’s remake of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, 1964, to Tino Sehgal’s take on John Baldessari’s I Am Making Art, 1971. In September 2003 at Paris’s Ranelagh theater,Yoko Ono reenacted her own Cut Piece as an expression of her hope for world peace. In November 2003, London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery hosted the second part of A Short History of Performance, which offered re-enactments of original performances by the original artists, including Carolee Schneeman and Hermann Nitsch. By showing several works together, the exhibition objectified performance as history while confirming the transformation of performance, if not the human body, into a reproducible commodity. Both have lost their singularity to the spectacle – and, perhaps, to genetics. One could argue that the original performances of the sixties and seventies needed to be reenacted in order to catch up with the spectacle, in order to be reproduced, in order to exist. Ono’s intervention seems to differ since she decided to reenact Cut Piece, not for an exhibition, but for the mass media, and not merely to ensure the continued existence of her work, but in order to make a difference in the present. In France, the organizers placed a full page newspaper advert for the event with a statement by Ono who described her intervention as a response to the political changes in the wake of 9/11. Her statement appeared around the world for a little bit longer than fifteen minutes. It seems that Ono hoped that her performance would reenact the peace movement of the sixties on a global scale. In this case, the re- enactment searched for a lost totality, not in the performance, but in an entire generation.


The human body cannot be one with reproductions of the body. Whether mechanical or digital, the reproduction not only alienates the body but also threatens to usurp its subjectivity. In other words, pictures have become much like people, even if the pictures are not portraits of people. The title of Camiel van Winkel’s book The Regime of Visibility (2005) underscores the significance of reproductions, from photographs to films, from flashes on news websites to the digital images that appear on mobile telephone screens, from Facebook to YouTube. Of course, the leader of the regime of visibility is none other than the image itself.

Legal cases around images are less about censoring their content than about expanding or restricting their distribution and circulation. Through these cases, each image comes to have its own jurisdiction. Establishing this jurisdiction implicitly gives the image a right of passage, if not a virtual territory defined by visibility.

The legal dispute about the Frenchness of Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004) demonstrates that even a feature film can have a nationality. Although the film was shot in France with French actors performing a French story, it could not be legally considered as French, due to its financing (partly American) and the first place it was seen (the USA).

A regime of visibility seems to be a logical extension, if not a more powerful development, of Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle. Spectacles came to mediate all social relations and now have become a prerequisite for their very existence. Like the king whose portrait circulated on coins, each person needs reproductions to have a currency: not only social but also a professional, intimate, economic, historical.

The image is no longer an illustration but has assumed the phatic role that was once proper to language alone. Phrases like “Hello” do not convey information but perform a social task of binding people. Thanks to social bookmarking tags - from Facebook to Digg – images have come to circulate, not for their content, but as greetings.

Since reproductions are a prerequisite for relations – not just social ones – it may no longer be appropriate to speak of the human body being alienated through images. A rivalry between the real person and the fake reproduction seems equally irrelevant as alienation. Dependence may be the proper term, with an emerging hierarchy. Images do not need us, but we need them to exist.

We are no longer witnesses to re-enactments of the past. In realm of reproductions, we are actors who both play the role of spectator and who perform ourselves. The past is significant only insofar as it provides material to create a sense of the present, if not a sense of the human presence itself. Seeing is more credible than breathing.

As a leader, the image has a bellicose side. Where kings and presidents wage wars between nations based on territorial claims, the image instigates wars based on practices of seeing and interdictions on images. These have been regulated by religion and shaped by culture. The image’s power – it does not need translation – can manifest as a violent annexation of viewers with different rules for visibility.

The way that orality became mute in the rise of literacy, so too does literate culture become immobilized by the rise of spectacles. The impact of the images of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison is a case in point. Wars are fought with weapons but they are won and lost with pictures. It is not about propaganda. Rather, any fact needs a picture to be true. Reports of abuse at Abu Ghraib were ignored until an image of the abuse emerged.

The late novelist W.G. Sebald anticipated the primacy of images in blogs. Although Sebald was a technophobe – he did not even own a computer – his method of using photographic reproductions to construct his narratives can be found in countless blogs, which are driven equally by text and by image. The reproduction – B/W photographs, taken by Sebald or found in flea markets - is not an illustration but rather a protagonist.

Cinema gave the spectacle an unprecedented autonomy. Once projected on a screen, the image could reach just as many people, if not more, than the human voice. Moreover, much narrative work in film is accomplished by the image alone.
The murderer brandishing a gun does not need to say “I’m shooting my victim.”
The regime of visibility began in the dark and took a short century to establish its rule.

In many publications – from magazines to catalogues – reproductions of artworks still serve as illustration. The image is subordinated to the text, both the caption and the essay. Even while addressing the art of film, most publications treat the image as if cinema had never occurred, as if the image could not tell its own tale. The textual descriptions of the artworks make the reproductions redundant, or vice versa.

While watching over images, art historians and critics have somehow missed their spectacular ascent. Whatever our viewing pleasures – artworks or YouTube or both – we have all participated in putting the image at the head of the regime of visibility. Indeed, we cast our votes simply by insisting on looking.

︎︎︎ Berlin, 2022

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