February 2008, Inke Arns Interview

History Will Repeat Itself

Interview Questions for Inke Arns

Prepared by Veronica Tello for Whitehot Magazine

Berlin, November 24th, 2007.

Janunary 4, 2008.


In the catalogue essay for History Will Repeat Itself, you quote the following from Sigmund Freud: “one of the most fervent wishes of humankind [is] to experience something twice”. Certainly, there is a tendency for humans to relive memories, to retell experiences or, to imagine the past. However, this doesn’t quite explain why artists, such as those exhibited in HWRI, have turned to re-enactments as a practice and as a means to deal with history. In your essay you also state, “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.” Historically speaking, or to be more precise, speaking in terms of art history, where do you think that this trend of re-enactments in contemporary art practice derives from?

With a few exceptions, contemporary artists have only recently discovered re-enactment, i.e. in the past five to ten years. However, re-enactment has been present in popular culture since a very long time – just think of religious rituals (re-enacting Christ’s stations of the Cross), popular games (e.g. transmitting and lighting the Olympic fire; live role playing games), or the tradition of historical re-enactments (e.g. of the American Civil War). What re-enactment allows for, or rather promises to allow for, is participation, immersion, physical (and thus emotional) involvement – i.e. an affective experience of history.

I think that re-enactment as a method became interesting for contemporary artists exactly because of these elements – participation, immersion, physical involvement – although artists use it for very different aims than it is being used in popular culture. There seems to be a general discontent with the ever increasing abundance of media images we are surrounded by. What gets lost in these image floods is the fact that these images relate to events, to things that are really happening, if not to us, then to other people. The method of re-enactment allows for a different kind of access to history than images, text documents or history books do: It allows for a sense of involvement.

But where popular historical re-enactments take history as given, artistic re-enactments critically question history and ask how we relate to that thing called history. Unlike historical re-enactments re-enactments by contemporary artists don’t refer to distant historical events, but to such events that have taken place in the 20th century and that are considered, e.g. in their traumatic dimension, to be of relevance for us today. In fact, re-enactments by artists don’t really speak about the past but they speak about the present by taking a detour via the past.

The fact that in recent years, contemporary artists have increasingly utilized the element of re-enactment in their works, is a really complex issue. I would resist (and I agree with Steve Rushton on this point) – I would resist any temptation to describe the work by these artists as collectively representing a genre or movement. In fact, on close inspection, works by artists who deal with re-enactment as an aspect of their work tell very different stories and utilize distinct and varied methods.[1] There is, for example, a huge wave of re-enactments of past artistic projects – a tendency, I have to admit, I don’t find too convincing.

I am rather interested in re-enactments that are about returning to the site of trauma by revisiting violent (unresolved) moments in history. Making such re-enactments can be seen as a way to gain further understanding of the present through the lens of the past.[2] Re-enactment can thus be understood as a critical strategy for re-interpreting history. To put it very directly, re-enactments are questions about access to the past and to history: who has access to it, and how is this access structured (in terms of media or narratives)?

To me there seem to be two major tendencies at stake in the current practice of re-enactment – which are quite often present in one and the same work: „Some of the work may (...) be seen as an attenuation of the anxiety displayed by historical re-enactment groups – the desire to feed the hunger for some connection with the past and to provide an embodied continuity with the people of the past, and the belief, in an increasingly mediatized world, that this is objectively possible.“[3] This tendency could therefore be subsumed under the notions of ‘Experience / Embodiment’ (vs. Representation). These works are attempts at re-making contact to a history that is increasingly relying on media images, attempts at turning representation into embodiment – and thus attempts at turning the passive reader into an active witness (if not participant). They are attempts to inscribe, or re-inscribe oneself into history, an attempt at compassion. By deleting the safe distance between abstract knowledge and personal experience, between the Then and the Now, between the Other and Oneself, they allow for a personal experience of abstract history.

In his only (but very famous) re-enactment piece The Battle of Orgreave (2001) Jeremy Deller is turning the audience into participants, and has the audience/participants re-stage their personal memories that differ significantly from what was officially reported in the media. This project is going beyond „making the past into a site or spectacle for viewing“ (Mendelsohn): It allows for an alternative history to be remembered.

While the first tendency is about erasing distance and identifying yourself with the event, the second tendency (which very often is co-present with the first tendency) is about creating distance – it is a complex and in-depth reflection of the mediation of memory – which can be even described as the core subject of re-enactment as an art form. This tendency asks “how memory is an entity which is continuously being restructured – not only by filmmakers and re-enactors but also by us personally, as mediating and mediated subjects.“[4]

Rod Dickinson could be described as one of the key representatives of the second tendency. In his Milgram Re-enactment we, the audience, are turned into witnesses of an historical event going on in front of our very eyes. Even if this event is completely scripted, and enacted by actors, and thus rather resembles a theatre play – being in the position of onlookers allows for an immediate and personal experience that is very unlike the effect that looking at photographs or reading the scripts and transcripts of the experiment has. 

Dickinson writes about the role of re-enactment in his own works: “I have very consciously focused on events that were heavily mediated in their original form. My hope with these pieces is that the audience's direct experience of the live performance is constantly undercut by their knowledge of the layers of mediation that are at play in both the original historical event and my double of it. I hope with pieces such as these that rather than making 'history' 'real' (often the declared aim of re-enactments found in other cultural spaces, such as TV or hobbyist recreations) history is actually experienced by the audience as deferred and displaced, but through the apparently immediate and direct lens of live performance.”[5]

You have also had a vast amount of experience with the Slovenian art group IRWIN, who have now launched their East Art Map book and website. Like the artists in HWRI, IRWIN is very much interested in documentation and the construction of history and art history. Clearly, the writing and interpretation of recent history is something that is of great concern to contemporary artists, and re-enactments are a part of this. In this sense, do you think that artists are dealing with events that are too recent and that there is insufficient critical distance from such recent history? Or, what are the benefits of dealing with recent history?

I think that at any given moment in time one can and should reflect on what is and what has been going on around oneself. I don’t think that history can be too recent to be dealt with, to be critically questioned. Perhaps your own perception of the event will change through time, with a growing distance to the event – but that’s interesting in itself, isn’t it? I find it extremely interesting what is being considered important at a given moment in time – and what not, i.e. how our contemporary perspective changes our perception of history, how history becomes readable in different and new ways depending on your contemporary position. For example, the computer art of the 1960s has never been fully acknowledged until something like software art developed in the early 2000s which made it possible to link the computer art of the 1960s to a recent phenomenon and thus make it readable in a new way – or, rather, make it visible or perceivably for the first time. It is that sense of belatedness that makes history so interesting – Walter Benjamin spoke in a 2003 interview about the fact that while modernity’s ultimate goal was to expand the boundaries of the ‘known’ by into the ‘unknown’, today we can witness works that turn the ‘known’ into the ‘unknown’, that suddenly make you become aware that what you haven taken for granted is not so. It turns into something uncanny. Here’s Freud’s notion of the uncanny enters the game: Freud has defined the uncanny as something that is known (heimlich-heimisch) but that returns, and in this returning transforms into something uncanny (unheimlich). As if what we’re seeing in the spectacle cannot be fully grasped until it is repeated, in slow motion and detail. That’s why Artur Zmijewski’s catalogue is entitled If it happened once it is as if it never happened (Kunsthalle Basel 2005).

In the catalogue essay you wrote for HWRI you also discuss memory, specifically, memory as mediated by media. In artistic re-enactments, what is the relationship between memory and fiction? How important is it for the re-enactment to stick to something we call ‘documents’ – which are usually considered ‘factual’ or showing ‘evidence’? Or do you think that artistic re-enactments fall into the category of ‘human documents’ where feeling and expression count just as much as ‘solid evidence’?

I think it s wrong to ask about the relation between memory and fiction in artistic re-enactments specifically. One should rather ask about how much fiction and memory (note: not history) have become closely intertwined in our contemporary world. Many of the works in the exhibition, like Pierre Huyghe’s The Third Memory, or Korpys/Löffler’s The Nuclear Football – and also Omer Fast’s grandiose Spielberg’s List – deal with exactly this question. They address the fact that the relation between memory and fiction is blurred in complex and highly interesting ways. Those three works specifically deal (and wittily play) with how the Hollywood media machine inscribes itself into something so very personal as your own memory. The Third Memory and The Nuclear Football ask how much already reality is permeated and structured by fiction (this becomes very clear when Huyghe’s protagonist recalls how he re-enacted Al Pacino in The Godfather when robbing the bank), while Spielberg’s List constantly undercuts our knowledge of the extra’s/eyewitnesses’ accounts through ‘set directions’ (i.e. when one extra tells how all the extras wanted to ‘be’ Germans and nobody wanted to play the Jews because it meant that you would have to stand in the mud an get your heard shaved). By interviewing eyewitnesses (of the film shooting), Fast is questioning at the same time the role of the eyewitness in historical accounts.

To answer your last question: I don’t think we can speak about an either or here (either ‘human documents’ or solid evidence). These two don’t exclude each other. These notions stand for different ways of accessing history. There’s never one without the other – or rather, there should not be.

The curatorial concept for HWRI falls into the socially conscious art discourse of which the artistic re-enactments it exhibits are a part. Why do you think that at this particular point in time, engaging with the social and the political seems so necessary? Its not a trend that is specific to this exhibition or to re-enactments, it is widespread, probably most notable in the proliferation of socially engaged curatorial themes such as those found in biennales and documenta – not that I’m claiming that these are necessarily political, but they certainly use a socially conscious discourse. In this light, what do you think is the role of the historically and socially conscious curator?

I have always be interested in what you call a “socially conscious art discourse” even if I would never call it like that. It’s a trend? Fine, be it so. It will go away after a while. For me art is a very interesting mode of speaking about the contemporary world. However, I am not at all interested in one-dimensional political statements. Rather, what I am interested in is complex artistic statements that allow for manifold ways of reading (but not ad infinitum). I am interested in works that develop aesthetical forms in order to speak about political themes. 1:1 political statements in art are simply boring. It’s too easy to be on the right side.

[1] See Steve Rushton: Tweedledum and Tweedeledee resolved to have a battle, in: Experience Memory Re-enactment, edited by Anke Bangma, Steve Rushton, Florian Wüst; Piet Zwart Institut (Fine Art) of the Willem de Kooning Academy Rotterdam, Revolver: Frankfurt am Main 2005, p. 7

[2] Adam E. Mendelsohn: Be Here Now, in: Art Monthly, October 2006, p. 14

[3] Steve Rushton ibid., p. 7

[4] Steve Rushton, ibid., p. 10

[5] Rod Dickinson, e-mail to the Crumb mailing list, Dec 8, 2005

Veronica Tello

Veronica Tello is currently completing her MA at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examines the intersections of art and politics.

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