DRINK THE NEW WINE | Exquisite Dialogue

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Sharon Hayes
& Mark Tribe

SH: Perhaps it’s unfair of me to ask you about a speech you are not using but I want to take up where we left off in the lobby at Penn Station. Can you tell me about the 1974 Karla Jay speech you decided not to include in your project? Why you were interested in it initially and why did you decide not to use it?

MT: I'm still interested the Karla Jay speech, and may reenact it some day (possibly during Pride Week next summer), but decided to hold off because it's different in significant ways from the other speeches I'm using, which all deal in one way or another with Vietnam. The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq throw into relief the differences between then and now in how we imagine and practice protest. Karla Jay's speech, by contrast, seems to highlight how much progress we've made around issues related to sexuality and gender. But this is by no means to say that heterosexism is no longer a problem!

SH: Already in your answer is (what I knew to be) common ground between our interests and concerns as artists. Let me name it so that we can also get to places where our practices diverge. The common ground, as I see it, is… One: The assumption that there are significant resonances between specific moments of time. Two: A belief that these resonances can be productively engaged through a strategic reinsertion of historic (spoken) texts into a present moment. And three: A utilization of performance as the medium through which to enact this reinsertion.

I’m sure there is a nuanced and complex discussion we could have around this shared terrain BUT I am equally interested in the places that I suspect we diverge.

I’m writing this on April 4th which, of course, is the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination—an event, not surprisingly, that has been noted, marked and narrated on the radio again and again over the last couple of days. This narration is most often accompanied by a clip from King’s I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech and, today, also accompanied by Robert Kennedy’s short speech at a campaign stop in Indianapolis in which he tells the gathered crowd about King’s assassination. The Kennedy speech is profound, in large part because it captures the gasp of the audience who is hearing the news for the first time. I’ve played this speech in a lecture for students because it’s an amazing demonstration of the way in which a document of an event can function as an event in and of itself. While this is a slight digression, I bring it up because the citation of these recorded audio documents of King and Kennedy’s speeches also functions as a reinsertion of historical material into a present moment. The historic “sound bite” functions perhaps as the most familiar and recognizable of these forms of reinsertion, but it is one form in a vast field of other reinsertions: including historical docudramas (the forthcoming Gus Van Sant movie about Harvey Milk has necessitated several uncanny restagings, including that of a gay rights rally in downtown San Francisco a couple of months ago), historical reenactment, and then of course, the reinsertions that operate as works of art: Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave (which seems to be often cited in texts on your work), Marina Abramovic’s reenactments of significant performance works from the 60s and 70s, Performa 07’s recent restaging of Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, Rod Dickinson’s Milgram Reenactment, among others.

The strategies and methodologies included in this diverse field are similar but, significantly, are not the same. I’ve been a big advocate of rigor in our discussions of such practices. For instance, I don’t use the word reenactment to describe my work, as I don’t consider what I have done in my Symbionese Liberation Army work, or my protest actions/slide installation, In the Near Future to be reenactments at all. In each case I try to be specific about the gesture of pulling a piece of historical material forward into the present moment. I speak of my actions in the S.L.A. work as a re-speaking. In the case of In the Near Future, I think of the work as utilizing anachronistic reinsertions or citations of previously held protest signs in order to ask how the speech act of protest makes its meaning (in a triangular relation between the words written on the sign, the body that holds the sign, and the place and time in which it is a held).

Your work, generally speaking, seems to be described as reenactment. Is this a term that you use? Is it a term that you find accurately describes the strategy of the Port Huron project? I’m also curious about your assertion that the work is not theater. While I agree that the work doesn’t utilize the institutional networks of theatrical presentation and distribution, it does seem to share the formal strategies of theater or perhaps more accurately, the cinematic docudrama. (I.e., You cast and hire an actor, you costume them in a nod toward authenticity, you place the speaking in or at the authentic site of its original speaking.) How is it not these other forms of cultural production? And how and why is this distinction important?

MT: I do use the term reenactment. I also refer to the events as public performances, as interventions in public space, and as counter-spectacles. Respeaking is certainly a central element, but equally important are the participation of the audience, the presence of their bodies at the site, the site itself as a historico-spatial phenomenon, and the obtrusive presence of cameras and other media equipment. Unlike reenactments of the American Civil War variety, which involve fantasy roleplay and seem to be steeped in nostalgia, the Port Huron reenactments are, in my mind at least, less about going back to the past than about using history to raise questions about the present. In this sense, they function very much as reinsertions.

The word “reenactment” may be imprecise, but it has, for better or worse, been taken up as a preferred term by those who curate and write about this kind of historically-engaged art.

Although th Port Huron project is clearly theatrical, it is not, as you point out, institutionally contextualized as theater. My own background is in (visual) art, but the disciplinary boundaries between art and theater have been blurring for some time now, and I have recently been thinking of the project in relation to Brecht's concept of umfunktionierung, or functional transformation. Perhaps the work we are doing, taken collectively, is performing some kind of modest functional transformation of the archives from which we draw.

By the way, I don't costume the actors: I just suggest they wear whatever they would wear to give a speech. I also don't cast for resemblance, and I ask the actors not to try to impersonate the original speaker. The common threads between the original events and my reenactments are the text of the speech and the site. Everything else is as similar or different as it happens to be.

What distinguishes these reenactments from docudrama is the focus on the event itself as a performative intervention in public space. It's interesting to think about Omer Fast's project Spielberg's List in this context. For this project, Fast visited Krakow, the Polish city that served as the setting for Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List, and interviewed Poles who worked as extras in the film. He juxtaposes their interviews with shots of the surviving film set, built near the remains of the actual German labor camp and never fully dismantled.

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