Reenactment: rethinking the history of visual and performing arts

By the ‘Re-‘ Interdisciplinary Network, Nov 7th 2020

An online international conference about the special relationship between ideas of reenactment and multifold arts historiographies and methodologies, November 19th/20th 2020.

Co-organized by ‘Re-‘ Network convenor Cristina Baldacci,1 this first major event in Susanne Franco‘s Ca’ Foscari University of Venice plurennial research project Memory in Motion: Remembering Dance History (Mnemedance) includes presentations and discussions by Cecilia Alemani, Gabriella Giannachi, Gabi Ngcobo, Susanne Foellmer, Mark Franko, Aurore Després, Lucia Ruprecht, Sven Lütticken, Timmy de Laet and many others….

The conference discusses the issues of reinterpretation, reactivation, re-embodiment and preservation that inevitably come up for dance and other contemporary time-based art practices. It suggests that what used to be seen as a ‘problem’ for dance and the performing arts – how to repeat embodied, ephemeral works – in fact is an opportunity to rethink approaches to the past in general, for which reenactment offers both a method and metaphor. As the convenors put it, ideas of reenactment offer a ‘new anti-positivist approach to the history of dance and art,’ bringing to the fore the ‘multiple temporalities involved in the relationship with the past,’ and making the past meaningful by activating it in the present as an alternative to ‘predetermined representations of history’.

Recreating works of art, dance, and exhibitions from the past dramatises that multiple temporalities belong to some extent to all kinds of engagements with history. There is always an embodied instant at some point in which a relationship between past and present is proposed, or their co-presence felt: an implicit comparison, paradox, irony, or impossibility that sets up time as a set of relations or tensions, i.e. that makes all acts of ‘Re-‘ essentially performative. To repeat a thing in a public context does not only retroactively transform it: it is a form of intervention in a shared tissue of mobile engagements that reach back and forwards in time, and that are forever bringing more or less attention to an implicit tradition or narrative. Whether renarrating this or that factual evidence, reperforming this or that artwork, or restaging this or that exhibition, we are never simply retrieving a past, even if we are acutely conscious of the processes of naming, framing, and selection involved. Thinking through art and dance as reenactment suggests that when we reperform or reactivate we are enacting the problem of claiming a space of definition itself, of controlling a narrative, of moving the boundary between reality and ‘historical fiction’.

Why is dance especially associated with all ideas of ‘Re-‘?

Why is dance especially associated with all ideas of ‘Re-‘? Conference contributor Mark Franko is editor of the Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment, a book that makes this connection in its title. The nature of dance as embodied experience reminds us that no matter what material record or document exists, an artwork is never a single, static, stable ‘thing’. Dance, like music and performance art, ‘happens’ to somebody, in place and time.2 Repeating dance adds to this a folding/unfolding complexity that becomes part of the work itself. This complexity extends still further in a digital environment. Found material, the world of infinite ongoing happenstance – the quotidian, the everyday, the overlooked – becomes art by being framed as such; and one of the the most powerful framing mechanisms is the simple act of iteration itself. But these conditions become central in a digital environment, in which recordings and records of different kinds can appear to be more ubiquitous, accessible, reproducible and shareable (more quotodian, everyday, overlooked) than live events. Francesca Franco’s and Daniel Temkin’s conversation (‘duet’), part of the conference, delves into this issue. Dance, now, is not necessarily distinguished by the difficulty of preserving/recording/repeating an ephemeral art form, but by its liveness as a marker or agent – as Franko suggests in the title of his Oxford Handbook introduction: ‘The Power of Recall in a Post-Ephemeral Era‘.

Columbia professor of English and Comparative Literature Saidiya Hartman, recently interviewed in the New Yorker about the popularity of her rewriting of slavery narratives from the point of view of black women, said her acts of rewriting are more than simply putting women back in a picture that has left them out: they use the example of women to illuminate the terms of the picture-making in the first place – terms that still shape our present. ‘History’ – whether rewriting a narrative or reperforming an artwork – should be understood as about the present as much as the past, then, not just because context, perspective and audiences have changed, prompting new significance: but because the potential of any act of ‘Re-‘ is to expose how wider collective narratives of power, authority and value operate, and especially, how they use ‘time’. As Nicola Foster says, another of the conference speakers, this is the value of noticing the etymology of the adjective ‘con-temporary’, meaning ‘being with time’ (a heterogeneous condition, involving past, future and present together) rather than ‘in time’ (assuming locatability in a linear time). As Sabine Huschka writes in a recent book, the logic of reenactment ‘constitutes in dance a staged act of activated memory continually carrying out the work of its own self-assertion […] It is the contemporary circulation of past knowledge.’3

Abstracts and bios of conference contributors can be read here; to register click here (closes November 15th).

  1. See also the forthcoming publication Cristina Baldacci, Clio Nicastro, Arianna Sforzini (eds.), Over and Over and Over Again: Reenactment Strategies in Contemporary Arts and Theory in Cultural Inquiry, ICI Berlin Press, based in part on the eponymous two-day international conference held at ICI Berlin in 2017.
  2. John Rink, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson and Clare Foster, Objections to Objects: locating ‘the work’ in Live Art and Music, CRASSH, Nov 4th, 2013.
  3. Sabine Huschka, S. (2018) ‘Dance in Search of Its Own History: On the Contemporary Circulation of Past Knowledge‘, in Mark Franko (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Reenactment, OUP, 2018.

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